A solid construct by Collage

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / February 10, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE - Music is, in a way, both factory and product. In line with the past century’s increasing focus on compositional method, none of the four pieces on Collage New Music’s Monday concert emphasized the latter - at least in the form of grand themes - but each showed the importance of the negotiation between means and matter, sometimes by example, sometimes by omission.

In Arlene Sierra’s 2006 septet “Cicada Shell’’ (Collage’s standard six here joined by Boston Symphony hornist Jason Snider) the balance tipped toward construction. Sierra paired a dense and intricate technique with a clear large-scale plan: a gradual paring down, then piling on, of often violent activity. But the thematic materials - a sharp downward snap of an interval, a Morse code of repeated notes - were so Spartan that repetition revealed no hidden secrets, and the permutations began to sound increasingly arbitrary.

Much of Sebastian Currier’s 2007 “Static’’ (the music playing off both meanings, contrasting stasis and interference), though richer, seemed stuck in a similar limbo, neither convincing object nor compelling process, but two movements’ worth of exceptions showed Currier’s flair for self-justifying musical entities: violinist Catherine French’s long singing line (later taken up by the ensemble) over Christopher Oldfather’s quietly jittery piano; a brawny churn of frantic melody, the group moving in chunky lockstep.

Chen Yi’s 2002 “. . . as like a raging fire . . .’’ (written in response to 9/11) matched Sierra for thematic pithiness: a literal volcanic thunder of low notes, an ear-grabbing fragment of falling pentatonic scale, a near-cliché rising ladder of broken thirds. But the music’s straightforward compactness and a furiously energetic performance carried the piece.

The musical surface of Steven Mackey’s 2006 “5 Animated Shorts’’ was a beautiful thing in itself, built around the exotic, jangling timbre of Nicholas Tolle’s cimbalom, combining with Oldfather’s deftly busy piano and Craig McNutt’s colorful percussion, while French and cellist Joel Moerschel and flutist Christopher Krueger and clarinetist Robert Annis formed contrasting duos. But the substance worked as well: driven by short patterns, two or three askew, folk-like ideas put into the orbit of each movement. Music director David Hoose, leading tight performances all night, here gave the phrases more insouciant groove, rhythmically solid and vibrantly ringing. Mackey’s balanced eccentricity entertainingly assembled sturdy wares.

COLLAGE NEW MUSIC David Hoose, music director

At: Pickman Concert Hall, Longy School of Music, Monday