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Southern Theater ushers in 10/11 music season with concerts by rising stars in the digital firmament

Word has it that Kate Nordstrum is the most adventurous music curator in town. If recent shows at the Southern Theater by Brooklyn Rider (with Two Foot Yard), and Nico Muhly, Sam Amidon and Gabriel Kahane indicated a trend — toward young (or youngish) musicians, with a refreshingly innovative disregard for stylistic boundaries, some serious street cred in the museum, film and dance worlds, and a commitment to merging the classical with the electronic and digital — then last weekend’s performances by Ben Frost and Tim Hecker solidified her rep.

The two composers/musicians opened Nordstrum’s 2010/11 music season at the Southern. Ben Frost, an Australian now living in Iceland, rarely plays in the U.S. Tim Hecker, a Canadian, does on occasion tour the lower 48. Both work in the realm of ambient or electronic music (perhaps better known today as computer-digital audio processing). Both foray into industrial, noise and — in Frost’s case — rock and minimalism.

So bringing them together, for the first time, on a semi-shared bill was a coup for Nordstrum. She’s fast becoming a go-to curator of new music. The weekend, however, belonged to Frost.

Frost performed an 80-minute set Friday night, with Hecker as a guest; the Saturday-night set up was the reverse. Both worked at a table heightened by paint cans underneath each leg, laden with laptops, keyboards, digitizing equipment, cables and cords, and surrounded by banks of speakers. A piano stood to one side. While Hecker, wearing a grey hoodie, signaled for a nearly complete blackout during his show, immersing the audience in aural tsunamis of impressionist sound as he worked (lit only by his laptop) his technological wizardry, Frost played his instruments with a physical intensity and focused musicality verging on the choreographic. His performance was as riveting, and as visceral, as his music.

Frost’s show began with him slipping on stage barefoot, dressed in black jeans and shirt. As a slow low hum built in intensity and volume, Frost shifted from electric guitar to laptop to various controls, investing each strum, swipe and turn with equal gestural emphasis. Refusing to differentiate between instruments, Frost played them all with a sensate musicality: His body registered — as did the audience in muscles, bones and guts — every pulse, surge and throb he sent reverberating through the theater. Meanwhile, his toes curled and feet flexed in anticipation of each new musical cue.

Threaded through the digitized wolf howls, crackling static, fluttering streams of sonic noise and downward thrusting beats were phrases of simple, repeating melodies. At times Frost played these phrases — which could be plaintive almost to the point of nostalgia — while hunched at the piano. Digital waves of sound tore at the edges of these minimalist tunes, leaving them raw and bittersweet. As the concert built to a majestic conclusion, the music’s dramatic themes and variations pleated into shifting sonic curtains, before diminishing to a slow, repeating thud with which Frost focused attention to a single point in space: a collective heartbeat.

The only misstep in the performance was Hecker’s dip into Frost’s resonant sound pool. More an interruption in, rather than an addition to, the flow of Frost’s singular performance, Hecker acted uncertain about his role. He watched Frost as if seeking the direction of a mentor as the music took a rhythmic turn that dissembled into shattering walls of noise. Conversely, Frost’s multiple appearances during Hecker’s show the following night added a layer of humanity to Hecker’s drifting rafts of tone, timbre, pings and rumblings coursing through the theater.

As Frost played a few notes on the piano, or generated reverb via his electric guitar, the duo’s sonic tapestries could have been those of a universe in which exploding stars, beeping satellites, colliding detritus, rotating planets and the memories of ghosts composed the music of the spheres.

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