The black interior and spare look of Sheafer Theater made for a perfect setting for the three world premieres on this evening. Featuring the New York based Wet Ink Ensemble, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek from Anonymous 4, and vocal artists and local musicians, Tim Hambourger, Dan Ruccia and Paul Swartzel presented their dissertation works. All three composers are Ph.D. candidates from the Duke University Department of Music.

Professor Stephen Jaffe introduced the program saying that each of the composers has spent years working toward this culminating project. Colleagues, family and friends filled the house making a joyous occasion.

The works by Tim Hambourger and Dan Ruccia are both inspired by contemporary poetry. Driven by the cadence and imagery of language, their compositions call for singers and instrumental ensemble. Members of Wet Ink Ensemble were joined by local artists and members of Duke New Music Ensemble [dnme]. Verena Mösenbichler-Bryant conducted both pieces with superb technical precision. They served as bookends for Paul Swartzel’s Barbeque Man Unleashed: The Greatest Professional Wrestling Work of All Time.

Paul Swartzel’s video drama with photography by Gray Swartzel and video/slideshow by Samir Arora, transformed the lab theater into a wrestling arena. Dubbed as a piano concerto with action figure photography, it is a slideshow that features children’s action figures posed as wrestlers. Though it made us laugh, the composer warns us there is a serious dimension to this world of super-human wrestlers and the underworld where they perform. Swartzel programmed the piece with his own samplings, including the piano part (he plans to play this for future performances).

Like the photography, Swartzel’s music helps create a larger-than-life work of art. The wrestler’s entrance themes create a melodramatic effect; like the music for the modern Olympic Games, and with a nod to experimental cinema of the early twentieth century. Swartzel has a keen ear for dissonance, a feel for cliché, and he puts them to work with the timing of an illusionist. I palpably felt the emotional tug, a near adrenaline rush for the sport. Looking around at the audience, I was fascinated by the rapt attention they gave the magical performance. Swartzel received a well-deserved, hearty applause. 

Tim Hambourger’s Last Wave Reached is a collection of eleven miniatures with text by Kay Ryan. With the feel of a Homerian epic, each section is a vignette that might stand alone, but works even better as a collective whole. The first one, entitled “Almost Without Surface,” begins with the eerie sound produced by a finger gliding along violin strings. Along the way to the final section, “Last Wave Reached,” we hear a trio of ‘sirens,’ and a circus-like church cantata entitled, “Blandeur.” Kate Soper (soprano) sang the wide leaps with the agility of a gymnast and Ian Antonio’s nuanced percussion work was exceptional.

The final composition was Hallmarks, Sigils and Colophons by Dan Ruccia with text by Christian Bök. The six sections of Ruccia’s work have quirky titles like “Movement A: A Slapdash Ark,” that signify a literary game. I was not surprised to see that Marcel Duchamp was an honorary member of this inventive school of writers. The first movement included spoken text by the alto singer, Erica Dunkle; she was joined by instrumentalists in the ensemble – -those who could that is. With silky clarity, Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek (mezzo-soprano) sang “Movement O: Frog, pond, plop,” a piece she had performed when this work was in progress. A swinging rhythmic quality gave the ensemble the sound that resembled the big band orchestras of Duke Ellington and Glenn Miller.  

This was a wonderful concert. And I can say with complete confidence that each of the three compositions is unlike no other. I would enjoy hearing them again. Congratulations.