The University of Michigan’s final student composers’ concert of 2010 took place this last Monday, November 29, in Stamps Auditorium, part of the University’s Walgreen Drama Center. This collection of performances was unexpected; so many composers submitted material for November 15’s composers’ concert, a brief third concert of the term was necessary.

Whereas the concert earlier this month was unique with its multiple composer-performers, Monday’s event possessed a more subtle distinction: a strong stylistic dichotomy emerged among the works, essentially pitting modernist and traditional forces in opposition to each other. From a qualitative standpoint, I found this duality inconsequential because all of the evening’s acoustic works had something in common: they expressed their structures with the recurrence of clearly identifiable themes. Although the two electronic pieces on the concert used different formal techniques, they also contained clear and satisfying dramatic lines. As a result, I felt the evening’s music was tied together despite the starkly contrasting musical tastes presented on the program.

First on the concert was Bret Bohman’s she comes back as fire (2010), a three-movement work for string quartet. This piece is the complete version of something I heard, and reviewed, in October at Michigan’s and I was happy to reacquaint myself with the first movement’s unforgettable midsection – an aria where the first violin saunters in its highest register above a placid accompaniment. The rest of the piece explores and culminates material from the first movement, varying the music’s atmosphere little even though new content is introduced. Ultimately, Mr. Bohman references the memorable first violin solo in she comes back as fire’s final movement, but the surrounding music is too chaotic for its reappearance to establish a sense of repose. Mr, Bohman used his themes economically, which illuminated much of the work’s structure on the first listen. I am also sure further interaction with she comes back as fire would, more deeply, reveal a tightly wound and efficient network of musical material.

Next on the program was Patrick Behnke’s viola and violin duet, Miranda at the Edge of the Water (2010). Mr. Behnke currently studies viola at the University of Michigan and delivered a fine performance alongside violinist Jordan Broder. Loosely based on certain Indian rhythmic modes, Miranda at the Edge of the Water proceeded in a pseudo-improvisatory manner from an opening drone through a variety of dance-like passages and finally back to the static beginning, which evoked Mr. Behnke’s South Asian influences. I say “pseudo improvisatory” because the piece progressed like a stream-of-conscientiousness, and the violin and viola alternated the responsibility of leading the duo to its next musical destination, often via imitation. Mr. Behnke’s note explained connections not just to Indian music, but to Bela Bartok and Jimi Hendrix as well; yet, I heard another association – Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabulation. One of the few recurring sections featured a modal melody accompanied by its supporting triad. Particularly at the end of Miranda at the Edge of the Water, this technique gave the music a reverent and meditative quality, fitting Mr. Behnke’s description, “the violin ascends to the heavens. All is over.”

Miranda at the Edge of the Water was followed by the first of two electronic pieces on the evening’s program: Wil Pertz’s the Drink of the wise #9 Poison Fugue Plant (F) (remix). Mr. Pertz’s work offered a cogent argument for the expressive strength of the electronic medium, and was equal in subtlety and refinement to any acoustic composition. A multimedia piece of electronics and video, the Drink presented multiple recordings of select acoustic works by Mr. Pertz as a dissonant, nearly motionless collage. This material transformed elegantly over the course of the piece by means of extremely light digital processing and the addition of people talking in a crowded room to the work’s sonic landscape. Meanwhile, the video – dark, slowly spinning layers of images depicting performers at a concert – varied its levels of obscurity in accompaniment to the delicate evolution of the music. Again, Mr. Pertz’s music reminds me of Erik Satie, though now I can point to a specific work: Satie’s score for the film Cinéma – another successful pairing of unusual music with an even more bizarre visual presentation.

