Music Review

Sound Icon debuts with unorthodox beauty

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / April 3, 2011

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Toward the end of Gérard Grisey’s 1976 “Partiels,’’ the composer gives his convictions a comic spin, derailing the music into obbligato choruses of housekeeping: rustling pages, shifting chairs, squirming performers. It’s a literal version of what Grisey has been doing sonically all along: expanding the marginal noises that music, by convention, disregards — the overtones, the breaths, the passing scrapes and squeaks — into lavish soundscapes of their own.

Grisey’s music, influential but all too infrequently performed, headlined Sound Icon’s inaugural concert on Saturday. The ensemble, conducted by Jeffrey Means, is new, but many of the players are familiar from other groups: the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the Callithumpian Consort. (It’s almost as if each such group is but a brane in a higher Boston new-music cosmology.) The experience paid off; performances were fully attuned to the music’s unorthodox beauty.

Grisey, who died in 1998, was best-known as a pioneer of spectral music. The program’s other, stylistically sympathetic works were temperamentally varied. Davide Ianni’s 2011 “Fata Morgana’’ exemplified the idea of turning sound inside-out: a high, breathy whistle, the undertones of which escape, growling and prowling on their own. The piece showed a tight arc and bewitching effects, from visceral rumbles to a lustrous resonance of muted cello and tubular bells. Joshua Fineberg’s 1998 “Recueil de pierre et de sable’’ preferred to linger on its feedback-like keening, long breaths of static gleam occasionally needled by a pair of harps. Reflecting its Japanese-garden inspiration, it seemed to contemplate, rather than investigate, its collected sounds.

The second half brought three of the six movements of Grisey’s “Les Espaces Acoustiques,’’ a treatise both intricate and exuberant in its sonic deconstruction: verismo science. In the “Prologue,’’ for solo viola, a short, repeated motive is gradually adorned with increasingly dense associations and afterimages. (Violist Mark Berger gave a superb account, more feisty as the music pushed past boundaries of pitch and propriety.) “Périodes,’’ for seven players, opens out into fluttering overtones and low, metallic peals; in “Partiels,’’ the whump of trombone and double bass pushes its 18 players toward both pure, limpid ringing and fidgety, chaotic noise.

The music — and the performance — was a stimulating tightrope walk, balanced between musical detail and corporeal flair. The ensemble made a heady splash, their repertoire in line with their invitation: to listen up.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at


Jeffrey Means, artistic director

Music of Ianni, Fineberg, and Grisey

At: Concert Hall, Boston University School of Music, Saturday