The room was filled with hopeful anticipation as labor comes to fruition, musicians gather to give it their best shots, and we — the audience — collectively hold our breaths.  The space, the performers, and the audience will interact as part of the creative process. And what Larry Austin and Thomas Clark describe as “a very personal activity [creating art] becomes public.” On a Saturday night, Duke Graduate composers revealed their treasured work in the East Duke Nelson Music Room.

Professor Marc Faris introduced the composers and guest performers, who rendered a wide swath of musical offerings from the traditional a cappella ensemble, the Duke Vespers Ensemble, conducted by Allan Friedman, performing Paul Leary’s “O nata lux” (2006) to The Nein, an eclectic jazz/hard rock performing ensemble who realized Benito Crawford’s “That’s a fragment of a complex molecule” (2007). Also on the program were Dan Ruccia’s “Training Wheels,” for viola and cello (2007), played by Kirsten Swanson and Fred Raimi and “Two Scenes” (2007) by George Lam, with libretto by Martin Zimmerman, sung by Sarah Love Taylor and Robert Maril.

Without translation or context, Leary’s enigmatic “O nata lux” falls into the tradition of a work composed by Italian Renaissance composer, Palestrina. Sung by eight members of the Vespers Ensemble, there were moments of scintillating beauty within tightly held dissonances surrounding solo melodic lines. Constructed with Duke Chapel in mind, the piece worked in the warm ambience of the space, and the audience expressed appreciation for the tenor, who was invited for two rounds of applause. I’d like to hear this again in the gothic structure for which it was intended.

Composers enjoy writing about the locomotive (I’m thinking of Steven Reich’s 1988 “Different Trains,” for example), but this one is unique in that the composer sets up a disaster for two trains. A delightful contrast, Dan Ruccia’s “Training Wheels” is stitched together with fine craftsmanship, independent lines crisscrossing, bumping and occasionally landing in synchrony, and with the energy and drive of a Haydn scherzo. I thought to myself, “If I am to pick my favorite, this one is it.”

Then I heard “Two Scenes” by George Lam.  Composed for the American Opera Projects’ “The Composer and The Voice,” “Something To Die For” and “This Wasn’t What I Planned For” were performed by baritone Robert Maril and mezzo-soprano Sarah Love Taylor, accompanied by the composer. Reflecting the world of Generation X, Zimmerman’s libretto views the emotional landscape without becoming overly sentimental. Lam’s writing for the middle tessitura is exceptional, as were the singers who brilliantly brought it to life. With sparkling clarity, Taylor seamlessly navigated the tricky changes from melodic to spoken and Sprechstimme vocal styles. 

Benito Crawford’s “That’s a fragment of a complex molecule” was the most daring of the set of compositions. (The composer even brought hearing protectors for audience members!) Composed with wiggle room for improvisation, Crawford cued his performers with a tom-tom while summoning samples from his laptop. There was plenty of familiar jazz and rock vocabulary to hang onto, but the volume covered any sense of timbral contrast. To be fair, had the piece been premiered in a more conducive space and performed with the best jazz musicians, audience members might have risen to their feet. Professor Stephen Jaffe smiled — and that’s all that really matters!   

In his program notes for the 1957 Modern Jazz Concert, Gunther Schuller wrote “…the entire history of the arts was, and still is, precipitated by precisely those glorious moments in which the innovator of genius defies the established patterns and rules, thereby opening new vistas for him and others….” Best wishes and good luck!