A Reliably Varied Music Festival Returns to New York

The Time Spans festival has carved out a unique place for itself in New York’s musical life over the past decade — and not just because it occupies an otherwise barren stretch of the calendar in late August.

This contemporary-music event, now a multiweek affair, is that perfect paradox: reliably varied. On successive evenings you might find electroacoustic experiments, meditative string quartets and barreling pieces for chamber orchestra.

There is no stylistic tribalism on offer, just a sagacious balance of good taste and calculated risk-taking. That’s thanks in part to the curatorial hand of the festival’s executive and artistic director, Thomas Fichter, a veteran bassist.

And it’s also because of the quality of the performers. Ensembles like the JACK Quartet and Alarm Will Sound may well be familiar to music lovers. But they’re rarely presented in such concentrated helpings. Each Time Spans show generally lasts about an hour, while managing to feel like a full meal.

After the pandemic led to the cancellation of last year’s festival, Time Spans restarts live performances on Tuesday, and runs through Aug. 29. Presented by the Earle Brown Music Foundation Charitable Trust, and held once again at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Manhattan, it’s an early sign of concert life springing back to action in the city this fall.

Here is a closer look at four of this edition’s presentations. (Details about the festival’s Covid-19 safety protocols are available at timespans.org.)

‘Or we don’t need light’

The cellist Mariel Roberts’s debut album, “Nonextraneous Sounds,” announced her as a talent to watch back in 2012. Since then, she has commissioned music by George Lewis and joined the Wet Ink Ensemble, a respected collection of composers and instrumentalists. Her first composition for the full group will be heard at the ensemble’s Time Spans slot on Friday, and draws its inspiration from a narrative embedded within “Seiobo There Below,” a novel by the Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai.

“The story is about this man who’s going to the Acropolis,” she said in a recent interview, “and he’s trying to climb up on the Acropolis. But the light is so intense and unyielding that he can’t even see his surroundings. I thought that was an interesting concept in music, as well.”

She added that the piece shares some traits with “Armament” — her recent, often ferocious solo album of her own works that closes with some earnest (if still aggressive) passages of lament.

Both “Or we don’t need light” and “Armament” make use of electronics, she said, adding that among the two works, “there’s a relation in that I’m interested in exploring beautiful harmonies, but with really kind of gruff and intense textures layered on top of them, almost obscuring them a lot of the time.”

‘La Arqueología del Neón’

The composer Oscar Bettison’s gutsy, peripatetic “Livre des Sauvages” was a notable highlight of the 2018 Time Spans festival, when it was played by the Talea Ensemble. (It has since been recorded for the Wergo label by Ensemble Musikfabrik.)

Oscar Bettison’s “Livre des Sauvages”

On Aug. 23, Bettison and Talea reunite for a new work that channels similar energies. “I’ve got a little obsession about artificiality,” he said. “You know, distortion. There’s a lot of preparation on instruments. Those are the two things that are sort of themes that I keep coming back to in things I do.”

“This piece is very up,” he added. “It’s always trying to move; it’s very frenetic.”

This opus, though, is more intimate in forces than “Livre des Sauvages”; it’s written for just seven players. “I think of this piece as really being a chamber concerto for Talea,” Bettison said. “They really like to work, you know? They like to get into it. I wanted to write something that would push them a bit.”

‘Neumond’

To get a preview of Yarn/Wire’s next album, which will be released on the Wergo imprint on Sept. 10, you can hear its Time Spans set on Aug. 24. In addition to pieces by Andrew McIntosh and Zosha Di Castri, this percussion and piano quartet will give the premiere of this work by Wolfgang Heiniger.

This is truly a premiere, said Russell Greenberg, one of the group’s percussionists, since the album version was recorded in multitrack fashion — with percussion and keyboard parts (and even some vocals) recorded individually.

“So this will be the first time we’ve played it live,” Greenberg said.

“The surface melodies and the harmonies, they’re so unique and dramatic; they kind of hit you immediately,” he said, adding, of Heiniger: “He thinks of it as a passacaglia. It’s pretty short, and just these motives just keep coming along. When I sent him the record, he said, ‘Yes you got it; it’s so goth.’”

‘For George Lewis’

The composer and instrumentalist Tyshawn Sorey has formed a productive collaboration in recent years with the ensemble Alarm Will Sound. The group’s players have immersed themselves in his ongoing work “Autoschediasms” — which blends Sorey’s conducting skills, improvisational responsiveness and ventures into notated composition — with sterling results.

They’ve also been preparing his meditative, fully notated tribute to the composer George Lewis, a mentor of Sorey’s. In an interview, Alarm Will Sound’s conductor, Alan Pierson, spoke of “a deliberateness with which Tyshawn places each of the sounds in this environment” as the work’s defining characteristic. (A recording will be released on the Cantaloupe label on Aug. 27.)

“This is not a piece that belongs on a concert with other music,” he added. “So we’re really carefully and thoughtfully designing an experience of the piece for the DiMenna Center.” The ensemble will appear in the round, with specially planned lighting.

“He spends all this time creating this landscape,” Pierson said, “and then once you’re there, there’s a kind of magical thing that happens — about 40 minutes into the piece — where Tyshawn suddenly takes you back to where the piece started. But takes a subtly different path, and makes the space for this really unexpectedly beautiful melodic thing to happen.”

Time Spans

Through Aug. 29 at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music in Manhattan; timespans.org.

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