The Portland Conservatory of Music’s 10th annual Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival was held over the weekend, with four concerts all presented downtown – at Mechanics’ Hall, First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, Space Gallery and the Maine College of Art – rather than at the school’s headquarters at Woodfords Congregational Church. And while it’s true that the move put the festival at a greater distance from Back Cove itself, it made sense in broader atmospheric terms: Woodfords, comfortable as it is, seems a bit staid for a festival of musical experimentalism.

I heard the concert at Space on Sunday afternoon – a program devoted to the music of composer-performers, most of whom presided over their creations. There were hits and misses, as you would expect in a program where musicians are exploring new ideas. But those ideas were the concert’s salient feature, and if some weren’t entirely persuasive this time, none was so unreasonable that a bit of refinement might not put it on course.

In some cases, the pieces themselves were fine – they just didn’t match the expectations created by their titles. You might, for example, expect Beth Wiemann’s “An Anxious Awareness of Danger” to be terrifying, or at least, on edge. But the piece, for clarinet and electronics (Wiemann played her instrument through a vocoder and other processing devices), was actually full of attractive chordal textures and gracefully shaped themes.

Peter McLaughlin, the only composer who did not play his own piece, supplied “No Sad Songs” for cello and electronics – a tribute to the composer Elliott Schwartz, with whom McLaughlin studied, and who used the title phrase shortly before his death, in 2016, to encourage friends not to be glum. It’s a lovely work, full of rich melodies, augmented by a recorded track that, toward the end, envelopes the cello in an almost orchestral sound.

But while its final pages demand quick bowing and ample energy, its opening section is unquestionably melancholy, a violation, one would think, of Schwartz’s admonition. Perhaps McLaughlin’s idea was to honor Schwartz not by following his suggestion unquestioningly, but by showing that overcoming grief is a battle that can only be won gradually.

Cellist Jerusha Neely gave a strong account of McLaughlin’s work before turning to her own “Three Songs,” an inventive set based on dream imagery and a fairy tale (“The Handless Maiden”). Neely sang her texts in a clear voice that at times called to mind Beth Gibbons, of Portishead, as well as some British folk-rockers of the 1960s, but the real interest was in her cello accompaniments – single lines and repeating figures, filled out by a looping device that kept early figures in play as she added new ones.

In his “Double Bass and Debris,” Josh DeScherer played a fragmentary bass line between encounters with artifacts he found while cleaning his basement, including scratchy LPs, a music box, various toys, computer parts and other electronic devices. It had its amusing moments as a straight-faced parody of avant-gardism, but mostly, it was the kind of performance that seemed more fun to give than to hear.

Mark Tipton’s “spacE x p a n s i o n” is a jazz piece at heart, with Tipton’s attractive and evocative offstage solo trumpet line as the dominant musical element, with occasional guitar, bass and percussion figures – coming from an ensemble placed at corners of the room, to surround listeners – filling out the texture. The performance also included contributions from two dancers, someone walking up an aisle tapping on a guitar, a poetry reading by Gil Helmick and an action painting by Rush Brown, executed live and projected on a video screen, but left unfinished when the piece ended. Mostly, these other activities proved distractions from the music.

On the program’s second half, Leslie Ross performed her “~147,” a work for bassoon and electronics, built around a single, repeated note, transformed electronically into a buzzing forest of bassoon tones with varied timbres. Carl Dimow, by contrast, played his appealingly meditative “Three Interludes” for flute and bass flute with no electronics at all.

The concert’s finale was a pair of movements from “New World Suite,” a string trio by Philip Carlsen, the cellist and composer who directs the festival, and was joined here by violinist Tracey Jasas-Hardel and violist Trevor Andrews. The piece is a setting of an unusual poem by Robert Bringhurst, in which all three musicians recited the work, adding an interesting rhythmic counterpoint to Carlsen’s shapely, dark-hued lines.

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

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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