To continue with the theme of electronic music, I will discuss Patrick Harlin’s Memoirs (2010), which appeared on the second half of Monday’s concert. Memoirs was, superficially, very different from the Drink, but, like the evening’s acoustic compositions, it shared a great deal with Mr. Pertz’s piece on a deeper level. For instance, each piece has clear “musical” elements, and does not solely present concrete materials. Furthermore, the pieces share a processing effect: towards the end of both the Drink and Memoirs, music from earlier in the work recurs but sounds like it is playing on an old radio in the next room. Yet, because these moments arise from very different contexts, Mr. Harlin’s and Mr. Pertz’s compositions did not seem very similar. Memoirs was lyrical and possessed an unusually strong sense of direction, whereas the Drink unfolded more obliquely through time. Mr. Harlin more consistently – or, perhaps, more obviously – employed digital processing in Memoirs, leaving a much more refined aural impression than the Drink. Above all, Memoirs impressed me because Mr. Harlin  unified a very diverse textural landscape. If listening to the Drink were like staring at a highly detailed still image, Memoirs was an opposite experience: putting together a coherent story while chaotically changing the channel.

The final piece before the intermission Monday night was Andy Ly’s Beep Beep! Honk Honk! Drive Forward!, for saxophone quartet. Mr. Ly’s piece, like the other acoustic works on the evening’s program presented a clear formal idea outlined by strongly reinforced thematic material. Like the violin solo in Brett Bohman’s she comes back as fire, the primary theme in Beep Beep! represented a specific texture and, in fact, character in the programmatic backdrop of the composition. Though the work did not arise from an extra-musical narrative, Beep! Beep!‘s two types of material had strong personalities: mercurial, fast-paced music, which Mr. Ly associates with rush hour traffic and the naïve solace of a its contrasting slow section, which ends abruptly – at the insistence of the primary theme – and re-enters the fray of the opening music. Again, similar Mr. Bohman’s composition, Mr. Ly’s sax quartet dualistically opposes free chromaticism and functional, albeit jazzy, tonality.

In contrast, the remaining works on the program – Nicola Canzano’s Concerto for English Horn and String Quartet (2009) and Yaniv Segal’s String Quartet (2010) – were markedly more traditional in their harmonic language. Mr. Canzano’s Concerto, for example, employed a pseudo-tonality akin to Shostakovich’s music where a key center and quality are established, but there are plenty of notes that don’t belong. The most interesting aspect of this piece was its allusions to early musical periods, executed through typifying cadential figures a la Mozart, Vivaldi and Lassus. After the concert, I asked Mr. Canzano if he used specific quotations, in response to which he affirmed his references were indirect. Unfortunately, the novelty of his allusions attracted so much attention to the string quartet, the English horn struggled for prominence; though, it shined in the moments it secured the spotlight.

Yaniv Segal’s String Quartet, the last piece on the program, was a straightforward and well-crafted two-movement work. I was most impressed by Mr. Segal’s orchestration for the group, which he broke into a variety of textures, oftentimes with structural implications. The slow, major-keyed first movement, for example, entered its B section with a long period of isolated cello pizzicato. Similarly the fast, minor-keyed second movement broke its moto perpetuo for a more contrapuntal middle where the quartet broke down into opposing pairs. A surprising slow coda recalled a major-keyed melody from the movement’s middle and hinted, through its texture, to the opening sounds of the composition.

Like all the acoustic works on Monday’s concert, Yaniv Segal’s String Quartet relied on clear thematic material to delineate its structure. Whether the returning cadential motives of Nicola Canzano’s Concerto for English Horn and String Quartet or the surreal violin solo of Brett Bohman’s she comes back as fire, the compositions presented Monday evening illustrated how stylistic inconsistencies can unite by means of structural likenesses. I mention the dichotomy of modernism and conservatism on this concert not in an attempt to be condescending, but with the hope of supporting the argument that a composition’s surface contributes less to its value than its underlying elements.

This idea could not be more clearly expressed than through the evening’s two electronic works, which communicated a general sonic framework without structurally significant “musical” material. Indeed, the absolute flexibility of the electronic genre can overwhelm a composer, hindering the achievement of a clear musical form. Wil Pertz and Patrick Harlin were not intimidated by their freedom and, instead, relished the challenge of applying order the original sounds they presented in their compositions. Even though much of the other music I heard Monday used more familiar materials, all of the composers were able to make sense of their ideas. The variegated manner in which they did so simply speaks to the rich compositional diversity here at the University of Michigan.