Thursday’s New Music New Haven concert provided an objective lesson for composers: what to do and what to avoid when musical inspiration comes from non-musical sources.

David Stovall’s MUS ’04 “Through Water and Blood” best exemplified the common but unfortunate compulsion to hang music on a skeleton of explicit narrative, the result being that there is no compelling reason to listen to the music itself.

“Through Water and Blood,” Stovall’s program notes inform us, tells the story of a soul’s struggle to escape “the invisible and intangible elements surrounding tragedy.” As the piece progresses we follow the soul, watching it “ascend away from the tangible world, propelling — into an inevitable and fated peace.”

Oh yes, and there are sounds involved. Textural writing of passing interest appears and is subsumed by a thick, neo-Romantic gestural language, offset by the off-kilter motoric rhythms that are a primary part of virtually all American composers’ tool kits these days. In the end, a rather effective dramatic structure is only undermined by its slavish and literal-minded illustration of its portentous programmatic subtext.

John Orfe’s MUS ’02 “Kontakion,” by contrast, showed a sensitive, intelligent and above all subtle use of extramusical influence. The title refers to a specific tradition of Byzantine chant, and that knowledge is enough to lend the piece an elegant, twisting lament a devotional air; the musical ramifications of the title and its reference are concrete but figurative enough to allow the music to convey itself on its own terms. Throughout, folk-like elements appealingly evoke the solo viola music of Ligeti and Stravinsky. Violinist Jeanine Wynton suffered only occasional technical lapses in a very demanding work that elicited the ultimate compliment — the desire to hear it again.

A return to the world of numbingly literal extramusical illustration came with Shawn Crouch’s MUS ’02 “Transitional Silence.” Crouch writes that the work “is based on the sound built around the thoughts that occur when the outside world is silent,” for what that’s worth, and its two movements represent the contrast between “the young, quick income city scene” and “early and more innocent youth.”

The composer’s reactions to this scenario are predictable: a self-consciously hip, drum kit-driven youth culture romp, with the bass clarinet standing in for a bluesy saxophone wailing over a disjointed jauntiness. The second movement was more successful, building fragments based on minor thirds in a more obviously musical argument whose illustrative function was somewhat subtler.

The final student work on the program was “The Function of the Picture,” by Nathan Michel MUS ’02. Michel was a student of Dutch guru Louis Andriessen, and his influence is clear in this work, with its extended triadic language and slightly irregular rhythmic loops. Two tenors sing a prose text penned by psychoanalytic theorist Jacques Lacan, one in the original French and one in English translation. Despite questionable French diction, the result effectively juxtaposed two different phonetic systems in very tightly bound, nearly unison vocal lines.

After the intermission came works by School of Music professors Ezra Laderman and Martin Bresnick. Laderman, the latest in a long line of grand old men of Yale composition, contributed his set of ten “Duetti” for flute and clarinet. Cross-references between the individual short pieces and an overall atmosphere of good spirits helped to create and sustain musical interest. By the end of the long set of pieces, though, a certain harmonic and gestural sameness tended to dominate.

Bresnick’s beautiful “Grace,” a concerto for two marimbas and small orchestra, was an appropriate end to the program. This work demonstrates the best way to utilize a relatively specific extra-musical impetus: subtly, gently, combining discrete musical ramifications with enough ambiguity to allow for a purely musical argument. The entire three-movement work is based on two gestures from the marimba, a pair of accented four-note chords and a series of soft tremolos. Along with Orfe’s “Kontakion,” it was the evening’s most compelling music, showing that programmatic reference and non-musical inspiration are perfectly valid so long as they are never allowed to overwhelm the purely musical impulse.