Violin and viola duo andPlay (Maya Bennardo, violin, and Hannah Levinson, viola) release their debut recording featuring music by Ashkan Behzadi, Clara Iannotta, and David Bird. The duo's fluency with contemporary performance techniques and aesthetics is grounded in their symbiotic ensemble performances, bringing their finely tuned interpretive instincts to music that exists across a wide expressive range.
The violin/viola duo instrumentation is defined by its focus and its limitations. Two instruments, at the high range of their instrumental family, with the same mechanism of sound production, and yet possessing distinct voices due to their subtle differences in register, size, and string thickness. The result is an instrumental combination that is simultaneously symbiotic and individualistic, highlighting the points at which the two merge into one while underscoring their dialogue with one another. The duo andPlay (Maya Bennardo, violin and Hannah Levinson, viola) have made it their mission to excavate the potential of their instrumentation, encouraging composers to write works that produce music that is far beyond the sum of the two parts. “Playlist” is their first release chronicling this work, and features music written for them by David Bird and Ashkan Behzadi, alongside the first commercial studio release of a work by Clara Iannotta, all of which approach sound in layered ways, while preserving a cohesive aural result.
Askhan Behzadi’s Crescita Plastica is a dense struggle between opposing musical elements — sustained lines with crescendi of varying lengths; violent interjections of double stops; furious microtonal passagework; and razor thin ponticello outbursts. Stepping back from the torrent of sonic information, one hears a multi-textural temporal counterpoint of material unfolding horizontally as opposed to vertically. On an expressive level, the tension generated by the contrasts and extreme intensity of the gestural language suggests a psyche torn in many directions. An ecstatic climactic passage over a pedal point of a repeated open string invokes distorted fiddle music in what Meaghan Burke aptly describes as a “microtonal hoedown” in her liner notes. The music returns to its earlier severity quickly thereafter, the momentary liberation reigned in and replaced with the underlying unease that pervades the work.
David Bird’s Bezier opens with a playful cataloguing of timbres on the instruments, focusing on a non-pitched vocabulary of scratches, cracks, pops, and breathy bow sounds in childlike exploration. Emerging from this texture are ethereal harmonic trills, briefly conjuring the fragile sound world of Sciarrino’s solo violin works. The work floats into a remarkable section of chirping sounds incorporated into ascending passages that one could understandably mistake for a field recording in a bird sanctuary. A brief fragment of a Baroque style bariolage passage grows into full blown arpeggiations between the two instruments, reveling in their resonance over a drone. Bird re-integrates much of the earlier material, combining the disparate sounds for a more heterogeneous texture. The work closes with creaky harmonics, like the sounds of a still swaying swing set just after the children have finished playing.Read More
The sonic palette in Clara Iannotta’s Limun shares much with the pieces heard thus far — shimmering harmonics, brilliant ponticello exclamations, and weightless glissandi. But if Behzadi was exploring tension between contrasting impulses, and Bird was examining the timbral potential of the instruments themselves, Iannotta seems to be more interested in forming composite phrases that establish a tactile sensuality. Limun also has the unique distinction of having parts for two page turners, and their raison d’etre becomes clear midway through the work when they intone a high drone on two small harmonicas. Iannotta does not square the circle by bringing back the material from the opening. Instead, the structure of this otherworldly work remains unresolved in any conventional sense, as if a portal to a new landscape opened up midway through and having walked through, we are sufficiently entranced that it doesn’t occur to us to look back.
The final work on the recording is also from David Bird; his Stanislaw Lem inspired Apocrypha is the most immersive music on the recording, primarily because of the environment created by the electronics, rendering the performers protagonists in a shifting world. The dialogue between acoustic and digital sounds is a far cry from Bird’s patient, child-like examination of the bow, strings, and wood of the violins in Bezier. Whereas Bezier found new sounds from the familiar, in Apocrypha we have been thrust into an unfamiliar environment where the acoustic sounds struggle to retain their organic identity. The instrumental protagonists put up a valiant fight at one moment in the work, asserting themselves in such a way as to suggest a direct sparring match with their electronic overlords. Streaming descending glissandi shortly thereafter seem to suggest that they lose the battle.
