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
Violinist Maya Bennardo (Mivos Quartet) and violist Hannah Levinson (Talea Ensemble) formed their duo andPlay in 2012, and since then they’ve feverishly commissioned over 30 new pieces for the instrumental format. They reveal an astonishing rapport: a four-limbed ensemble of visceral intensity and nonchalant virtuosity. The duo’s bracing debut album features four pieces that explore the outer reaches of both the range and the techniques common to their instruments.
“Crescita Plastica,” by Ashkhan Bezadi, is a visceral collision of sustained lines that scratch and seethe, pierced by biting double stops. There’s a woozy, hydroplaning quality to the overall structure until the electrifying climax, where a twisted dance rhythm crashes through: unsettled, snarling, flitting between torpor and explosiveness. David Bird’s “Bezier” draws on different extremities of timbre—febrile scratches, breathy puffs, and tangled blurts—before gathering them all up into a delicate collage of avian chirps. Clara Ianotta’s “Limun” uses a similar set of sounds and timbres with greater volume and volatility in urgent stops and starts, before the piece switches gears and asks the musicians to play high frequency drones with harmonicas—suggesting electronic sine tones—over which they play spare, quiet glissandos. In a sharp sequencing move, the album closes with Bird’s “Apocrypha,” which extends the harmonica tone with an electronic one that opens up into a throb, which engages in a breathless battle with the strings.
-Peter Margasak, 10.29.19, Best of Bandcamp Contemporary Classical
Violin and viola duo andPlay have been exerting their musical prowess on the world since meeting at Oberlin Conservatory in 2012. Together, violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson have commissioned over 32 new works. With a recent tour in Sweden, performances all over the US, and building close working relationships with numerous composers, the pair has garnished an incredible reputation in a short seven-year span. Their debut album playlist from New Focus Recordings is an excellent example of what these musicians are capable of and highlights the intricate and complex music of three thriving composers.
Crescita Plastica by Ashkan Behzadi opens the album and shows off the finesse and virtuosity of andPlay. The piece is jagged and craggly, centering around different crescendo gestures sonically forming waves that rise slowly and crash roughly. Others erupt and flash in a microtonal shouting match like two people in a heated debate. A drone is ever-present throughout most of the work, usually in the form of a sleek and silvery ponticello note or a piercing harmonic. There are brief episodes of silence that help set up new sections, revealing new colors. The technicality demand of this antiphonal battle is extremely high, but Bennardo and Levinson perform with extreme agility and precision.
The second track, Bezier by David Bird, goes in the opposite direction, pulling more from silence than from sound. The beginning evokes an aura of being crisp and cold with glints of sunlight. There are short, fragmented clicks, ticks, and scratches that are fleeting and bird-like. Long silences dial in the listeners ears and make this extremely quiet piece speak loudly. The middle section is busy and crowded, quite the opposite of the opening, with the two lines pulsing as the two instruments crash over each other dynamically, pushing their way through. A third, closing section seems to become more exposed, intimate, and fragile. A repeated four-beat gesture of double stop plays like a broken record with sparse plucks, squeaks, and whispers swirling around it. As the repeated gesture fades to the end, the listener is left in suspense, expecting and wanting one more repeat of that haunting motive.
Clara Iannotta’s Limun has a similar style to the preceding two works, but her writing requires the two instruments rely on and support each other rather than putting them musically at odds. Delicate trills and sustained harmonic overtones are juxtaposed with harsh attacks and fast glissandos up and down the strings. In the middle of the piece, brilliantly high harmonics form a drone over a small, quietly moving motive, and there is a sense of being let out of a dark room into the blazing sun. There is no return to the material from the first half, and yet it feels right. There is a feeling of leaving with the intention of not coming back for a while. Iannotta has created a sonic landscape listeners could get lost in, and andPlay’s sensitivity to texture and technical precision help pull the listener into this world with ease.
