“Beautiful Ruckus,” the title of the concert Collage New Music presented at Longy School of Music Sunday evening, seemed to be suggesting that the dissonances and abstractions of contemporary composition can be pleasing to the ear. That was true of the four chamber pieces — all written between 2008 and 2013 — that music director David Hoose selected, though some of them threatened to sink under the weight of their literary associations.
David Lang’s “these broken wings,” which Eighth Blackbird performed at last year’s Grammy Awards, takes its title from the Beatles song “Blackbird” (“Take these broken wings and learn to fly”), but the bird in question seemed rather to be the cuckoo, whose falling fourth was prominent in the slow middle movement. Its call wasn’t the only thing that was falling: When they weren’t playing, the six musicians were lifting and dropping metal chains, in accord with the composer’s instructions. The first movement of the piece, in the upper register, was like a peal of bells against the cello’s raindrop pizzicato; the upbeat third set the players racing in ostinatos and shifting time signatures while percussionist Craig McNutt kept untethering the proceedings with his kick drum.
Kati Agócs’s “Crystallography” is a 2013 commission setting seven pieces from Canadian experimental poet Christian Bök’s 1994 volume of the same name. Agócs chose poems with the titles of gemstones and created out of them a musical palindrome. The text, with lines like “alizarine albedo” and “orangutan,” was a challenge to mezzo-soprano Brenna Wells, and though she gave it some emotional resonance, the words were intelligible only in the more thinly scored beginning and end, when she was singing against McNutt’s hand drums. Perhaps Agócs intended the poetry to blend into the music, but the words became a distraction and the music, with its ascending and descending scales, didn’t register as it should have.
James Primosch’s “Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift,” a 2013 commission by 13 pianists, draws its title from lines by W. H. Auden (“Only your notes are pure contraption / Only your song is absolute gift”), and each of its five short preludes also has a title, the first of which, “Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart,” comes from a Stephen Crane poem. By any name, the piece is ferociously difficult, and it received a ferocious performance from Christopher Oldfather, who was one of the commissioners. Both the first prelude, with its nervous thumping and banging, and “A Gracious Dance,” Debussy a century later, ended in question marks. The “Gigue-Scherzo” seemed more of a “Scherzo-Gigue”; “Nocturnal Obsessions,” with its moody left-hand ostinatos, lived up to its title. “Contraption” evoked jazz at first, but soon Oldfather’s hands were speaking different languages.
Charles Fussell’s “Pilgrim Voyage” comprises eight movements with not-always-helpful titles such as “The Fisherman and the Blue Stone” and “Out of the Mist.” To the flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion of the first half of the program was added a French horn, but the combination didn’t always blend well. More moving were the simpler moments involving Catherine French’s violin, Joel Moerschel’s cello, and Oldfather’s piano.