As a title for the opening performance of MusicNOW’s 2013-2014 season, “Vaporized” is somewhat misleading. It comes from the evening’s first piece, and it makes for a tidy, catchy branding for a new music concert. Yet the other two works are steeped in a density and concreteness that are counterintuitive to the abstract, amorphous implications of that title. This addresses both a challenge and strength of new music performances: due to inherent variety of styles and influences, it is often difficult to offer concise labels for this music.

MusicNOW is a branch of Chicago Symphony Orchestra devoted exclusively to giving life to music of active composers. The series makes its home at Chicago’s Harris Theater, which is just a few blocks north of Symphony Center. Having opened in 2003, Harris’ contemporary visual and acoustic designs make it an ideal space for the myriad intricacies often found in this music. For example, the evening’s outer compositions called for many distinct percussion instruments, which had a vibrant resonance in this space.

The strongest aspect of this series is that it exposes new music to a large audience in a way that progressively challenges the concert-going experience. “Vaporized” was advertised through CSO, so it has the advantage of association with that powerful brand. In lieu of bulky programs, single sheets with basic information were distributed, and more detailed program notes were provided by the composers in video messages airing prior to each performance. Special attention to ambiance was highlighted by pre- and post-concert events, as DJ’s spun in the lobby before and after the performance, and complimentary pizza and beer were served immediately afterwards. In some ways this is blatant pandering to younger audiences, but has anyone ever complained about free pizza and beer?

The biggest issue with the existence of MusicNOW is that it seemingly justifies the CSO’s reliance on Western canon repertory. Having this outlet for contemporary music is better than ignoring it altogether, but mixing these pieces with standard works would build an even larger audience for this music and create a stronger program. As unique as aspects of each of these pieces were from one another, their contrasts would have been more pronounced were they to be programmed on performances with works from other eras. MusicNOW also comes off as an after-thought in some regards. There are only four MusicNOW performances this season, and the series does not have its own website or even its own page within CSO’s website.

Vaporized Tivoli by Anders Hillborg (a Swedish freelance composer) was a strong choice to begin the concert: its aggressive, whack-a-mole orchestration captured the audience’s attention, and its relatively economic structure helped sustain this for its duration. The video program notes provided by Hillborg proved to be especially insightful, as they illuminated the abstract programmatic structure of the piece. Hillborg’s writing is equally adept at creating moments of chaos and serenity, and he often veers seamlessly from one end of the spectrum to the next. The piece concluded somewhat surprisingly with a luscious double bass solo by Alexander Hanna over a subdued texture, but this balanced nicely with the intensity of earlier sections and alluded to the titular vaporization.

Stainless Staining by Donnacha Dennehy (an Irish composer who founded Crash Ensemble) began with a fascinating premise: Dennehy sampled 100 piano overtones and manipulated them to highlight the rhythmic effects of the harmonic series. The results were more minimalist than spectralist, as the specific frequencies and the timbres they created seemed secondary to Dennehy’s manufactured perpetual groove. The solo piano part (performed by Amy Briggs) was driven by a virtually unchanging stasis, which was both an asset and liability. Its subtle rhythmic variations generated tension, but the lack of dynamic contrast stood out, particularly in comparison to the tapered swells in the electronic track.

Easily the most polarizing piece on the program was the composition with an impossible-to-type title by Benedict Mason (a British composer who has composed a soccer opera). The piece utilized inventive staging, positioning small pods of performers antiphonally throughout the hall. Everything centered around a video shot by Mason featuring various scenes from Hong Kong. Mason’s use of space was mostly effective, yielding numerous moments of vivid panning. The video, however, proved to be expendable, relying mostly on awkward hidden camera footage and cheap editing techniques. Mason’s program notes were also disappointing, due in large part to the fact that they were inexplicably shot in a restaurant with distracting background noise.

MusicNOW: Vaporized benefited from a forward-thinking atmosphere, and it presented music with sufficient variety and intrigue. For those interested, the next program in the series will be held December 3rd at Chicago’s Harris Theater, though it would be great to see these pieces find a home at Symphony Center, as well.