Though hardly a household name, the British-born Bernard Rands is probably the finest active American composer of his generation. He studied with leaders of the European avant-garde--Pierre Boulez, Luciano Berio, Luigi Dallapiccola--in the 50s and 60s, but his academic braininess doesn't overpower his lyrical heart. While some contemporary composers talk a good game but can't back it up and others write great music but have nothing to say about it, Rands is both an exquisite composer and a thoughtful and eloquent explicator of music. Local audiences may know him as the husband of CSO resident composer Augusta Read Thomas, but Rands, who won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for music, has had major large-scale works of his own presented successfully by the CSO: Le Tambourin (led by Boulez in '93), drawn from a still-uncompleted opera based on the life of Vincent van Gogh, comes as close as any music I've heard to re-creating Postimpressionist painting with sound; Apokryphos, which had its world premiere last year at Orchestra Hall, is a massive, challenging, and unsentimental response to the Holocaust. This weekend the International Contemporary Ensemble, a self-described new-music "think tank" in residence at Columbia College, will mark Rands's 70th year with a program that spans four decades of his chamber works. "Formants 1" for solo harp (1965) is the oldest piece on the program and plays off of the gestural aspects of performing on what Rands has said is his favorite instrument. "Memo 7" for solo female voice (2000) is the newest: taking the Emily Dickinson poem beginning "Bind me-- I still can sing--" as a starting point, Rands's score--which calls for singing, speech, muttering, and breathing noises--conveys the essence of the poem as well as its form, rendering even Dickinson's characteristic dashes as nonverbal interludes. Chicago new-music specialist Cliff Colnot conducts; guest soloists include soprano Tony Arnold, oboist Zheng Huang, and CSO cellist Katinka Kleijn. Rands will lead a master class and open rehearsal before the performance. Friday, January 16, 8 PM (master class and open rehearsal at 6 PM), Concert Hall, Columbia College, 1014 S. Michigan; 312-344-6300.