[ART FOLK] Pigeonholers often categorize music as either high or low—as "art" or "folk." But composers have long been transforming folk songs into something more complex. And today's postclassical tunesmiths draw on the very roots of such "common" art to create powerful modern works.

Take George Crumb's River of Life, the major work of local avant-ensemble Third Angle's January concert. Though hailed—or reviled—as a radical in the '60s and '70s for the mind-bending sounds of such works as string quartet "Black Angels" (which sparked the creation of the Kronos Quartet), "Voice of the Whale," and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Echoes of Time and the River," the affable Crumb, now 79, retains the soft twang and folk roots of his West Virginia childhood. After retiring from teaching, Crumb looked to his Appalachian heritage for source material. While retaining the lyrics and tunes of such classics as "Shall We Gather at the River," River of Life also satisfies Crumb's penchant for otherworldly sounds—plucked piano strings, exotic percussion—and thereby restores the original mystery and strangeness of these artifacts of what Greil Marcus called "the old, weird America."

Third Angle's pianists and percussionists will provide the harmony behind soprano Mia Spencer, while percussionist Mark Goodenberger's students from Central Washington University will deploy nearly 100 other instruments—gongs, crotales, chimes—to create a colorful sonic (not to mention visual) backdrop. They'll even change pitches by dipping their instruments in buckets of water. "[Crumb] takes these famous hymns that everybody's heard and then he puts them in these haunting settings so that they take on a whole new meaning," says Goodenberger. "It feels like a journey that takes you to another world."

Crumb's work—along with that of the program's other composers: fellow Pulitzer winner John Harbison (who takes similar liberties in his settings for chamber-ensemble productions of "We Shall Overcome" and other spirituals) and vibrant Chinese-American composer Chen Yi (whose string quartets Sprout and Burning draw on melodies as ancient as a 1,500-year-old score for Chinese zither and concerns as contemporary as the destruction of the World Trade Center)—and you have a strong demonstration of folk music's persistent ability to evoke timeless emotions, even when heavily bent by contemporary composers.

Third Angle presents River of Life—works by Yi, Harbison and Crumb—on Friday, Jan 11, at Reed College's Kaul Auditorium. 7:30 pm. $30 ($25 seniors and students). All ages.