One of last year’s musical apexes was a performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’s monumental “in vain” by Sound Icon, the pioneering new-music sinfonietta. On Friday, the group returned to the ICA for a concert just scarcely less ambitious. It brought together two deft, and diametrically opposed, portraits of ecstasy by Italian composers, a program bristling with fragility, wonder, and danger by turns.
The concert, part of a Boston University residency by Salvatore Sciarrino, began with his “Infinito Nero” (“Infinite Black”), whose texts are based on the writings of the mystic Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi. Its first sounds are of the flutist breathing through piccolo, registering only a shade above silence. Gradually, a series of soft taps and thumps emerges. Sometimes the sound you could see being made was inaudible.
These elements, Maria’s breath and heartbeat, are all there is to the music for a startlingly long stretch. Gradually more sounds emerge, but the textures remain defiantly austere. The text is based on Maria’s visions, but it’s delivered by the singer — here the excellent mezzo-soprano Bo Chang — in quick bursts of syllables, often more mumbled than sung. Every time the music rose above a whisper or began to cohere into something like a melody, it was swiftly cut off.
At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum was “Professor Bad Trip,” a piece in three “lessons” by Fausto Romitelli. The title sounds like something out of Hunter S. Thompson, and it is as frightening — and, at times, as cartoonish — as any product of Thompson’s well-addled mind.
Where “Infinito Nero” works by enmeshing the listener in its desolate world, “Professor Bad Trip” knocks you over — almost literally, it’s so loud — with its extroverted depiction of hallucinogenic delirium.
The music is all thick, amplified textures, full of woozy slides and aberrant sounds. Electric bass and guitar add to the distorted feel of the music, though the most rock ’n’ roll moments come from two Hendrix-style cello solos (terrifically played by Nicole Cariglia). “Professor Bad Trip” works brilliantly as pure psychedelic representation, but it also seems curiously superficial. “Infinito Nero” left the deeper impression, a work that not only proffered an experience outside the self, but inexorably drew one inside its quietly seething world. It was music that connected with what Sciarrino, speaking from the stage after the piece, called “the space around the listener.”
Sound Icon and music director Jeffrey Means performed with great skill and confidence. The ICA’s theater was nearly full, a heartening sign for this intrepid group.