International Contemporary Ensemble probably cover more ground than any other indie classical group, in terms of territory, personnel and repertoire. These days they’re more or less a bicoastal unit, with a revolving door of first-class players. Last week at the Miller Theatre, a characteristically eclectic New York subset of the organization rewarded the big crowd who’d come up to 116th and Broadway with a texturally delicious program of duo and trio works spiced with shimmering microtones, overtones and strange tunings. The ostensible theme was animal behavior; if that was meant to acknowledge how much more animals hear than we do, that made more sense.
The first really interesting piece on the bill was the world premiere of Dai Fujikura’s White Rainbow, which Jacob Greenberg played with a graceful spaciousness on harmonium. Despite the choice of instrument, there wasn’t any distinctive Indian flavor to the composer’s methodically spaced, minimalistic waves, sometimes employing a drone effect from phrase to phrase. This gave a lulling, comforting sense to what otherwise could have been construed as a wry series of trick endings.
Technically speaking, the piece de resistance was Ann Cleare’s Luna (The Eye That Opens the Other Eye), played solo on alto sax by Ryan Muncy. Employing every fragment of bandwidth in his daunting extended technique, Muncy built sepulchral overtones that pulled gently and wafted around a center, a study in mist, stillness and unselfconscious virtuosity.
Suzanne Farrin’s Polvere et Ombra was a playground for lush, lively glissandos by harpist Nuiko Wadden. Joined by acoustic guitarist Dan Lippel, the duo made their way cautiously through the allusively sinister microtones of Drew Baker’s Skulls. Muncy and Greenberg joined forces for the concluding piece, Alex Mincek’s Pendulum III, which when it built enough steam was a striking reminder of how subtle changes in a particular scale can create radical changes in the music’s colors.
These early evening, free “pop-up” concerts at the Miller Theatre can be hit-and-miss, but more often than not they’re a real treat. Originally conceived as an intimate series with free beer and the audience seated onstage, they’ve outgrown the stage (and sometimes the beer too). But this isn’t really a drinking event, it’s about the music. Since their inception in 2012, a steadily growing number of crowds have had the opportunity to hear John Zorn world premieres, Berio Sequenzas, a deliciously creepy performance of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and even a rare all-Michael Gordon bill of electroacoustic works in addition to scores of pieces by lesser-known but no less intriguing composers. The final one this season is tonight, June 13; doors are at 5:30, music at 6, played by Miller favorites the Mivos Quartet.
And International Contemporary Ensemble perform Pauline Oliveros’ Heart of Tones on the plaza at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival on July 28 at 7:30 PM.