When creative collaborators meet up with fresh ideas and skilled players, you can expect exceptional results. Wet Ink Ensemble, a New York City collective of composers and players, performed at the East Duke Nelson Music Room to a small but receptive group. It was the first of a series of performances as part of a year-long residency at Duke University and featured works by Rick Burkhardt, Alex Mincek, Sam Pluta, Kate Soper, and Eric Wubbels. The ensemble includes composers as performing artists plus Erin Lesser, flute, Joshua Modney, violin, and Ian Antonio, percussion.  

The musical language spoken, sung, struck, plucked, and bowed — most were meticulously notated, some improvised within the score — sounded sometimes primal, surprisingly witty, and very often playful. But each of the five compositions was unique and all were performed with precision and artistry. There were moments of high energy, with ear-splitting intensity followed by silence and relief (“ATD V” by Sam Pluta), places where my eyes and ears played tricks on me (“Nucleus” by Alex Mincek), and times when words had special meaning (or perhaps not!) (“Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say” by Kate Soper). And all of the works seemed not only relevant but also important to understanding the nexus between contemporary life and art.

The program began with Rick Burkhardt’s, tightly knit “Alban” (2010) and elegantly     performed “katachi” (2011) by Eric Wubbels; both commissioned for Wet Ink. Wubbels describes his piece “A hybrid between a book of etudes and a variation set…..” With identifiable sections and impeccable communication, the ensemble works like a well-crafted machine. And if I wasn’t already pulled into their magic, Kate Soper’s duo for soprano and flute with Erin Lesser certainly ensnared me.

Soper’s “Only the Words Themselves Mean What They Say” (2010-11), with text from Lydia Davis’ “Almost No Memory” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1997) and “Varieties of Disturbance” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009), is a funny and convoluted exploration of how language gets in the way of meaning and how an articulate and musical delivery has the power to untangle it. Flutist Lesser began the piece, then, doubling Soper’s vocalise; she wove her lines with the delicacy of a spider. Soper, in turn, made the distinction between spoken and sung pitches with the agility and assuredness of a tight-rope walker. Together, they make it a wonderful piece.

Alex Mincek, who founded the group in 1998, played the part of the straight man with his plaid jacket and vintage-looking saxophone, but his performance (of “Nucleus,” 2007) with Ian Antonio, percussion, was powerful and one that I’d like to hear again. Wet Ink reassembled for the finale, “ATD V” (2010) by Sam Pluta, a piece inspired by the wild and wonderful works of Chopin. This composer made room in the score for himself (via a laptop) and for saxophonist Mincek. Lesser brought in a giant (I mean very large) custom-made flute with keys the size of saucers. I loved the way Pluta’s sound samples fit into the texture. Again, the ensemble blew me away – Chopin would have been pleased. Indeed the audience was greatly rewarded.

Wet Ink Ensemble performed works by Duke graduate student composers on December 10 at The Ark. and returns for performances February 24-25 and April 5-6, 2012.  Their residency is sponsored by the Duke University Department of Music and a Visiting Artists grant from the Office of the Vice Provost for the Arts.