CAMBRIDGE — The “uncanny valley” is that strange space between human and not, the point at which an entity is almost human but something is wrong. Something vital is missing, or something that isn’t supposed to be present is there. Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s “Sideshow,” for amplified octet and electronics, had its US premiere on Tuesday night at the Radcliffe Institute, where the composer is a fellow. His piece inhabited this bizarre abyss, glorifying in grotesquerie from the moment the lights came up, revealing eight musicians stretching their mouths into a Coney Island funny face’s sinister grin.
Takasugi’s work involves collecting and organizing countless recordings of acoustic samples and processing them through computer algorithms. In “Sideshow,” neither these samples nor the instrumentalists seemed to dominate, entwining with and building on each other through episodes of violent noise and unsettlingly calm drones.
Sideshow exhibits of decades past — conjoined twins, bearded women, the famous Elephant Man — inspired interest and revulsion because they could not leave the uncanny valley. Likewise, this piece never left it for more than a blink. The inventively titled sections melded. The most concrete story told through the music was the true and tragic tale of Topsy, an elephant who was publicly electrocuted at a Coney Island amusement park in 1904 for stomping on a man who had burnt her trunk with a cigar. The quiet clicking and skittering of a mouse scurrying through the spectators morphed into scraping, amplified howls from the saxophone and clarinet, evoking the terrified animal’s last moments. This “Sideshow” is not for the faint of heart or ears.
The adventurous New York-based Talea Ensemble infused the piece with virtuosic chaos and a dark sense of humor. Pressing the keys of a piano doesn’t usually provoke flurries of frenetic electronic squeaks. Violins don’t usually produce sound when their strings are blown across. Musicians’ eyes aren’t usually fixed implacably on the audience. An aria, theoretically, should not consist entirely of strangled screams and jump scares from the bass drum. Yet all this and more happened.
Ultimately, “Sideshow” was music theater. Visual elements — the striped false teeth the musicians surreptitiously slipped in, the dropcloth that suddenly unveiled a taxidermied fish in a bell jar — were as essential to the experience as the sonic. Like the sideshows that inspired it, this piece probably has to be seen to be believed.
Talea Ensemble is taking the show on the road, performing in New York on Saturday and Los Angeles on Monday. See it and believe, if you dare.
At: Radcliffe Institute, TuesdayZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.