It's a trick of avant-garde storytelling to start at the end — thus, perhaps, the eschatological undercurrent to Sound Icon's season opener, also the first official presentation of Boston University's Center for New Music. The group, directed by Jeffrey Means, has become a prime local source for European musical imports, particularly larger essays opening out the nature of musical sound, pushing it to its limits; Sunday's concert coupled that to endpoints both psychological and existential.
Mark André's 2006 "ni" (the title is an acronym for the German "nach immer") in its American premiere, worked at extreme sonic frontiers, as if to see how long the 14 players could go without producing a traditional musical tone. Strained whispers of breath, key clicks, and scraping bow hair were the norm. (The performance had the full-immersion commitment of Sound Icon at its best.) André can summon lavish sounds as well; the outer of the seven movements encased those interstitial sounds in a more lush, otherworldly swirl. But the dominant mood was drawn-out and lean.
Felipe Pinto d'Aguiar Montt's "Una Vidita de Héroe (Ein Kleines Heldenleben)," winner of a BU/Sound Icon composition competition, was more fun, a takeoff on a self-examined Straussian heroic life, painting decadently woozy neo-Romanticism in buzzy microtonal shades. Where André critiqued sound by denaturing it, Montt shifted the hues, like seeing a familiar scene in Day-Glo colors.
The concert closed with the Boston premiere of the late Gérard Grisey's last work, "Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil" ("Four Songs for Crossing the Threshold"). Its fascination is hearing Grisey, who was an inherently theatrical composer, meld that showiness with a seemingly bleak subject. Each of the songs is steeped in death, be it of individuals, cultures, or the world itself. (One text excerpts a catalog of papyrus fragments — "Number 972: (almost entirely destroyed)" — a devastatingly bureaucratic witness to the fall of empires.) The music is both generously vibrant and oppressively implacable: a slow-building chain of melting-wax scales; a thumping, pizzicato-and-drone cortège glacially rotating about itself; a final berceuse, singing civilization to sleep with crystalline formality.
Soprano Jane Sheldon was musically solid but also often vocally distant, tone, and diction sometimes too ethereal. But the performance as a whole caught the work's strange, unforgettable dance between ravishment and ritual, rich sounds frozen
into challenging, mesmerizing tableaux. When time stops, it's also a chance to really take it