Ninth Planet
Ninth Planet

The new-music ensemble Ninth Planet offered many worlds of delightful diversions on Saturday night in San Francisco. The concert’s stated intention was to lift the spirit from the heaviness of current events. The program, titled “Awakening,” was infused with up-close intimacy because of the small space at the First Unitarian Universalist Church & Center. Yet the six short solo and small-ensemble pieces, all from the 21st century, opened ears.

Many special instrumental techniques and combinations of computerized electronics were on display. We heard bowed and magnetized electric guitar, prepared and plucked piano, and quarter tones on flutes, clarinets, and double bass. But this list doesn’t do justice to the emotional immediacy of the evening. Awakenings entail revelations, and throughout Ninth Planet’s program, the revelations were musical, not technical. Each piece tussled with how to make a satisfying escape from the humdrum life of stricture, efficiency, and prescribed purpose. These were confident performances of contemporary uncertainties.

The blustery opening work, Techno-Parade by Guillaume Connesson, was a perfect setup for the variety of rhythmic, technological, and lyrical approaches that this concert achieved. Techno-Parade masterfully weaves together techno electronic beats and postminimalist instrumental repetition. The question, in this work and throughout Saturday’s concert, is who or what is really driving the beat: the technology or the players?

Techno-Parade is less a dance than a classic divertissement for electronics, flute, clarinet, and piano. After all, techno is the most mindless of diversions, with the body taking over for the spirit. With this opener, Ninth Planet seemed to wave away the heaviness of dark times. Connesson sides with the beat over the lyrical soul, and pianist Margaret Halbig, clarinetist Sophie Huet, and flutist Jessie Nucho were bracing and relentless, unafraid of the physicality of the piece, all in the name of healing fun.

The three works in the middle of the concert were a tour of other moods. Ian Clarke’s Spiral Lament, for flute and piano, renders the strange world of giant African snails. The music leans heavily on the throbbing, pitch-bending possibilities of the flute — waves and breezes of sounds that were all extraordinarily controlled and comfortable in Nucho’s performance. The impression was of childlike wonder, freed from the adult world and the strict compulsion of Connesson’s techno time.

In contrast, Angélica Negrón’s La Isla Mágica puts double bass and laptop-driven electronics in an intensely committed relationship. If the piece is a diversion akin to science fiction, the computer threatens to be the manipulative villain. Bassist Eugéne Theriault balanced the fevered intensity of the music with resplendent, gentle-hued nuances. He also had the rhythmic discipline to be an even match for his programmed partner/nemesis. Negrón’s piece posits a future in which, thankfully, humanity will predominate. Musician and machine don’t just get along; they collaborate.

The final divertissement on the program was 34 Chords, Christian Wolff in Hanover and Royalton by Larry Polansky, who died just over a week ago. Polansky wrote this piece for solo electric guitar as a tribute to his colleague. In turn, guitarist Giacomo Fiore dedicated his performance on Saturday to his mentor Polansky. It was particularly fitting that Fiore played this concentrated and slow-moving music with minimal reverb. The artifice of turning the amp to near-acoustic shaped the three-minute piece into a complete world, the artist noodling notes while deep in his thoughts. Fiore led the audience into the ever-entwined layers of creativity and influence that make up all music.

Devon Osamu Tipp’s Study of a Bull 1991 was one of two emotional anchors on the program. The piece is inspired by the artist Francis Bacon’s spray-paint-and-dust work of the title. Bacon was a bullfighting fan, and in his work, the indistinct form of a bull emerges into shape. It is tempting to say Tipp’s music does the same, depicting the pointless, atomizing dust-to-dust nature of the bull’s impending death. Saturday’s performance had the shudder-inducing power of premonition. The outlines were firm only thanks to finely calibrated balance, tuning, and timing from Ninth Planet’s full ensemble.

The full ensemble also played with great refinement in Patrick Burke’s Awake. Again, the ensemble’s concentration and dynamic control were impressive and crucial. The echoes and handoffs were seamlessly pitched and timed. The tension in Burke’s piece is not overtly structural; instead, he sets you up to continually anticipate the emergence of melody as it competes for primacy with rhythm. Among the pulsations and rarified harmonies, Ninth Planet’s heightened alertness to detail made clear that humanity wins in every alternate musical universe.

Awakened anew, I floated out of the church. Melody can go anywhere it wants, at any pulse, when performers like Ninth Planet take us there.