The album finishes with a departure from the previous three tracks. Apocrypha by David Bird adds electronics to the ensemble and does a beautiful job of blurring the lines between acoustic and electronic sounds. The opening has a slow pace and feels as if it is hardly moving. There is a lot of dark space as single harmonics hang in the air straining against each other. The piece builds quickly, and the frenzy that occurs is dizzying. The electronic element starts to take over as the strings lurk underneath it all creaking and groaning. The sensation is eerie and full of tension. Sudden lurches happen out of nowhere, shifting the piece into spiraling motives creeping further and further up the fingerboards until forced into a long, slow slide back down. The mental and physical stamina demanded is incredible, but Levinson and Bennardo deliver throughout this long and intense piece.
Hands down, playlist is a strong album debut for andPlay. The nuance and technicality these two players possess is impressive, and their dedication to bringing these compositions to life is hard to miss. Behzadi, Bird, and Iannotta have written works that are demanding, intricate, and rich with color, and they help highlight what andPlay is capable of. New music fans should look forward to more performances and hopefully more albums by this incredible duo.
-Jarrett Goodchild, 11.26.19, I Care If You Listen
The opening story of the liner notes in andPlay’s recent album Playlist says it best, perfectly capturing the soul of this unique duo featuring violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson.
As Aristophanes told it (after ridding himself of a pernicious bout of hiccups), there was a time when there was a certain variety of humans. It was round, its back and sides forming a circle, with four hands and four feet, one head with two faces looking opposite directions and (perhaps most importantly) four ears.
Once upon a time, andPlay was two normally-constituted humans: Maya Bennardo and Hannah Levinson. They met at Oberlin Conservatory in 2007, where, as the story goes, they were each struck simultaneously by a vision for a future with eight coordinated limbs.
Released in September of 2019 with support from EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Playlist includes works by David Bird, Ashkan Behzadi, and Clara Iannotta.
Behdazi’s Crescita Plastica opens the album on a highly virtuosic plane, abounding with dramatic and aggressive gestures. Inversions and mirroring make this movement unique, as both partners react to one another, rarely finding their way to a sense of unification. Even though both instruments rarely come together, there is a strong sense of interpretational unity. This is eminently clear, since it becomes difficult to distinguish the violin from the viola — truly like an eight-limbed human.
A compelling use of various textures and perpetual high energy, the piece resembles an eclectic ocean of sounds and high-definition surfaces, exploring extremes of dynamics, pitch, register, and sounding point, from a quiet haze and barely discernible pitch to ferocious grit, and everything in between.
David Bird’s Bezier plays with the physical components of the instruments, inspiring images of wood, sticks, hair, and metal. It is improvisatory and free-sounding, aiming to create a fresh way of looking at string instruments and sound generally. This requires an abandonment of preconceptions, and a nearly childlike marvel at the phenomenon of sound. The title and mathematical feeling that permeates the work are briefly explained in the liner notes:
The Bezier curve is a parametric curve used in computer graphics and related fields, including, in Bird’s case, music. Because the curve can be scaled indefinitely, Bird finds it useful for what he calls “expressive depictions of timbral transformation over time.”
Clara Iannotta’s Limun opens like an experimentation of friction on stringed instruments. This is the first of the tracks to introduce elements of meditation and contemplation. It opens the door to the world of harmonics and overtones in a magical and mysterious way. Both players create harmonic shades that seem extraterrestrial, shimmering in various shades of metallics. Midway through the piece an eerie sound begins to surround the two soloists, who blend and stand apart in a strangely ethereal manner. Iannotta uses multiple harmonicas to create a myriad of overtones.
Bird’s Apocrypha ends the album by taking the concept from Limun a step further, with electronics. Opening with a clashing, dissonant drone, the music expands into various extended techniques. Inspired by Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 sci-fi novel Solaris, Bird creates various electronic effects, telling a story of suspense that stretches both the ears and the imagination. Warning: listeners may experience strange tingling sensations both in mind and body, and particularly the ears. As Meaghan Burke wrote in her liner notes:
The album is itself a living breathing organism, a universe of sound and space, united by the boundless curiosity and unbridled passion of its musician-explorers.
