Taking a lovely evening walk across Duke University’s East Campus and through the Mary Duke Biddle Music Building, newly renovated as of September 2010, one would expect a fine, cultured performance full of intellectual complexity and stuffy, dry academia… until setting foot inside Bone Hall to see the [duke new music ensemble], or [dnme], perform their “Music for Covers Only” concert. With everything from Radiohead to YouTube video music, [dnme] gave a high-quality and high-energy performance of student compositions based on popular tunes.

From the very first piece the group challenged the listener to consider new interpretations of popular songs. The instrumentation itself was unique to begin with – the traditional combo of drum set, guitar, bass, and keyboard was complemented by a flute, piccolo, two violins, French horn, and cello, with the orchestration varying from piece to piece. The first piece, “Cold Visage (on Gaga),” composed by David Kirkland Garner, was based on Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face.” This was a very abstract interpretation of the original song, with frequent meter changes, slides up and down in the melody, and a solid groove underneath.

The opening of the next, “Bed Intruder Song” composed by horn player Jamie Keesecker, based on the YouTube video of the same name by Antoine Dodson and the Gregory Brothers, misled the audience from the getgo. The classical, lyric opening by the horn and cello offset the pop feel of the original, which resurfaced briefly before being taken over by a complex flute development section, bongo drum solo and improvisational bridge. Because most of the audience was familiar with the song, the detours and variations Keesecker’s version took were even more effective.

Next was D. Edward Davis’s “mill” which was based on Lil’ Wayne’s “A Milli.” This piece was full of rhythmic complexity that played on the rap background of the original, with all the instruments playing percussively and as equal parts. It built up to a good groove, and it was easy to see that the performers enjoyed themselves, but otherwise there wasn’t much else going on since there was no clear melody and very vague harmonic shifts.

Tim Hambourger, the director and pianist of [dnme], contributed his rendition of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” next, entitled “If you like it then you shoulda…” This began with very disjointed melodic phrases that passed around between voices, building up to a very interesting use of the piccolo, crotales, and synthesizer, among the other instruments that were playing. When it finally built up into the full volume of the original song’s chorus, then everything stopped and broke down, allowing for a slow, jazz interlude in stark contrast to the pop-R&B style of the original until it built back up into an exciting close.

The second half of the program continued similarly, with much creativity and well-crafted, sometimes even minimalistic, interpretations. These were obviously not the “same old” covers. [dnme]’s bassist Vladimir Smirnov’s “Xotamymosis” was next, an interpretation of Radiohead’s “Myxomatosis.” It was very energetic, presenting a fusion of jazz and rock with growing harmonic complexity and tension that came to an abrupt close which was highly effective.

Arguably the most complex work of the night was Garner’s interpretation of “Dynamite” by Taio Cruz. Beginning with a suspenseful flute and violin introduction, the piece eventually broke into what sounded basically like the original chorus, until suddenly all the instruments started playing atonal “noises” and the rhythm broke down giving it even more suspense and atonality that crept along for some time until finally resolving into the chorus again. This work took me by surprise, and it strayed the furthest from the original version, almost a little too far into minimalism to successfully work its way back into pop.

Next came the crowd favorite; guitarist Kenneth David Stewart composed “Nothing Comes Close” based on Katy Perry’s “California Gurls.” Beginning with freeform, synthesized chords that vaguely modulated under a sensitive, muted horn part, the piece was difficult to predict. It was calm and somber, eventually picking up speed and working its way into more and more tension that naturally led into a chorus. It sounded more and more like the original, the finishing touch added when Stewart started using the “Talk Box” machine (made famous by Peter Frampton in his “Do You Feel Like We Do” in 1973). He was able to make the guitar seem to sing “California” as he played, much to the amusement of the audience, who gave him a standing ovation at the conclusion.

The final work, flutist Heidi Wait’s adaptation of Flo Rida’s “Good Feeling,” was probably the most faithful to the original song, though only in brief sections. The horn, flute, and violin opened with a classical, trio-style moment, leading the rhythm section slowly. This first theme was then repeated as a vamp in several of the verses, which was structurally interesting. The whole work seemed to have taken the Flo Rida song, expanded it, and added some interesting form and analysis details. All that aside, it was very energetic; the performers were really having fun, giving it a dynamic, explosive ending that drew the audience back to their feet.

Overall, the concert was very impressive – the student compositions were very well thought through and technically detailed, while still retaining the underlying grooves of the source songs. As director Tim Hambourger pointed out, they chose these songs because they liked them and wanted to share them in a new way that spoke to each of them. This seemed like a great opportunity for students to write their own music while still being able to say something about their own musical influences, and capture some of their personalities. [dnme] will perform an encore concert December 6th at Durham’s Motorco Music Hall at 8pm. More detailed information can be found on their website.