The fifth night of collected stories, David Lang’s series curated for Carnegie Hall this month, told four distinct tales rather than concentrating on one or two. As with the micro-stories of Thursday evening’s “love/loss”, this resulted in less involvement in the story-telling. Less involvement, however, didn’t mean less enjoyment. Sunday night’s “(post)folk” theme brought two world premières, a US première, and another recent work to the stage at Zankel Hall. The music, performed by the spirited new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound with their conductor/director Alan Pierson, was engaging and inventive. All four pieces exhibited the new directions their composers are exploring while also demonstrating aspects of folk and post-folk.

Kaki King © Kaki King
Kaki King
© Kaki King

Kaki King’s commission Other Education might not have showed off her full range as a guitar virtuoso, but it did give us a glimpse of her ear for composition. Ms King, a Brooklyn-based musician, is known for her unconventional use of her guitar, at times transforming it into a percussion instrument: tapping and patting in addition to strumming and plucking. Other Education, a concerto for guitar and chamber orchestra, combined Ms King’s percussive guitar effects with actual percussion, as well as a jazzy piano solo from John Orfe. The opening guitar melody rippled across the stage, showing up in other instruments, before a build-up of sound and intensity from the brass. Then the music segued into a dimmer section, meandering through a series of bluesy rhythms. The interplay of popular music influences, a traditional three-movement concerto structure, and Ms King’s own compositional innovations created a fun and enchanting experience.

Kate Moore, an Australian composer based in Holland, composed The Art of Levitation in 2013 as another commission for this series. Her piece, according to David Lang’s program notes, is “based on the memory of the glass harmonica”, an invention of Benjamin Franklin that was used by Beethoven and Mozart. Imitating the sound a glass harmonica might make, percussionist Ian Ding used his fingers to coax reverberating sounds from a series of water glasses along with the piano and violin in an ethereal opening. The volume and tempo gradually transformed as other instruments joined in with long, silky tones, getting faster and more persistent. The pulsating rhythms and layers of climbing repetitions created a dreamy chaos out of what originally had been intriguing and serene.

The third piece presented a contrast in providing us with words, via ancient Gaelic texts, but if there was a narrative we were not made aware of it. Donnacha Dennehy’s Grá agus Bás, which translates to “Love and death”, was composed in 2007, and was here rendered by Iarla Ó Lionáird along with Alarm Will Sound. It began with an unsettled yet quiet dissonance, difficult to trace because of the dim red lighting on the stage. This dissonance was joined by Caleb Burhans’ electric guitar, muted trumpets, and distorted sounds from various instruments. The chamber orchestra became more and more frantic, guided by Mr Pierson’s expert conducting. But Mr Ó Lionáird’s singing remained composed throughout, growing louder but never missing a beat – or a note, which we realized when his voice held a tone at a pronounced dissonance with the piccolo. Then, towards the end, the piccolo player Erin Lesser flitted through a series of insane melodies, with forceful punctuation from the brass, and the brash music reached a pinnacle before the final reverberating note from Mr Ó Lionáird.

The program had saved the best for last: the U.S. première of Richard Ayres’s No. 42 In the Alps was musically delightful, visually whimsical, and all-around hilarious. The violins’ introduction, paired with sparse percussion and eventual raindrops of sounds from other instruments, was matched by the video projection acting as narrator: “In the beginning God created gravity… wetness… dust… loneliness… and THE ALPS.” At that moment, the music burst into a loud but sparkling array of sounds, and we were whisked into the story of a young girl, portrayed by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, raised in the Alps by a menagerie of quirky mountain animals. Throughout the piece, Alarm Will Sound’s instruments and Ms Zetlan’s voice imitated the sounds of owls, toads, goats, nightingales, snoring mountain bears, and so on. Suzanne Bocanegra’s costumes – including a bird perched atop trumpeter Jason Price’s head – and the video projection both contributed to the atmosphere. Act II included a “carpenters’ dance”, complete with saws and hammers, a “cow herders’ dance” incorporating cowbells, and a “monks’ dance” during which the musicians alternated between silence and self-flagellation. Other highlights included a solo from Mr Price as Bobli the bugle player and a tuba solo from John Altieri as Zeus. The interludes between acts, during which the music skittered delicately across our ears, explored the perception of time according to animals’ varying heartbeats: the fast heartbeat of the fly versus the slow heartbeat of the whale. By the time we reached the nematodes of the postlude, I wished my perception of time were slower so as to better drink in Mr Ayres’s exciting music.