-Hannah Schoepe, 12.13.19, Cleveland Classical
There’s so much overlap in NYC’s fecund new music scene that it took me a minute to connect the Hannah Levinson I was watching play Catherine Lamb with Talea Ensemble at Tenri Cultural Center last month with this album, which I already had on repeat at the time. But, yes, this is the same violist, here paired with violinist Maya Bennardo, whom I also know as a member of Hotel Elefant. Though they founded andPlay about seven years ago and have commissioned many works, this is their debut album. The five world-premiere recordings make a perfect statement of the versatility and even power of this combination of instruments.
Ashkan Behzadi’s Crescita Plastica (2015) opens the album with dramatic swoops and glides, guttural stops and eerie harmonics in a bold statement of purpose. Bezier (2013), the first of two works by David Bird, turns the viola and violin into glitchy simulacra of electronic instruments, with bird-like tones intruding playfully before the real fireworks start. It’s a tour de force and quite a calling card for this composer, who was new to me. Clara Iannota’s Limun (2011) is next, adding a harmonica to the sound world, which provides a drone over which Levinson and Bennardo alternately duel and join forces. Bird’s Apocrypha (2017) further expands things with electronics and brings the album to a stunning close. He is a composer I hope to hear more from soon. Bennardo and Levinson have made such a strong case for this instrumentation that I hardly thought about it, just reveling in all the fantastic sounds, expertly captured by New Focus. I hope andPlay is prepared to be overwhelmed next time they put out a call for scores!
-Jeremy Shatan, 10.19.19, AnEarful
How do violin/viola duo andPlay manage to create such otherworldly, quietly phantasmagorical textures? Beyond their adventurous choice of repertoire, they use
weird alternate tunings. Folk and rock guitarists have been doing that since forever, but unorthodox tunings are a relatively new phenomenon in the chamber music world. At the release party for their new album Playlist at the Metropolis Ensemble‘s second-floor digs at 1 Rivington St. last night, violist Hannah Levinson and violinist Maya Bennardo – with some help from their Rhythm Method buds Meaghan Burke and Leah Asher, on harmonica and melodica, respectively – evoked a ghost world that was as playful and bracing as it was envelopingly sepulchral. Anybody who might mistakenly believe that all 21st century serious concert music is stuffy or wilfully abstruse needs to check out the programming here.
The party was in full effect before the music started. A sold-out crowd pregamed with bourbon punch and grapefruit shots. As the performance began, Levinson sent a big bucket of fresh saltwater taffy around the audience, seated in the round. The charismatic Burke opened with a brief solo set of characteristically biting, entertainingly lyrical cello-rock songs. Calmly and methodically, she shifted between catchy, emphatic basslines, tersely slashing riffs, starry pizzicato and hypnotic, loopy minimalism. The highlights included Hysteria, a witheringly funny commentary on medieval (and much more recent) patriarchal attempts to control womens’ sexual lives, along with a wry, guardedly optimistic, brand-new number contemplating the hope tbat today’s kids will retain the ability to see with fresh eyes.
Dressed in coyly embroidered, matching bespoke denim jumpsuits, andPlay wasted no time introducing the album’s persistently uneasy, close harmonies with a piece that’s not on it, Adam Roberts‘ new Diptych. Contrasting nebulous ambience with tricky polyrhythmic counterpoint, the duo rode its dynamic shfits confidently through exchanges of incisive pizzicato with muted austerity, to a particularly tasty, acerbic, tantalizingly brief coda.
Clara Ionatta’s partita Limun, Levinson explained, was inspired by the Italian concept of lemon as a panacea. Playful sparring between the duo subtly morphed into slowly drifting tectonic sheets, finally reaching a warmer, more consonant sense of closure that was knocked off its axis by a sudden, cold ending.
