GORHAM — The University of Southern Maine has an unusual cross-disciplinary project in the works for its new academic year, and on Saturday evening the school presented a concert by the composer, lyricist and multi-instrumentalist Rinde Eckert as a glimpse of what’s in store.

Eckert, who lives in New York and is an estimable figure in the avant-garde music-theater world, will be working with his frequent collaborator, the San Francisco-based composer, guitarist and drummer Paul Dresher, as well as the students, faculty and staff of the university’s music, theater and art departments, on a new work to be presented in April.

Not much is known about the piece, since work on its creation has just begun. But it has a title (“Molded by the Flow”) and performance dates (April 13 to 30, in Lewiston and Gorham). And the university has published a description of its central idea, which is to explore how southern Maine’s “rivers, ocean, weather, plants and animals have inspired diverse groups of people to inhabit the area, and thereby shape the landscape and the history” of the state.

It sounds like a tall order – a Maine-centric version of Kurt Weill’s “Eternal Road.” But Eckert and Dresher have been known to use sweeping symbolism that conveys lots of ideas in a fairly compressed time span, so this historical, naturalistic, sociological work will most likely be less sprawling that the description suggests.

It is also bound to be invitingly quirky, Eckert’s dominant style. Looking bedraggled, in a loose-fitting suit, and without shoes – a matter of comfort, not symbolism, he said – Eckert wandered around a set that was meant to represent his creative world. The piano, on which he composes, sat at one end; the desk, where he writes, was at the other. Between them was a studio area, with instruments of all kinds (several guitars, percussion, an accordion and a euphonium, among them), on which he accompanied himself in the course of the 95-minute performance.

Perhaps because Eckert meant the show to seem like an off-the-cuff tour of some of the ideas he has explored in his own work since the mid-1980s, along with some of his favorites from the broader history of song, the printed program did not list the songs Eckert sang. Atmospherics aside, that would have been useful.

Among his own works, there was a paean to the glitter of showbiz, “I Believe in Pure Entertainment,” from “The Gardening of Thomas D.” (1992), as well as a piece in which he vocalized into a euphonium, creating a cartoonish dialogue of high and low voices.

Some pieces sounded like deft pastiches, with Eckert’s own ideas melded with existing works. Accompanying himself on the accordion, for example, he gave a falsetto rendering of what sounded like an Italian folk melody. And his laconic account of the country blues classic “Sittin’ On Top of the World” had new comic verses stitched in.

Eckert’s most winning quality is his versatility. Over the course of the evening, he showed himself to be a reasonably solid pianist and accordionist, a stylish slide guitar player and fingerpicker, and an inventive player of the frame drum and wood block.

Vocally, he was all over the map, moving easily from falsetto to full-voice, singing alternately raspily, smoothly or with a Southern twang, as the music at hand required. At one point, he gave a nasal performance of a love song in the Hindustani style, with a drone accompaniment. And early in the show, he moved to the piano and adopted a fairly polished operatic voice to sing the opening verse of “Questa o quella,” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” as well as a lovely account (preceded by a lyrical analysis) of a French art song, Reynaldo Hahn’s “A Chloris.”

With Eckert a visiting professor for the composition project, the university’s students are likely in for an ear-expanding experience. Dresher, Eckert’s partner in this endeavor, will present his bona fides on Nov. 13, when he performs at the school as part of the Paul Dresher/Joel Davel Invented Instrument Duo.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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