Spectral music is microscopic music, zooming in on the fundamental natures and hidden complexities of pitches and sounds. Compositional decisions often stem from electronic numerical and visual analyses of sounds, as developed at the computer music bastion IRCAM in Paris. Yet despite such origins, spectral works can almost seem like living entities. Sound Icon participated in the Spectral Music Festival at Boston University College of Fine Arts with a free concert Wednesday evening at Tsai Performance Center, performing works from the movement’s beginning in the 1970s to the present day.
It began like an arcane ritual, with the ensemble seated and silent as percussionists Mike Williams and Nicholas Tolle performed Gérard Grisey’s primordial “Stèle.” Williams’s bass drum thudded and pounded, and Tolle recalled the sound of rushing water as he played long, soft rolls and rubbed objects on the drum head.
The peak of the concert was Tristan Murail’s “Désintégrations,” a rarely performed work that flows organically despite its vast complexity. Because it set live instruments against electronic chirps and chimes on a tape, Sound Icon artistic director Jeffrey Means conducted the piece with headphones on, following the mutable time signature and delicate cues. Clusters of electronic bells mingled with piano, and a sparse, expansive soundscape erupted with trombones that howled like strange beasts. It was not always obvious where electronic and live instruments met.
The second half began with the world premiere of the sinewy, starkly beautiful “Fort/Da” by BU student composer Luciano Leite Barbosa, who was inspired by the thrumming sound of the didgeridoo. The bass clarinet, trombone, and saxophone united in a pulsating alien timbre, and the string instruments growled in their lowest registers. Then, Philippe Leroux’s “. . . AMI . . . CHEMIN . . . OSER . . . VIE . . . ” punctuated flutters, flurries, squeals, and roars with silences and the piercing keen of a violin. Though some moments intrigued, like a cyclone of rapid runs that melted into glissandi, the piece felt more like a melange of puzzle pieces, not all of which fit together.
It might have been easier to engage with that piece — indeed, all of them — if some program notes had been included. Tom Service of The Guardian has published excellent guides to the music of both Murail and Grisey, which were extremely useful in preparing for this concert. With no insight into the meticulous construction or development of the pieces except for “Fort/Da,” which was described, it’s likely that listeners who didn’t already have significant knowledge of spectral music would feel lost. Sometimes it can be fun to take a wander in the woods, but a map in the back pocket is useful.
At Tsai Performance Center, Boston University, April 12.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.