One by one the singers, dressed in black and wearing masks, entered a darkened hall. Their music stands were mounted on boxes that also held candles. Percussionists softly grazed drum heads with brushes, and the vocalists began muttering gibberish syllables, calling across the room to one another in some obscure code. First one audience member, then others, stood up from their chairs and walked through the room, in an effort to grasp what shadowy tale was being told. The processional had begun.
This was the setting for the premiere of “Mask Your Sonic Story,” an experimental opera by the Japanese composer and sound artist Reiko Yamada. It was the centerpiece of Friday’s concert by Lorelei Ensemble, the innovative female vocal group, and the Boston Percussion Group. “Opera” may be too strong a word for Yamada’s creation, since it makes no pretense of relating a unified story. What it presents is a series of murky, onomatopoetic allusions to goings-on among a group of animals and spirits in a mythical realm. You could station yourself near one or another singer and hear a few open-ended fragments — “I paid my debts to you humans”; “I saw you, Raven”; “they sold the rice.” The rest of the story was left to you to fashion.
It was a dreamy and creative way to reframe musical narrative, and as a kind of ritual evocation “Mask Your Sonic Story” worked brilliantly. But it was also so dark and ambiguous that you didn’t emerge with enough material to choose your own adventure — it’s too much mask and not enough story. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have some terrific music. In a long section late in the piece, Yamada embeds twittering, otherworldly vocalisms in shimmering percussion sounds, and the halo effect is magical. Yet somehow one ended up admiring the ambition of the piece over the final product.
The mood shifted entirely in the second half, which began with arrangements of three songs from Björk’s 2011 album “Biophilia” that largely tracked the shape of the originals. Lorelei’s Sophie Michaux and Sonja Tengblad were excellent soloists. Next came two songs by Bon Iver, including a gorgeous version of “Babys” where the single repeated verse contrasted with the complexity of the vocal texture. Closing the concert was Steve Reich’s “Music for Mallets, Voices, and Organ”, a shot of sonic warmth and bright color that was a bit loud in spots. It was the most straightforward offering of an audacious and impressive evening.
With Boston Percussion Group
At: Boston Conservatory Ipswich Hall, Friday