Apart from the artists associated with the big festival operas, who spend the better part of each May rehearsing, John Kennedy is usually among the very first of Spoleto’s advance guard to arrive in Charleston. Besides being the longtime director and host of Spoleto’s popular, progressive Music in Time series — this year marks his 16th — the youthful, tousle-haired artistic associate must audition and hire some of the world’s most accomplished young musicians for the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, which has been lauded as one of the top 10 orchestras in the nation. The younger members of the group often go on to become full-time members of some of the world’s most prestigious ensembles.

This year Kennedy has arrived on Monday, May 15, after a punishing 17-hour flight from his home in Santa Fe, N.M., where he’s the artistic director of the Santa Fe New Music Festival. He’s here to get an early start on wrangling the orchestra, most of whom have never played together before but who will nonetheless fulfill the exacting musical demands of a pair of three-hour operas, six Intermezzi concerts, two symphonic concerts, and one choral concert. If they have any remaining vim at all, a few selected members will tackle Kennedy’s four-part Music in Time series, at which just about anything can happen and often does.

Music in Time’s mandate, as described by Kennedy, is to showcase “today’s major composers on the international stage as well as music by young composers who are setting the course for the future.” In other words, Music in Time is all about new, progressive, and experimental music that’s being created today. These adjectives should be taken very literally. The series regularly premieres works that have never been heard in a public setting. Past concerts have included department store mannequins, laptops and other electronic gadgetry, solo trombonists dressed as European clowns, and Kennedy himself stripped to the waist for a work that consisted entirely of vocalizations and pounding on his own body.

This year’s series boasts composers from 11 countries — including a new piece from Kennedy, who last year premiered a large-scale work at the Festival Concert called Storm and Stress. The first program in the series, at the Simons Center’s Recital Hall on Saturday night, includes a slightly older work from Pulitzer Prize-winning post-minimalist John Adams, whose newest opera, Doctor Atomic, premiered at the San Francisco Opera to critical raves last October.

“Christian Zeal and Activity” is the middle movement of a three-movement triptych Adams wrote in 1973 called American Standard. It’s one of the composer’s relatively rare minimalist tape sampling pieces, where he combines a hymn-like sound of elongated richly-harmonized chords with a seemingly unrelated tape of a revival-style sermon on the power of faith healing.

The second work on the program is Brooklyn composer Ira Mowitz’s Shimmerings (2004), another work which combines live instruments with electronic sounds.

“At the risk of saying something ridiculously abstract, the first program is about listening and hearing,” Kennedy says lightly, all too aware of the pitfalls that lie in wait for the composer who takes any of this stuff too seriously.

“The Adams and Mowitz pieces both use ‘soundtracks’ with live instruments: the Adams, a manipulated recording of a preacher, in the manner of early minimalist tape pieces, where phrases get looped again and again.

“The Mowitz,” he continues, “is nonverbal, computer-generated sounds, in which the interface between the digital and human instruments might be seamless and so unified that they sound as one. Whatever implications one might get from these pieces in terms of approach to contemporary spiritualities, I leave to listeners to derive.”

Rounding out Saturday’s first program is a work from a Music in Time veteran, Russian composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, whose Hearing Solution features the SFO’s Jason Calloway on solo cello, accompanied by a larger ensemble.

“The Yanov-Yanovsky piece was originally composed for Yo-Yo Ma with the Silk Road Ensemble,” Kennedy explains, noting that while it actually premiered at a Siemens’ hearing aid factory, this is the first ticketed public performance.

“In the piece, the cellist, Jason Calloway, sometimes plays passages silently, making no sound, exploring the relationship between gesture and sound, or, perhaps fooling the listener into wondering if they’re having trouble hearing something,” says Kennedy, who’s proven in the past that his series is often as much about theatre as it is about music. “So the interplay between these works is, for me, a kind of abstract commentary on what we can hear going on out there.”

MUSIC IN TIME, PROGRAM I • Spoleto Festival USA • $20 • May 27 at 5 p.m. • 1 hour 10 min • Recital Hall, Simons Center for the Arts, 54 St. Philip St. • 579-3100

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