The enthusiastic new-music ensemble [nec]shivaree, the New England Conservatory-sponsored student sibling of Stephen Drury's cutting-edge Callithumpian Consort, transformed a programmatic hodgepodge into an entertaining, ear-opening afternoon on Sunday.
Electronic music is often a clinical laboratory of sound, but Alvin Lucier, a longtime professor at Wesleyan University and currently the subject of a yearlong NEC survey, finds its expressive core. For the 1970 work "Quasimodo the Great Lover," the sound of Ethan Wood's violin, being played in another part of the building, was passed through a series of microphones and speakers in empty rooms and hallways; by the time the music reached Brown Hall, the original tone had been largely stripped away, replaced by the collective resonance of each locale. High pitches became a percussive shimmer, low ones a metallic growl. Glissandi turned into keening wails as the overtones piled up to riveting effect.
A selection of American composer Christian Wolff's half-composed, half-improvised "Exercises" (1970-74) was played by a surprisingly apt ensemble of trumpets, saxophones, a trombone, and various percussive found objects, including plastic buckets, a wine bottle, and an authentic Boston "no left turn" sign. Atonal statements that stammer, then come tumbling out in a rush took on a charming big-band color with this instrumentation; a particular highlight was No. 9, a dirge, derailed by inappropriate filigree, that morphs into a sputtering, thumping march.
Steve Reich's "Pendulum Music," originally scheduled to be on the program, was not performed, but three new piano works were reprised from NEC's January piano festival. Wolff's "A Piano Piece" mixed spiky motives with a halting rhythmic drive, a meshing of eccentric gears. NEC faculty member Anthony Coleman's "East Orange" was a brief collection of evocative keyboard gestures happily jumbled together. And the idiosyncratic British virtuoso Michael Finnissy's "Is there any future for new music?" was beautifully pensive and poignant, a séance in which the spirits of Monteverdi, Mozart, and Wagner seem to speak simultaneously. The superb pianists were Minji Noh, Miyoun Jang, and Stephen Olsen.
Lucier's "Kettles," from 1987, closed the program. Two sine waves drift in and out of tune with each other, creating a beating effect reminiscent of a timpani roll, while five timpani drift in and out of rhythm, disrupting the electronic symmetry. A simple low rumble opens into a landscape to explore and get lost in. The composer was on hand to take a well-deserved bow.