I was fortunate to hear one of the best hours of new music in recent memory from ICElab, a collaboration between the International Contemporary Ensemble and a select group of young composers, currently hosted at Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival. The night in question featured work by Phyllis Chen and Carla Kihlstedt, and the program was satisfying not only because each composer writes with an utterly confident voice, but also because they complement one another so well. Chen, for me, produces a deeply moving formalism, while Kihlstedt manages to make emotional directness feel technically sophisticated.

Chen’s first piece, Hush (2011), began with a perfect metaphor for modern composition. She walked onstage with a colleague; she sat at the piano, while he stood next to her and began to turn the handle of a music box placed next to her. The notes of what could be a keyboard piece from the Second Viennese School came tinkling into the hall in the music box’s unmistakable timbre. Yet this music wasn't being played so much as churned out, and as the handle turned, a long white page covered in perforations materialized on our side of the instrument – the score? This simple act of creation that nevertheless produces music is what began the night. The piece continued with Chen dancing around the music box’s precomposed line on a prepared piano, the live pianist’s timbre closely matching that of the mechanical box. The music box player also drummed on what looked like inverted Ikea salad bowls, which evoked not only the sounds of the Balinese gamelan but also the idioms of Peking opera.

Archipelago, a world premiere, featured two vaguely-tuned toy pianos and a mandolin. Collaboration was a common theme in Chen’s set, which, with the exception of Everything Turns Everything Revolves (2013) (a film score), was always a collaboration between two people, a dialogue or a closed loop of transmission. Take Mobius (2011), for example. Two performers cranked two music boxes, between which a single sheet taped together at the ends passed continuously. Chen stood between these performers, less of a third collaborator than a composerly poltergeist who made no sounds of her own, but she caused the work to appear through her ghostly interferences.

And the work happens to be a tiny marvel. It began when Chen taped the two ends of the paper together with a half twist (hence “Mobius”). The action of the piece unfolded in two registers. In the first, Chen punched holes in the paper as the music boxes played, her punching growing either languid or aggressive at intervals. The holes then produced pitches as they passed through each box (the half-twist of the Mobius strip ensured that one of the boxes played the notes “upside down,” or in inversion), which formed a counterpoint to Chen’s rhythmic punching. The utter simplicity of the piece’s execution and the resulting complexity of the counterpoint is what made this piece, and Chen’s music more generally, so intoxicatingly intelligent and moving. I was lost in thinking how the percussive beats of the hole puncher entered into counterpoint with notes produced by punches that came before, with aggressive punching sometimes producing expansive tones, or languid punching in a dense pattern resulting in a rapid flurry of notes. The piece ended when Chen cut the strip; then the music boxes seemed to wheeze, as if coming to their own mortal end.

The night ended with several numbers from Kihlstedt’s At Night We Walk in Circles and Are Consumed by Fire, an ongoing song cycle in which the composer took center stage as lead vocalist and violinist. The settings are of texts derived from accounts of dreams provided by friends, colleagues and online strangers, and the work is admirable for embracing a full-throated sensuality while completely avoiding triteness. Kihlstedt was a phenomenon at the microphone, leading the ICE band here in a circle-stomp; there in loose spatterings of sound over which her many-idiomed voice played.

Toy pianos and a pop sensibility can offer both familiarity and generic or narrative assurance for an audience looking for something to grab hold of; it is the strength of these two composers that they do not rely on their stylistic tools for easy gratification, but instead continue to think about how these tools can be made more expressive, more flexible, and more vital.