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Music Review

Talea evokes life on margins in fractured fable at ICA

James Baker leads the Talea Ensemble in Friday’s performance.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

A 14-piece ensemble playing intricate tangles of music; subtle and overt layers of electronic sounds; recorded, recursive narration in two languages; projected visuals illustrating and reiterating the text in three additional languages — it might seem strange to describe such a piece as embodying addition by subtraction, but such is the aesthetic realm of Greek-born French composer Georges Aperghis, whose 2007 “Happy End” was given its Boston premiere by the Talea Ensemble at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Friday. Aperghis has long mixed a totalistic theatrical approach with a knack for parametric occlusion: removing one dimension of artistic expression, letting others saturate the resulting space. In “Happy End,” linear storytelling takes a back seat to uncanny evocations of wonder and alienation.

The story is the fairy tale of Tom Thumb, cast out, along with his brothers, by his impoverished parents, battling the wilderness and a child-eating ogre, returning home by way of a triumphant application of wits. Textually, the piece — manipulations notwithstanding — plays it straight.

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But the animation — by Hans Op de Beeck, in collaboration with Bruno Hardt and Klaas Verpoest — establishes a modern setting. The first word to appear is “banlieue”: French for “suburb,” but also shorthand for neighborhoods on the margins, geographically and otherwise. The child’s home is pictured as a high-rise housing project; the ogre’s entrance into the narrative prompts images hinting at twin plagues of gentrification and overdevelopment. The textures are charcoal and graphite, the drawings constantly erased and drawn over: expendability and reinvention.

Aperghis’s music is chaotically resourceful confirmation that the piece as a whole is about peripheries: of cities, of societies, of comprehension. The score — its mass of askew challenges met with confident efficiency by the ensemble, conducted by James Baker — scurries and rustles, murmurs and jabbers, the vocabulary cross-referencing extended techniques, microtonality, and skittish rhythms. (Repeated figures seemed to run away from grooves rather than settle into them.)

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The line between live and electronic music — via tape, produced by Sébastien Roux at France’s imperative IRCAM center, and two keyboard synthesizers — would blur, only for the ensemble to drop out and the electronics to shift into gritty collages of urban ambience. The narration (in English and French, by Michael Lonsdale and Édith Scob) is filtered into something resembling broken-down digital compression. Everything runs away from the listener’s apprehension; the resulting gap galvanizes the imagination.

Aperghis’s lacunae — narrative, musical, communicative — make openings for art to rush in, creating a particular kind of information overload. “Happy End” distorts a children’s story to re-create a child’s worldview; Aperghis deconstructs his tale so that adults experience it the same way that children experience the adult world. You never quite follow it, you never get it all, and yet somehow, in an obliquely profound way, you understand.

Talea Ensemble

James Baker, conductor

Georges Aperghis: “Happy End”

At: Institute of Contemporary Art, Friday


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.