It can be difficult for a newly formed ensemble to stand out in Boston’s bustling contemporary music scene, but Sound Icon, now in its second season, has already found a way to do so. This youthful group, headed by conductor Jeffrey Means and composer Victoria Cheah, has set its sights on the progressive end of the European contemporary music spectrum, performing ambitious scores by distinguished composers that simply aren’t being heard in Boston. Exhibit A was the local premiere on Friday night at the Institute of Contemporary Art of Georg Friedrich Haas’s extraordinary work “in vain.’’
Haas, 58, an Austrian-born composer, writes highly complex yet boldly theatrical music that is alert to the sensual surfaces of sound. His works are best encountered live, in a setting where they can be experienced less as traditional concert pieces than as ongoing acoustic events unfurling in space.
The hourlong “in vain’’ (from 2000) is a perfect example. In case you were tempted to sit back in distanced cogitation, Haas yanks away your stool and tosses you into the maw of sound. How? It’s so simple yet so effective. About 40 minutes into “in vain,’’ the lights go out and you listen in complete, disorienting darkness. The walls are gone. The musicians are gone. Your neighbor is gone. It is night, and you are suddenly alone with this music of a strange, tremulous beauty.
But we have skipped ahead. Haas’s score opens with a hushed section full of downward-rushing lines suggesting notes slipping from one’s grasp like water. The cascades just keep coming, as do false climaxes. Over time a sense of futility sets in, abetted of course by the work’s title, which suggests a high-modern myth of Sisyphus, progressive music about the impossibility of progress.
Yet the descent is not endless, the textures grow more varied. Haas achieves a remarkable sonic iridescence through his use of microtones. Small moments collect, timbral details accumulate. And when Haas puts the lights out, everything changes.
In the darkness we hear differently. The music cuts deeper. Pulsates louder. There is also a new kinship with the players on stage. Violent ostinatos pummel the ears but the music eventually morphs into something much more affirmative and life-giving, as the sound begins welling up, up, up, as if from some primordial depths. We hear a new tonal center.
Haas uses slashing percussive accents and flashes of light to punctuate the journey. There is a seething primitivism here behind the music’s cool modern sheen, and a blithe indifference to what his sterner European colleagues might indict as narrative and musical clichés. Haas makes the charge feel irrelevant, or toothless, next to the marvel before you: an entire orchestra literally flying blind, grasping at the silence, pushing it away with sound alone.
Eventually the light comes back, as does the downward-plunging music from the opening. In an interview with the Globe, Haas called this reprise a moment of great sadness: futility reaffirmed. On Friday however it seemed less obvious that these cascades lead back to exactly the same place, after the distance traveled within the work itself.
Sound Icon under Means’s direction played bravely, with precision and fierce commitment before a large and youngish crowd. Never mind this ensemble’s lack of a track record or marketing budget: Truly ambitious programming like this will always find an audience. Less certain is whether it will find an appropriate venue.
This was one of the very few times since the opening of its new building that the ICA, with its striking theater, seemed to fulfill its potential as a natural home to masterfully audacious music by living composers. It felt like more than just a good fit. It felt like a contemporary art museum finally honoring a fuller version of its mission.