Here's a museum where sounds as well as sights are flourishing

In the mood for some contemporary music? Try going to a museum -- the Whitney Museum of American Art, where sounds as well as sights are flourishing and where the Composers' Showcase series has been exploring an enormously broad spectrum of new musical styles.

Now it its 24th year, the series recently presented three consecutive concerts that comprised as much variety as you could hope for, from the jazz of Sun Ra to the tape of Steve Reich and elegant poem setting by Elliott Carter. Judging from the sheer diversity of approaches, contemporary music is alive and thriving.

The first evening featured Steve Reich and Musicians, playing four pieces by the innovative Reich. He was at his most innovative in "My Name Is: Ensemble Portrait -- Octet," given its world premiere as a "work in progress." Eight musicians file across the stage, saying their names into a microphone. Then the stage empties and the piece begins -- a massive collage of sound, constructed from the eight names as recorded and manipulated on an eight-track tape machine.

Normally, composer Reich eschews electronics, except for amplication. He prefers the natural modulations and fluctuations of humanly generated sound. "My Name Is" is a throwback to his brilliant tape experiment "Come Out" of several years ago. Here again he takes ordinary syllables and mixes them into a sonic melange that is nearly unrecognizable as speech, operating on entirely different principles. The result is invigorating, audacious, and hard to "understand" on first hearing. But no doubt it will be back, as Reich's work continues to grow in popularity.

The program also included Reich's sprightly Octet and the mysterioso Varitions of Winds, Strings, and Keyboards. "Clapping Music," a piece for four hands and no instruments, was dropped from the program at the last minute and replaced by Part 1 of the exhilarating "Drumming."

The second concert began with a divertimento in seven scenes by Louise Talma, called "Have You Heard? Do You Know?" Scored for three singers and a small ensemble, it's a pleasant but flimsy piece with a whimsical libretto -- about boredom in the suburbs -- that recalls the greater glories of Leonard Bernstein's "Trouble in Tahiti." It was capably performed by enthusiastic singers, with Arthur Weisberg conducting the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble.

After intermission came the contrast of the month -- a plunge into the cosmic craziness of jazzman Sun Ra, premiering his suite "Omniverse." This veteran avant- gardist conducts his "arkestra" like Mickey Mouse in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," with jabs and jumps and flourishes, all instantly obeyed by his inscrutable but obviously gifted musicians.

The sounds are at their best when they get moisiest, swelling with an energy you won't find many other places. Throw in the Sun Ra visual effects, including wild customes and a dancer with an African mask, and you have a rare evening indeed.

The final concert was a bit more staid, featuring four respected names from the contemporary classical roster. First at the plate was Gunther Schuller -- the only composer not personally on hand -- whose Sonata Serenata provided an agreeably eclectic starting point for an agreeably diverse evening.

Next, Elliott Carter introduced his Duo for Violin and Piano, played with uncanny fervor by Rolf Schulte and Ursula Oppens. Earle Brown preceded the premiere of his "Windsor Jambs" by explaining that the title is "pure sound" -- just like the piece, with its flexible "open forms" rigorously hemmed in by a prearranged structure and guidance from the conductor (Brown himself, on this occasion).

After intermission, Carter presented a new orchestration of his "Three Poems of Robert Frost," a 1943 piece that remains fresh and communicative. Then the evening ended with its most flamboyant gesture: "Paradigm," which composer Lukas Foss describes as a "party piece" -- written for relaxation, and best appreciated in the same laid-back spirit.

Scored for five instruments, three of which can be chosen at random, it accommodates such oddities as a musical saw, an electric violin, and a lot of words shouted or whispered into microphones. As throughout the evening, the Speculum Musicae played splendidly during the Whitney performance, rising to new heights at the finale, when -- obeying the score, presumably -- the percussionist attacked various objects with drumsticks and the guitarist refused to stop playing while the others look their bows and left the stage.

A party piece indeed, with fun and high spirits for all -- and a fitting finale to three unpredictable shows.

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