The Arts Now series, presented by the Arts Studies Program and Music Department of North Carolina State University, and curated by NC State composer Rodney Waschka II, can be counted on for interesting programs, with approaches that are new and different, even in the area of contemporary music [full disclosure: I had the pleasure of performing on the series in 2007]. And what is more, these programs are attended by full and appreciative audiences, not always the case for contemporary music, whether here in North Carolina, or in the world’s metropolises.

The evening began with a work for video and electronic music by Ivan Elezovic, “Mediterranean-Riots-Colors,” from 2005, with images focusing on abstractions of crowds, and audio transforming crowd voices. It is an accomplished work, and set the tone for the rest of the program, with works far from what you might usually hear in the concert hall. (The curious can find the piece in its entirety at Elezovic’s website.

Next up was a treat – a world premiere from the pen of composer Stuart Saunders Smith (b. 1948), “Husbands and Wives,” for two saxophonists, in this case, Susan Fancher and her husband, Mark Engebretson, both playing alto sax. Smith is professor of music at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and has an extensive oeuvre, focusing primarily on chamber music and works for percussion. Wind players love duos to play for their own enjoyment, although they are heard less frequently in recital, and a compositional challenge is to achieve diversity in writing for two similar or identical instruments playing single lines. In this case the title seems to have led to some serious thinking about the nature of togetherness and harmony.

The work begins in unison, with slow and lyrical material. The voices separate, and eventually return to what you might think of as an “ornamented unison” or heterophony (to use the technical term). Smith then created a faster and more active section, sounding almost medieval in its varied repetition focusing almost obsessively on the same tones. The unison returned, followed by a “subtracted” unison – a solo for Susan, in a more cantabile tone. This solitude seemed to bode ill, for a rather lonely solo for Mark brought the piece to a close. I am sure that each listener might have had their own mental script for the relationship depicted here. The two performers were masterful in bringing across the complex and rhythmically independent nature of the polyphony between the two voices.

The live performance was followed by three “tape” pieces. The Mondrian Variations (1992) by Jaroslaw Kapuscinski were a set of visual and musical ruminations and transformations of original graphical works by Mondrian, with the composer finding aural equivalents for the line and bars that traveled about the screen, beginning with traffic noise and jackhammering (who would have thought it?), moving to spare chords with blue timbres, and finally arriving at manic boogie-woogie, to match the Mondrian piece which references this style.

I enjoyed “Abandoned Lake in Maine” by Mara Helmuth, which transformed the characteristic wail of the loon, bringing it to have something to say about human interactions, but to my ear the piece was just a little too long for its material.

Rodney Waschka’s “La Verdad” (in which the whole piece is built from the phrase “digame” – “tell me” in Spanish), in contrast, takes the listener on a rapid journey before arriving at a unexpected and highly witty conclusion, nothing less than I would expect from this composer, who has strong opinions and is not unwilling to share them.

Closing the evening were the ” Jovian Images” by Reginald Bain, which converted data streams from research on the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) into atmospheric harmonies over which the sax soloist (Fancher) intoned improvisational-sounding explorations. A very attractive work, and brilliantly played (the stratospheric high note from the sax in the first movement was unexpected and extremely effective).

This was an intriguing, exciting, in-drawing evening of music that you won’t hear elsewhere. Bravo!