CAMBRIDGE — “Arielismo,” it was called: the idea (first expounded, through archetypes from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” in Uruguayan writer José Enrique Rodó’s 1900 book, “Ariel”) that Latin American culture was the continent’s buoyant, spiritual counterweight to the brutish, utilitarian, Caliban-like United States. It engendered countless cultural exchanges — and often blurred the conception of Latin American music into simplistic, exotic otherness. Last weekend’s Fromm Concerts at Harvard — a two-night anthology of music by Latin American composers, co-curated by Cuban-born composer Tania León and Harvard professor Carol J. Oja, performed by members of the International Contemporary Ensemble — had its requisite Latin-tinged moments, but also thoroughly dismantled lingering arielismo. Prospero’s Pan-American realm revealed a lot more than two spirits.
Friday’s concert was bookended by works borrowing from folklore in order to refract it. In León’s 2006 “Toque,” a septet (conducted by ICE artist-in-residence Steven Schick) transmuted the Cuban danzón “Almendra” into bright mosaics, a stroboscopic montage. Carlos Iturralde’s 2012 “Cupid’s Deeds,” for eleven self-propelled players, excerpted the Mexican song “El Cupidito,” and leaned heavily on the characteristic sound of plucked and struck strings, but subjected the music to a drawn-out desiccation, crumbling into astringent dust.
Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz put Latin color up front: In “Estudio Tongolele,” from 2012, saxophonist Ryan Muncy spun swirling, stylized lines around Nathan Davis’s shadowing maracas; “Huítzitl,” Alex Sopp’s piccolo commandingly conjuring a hummingbird’s flighty flight, snuck in its own clave with sharp, airburst accents. But both seemed to take conspiratorial delight in a language’s untranslatable nuances.
Further linguistic flights rounded out the program. “Seeds of Time,” a 2003 horn-and-piano-quartet tribute to Elliott Carter by Hilda Paredes, had something of Carter’s nervy fluidity — of meter, of harmony — but also its own sense of broken communication, lively, dense textures carefully, woozily falling apart, then reassembling. Mixing mid-1960s electronics with cellist Michael Nicolas’s outstanding proficiency, “Synchronisms no. 3,” by the modernist Argentine master (and emeritus Harvard professor) Mario Davidovsky, fluently declaimed avant-garde snap and crackle. Most novel was Marisol Jimenez’s arresting electronically-enhanced nonet “Tiniwe,” fashioning a deep, primeval musical discourse out of rustling extended techniques, every sound poised between music and noise, the whole assembled into a disorienting but decisive ritual.
Along with the weekend’s oldest piece, Davidovsky provided the newest; Saturday’s concert opened with his 2014 “Divertimento for 8, Ambiguous Symmetries,” conducted by Schick, music of impeccable craft, luminosity, and volatility. But any regional influences were well-sublimated. The music’s dialectic — stretched-out moments of tension relieved by vehement rhythmic flurries — was not unlike, say, that of a tango, but also, wasn’t really like it at all. It set up a concert of further abstractions.
Davis, on vibraphone, and pianist Vicky Chow summoned bright haze for Julio Estrada’s formally-controlled but materially-indeterminate “Memorias para teclado,” from 1971, performer-chosen melodic fragments evolving into an arch of polyrhythm. Guitarist Dan Lippel gave a precise, sensitive rendition of Leo Brouwer’s 1973 “Parabola,” the Cuban composer at his most modernistic, his heritage only implied by his idiomatic fluency with the instrument. And while Felipe Lara’s 2013 “Tiento” — a nonet conducted by Schick, with flutist (and ICE founder) Claire Chase first among equals — claimed descent from medieval fantasies, Spanish organ music, and flamenco, its stately, microtonally-shaded cortège of sonic effects betrayed little stylistic hint of its inspirations.
The concert eventually landed at its destination; for the finale, León conducted her own stylishly, convivially fractious 13-player “Indígena,” Latin rhythms and notions ebulliently piled around Peter Evans’s extroverted trumpet solo. But Marcos Balter’s 2014 “Codex Seraphinianus,” immediately preceding, was the more provocative summation. The quartet (Chase and Muncy joined by violist Kyle Armbrust and bassoonist Rebekah Heller) takes its title from Luigi Serafini’s book, a made-up encyclopedia in an invented, cryptic language. The score — threatening warbles, pointed interjections, garrulous virtuosity, fierce silences — exalts music’s open-eared conspiracy: its expressive indecipherability. Out of the crosscurrents of influence and idiom came a reminder that music truly is a universal language, in that nobody knows what it really means.
Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.