As their name suggests, contemporary music duo New Morse Code (cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello) prioritize communication in their performances. Their new recording, Simplicity Itself, is a document of their wonderful balance between instrumental brilliance, programming acuity, commissioning zeal, and warm performance style.
Hush (2012)Tonia Ko
|02||I. The Tongue is but a Clapper|
I. The Tongue is but a Clapper
|04||III. Simplicity Itself|
III. Simplicity Itself
|05||Boris Kerner (2012)|
Boris Kerner (2012)
Trio in Two Parts (2012)Paul Kerekes
|with Timo Andres, piano|
|07||II. Three Rooms|
II. Three Rooms
As their name suggests, contemporary music duo New Morse Code (cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello) prioritize communication in their performances. Their new recording, Simplicity Itself, is a document of their wonderful balance between instrumental brilliance, programming acuity, commissioning zeal, and warm performance style. The album begins and ends with works by Boston based composer Robert Honstein, whose individual approach to minimalism involves a playful approach to shifting phrase lengths and subverting rhythmic expectation through displacement. The duo is joined here on the opening track, Patter, by guest violinist Katie Hyun, and in a display of New Morse Code’s versatility and open minded approach, Collins joins Compitello on mallet percussion for the final track Unwind, a contemplative study in polyrhythm.
Tonia Ko’s Hush operates more gesturally, and her style is at times reminiscent of the type of sound painting and economy of materials one hears in the work of George Crumb. In the opening movement, “The tongue is but a clapper,” Ko integrates fragments of text from Virginia Wolff’s short story The String Quartet into the musical fabric. The ritualistic middle movement includes brief bursts of dramatic wide vibrato and nervous tremolo figures in the cello accompanied by expansive cymbal rolls. The final movement again allows Collins to show her versatility, this time on a lyrical vocal part that weaves in and out of her cello line and Compitello’s vibraphone. Recent Pulitzer prize winner Caroline Shaw contributes her Baroque inflected work Boris Kerner to this collection. Opening with a ground bass, Shaw chooses to preserve the melodic primacy of the cello line -- instead of building harmonic and melodic variation on top of it, she builds rhythmic and melodic variation into the bass line itself. Compitello accompanies on flower pots, a nod to Frederic Rzewski’s iconic work To the Earth.
Early music makes its presence felt as well in Paul Kerekes’ Trio in Two Parts, a dynamic movement that toys with canonic writing. Kerekes’ second movement establishes an evershifting pulsation from piano and percussion under plaintive, lyrical lines from Collins’ cello. Listeners familiar with Louis Andriessen’s work will hear a nod here as well to the great Dutch post-minimalist, both in the angularity of the tightly coordinated ensemble writing and in the ethereal, weightless quality of the second movement. The symmetry of the album’s program echoes its content – these pieces written for New Morse Code are primarily engaged with drawing our ears towards fundamentals of pitch and rhythmic organization. There is plenty of complexity in the works on this recording, but by naming the album Simplicity Itself (taken from the Virginia Wolff text in Ko’s work) New Morse code seems to suggest that deep within this music is an underlying ground of fundamental elements that is a source of connection. For a group dedicated to communicating through a new “code”, the message of joy on this recording reads loud and clear.
Recorded January 13-14 & February 22-23, 2015 at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, New York. Engineering, mixing, and mastering: Ryan Streber
Production: Paul Kerekes, Robert Honstein, Tonia Ko
Guest Artists: Katie Hyun, Timo Andres
Cover Art: Tonia Ko Cover Art
Photography: Tim Forcade
Design & Typography: Marc Wolf (marcjwolf.com)
Photography: Philo Lee
Avaloch Farm Music Institute
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New Morse Code (Hannah Collins, cello; Michael Compitello, percussion) is the confluence of two magnetic personalities who have taken up the admirable task of creating a hub for the performance, commissioning, and promotion of new music. NMC is theoretically the alluring and uncommon combination of cello and percussion, but in practice is best described as two musicians of extraordinary depth and skill untethered by their instrumental constraints. This unrestricted approach has allowed them to create a body of work in which Hannah can be found crushing plastic bottles and Michael plucking the strings of the cello––all with the intention of expanding and facilitating the imaginations of their composer- collaborators––while ultimately creating a meaningful and lasting repertoire. The performances that arise from this playful and innovative methodology reveal Hannah and Michael’s passion for sharing the work of their friends and peers, and aside from their effortless ability to perform the most finger-twisting of contemporary repertoire, NMC’s ability to communicate the esoteric details and depth of these complex works is what makes them truly remarkable chamber musicians. As tireless advocates for new music, they constantly seek out diverse venues (wineries, outdoor parks, art museums, elementary school classrooms), and their ability to connect with disparate audiences by way of their disarming charm, accessible intellect, and dynamic musicality is exceptional.
Hannah and Michael formed New Morse Code while they were students at Yale after returning to the United States from extended and informative study in Europe. Inspired by their similar yet different experiences abroad, they began performing together and planting the seeds that would blossom into their dedicated community of collaborators and followers. They currently teach at the University of Kansas and co-direct the Avaloch Farm New Music Initiative.
What is “authenticity” in classical/new music?
I’m not touching that with a 13 ½-foot pole, as I don’t have the requisite dozen hours to regulate the social-media donnybrook that would inevitably erupt, regardless of the position taken. What I will hazard is that New Morse Code’s new record, Simplicity Itself, is a flag of genuineness raised … and if one is — or isn’t — a sonic citizen of this particular flavor of programming, the indisputable commitment of the performances and intimacy of the delivery will unconsciously draw right hands upwards toward the heart.
Let’s begin at the end. Composer Robert Honstein’s Unwind, which rolls the credits on this album, pulls the cellist half of this cello–percussion duo off her native instrument and over to the marimba and vibes. There is an inherent and dramatic risk — not to mention unexpected possibilities revealed — in removing expertise from the equation, and cellist Hannah Collins brings not only accuracy, but that elusive element of feel to the rising melodic lines and layered polyrhythms within. If there is any justice in the universe, Netflix will lay claim to this uncluttered, heartbreaking number for some upcoming, Nordic crime drama.
At least two of the five scores contained within Simplicity Itself opt for the handles (percussionist) “Mike” and “Hannah” in lieu of “Perc.” and “VCL.” While it’s not uncommon for new-music ensembles to align themselves with like-minded composers, what is abundantly clear on the album is the bespoke nature of the writing — and its corresponding, cooperative realization on the part of New Morse Code. No where is this more evident than the emotional zenith of the record, the third movement of composer Tonia Ko’s Hush, the titular Simplicity Itself, in which percussionist Michael Compitello’s restless flower-pot exaltations are answered by Collins’s ricochet evaporations and fretful investigations up the fingerboard. It is nothing short of a revelation when Collins vocalizes the first utterances of the Virginia Woolf verse, “Rose … fa-lling,” with the text plummeting, expectantly, toward earth. The earnestness of the enunciation is positively gut-wrenching.
What will be clear to any listener of this release is: that warm blanket that is the communion between two artists that have shared flight delays, the trials innumerable hours on stage and in the practice cave — revealing all in the alchemy of the aural interaction. While not all commissions are created equal — the Caroline Shaw and Paul Kerekes numbers are perhaps too restrained in their development of material, despite some deft sculpting of the ground bass line on the part of Collins in the former — the symbiosis between these two collaborators can’t help but seep through into one’s headphones. I, for one, am adding this to my list of highly-addictive, new-music gateway drugs with which to ensnare new listeners.
— Doyle Armbrust, Q2 Music, 10.17.2017