“Ensemble” was a musical composition in the guise of an exhibition and was best experienced first with one’s eyes closed. This asked something rather unusual of the viewer, demanding that he or she stand in the middle of the gallery, forget about contemplating individual works, resist for a moment the urge to manipulate them, and give in to pure sound. Why? Because the twenty-seven contraptions assembled by curator Christian Marclay at the Philadelphia ICA were not mute objects but sound-making devices, either mechanically driven or manually activated.

Think of “Ensemble” as an ongoing interactive performance with at least three possible variations. The first of these involved listening to the show alone, concentrating on the output of those machines that need no human presence to activate them, such as the tinkling of Angela White’s three turntables and michael Jackson, 2007, the unexpected thump of Noah Sheldon’s Perpetual Chimes and Shells, 2006, the Uzi-like rat-tat-tat of Terry Adkins’s Off Minor, 2004, and the intermittent drumming of David Ellis’s Trash Talk, 2007. The second variation was best performed by a small group of people, each of whom added to the previous version by “playing” the thirteen works that require audience participation. The resultant whirs (Yoshi Wada, The Alarming Trash Cans, 1987), clickety-clacks (Martin Kersel, Creakers, 2007), ding-dongs (Jim Hodges, the bells/black, 2007), and whooshes (Nina Katchadourian, The Picture Book of Sexual Love, 2007) transformed what was a small chamber piece into a symphony whose volume and rhythm were collectively determined. In the third variation, the arrival of a larger crowd gave rise to a more unruly cacophony.

Marclay’s curatorial baton extracted the best from his performers. In the context of “Ensemble,” works of minimal visual interest, such as Martin Creed’s trio of metronomes, Pierre Huyghe’s wind chimes, and Angela Bulloch’s tuning fork, suddenly acquired a new lease on life. It was a great pleasure to see the ICA’s usually withdrawn spectators and guards morph into boisterous musicians, moving purposefully in and out of sync with each other. The prospect of hearing Alison Knowles, Alan Licht, Marina Rosenfeld, and others perform in the show as part of a concurrent live-art series became ever more intriguing.

Seemingly in response to the current glut of artist-curators, Marclay has invented a new job description for himself: the composer-curator. The careful attention Marclay devoted to individual sounds, to the intervals between them, to their volume, sonority, rhythm, and locations in the gallery, and to how all these variables might be affected by an active audience, ensured that “Ensemble” as a performance piece never got stale. But it would be a mistake to say that Marclay simply adapts the arts of the DJ to the task of the curator. Significantly, Marclay avoids amplification and prerecorded material. With the exception of works by John M. Armleder, Carolee Schneemann, and Jon Kessler, everything included in “Ensemble” is low-tech, acoustic, self-contained. Here the curator is a percussionist, but one who cedes control over his instruments, at least partially, to the viewer.

Paul Galvez