CAMBRIDGE — ECCE's performance of Earle Brown's "December 1952" at Le Laboratoire Cambridge on Friday night — part of the new-music ensemble's yearlong residency — was a lot of things. It was far-out: a cornucopia of unusual, extended-technique sounds. It was multidimensional: the sounds mixed and manipulated by Ricardo Romaneiro into a simultaneous realization listeners could tune into (using wireless headphones). It was heterodox: Listeners moved freely among the performers. (The concert's title — "Virtual Reality" — linked it to Max Rheiner's VR-based flight simulator, "Birdly," on exhibit elsewhere in the space.) But was it actually a performance of Earle Brown's "December 1952" at all?
It is, partially, a playfully moot question. Brown's opus is famously, purposefully open-ended, indeterminate, devoid of traditional notation: a single-page field of short horizontal and vertical lines of varying thickness. It is a score designed to spur group improvisation, encouraging wide interpretive latitude. But it is still a score, one that, notably, none of Friday's performers were reading from. Brown himself might have objected: "[T]he piece of paper," he once said, "is absolutely essential" to pushing the improvisation beyond cliché into something truly new.
Friday's performance trod familiar 21st-century new-music ground: phrases respiring in slow breaths, sounds hovering between pitch and noise, electronics wreathing the music in resonance while boosting its edge. The players — violinist Karen Kim, bass clarinetist Vasko Duvoski (his instrument extended by means of right angles of PVC pipe), bassoonist Sarah Schoenbeck, and tubist Ben Stapp — fluently and resourcefully prowled their instruments' far reaches, giving Romaneiro a wealth of material to amplify into phantom prominence: key clicks, tapping, fluctuations of bow and air. Moments of real beauty and richness emerged: luminous laminations of glissandi, enveloping pulsations of breath and vibrato.
But there was also much comfortable agreement, performers gliding into similar sonic regions en masse. In those moments, the performance seemed to privilege only half of Brown's goals — on the one hand, "to provoke performers to work together and to react to their own poetics"; on the other, "to create 'new' kinds of forming and 'new' kinds of note-to-note realization."
Again: does that matter? "December 1952" is a landmark, but a provocatively protean one. And history, classical music's wellspring, is also a weight that has often gainfully and even necessarily been cast aside. The concert was a diverting, sometimes compelling give-and-take among creative, sympathetic performers that succeeded, at least, in yoking Brown's radical conception to one of music's root questions: What does it mean to perform a work anyway?