Deviant Septet
Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium, Durham
Friday, March 11, 2016

Over the years, Duke Performances and the Duke University Department of Music have collaborated to bring amazing musicians to the area to collaborate with grad students in the music composition program. Sometimes the groups—Eighth Blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, the Hilliard Ensemble—read a few pieces before heading off to their next stop. Others, like The Bad Plus and yMusic, stick around for a while, helping composers develop pieces and then performing or recording them. I know this first-hand from my time in the Duke music department, where I earned my Ph.D. in 2013. These collaborations were among the most exciting elements of the program. The Deviant Septet are now in the midst of a two-year residency at Duke; the group falls squarely in the latter category.

The Septet was formed in 2010 in New York with one goal: to do the most kickass performance possible of Igor Stravinsky’s 1918 theater piece L’Histoire du soldat (“A Soldier’s Tale”). It’s an unusual piece, calling for the soprano and bass of the three major instrumental families—violin and double bass, clarinet and bassoon, trumpet and trombone—with basic percussion. Clustered at the extremes, It’s an odd ensemble, posing lots of compositional challenges. Stravinsky thought it would take off. Instead, it was Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire that launched a thousand new works. The Deviants, though, are trying to built a new repertory for this fascinating instrumentation.

Though the Deviant Septet was here in November and will be back in April, its show last week was the only public performance in the first year of the residency. I was sad to see that Baldwin Auditorium was largely empty, save for an inexplicably full row D. The first half of the concert consisted of a trio of works by Duke Ph.D. composers: Yuxin Ouyang’s Pzzule, Dayton Kinney’s Lost Thoughts, and Eren Gümrükçüoğlu’s Ordinary Things.

Pzzule is a shifting, episodic piece, chock full of interesting ideas, ringing chords, and the occasional lurching groove. It was occasionally difficult to find a through-line, and I often wished Ouyang would have push those ideas to their logical end-point. Ouyang has only just started at Duke, and she has a lot of potential. Lost Thoughts began with a buzzy rumble in the double bass, which propelled the work’s bouncy minimalism. But Kinney’s take on minimalism is a little more atomized than other composers’, and the underlying pulse never fully revealed itself. Midway through, she unfurled some lovely, buoyant melodies, which eventually collided with the pulse in a satisfying build.

Of the three, Gümrükçüoğlu’s Ordinary Things was easily the strongest and most interesting. It is built around the (decidedly angry) sounds, rhythms, and timbres of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s voice. Gümrükçüoğlu supplemented the ensemble with an active electronic part. At first it was hard to follow what was going between the massive piles of exotic instrumental timbre, glitchy samples of Erdoğan’s speeches, and a general halo of noise. But once Erdoğan fell silent, Gümrükçüoğlu’s sense of instrumental timbre could shine. I particularly liked how he formed duos between live and prerecorded instruments, creating what trumpeter Mike Gurfield described as “beautifully angry music.” Just as the tension was about to overflow, Gümrükçüoğlu thinned out the ensemble for a satisfying release.

For the second half, the septet gave their rendition of the concert suite version of L’histoire du soldat. It tells the Faustian tale of a soldier who is enticed to sell his fiddle to the Devil. In its original 1918 version, the septet is supplemented by three actors and a dancer, which the Deviants are known to perform entirely on their own. Sadly, they didn’t do that for this show.

Still, you could tell how integral the piece is to their existence by their body language: the bassist seemed to want to bound off the front of the stage; the bassoonist leaned in for particularly expressive lines; and the percussionist flew around his rig with precise abandon. Their performance was limber and rich, showing the wit and humor that so often hide behind Stravinsky’s cool exterior. Large sections of the piece are different kinds of cubist dances (tango, waltze, ragtime, etc), and the Septet seemed to play up the absurdity of dancing to Stravinsky’s lopsided meters.

After the pounding drums that close the Stravinsky, it made perfect sense to move on to something even more percussive: Stefan Freund’s The Soldier Dances with Tom Sawyer. And yes, this piece is in fact a five-minute long mashup of Stravinsky and Rush’s “Tom Sawyer.” And yes, it is just as ridiculous as you would imagine. Somehow, there are affinities between Stravinsky’s lopsided rhythms and Geddy Lee’s slithering bass lines.

It was a ton of totally dorky fun, even if it was missing a revolving fifty-piece drum kit.