Electronics, distortion make for an electrifying Iditarod

Stephen Drury’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice culminated in a seven-hour concert. Stephen Drury’s Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice culminated in a seven-hour concert. (Andrew Hurlbut/Nec/File 2008)
By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / June 22, 2010

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If music were candy, the SICPP Iditarod would be like a tour of the Wonka factory. The far-out and unexpected are the stock-in-trade of the Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (“Sick Puppy’’ for short), a weeklong student immersion directed by Stephen Drury that annually culminates with a marathon concert. This year’s Iditarod — 29 pieces over seven hours — made for an impressive trick-or-treat haul.

Things kicked off with an electro-acoustic group improvisation led by Scott Deal, instruments refracted through electronic sound, an apt do-not-adjust-your-set introduction to the evening’s survey of the outer limits. Many works privileged artful arrangements of envelope-pushing sounds over melodic or harmonic narrative. In Kaija Saariaho’s “Cendres,’’ flute, cello, and piano (Ashley Addington, Jennifer Bewerse, and Kyle Adam Blair) churned up an undulating sea of keening and growling swells. John Luther Adams’s self-described “Dark Waves,’’ for two pianists (Emily Lau and Jonathan Cook) and electronics, blurred the line between music and sound art. Even the voice was reconnoitered: Soprano Ceceilia Allwein made dulcet work of the delicate, precipitous leaps of Morton Feldman’s “4 Songs to e.e. cummings’’; soprano Emily Quane gave an aristocratic account of Tan Dun’s all-over-the-map “Silk Road.’’

SICPP composer-in-residence Chaya Czernowin’s nonet “Afatsim’’ (conducted by Jeffrey Means) was an engrossing, halting swarm of out-of-bounds instrumental sounds; her “Sahaf’’ deconstructed a rock-like quartet — electric guitar (Maarten Stragier), saxophone (Zach Herchen), piano (Rachel Iwaasa), and percussion (Masako Kunimoto) — into an intermittent mobile of various sonic distortions. (“Sahaf’’ was ingeniously followed by pianists Todd Moellenberg and Asher Severini thrashing through Frederic Rzewski’s relentless punk-rock rumble “Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues.’’)

Works by SICPP’s student composers ranged from the neo-Americana of Jason Belcher’s “Walden Songs’’ to Robert Hansler’s messianic — and Messiaenic — “Look! The Lamb of God!’’ to the cheerfully absurd kitchen-sink collage of Ryan Krause’s “Separate Pieces.’’ Pet sounds reigned in larger ensembles: chiaroscuro landscapes in Mischa Salkind-Pearl’s “Autumn Voices,’’ rich, eerie drones in Anne Goldberg’s atmospheric “Legno Metallico,’’ jittery shards against a slippery instrumental mass in Victoria Cheah’s “Elasticity.’’ Landon Rose’s “Dr. Clash and His Assistant’’ simply rode Rane Moore’s bass clarinet overtone runs and Kunimoto hammering on a metal ground bow. Mark Poliks’s less-is-more “barely’’ was particularly arresting, violinist Diamanda Dramm, trumpeter Jonah Kappraff, and percussionist John Andress expressionistically skirting the edge of audibility.

The later hours were buoyed by energetic rhythmic drives: John Psathas’s “Matre’s Dance’’ (drummer David Tarantino and pianist David Robbins roaring through chunky grooves), Louis Andriessen’s brightly thumping 10-player “Hoketus,’’ Andy Pape’s rollicking four-drummer “CaDance.’’ At the end, pianists Valerie Ross and Kyle Adam Blair gave a limpid reading of Steve Reich’s “Piano Phase,’’ a pioneering work of minimalism here programmed as a crowd-pleasing closer. For a new-music junkie, that’s pretty sweet.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at

EDITOR'S NOTE: Because of incorrect information given to the Globe, an earlier version of this review misspelled the title of Chaya Czernowin's composition "Afatsim." Also, because of a reporter's, the name of guitarist Maarten Stragier was misspelled.

SICPP IDITAROD 2010 Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice; Stephen Drury, artistic director

At: Brown Hall, New England Conservatory, Saturday