Maya Bennardo and Hannah Levinson are true ambassadors for their instrumentation, pushing their collaborators to find new ways of writing for their instruments that sound like more than just a violin and a viola. And yet, this collection of recordings goes far beyond just exploring the limits of instrumental technique and sound, engaging with aesthetic boundaries and possessing the ineffable, mysterious quality of communicating emotional truths far greater than the sum of their parts.
– D. Lippel
Described by I Care If You Listen as “enthusiastic champions for new music and collaboration” and performing “with a welcoming and dynamic spirit,” andPlay is committed to expanding the existing violin/viola duo repertoire through performing rarely heard works and commissioning emerging composers. The New York City-based duo of Maya Bennardo, violin, and Hannah Levinson, viola, first played to an eager crowd on Fire Island in the summer of 2012 and has since commissioned over thirty works.
andPlay has collaborated closely with numerous composers, including Robert Honstein, Scott Wollschleger, Clara Iannotta, David Bird, Bethany Younge and Sky Macklay, and consider those relationships to be an integral part of their artistic process. Honstein praises the duo for their "consummate professionalism, fierce musicality and an unflappable good spirit." Their upcoming season includes the release of their debut album, playlist on New Focus Recordings, ten world premieres, including works by Carolyn Chen, Matt Evans, Andrew McIntosh, Shawn Jaeger, and Chiyoko Szlavnics, and performances in Columbus, New York City, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
andPlay was a semi-finalist in the 2016 Concert Artists Guild Victor Emaleh Competition and was the recipient of a 2016 CMA Classical Commissioning grant with composer Ravi Kittappa, made possible by the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.
Recent highlights include a five-city tour in Sweden performing their Translucent Harmonies program, appearances on the Oh My Ears Festival (Phoenix) and Re:Sound Festival (Cleveland), and a recording residency at EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, Troy, NY). The duo has also performed at venues including the Center for New Music (San Francisco), Scandinavia House (New York), Roulette (New York), Monk Space (Los Angeles), Short North Stage (Columbus), and Aftershock Theater (Pittsburgh).
Beyond the concert stage, Maya and Hannah are passionate educators offering workshops in contemporary string techniques, chamber music coaching and composition notation for strings. They have given performances and masterclasses at Arizona State University, UC Santa Cruz, Western Connecticut State University, Bowling Green State University and are Artists-in-Residence at the Snow Pond Composers Workshop (Sidney, ME). Their audience engagement series, andPlay (in) Conversation, includes events like graphic score workshops for children, and opportunities to look inside the collaborative process as composers write new works for andPlay.
Maya and Hannah met while studying at Oberlin Conservatory and continued their educations at New York University and the Manhattan School of Music. Despite living on opposite sides of the city, the members of andPlay enjoy taking the subway to meet for rehearsals and delicious baked goods.
Ashkan Behzadi (b.1983) is an Iranian composer residing in New York City. He is a graduate of McGill University in composition and music theory. Prior to this he also earned a bachelor's degree in architecture from Tehran University. He has studied compositions with Alireza Mashayekhi, Chris Paul Harman, Brian Cherney, Philippe Leroux, Fred Lerdahl, George Lewis and Georg Friedrich Haas. Ashkan’s music has been performed by various ensembles internationally, including Divertimento Ensemble, neuverBand ensemble, Exaudi, Wet Ink, Talea Ensemble, Ekmeles, Yarn/Wire, NAMES Ensemble, le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne (NEM), Esprit Orchestra and also featured on such festivals as Mixtur Festival 2017, Mozarteum Dialogues Festival 2016, Creative Dialogue VIII, Manifeste 2014 at IRCAM, CIRMMT New music series, the New Wave Young Composers festival. He has won numerous prizes including 2015 ACF Showcase competition, the Prix de Composition at Fontainebleau in 2013 and SOCAN Foundation awards 2012 and 2013. Ashkan is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in composition at Columbia University.
David Bird is a composer and multi-media artist based in New York City. His work explores the dramatic potential of electroacoustic and mixed media environments, often highlighting the relationships between technology and the individual. His work has been performed internationally, at venues and festivals such as the MATA festival in New York City; the Gaudeamus Festival in Utrecht, Netherlands; the Wien Modern Festival in Vienna, Austria; the SPOR festival in Aarhus, Denmark; the IRCAM Manifeste Festival in Paris, France; the Festival Mixtur in Barcelona, Spain. He has composed and collaborated with groups like the Ensemble Intercontemporain, the Jack Quartet, the Bozzini Quartet, Yarn/Wire, the Talea Ensemble, Mantra Percussion, the Mivos Quartet, the Austrian Ensemble for Contemporary Music (OENM), AUDITIVVOKAL Dresden, Ensemble Proton Bern, Loadbang, the TAK Ensemble, andPlay, and the Nouveau Classical Project. He is a founding member of the New York-based chamber ensemble TAK, and an artistic-director with Qubit New Music, a non-profit group that curates and produces experimental music events in New York City.
