A set of challenging, contemporary work featuring Cory Smythe and Steve Lehman.

When guest programmer Cory Smythe decided to call the season’s final Present Music concert “Boundaries,” he was probably thinking of guest musician Steve Lehman, a saxophone player whose work transcends the divisions between music genres: jazz, classical, electronica, etc. But when the concert ended, I suspect many in the audience were thinking of a more basic set of musical boundaries—the notes in the tempered Western scale.

Most music we hear these days is composed of familiar notes that make up the chromatic scale—12 notes separating each octave. But of course, there are an infinite number of notes between this “C” and the “C” above it. What about the ones that lie between “C” and C-sharp?

Cory Smythe.
Photo by Jessica Kaminski.

Two string quartets on the program took this idea in very different directions. Ben Johnston’s Quartet No. 4 (“Amazing Grace”) sets the familiar folk tune in variations that use “just intonation,” a scale and harmonic vocabulary that is truer to the mathematical relationships that underlie the structure of music. As a result, the familiar melody seems aglow, burnished into new life. It didn’t hurt that the players (violinists Eric Segnitz and Naha Greenholtz, violist Maria Ritzenthaler and cellist Adrien Zitoun) brought passionate energy to every line.

Lehman’s “Nos Revi Nella” uses the notes “between” to different ends altogether. Through shifting time signatures cellist Zitoun plucked a rhythmically charged ostinato. Over that ground, there were passages of furious string playing, particularly by Segnitz. After several players traded extended solo riffs, the two violins played in a sweet but pungent harmony, before the final section set the quartet into a rhythmic groove that brought the piece to a close.

Adrien Zeitoun.
Photo by Jessica Kaminski.

Many of the other pieces left the neat divisions of the Western scale behind. Kaija Saariaho’s “Petals” featured Zitoun as soloist, backed by a faint wash of electronic echoes, engineered by Smythe. Glissandos and harmonics set an ethereal mood. Lehman demonstrated his virtuoso playing in Smythe’s “Two Rooms,” which started with the meditative sound of recorded gongs and plucked piano strings, toyed with a slip into a funky beat, then built intensity with intertwined piano and sax lines before ending with breathy electronic burbles.

Smythe’s “Reenactment,” a world premiere for strings, piano and guitar, was the toughest piece to get your ears around. The percussive plink of guitar and piano offered contrast with sliding string glissandos, until the piece settled into some lush harmonies backed by a steady if irregular pulse.

Lehman’s “Laamb” and “Dub” offered more chances for the composer to strut his soloist stuff. His alto tone is full, almost classical, and when he cooks—as in his improvisations over “Laamb”’s modal vamp—he has astonishing facility. In “Dub,” he began with a snaky solo feature, using circular breathing to extend the notes into a continuous flow. The strings add harmonies, and the sax gets to play crazy rhythm games over a skewed cello ostinato.

Some of this was challenging stuff, but it was a welcome look at where music can go when composers and players think outside the boundaries.