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Duke New Music Ensemble consumes pop stardom

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One chorus or two? Ken Stewart isn't sure how many he wants everyone to play. But the Duke composition student has left space for either in his musical score, partly strewn in stray measures on a long sheet of paper.

On this Tuesday night, most of Stewart's peers in Durham are studying or, more likely, cobbling together costumes in anticipation of the next day's Halloween parties. Stewart stands in the middle of a windowless practice room in the basement of the Biddle Music Building, surrounded by the rest of the Duke New Music Ensemble, instruments at the ready. The eight players are preparing for a show of rearranged or otherwise subverted pop songs, called "Music for Covers Only," and tonight, they're tweaking the details.

"I'm an undecided voter on this," Stewart says about his chorus. His "Nothing Comes Close" builds upon Katy Perry's boppy trifle "California Gurls," the tune of which emerges from a slow-building electronic drone and a distended theme on a French horn. The disconnected measures sport labels like "Horn Reference to the Song Glycerine" and "Orchestra Groove Fragments." The ensemble agrees to start playing and simply see what feels best.

The new program's decidedly upbeat repertoire includes versions of Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," Lil' Wayne's "A Milli" and Radiohead's "Myxomatosis." Though some of these recasts aren't danceable, they avoid that flat, sour edge that high school marching bands often give pop and rock songs.

Founded six years ago by then-student composer George Lam, the DNME might be the best-kept musical secret in the Triangle. The student-run group is grad student-heavy—freshman violinist Suqi Huang is the only undergraduate—but it isn't content to lurk in academic recital rooms known only to the tweed-and-elbow-patch set. Much like Duke Performances, which takes its international concert series into rooms across Durham, they bring some of the most challenging, interesting and fun music around to hotspots like the Fullsteam brewery, Golden Belt, the Broad Street Cafe and, in early December, the Motorco Music Hall.

For director Tim Hambourger, the ensemble lets its members escape the traditional academic route for young composers, if only temporarily. "The nice thing about this ensemble is that we get to do things that we wouldn't necessarily get to do in our school composing," he says. "A lot of the time we might be paying professional musicians to play our pieces if it's a school piece. They're an outside group coming in for just a weekend, and there will be three rehearsals and then a concert. So something like this definitely frees us up."

Hambourger will finish a doctorate in composition in the spring; for this performance, though, he accepted the daunting task of rearranging Beyoncé's anthem for the ensemble so that the image of the starlet in that bodysuit still springs to mind. He knew they couldn't hit the frantic bounce of the original, so he aimed for a cool jazz essence, with the group's bassist Jamie Keesecker shifting to acoustic bass for the entire piece. Hambourger targeted Beyoncé's bridge as a spot where the song loses energy. It's more of an obligation to the pop format—verse and chorus, verse and chorus, bridge, chorus—than a musical transition into a big bang finish.

"To me it's the most disappointing part of the song, this bridge in the middle that doesn't ever feel like it really develops anywhere," he explains. "I took that and slowed the tempo down and turned the chord progressions into a long bass solo with everyone else kind of laying back really soft. And that develops into this funk groove, and then the bridge melody comes in really high for piccolo and violin."

At first blanch, tunes like "Single Ladies" and "California Gurls"—songs meant to worm their way into one's ear long enough to prompt a 99-cent download—probably don't seem written for the ages, like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or Steve Reich's "Music for Eighteen Musicians." Most of the ensemble's members are serious musicians, students of composition who aspire to careers creating and performing this millennium's enduring classics. Why would they want anything to do with these numbers other than to use their beat for a jog around East Campus?

But today's composers find influences everywhere, prompted by 20th-century innovators who brought folk music into the concert hall (such as ethnomusicology pioneer Béla Bartók) or incorporated traditionally non-musical sounds from radios and water poured from conch shells (see American experimentalist John Cage). Although Bartók and Cage are classified as classical, they're among several generations of composers who mixed the highest and lowest forms of art. If Bartók was a grad student at Duke, he'd likely be in the DNME, perhaps covering Nirvana's "Lithium" for this show.

In "Music for Covers Only," these composers use popular tunes as a construct upon which to practice larger techniques and ideas. The concert program looks like a training grid: Hambourger's probing how to stabilize the discrepancy between Beyoncé's killer refrain and a flaccid bridge. Stewart's summoning a groove from within Perry's tinny gem to support solos from the French horn and an electric guitar hooked up to a talkbox.

David Kirkland Garner's deconstruction-by-degrees of Taio Cruz's "Dynamite" is as troubling as it is satisfying. Perforated severely with time-signature shifts, repeated notes and stoppages, the tune lurches and skips, sounding at times like a scratched CD. Garner's reworking highlights the plunkiness of the slick, advertisement-like original and recovers the music from the product through a more sincere awkwardness. By enforcing a self-consciousness that the pop genre simply lacks, it's the ultimate revenge against the incorrigible earworm.

And it's a lot of fun.

That's what Huang, the newest member of the ensemble, appreciates: She's not interested in composition. She's at Duke to study economics, but she loves to play violin within the group's nonhierarchical structure.

"I like how everybody can contribute. You can say whatever thought you have and then people can say their own input," she says. "They aren't going to yell at you and say that idea's really bad. And there's no main conductor, someone who's going to tell you exactly what to do. It's flexible."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Play the hits."

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