CAMBRIDGE — “I can now buy happiness for others,” said Paul Fromm, a successful wine importer and legendary patron of contemporary music, in 1959 as a kind of declaration of purpose. He continued: “The employer can now serve his employees by giving them spiritual leadership in return for their service. Otherwise we shall succumb in the next 25 years to a new lonesomeness and spiritual bankruptcy.”
One of Fromm’s most enduring gifts was the Fromm Players at Harvard, which sounds like an ensemble but in fact it’s the name of an annual concert devoted to new music that one typically would not encounter elsewhere on the local scene, performed each year by a different set of players. For this year’s Fromm installment, Klangforum Wien, the elite Vienna-based new music ensemble, came to Sanders Theatre on Friday night with an ambitious program featuring two expansive, immersive avant-garde works. First came “Procession,” by the German composer Enno Poppe, followed by “The Fabrication of Light,” by the Israeli-American composer and Harvard music professor Chaya Czernowin.
There were plenty of overlaps between the two works. Each was scored for a mixed ensemble of roughly 20 players, and each spanned about an hour in length. Each also seemed to grapple with tried-and-true, high-modernist koans relating to the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of expression, or the yearning for true progress and the realization of its unattainability. And each distilled its grappling with these themes into hyper-dissonant soundscapes that contained their own contradiction: their surfaces were radically fractured yet each work still managed, as Mahler defined the task of a symphony, to create its own self-encapsulated world.
Organized as a seamless succession of nine different “lifecycles,” Poppe’s “Procession” draws its inspiration from metaphors (and algorithms) taken from organic biological processes. Sounds react to other sounds, build outward, contract back into themselves. Percussionists were planted at each of the four corners of the Sanders stage, their incisive rhythmic contributions serving at times to structure the work, like four tent poles holding up a brilliantly colored canopy of sound. The end result was an intellectually absorbing journey that began and ended with hushed percussion, a kind of asymptotic approach to silence. “The origin,” the critic Karl Kraus famously wrote, “is the goal.”
Czernowin’s “Fabrication of Light” by contrast had a more intuitive and slightly less cerebral feel. The program notes aptly referred to her not as a gardener in her approach to sound (like Poppe) but as a “rewilder.” That said, creating light, at this late date in human history, still turns out to be a complicated task. This work is conceptually organized as a series of four sonic spirals, each one striving and falling short, then passing on whatever remains to its successor.
Czernowin’s palette of instrumental colors is amazingly wide, and it is expanded still further by her masterful use of extended techniques ranging from unpitched breathing through instruments to floated harmonics and glissandi at the edge of audibility. At one point the musicians put down their instruments and mumbled into paper cones, collectively producing a low thrum of indecipherable expression. The effect was haunting, as if language itself were yet another false start in the manufacturing of light, a broken filament lying at the bottom of a bulb.
The veteran conductor Johannes Kalitzke directed both works with lean, efficient gestures that projected a relaxed authority, and the players of the Klangforum Wien performed with ironclad technique and fierce commitment. They were cheered after each work by a youthful crowd clearly galvanized by the intense challenges and rewards presented by such a marathon of uncompromising new music. At the end of the night, Czernowin’s work in particular sticks with you. It provocatively leaves unanswered the question of whether the light ever arrives. Its ethos lies in the searching, the attempting, the pushing back against the darkness.
FROMM PLAYERS AT HARVARD
With Klangforum Wien
At: Sanders Theatre, Friday night.