International Contemporary Ensemble — or ICE for short — played four pieces by Finnish avant-garde composer Kaija Saariaho Thursday (Nov. 19) at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Based in both Chicago and New York, ICE champions new music, performing in a variety of lineups — Thursday’s concert included a solo percussion piece as well as compositions played by larger ensemble that was more like a chamber orchestra.
My favorite piece of the evening was the first (and most recently composed), “Terrestre.” Flute, harp, percussion, violin and cello notes skittered around one another in a delicate dance. Flutist Claire Chase somehow managed to sing and play flute at the same time during some passages. In “Six Japanese Gardens,” Nathan Davis ably demonstrated the variety of sounds and delicate patterns one can created with nothing but percussion. Well, not nothing — the piece also includes some electronic background tracks created by Saariaho, which Davis triggered by pedal.
The second half of the concert featured two pieces that Saariaho wrote for chamber ensembles with electronics — “Lichtbogen” (1986) and “Solar” (1992). The electronic textures and treatments were subtle, barely even noticeable at times, other than moments like the climax of “Lichtbogen,” when the notes reverbed and echoed in ways you don’t often hear at a classical concert. The music floated along, and it was easy to loose track of the passing time, as Chase pointed during an onstage interview with Saariaho. The amorphous quality of the compositions reminded me of Gyorgy Ligetti’s “Atmospheres,” although Saariaho’s tones are less ominous.
It was interesting to hear Saariaho answer Chase’s questions during their conversation before the concert’s intermission. Saariaho talked about how nature inspires her music — “the symmetry of leaves … and the endless variation within the symmetry.”
In parts of “Lichtbogen,” Saariaho instructs the players to make visceral sounds with their instruments, such as the noise of strings being scraped. “They are not noises for me,” Saariaho explained. “They’re associated with some of the most beautiful sounds that we know — wind and whispering. They are very intimate sounds for us.”
That sort of intimate sound made ICE’s Saariaho concert an unconventionally beautiful experience.