ICA offers a unique mix of musical cultures

Four musicians walk into a room: a Ukrainian pianist, a klezmer clarinetist, a free jazz cellist, and a hip-hop scratch DJ.

No, it's not the setup of a joke, it's the premise of "Cultural Constructions IV," the latest in a series of concerts bringing together local musicians from different cultures and musical traditions, which takes place tomorrow night at the Institute of Contemporary Art Theater.

For series cocurator Ken Field, the room is as much a metaphor as it is the ICA Theater itself. "One of my models for this," he says, "is the four musicians standing in the four corners of the room, representing their four traditions. Rather than have them all walk to the center and play a homogenized version of their styles, I'd like them to stay in their corner but play in a way that works with the other people."

The initial inspiration for this concert's lineup was the ICA's current exhibition by Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhailov. "Finding a Ukrainian musician was quite a challenge," Field says. "Finally, we came up with Yakov Gubanov."

Gubanov is a classically trained pianist who teaches composition at the Berklee College of Music and provides live accompaniment to silent films as Harvard Film Archive's composer in residence. After finding him, the curators racked their brains and ransacked their address books to come up with other musicians for an ensemble that made sense as both a group of instruments and of personalities.

Joining Gubanov tomorrow night will be clarinetist Glenn Dickson, leader of the traditional klezmer band Shirim and the edgier outfit Naftule's Dream; cellist Glynis Lomon, a free improviser who has played with Cecil Taylor and William Parker; and Mister Rourke, an innovator in incorporating turntable scratching and mixing into live performances.

What keeps these concerts from becoming cultural train wrecks is the month's time the musicians are given to practice, explore collaborative strategies, and allow musical pieces to evolve. Also, the curators of the series compose works for each ensemble, ranging from notated pieces to loose instructions.

"It's sort of a puzzle, figuring out how to put all of these different things together," Dickson says. "Yakov can do anything: ragtimey stuff, classical stuff, Ukrainian stuff. Glynis comes from a new-music improvisation style. And I've never played with a DJ artist before, so that's totally new."

"Everybody in the group improvises really well," Mister Rourke says. "Everybody is all ears. Every time we do something, it sounds different, even if it's the same piece."

Of the rehearsals he attended, Field says, "It was very cool the way Mister Rourke was functioning as a rhythm section. He has a lot of facility and depth in terms of his music library that he brings with him."

"I'm not necessarily laying down the hottest Jam'n 94.5 beats," Mister Rourke says. "My crates consist of bamboo flutes and Gregorian chants as well as jazz and funk. I pride myself on blending with everybody else so you're looking around the room saying 'I don't even know where that sound came from.' "

At Wednesday night's rehearsal, a series of freely improvised duets opened with Dickson's mournful clarinet, echoed abstractly by Lomon's raspy cello. The two ascended higher and higher in long, clashing tones, with Lomon switching from cello to keening vocals. Then Mister Rourke's turntable entered with bird chirps that Gubanov countered with angular scribbles.

Rumbling timpani emerged from Mister Rourke's amplifier, joined by Gubanov's resonant, low-register tremolos. Mister Rourke dropped in a funky beat, and Gubanov jumped on it with a rapid, walking bass figure. And that was only the first few minutes.

Later, Dickson directed the group in a piece he had written. It began as a fairly traditional klezmer number. With the appearance of Mister Rourke's heavy, echoed, minimalist beat, it morphed into the soundtrack for a ghetto ghost story, the Jewish strains of the past merged with the African-American sounds of today.

As for tomorrow night? "The more you think about it the harder it gets," says Dickson. "You just have to let it happen and go with the flow."

Cultural Constructions IV takes place tomorrow at the ICA at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $8-$10 and are available at Twisted Village, 12 Eliot St., Cambridge, 617-354-6898, or at the ICA tomorrow. Call 617-628-4342. 

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