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    ECCE explores ‘December 1952’

    Ricardo Romaneiro plays Friday with ECCE in Cambridge.
    PHOTOS BY BEN STAS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE
    Ricardo Romaneiro plays Friday with ECCE in Cambridge.

    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.

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    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?

    Vasko Duvoski, bass clarinetist, of ECCE Ensemble.
    Ben Stas for the Boston Globe
    Vasko Duvoski, bass clarinetist, of ECCE Ensemble.

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