Neutrals and Duke New Music Ensemble

Monday, Feb. 4

The Pinhook, Durham 

It’s difficult to know for sure why one of the Triangle’s most consistently challenging and entertaining chamber music groups is also one of its most under-appreciated. For years, Duke New Music Ensemble has been presenting a wide-ranging series of fascinating events featuring twentieth and twenty-first century composers. Perhaps the changing membership, which cycles through graduate and undergraduate students during their Duke academic careers, or perhaps the group’s wide-open curiosity and broad definition of what counts as “New Music,” are the reasons that DNME doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

But its latest concert, a Monday evening in which the band opened for the Dayton, Ohio-based percussion duo Neutrals in front of a small crowd at The Pinhook, was a perfect example of why this group is a local treasure.

Neutrals is Evan Miller, who studies music at Wright State University, and Andrew Seivert, a public school music teacher and administrator. They seemed delighted at being in a club instead of the usual DIY settings they’d encountered on their tour. The first work they played was a sweetly hypnotic composition by current DNME director Brooks Frederickson, featuring mallets on tom-tom drums and wood blocks. The mood, soft yet primal, was instantly captivating.

The next piece was much further out, but still gorgeous. Using electronics, odd distorted vocals spoken into what looked like an old Walkman, and slowly accumulating rhythmic changes, Neutrals created an accessible improvised sound collage that had the audience spellbound. I’ve seen quite a few “knob-twiddling” electronic sets, and this was among the best—a slowly shifting bed of sound and noise that remained enchanting throughout. It would have sounded perfect at an experimental evening at Hopscotch.

The final piece from the headliners was “Settle” by Ithaca, New York composer Sarah Hennies. Miller noted that Hennies prioritizes amplifying transgender voices in modern classical music, which seemed particularly appropriate at The Pinhook, and suggested audience members come closer to hear the quiet piece, and move around the room to hear how it changed in various parts of the space. He then began by playing a beautifully repetitive sequence on vibraphone, creating a quietly intense mood, until Seivert joined him, standing across from and playing the same instrument, with an even quieter, higher-pitched addition that created a sound that was at once intense, propulsive, and exceptionally gentle. It was one of the prettiest modern classical pieces I’ve heard in a long time, similar to Steve Reich’s early minimalist pieces “Drumming” and “Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ”, but with more heart.

The Duke New Music Ensemble—on this occasion featuring clarinet, electric cello, acoustic guitar, bass, piano, synthesizer, and drums—used its opening set to feature a series of cover tunes suggested by its members. DNME clearly had a lot of fun performing Laurie Anderson’s “Language Is a Virus,” Frank Zappa’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans” (with most band members getting enjoyable solo space), a pretty Steve Swallow ballad, and a few covers of experimental electronic musician Aphex Twin. I’d never begrudge such a great ensemble that kind of set, which was definitely enjoyable to hear. But the decision to cover relatively well-known “avant-rock” (their words) songs with fairly predictable structures felt safe, which is not what I usually expect from DNME. I’d have rather heard something more in the modern classical or noisy realm.

Maybe we’ll get some of that the next time this shape-shifting local gem performs, at 3:00 p.m. on April 14 in Baldwin Auditorium.