Born in Rome in 1983, Clara Iannotta has studied at the Conservatories of Milan and Paris, at IRCAM, and at Harvard University with Alessandro Solbiati, Frédéric Durieux, and Chaya Czernowin. Recent commissions include works written for Arditti, Trio Catch, Quatuor Diotima, Ensemble Intercontemporain, Ensemble 2e2m, JACK, Klangforum Wien, Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Münchener Kammerorchester, Nikel, WDR Orchestra, among others. Iannotta has been a resident fellow of the Berliner Künstlerprogramm des DAAD in 2013, Villa Médicis (Académie de France à Rome) in 2018–19, and the recipient of several prizes including the Ernst von Siemens Composers’ Prize and Hindemith-Preis 2018, Una Vita nella Musica — Giovani 2019, Berlin Rheinsberger Kompositionspreis, Kompositionspreis der Landeshauptstadt Stuttgart, Bestenliste 2/2016 der deutschen Schallplattenkritik for her first portrait CD A Failed Entertainment. Since 2014, Iannotta has been the artistic director of the Bludenzer Tage zeitgemäßer Musik. Her music is published by Edition Peters. She lives and works in Berlin.http://www.claraiannotta.com
Maya Bennardo is one of the violinists in the perennially ambitious Mivos Quartet. Hannah Levinson is the violist of indie classical chamber group the Talea Ensemble. Together, the two musicians call themselves andPlay. With a similar ambition and, yeah, playfulness, they’re advocates for exciting new repertoire for their two instruments. Their debut album Playlist is streaming at Bandcamp. They’re playing the release show at the Metropolis Ensemble‘s intimate second-floor digs at 1 Rivington St. on Oct 4 at 7:30 PM. Cover is $15; the entrance is a few steps past the southeast corner of Rivington and Bowery.
The new record features four new compositions which explore the many ways that string players can employ sharp, fleeting figures: most of it is the opposite of atmospheric music. Frequent, it seems that there are more than two instruments playing.
There are two David Bird works: the first, Bezier has brief scrapes, coyly stairstepping riffs, chirpy microtones and grimly intertwining tritones contrasting with wanly sepulchral washes. It brings to mind Messiaen’s experiments in evoking birdsong. The epic Apochrypha, which closes the album, has flitting electronic bits that blend with and then fight the alternately still and agitatedly flickering strings.
Ashkan Behzadi’s Crescita Plastica, the opening track, begins with a slithery downward swipe followed by suspensefully spaced, shivery phrases and troubled call-and-response. As the two instruments shriek and scrape fitfully, it strongly evokes the work of Michael Hersch. Clara Iannotta‘s Limun comes across as a couple of friendly ghosts in a game of peek-a-boo and then gives way to drifting horizontality. For the most part, this isn’t easy listening, but it’s an awful lot of fun for people who gravitate toward stark, edgy harmonies and textures.
-Lucid Culture, 9.29.19
A violin/viola duo that sound like Zappa’s early neo classical forays make their debut recording with a set of specially commissioned works by young whippersnappers. Not your standard Sunday afternoon recital music, this is genre busting stuff that shows the future is coming fast. Certainly you can see the eggheads cottoning to this but there’s a punk rock energy that runs through it that could bring some new characters into the tent. Wild stuff for the open eared that aren’t afraid of the future.
Chris Spector, 9.7.19, Midwest Record
Two former Oberlin Conservatory musicians come together to explore four very recent works for violin and viola from the over 25 pieces they have commissioned to date. The combination of ranges for these two instruments informs each of the works recorded here. For the most part, these are highly experimental works focusing on seemingly random sounds and effects. The harshness of the pieces may put off some who prefer some tonal reference in their modern music.
First up is Crescita Plastica (2015) by Ashkan Behzadi gives us an immediate introduction to the sheer virtuosity of Bennardo and Levinson. The piece feature some rather stark and intense musical gestures that zip through the upper registers of the instruments as often violent attacks insert themselves into the musical argument. Contemporary effects that explore double stopping, ponticello, and even microtones are also on display.
