Eco Ensemble rehearsing Edmund Campion's Flow. Debris. Falls. Photo by Peg Skorpinski (Bay Citizen, New York Times)

The music department of UC Berkeley unveiled a new house band last night in Hertz Hall called Eco Ensemble, whose mission is to perform works by contemporary composers, including professors and grad students of the university. The group is led by David Milnes, music director of the UC Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and conductor of the Berkeley Contemporary Chamber Players. But it's not all about the local angle- the group will be performing pieces by eleven composers including Nico Muhly, Magnus Lindberg and  Kaija Saariaho during three concerts, the first of which took place last night before a well-attended house.

The program began with Gérard Grisey's Talea (ou la machine et les herbes folles), a piece for five players- piano, violin, cello, clarinet and flute. Written in 1986 while he was teaching composition at Cal, the piece has two sections which examine speed and contrast of sound. Talea begins with a jolting buzz followed by sounds played so quietly they could be easily be missed. For the next seventeen minutes they expand and contract like a slinky designed by Ligeti.

Tristan Murail's L'Esprit des dunes, written in 1994 and dedicated to Giacinto Scelsi and Salvador Dali, is influenced by the sounds and sights of the Mongolian desert, a recurring inspiration of the composer's. Of the four works performed, Murail's was the one I found decidedly difficult to follow as its constantly shifting, electronically enhanced soundscape took me one place and left me there until I was suddenly jolted from it by a harsh note from a triangle or the introduction of another sound suddenly bursting forth from the musicians, often the percussionist. Here is a sample of it.

Edmund Campion, a current faculty member of the music department and instrumental in getting Eco off the ground, was introduced by Cal Performances director Matías Tarnopolsky. Campion describes his piano concerto/not a piano concerto, entitled Flow. Debris. Falls (2010) as "the musical equivalent of a B-movie developed under the radar of the censor-prone larger Hollywood studios. In these B-movie scenarios, stories that on the surface appear to be genre conforming, become subversive vehicles, sites for the creator's imagination to run without censure. It would please me if David Lynch like the title, as it is meant to evoke a location in America where normality exists mostly as an ornamental feature masking a more sinister underbelly."

That's actually not a bad description of the three movement work for ensemble and two pianos. The subversive element is twofold. First, the pianist's performance is analyzed by a software program hooked up to the instrument and fed to a player piano, which then performs an improvisation based on what's being played. Avatar, ghost in the machine, what have you, it's an interesting concept which worked really well, though I found the computer-generated parts often to be more forceful and interesting than what Joanna Chao was playing. Perhaps that's the intent, but it ultimately left me wanting to know if that was by Campion's design or if the software was capable of creating music more dynamic than that of the composer who created it. Truly, it's a musical Frankenstein and quite a fun little monster in both implication and reality. The second subversive element is the use of amplification at varying levels which also featured additional electronic elements. The ideas forming the basis of Campion's work would likely offend a lot of musical purists, but I find this transgression of tradition to be liberating and I'd like to see more works incorporating technology find their way into "mainstream" concert halls.

The last piece was Marc-André Dalbavie's In advance of the broken time (1994), a composition which wonderfully examines the shape and structure of sound and its movement as seven musicians take a single note on an extended journey which concludes where it began. It was a fitting end to the performance.

The program notes for the performance made it impossible to identify the musicians performing each piece- something I hope is remedied for Eco Ensembles upcoming performances on February 11 and March 24, as many of them merited individual praise.

Here's the program for those concerts:
Feb. 11: Saariaho: Ballade, Prelude/ Lindberg: Corrente/ Bedrossian: Swing/ Saariaho: Trios Riviers
March 24: Matalon: Tunneling/ Muhly: Clear Music/ Lim: Songs Found in Dream/ Einbond: What the Blind See