David Bird’s Bezier (2013) continues this expansion of effects and sounds possible on the instruments with a variety of percussive effects exploring other means of sound creation. The piece morphs into an exploration of trills and chirp-like sounds. Apocrypha (2017) is one of his more recent works and will close out the album. It adds electronic effects and sets up interactions between the acoustic sounds and the artificially-created ones. This is a more compelling piece and might better have served as an introduction to this avant-garde music.
The penultimate piece is Clara Iannotta’s Limun (2011). Here the harmonics of the violin and viola are explored along with other techniques of glissandi and ponticello effects. These become integral gestures that help provide a formal structure to the music. A drone effect on a harmonica adds an additional other-worldly quality.
These are each quite intense modern pieces not for the faint of heart. The duo creates a real sense of intensity throughout the album. Intonation is crucial to pieces like this and here this is attained impeccably. The dramatic thrust of these pieces is also quite intriguing. The sound of the album captures both instruments well and images them with just enough distance to provide some ambient support and distancing between the two. Unfortunately, there is just a lot of resulting similarity here in a way that keeps any of these pieces from standing out fully on their own. The concepts of the music are solid but could use some contrasting program to help them stand out more as collected here. Fans of contemporary music in the New York area will certainly want to be on the lookout for andPlay’s local performances.
-Steven A. Kennedy, 9.30.19, Cinemusical
There are also just two instruments on a New Focus Recordings release featuring four recent compositions for violin and viola. The performers, violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson, call themselves “andPlay,” and play they certainly do. To what effect, though, is definitely a matter of taste and opinion. They open with Crescita Plastica (2015) by Ashkan Behzadi (born 1983) – commissioned by the performers. This is a thoroughly straightforward contemporary expand-the-range-of-instruments piece in which the primary objective seems to be to avoid, as much as possible, any hint of expressiveness, tonal warmth or elegance in sound. All the usual sweeps, glissandi, yawps and yipes of contemporary music are present in abundance; they are as engaging or off-putting, depending on one’s predilections, as similar techniques used by innumerable other composers. Matters are similar in two works by David Bird (born 1990), also commissioned by Bennardo and Levinson. Bezier (2013) starts with electronic-sounding scratches, squeals and squeaks that are in fact generated acoustically – string players will likely cringe at the thought of what is being done to some high-quality instruments. Then there is silence, followed by a touch of sound, then more silence, and so on, leading eventually to a central section in which the instruments wind around and engorge each other, after which they fall silent again, this time for some 20 seconds, before beginning a section in which they imitate birdcalls. And so forth. Apocrypha (2017) really does use electronics, which enhance (extend?) the violin and viola, engage in dialogue (trialogue?) with them, expand the overall sonic palette, and make the whole work sound remarkably like dozens, if not hundreds, of other pieces written for acoustic instruments plus electronics over the last half-century or so. This is the longest piece on the CD, running nearly 17 minutes, and by the time it offers an actually painful electronic tone at about 13 minutes in, all but the most strongly committed fans of contemporaneity will likely have had more than enough. The fourth piece on the disc, and the only one not commissioned by the performers, is Limun (2011) by Clara Iannotta (born 1983). Like Bird’s Bezier, it opens with sounds that cannot and should not be mistaken for music: squeals, squeaks, the inevitable harmonics and glissandi, and more. The first half of Limun is a series of contrasts between loud and soft, all in the context of phrasing that mostly sounds as if the instruments are perpetually tuning up. The second half is substantially quieter, not so much delicate as exhausted-sounding, with very long note values and an overall sense of stasis. It would be unfair to dismiss all these pieces out of hand. Clearly Bennardo and Levinson believe in them: “andPlay” plays them with élan and considerable skill – extracting such sounds from a mere violin and viola is scarcely an easy task. But it is reasonable to ask whether the performers are looking for any audience besides themselves for these works and this CD. Assertive modernity may be its own reward for some composers and some players, but listeners who are not already thoroughly committed to material of this type will rightfully approach it with some trepidation, wondering what sort of communication the music offers and what the composers and performers are trying to say. The answer here seems to be that they are simply saying they create and play material like this because they can, certainly not with any deference to anyone outside the inner circle of those who are already “true believers” in works like these.