The laptop loops of composer David Bird's live remix of his epic Apochrypha threatened to completely subsume the strings, but that quasar pulse happily receded to the background. It’s the album’s most distinctly microtonal track, Bennardo and Levinson quietly reveling in both its sharp, short, flickeringly agitated riffs and misty stillness.
-Lucid Culture, 10.8.19
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
Performing on two of classical music's oldest instruments, violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson focus on the here, now, and future in their andPlay project. It's not so much that they wish to deny the rich history associated with their instruments but more that the New York-based duo chooses to build on it by expanding the violin/viola duo repertoire. Since the group's formation in 2012, the two have commissioned and premiered nearly three dozen works, as well as performed other rarely heard twenty-first century pieces. In keeping with that commitment, the four works on andPlay's debut release are all world premiere studio recordings. Accentuating the duo's connection to the material, three of them, the one by Ashkan Behzadi and the two by David Bird, originated as andPlay commissions.
The very idea of forming a group featuring violin and viola is daring, given how close in some respects they are. The siblings inhabit the upper range in the strings family, yet they also, to the discerning ear at least, evidence distinct differences. Ultimately, the primary takeaway of the recording is the material itself. All four performances involve the application of innovative techniques, resulting in novel soundworlds that extend conventional thinking about the musical possibilities associated with andPlay's instruments.
The duo's interest in raising awareness about contemporary string techniques and classical compositions doesn't end at recording and concert performing. These new music ambassadors both give masterclasses and conduct an audience engagement series called andPlay (in) Conversation that ranges from graphic score workshops for children to sessions that provide insight into the collaborative process between andPlay and composers who write works for the group.
andPlay definitely stretch out on the recording, with two of the four settings in the fifteen-minute range and the others seven and nine. Behzadi's Crescita Plastica provides an audacious entry-point, what with its searing upper-register figures and torrential outbursts. As the fourteen-minute piece unfolds, fractured convulsions punctuate razor-thin pitches, the mass sustained in fragile suspension and string figures fluttering violently like an insect swarm. At certain moments, the instruments rapidly engage in furious counterpoint, the two coming at one another like combatants, whereas in others their paths align, a rapprochement reached if temporarily. As the elements cohere into a discernible structure, the piece begins to suggest fiddle music of a wildly experimental kind, what Meaghan Burke in her liner notes refers to as a “microtonal hoedown.” It's a journey, in other words, that's unpredictable and ever-changing, and one Bennardo and Levinson give themselves to fully.
Bezier, the first of Bird's two pieces, perpetuates the arresting design of the opener with its own catalogue of effects: scratches, scrapes, whistles, pops, and breathy bowed expressions, the impression created of an insectoid micro-universe rendered audible through magnification. Gradually, however, the activity level subsides to allow groaning statements to intertwine, again the interactions intensifying until a violent climax is reached, after which the players generate a playful stream of plucks, scrapes, and creaks at a softer pitch. Similar to Bezier, Clara Iannotta's Limun opens with its own unusual cavalcade, in this case glissandi, warblings, and ponticello effects, with all of it folded into an intensely tactile design that drops to a hush midway through; ghostly harmonics and glassy textures dominate thereafter, a drone (generated, apparently, using two small harmonicas) resonating even higher than the string instruments.
At album's end, Bird's seventeen-minute opus Apocrypha weaves electronics into its presentation, resulting in an ethereal, sci-fi-styled moodscape where strings writhe amidst electrical whooshes and pulsations until the elements engage in seeming battle, aggressive bowing colliding with eerie noises and Bennardo and Levinson valiantly trying to extricate themselves from the electronic undertow. As should be patently obvious, any listener hoping to hear a Baroque melody or Bach chorale won't find it on playlist. What one will, however, find is adventurous, forward-thinking music-making by two bold explorers determined to leave the status quo far behind.
-Ron Schepper, 10.16.19, textura
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.
This new CD, titled “playlist," on New Focus label, will have limited appeal to violinists and violists who have a craving for new music that demands high virtuosity. Maya Bennardo and Hannah Levinson, who met at Oberlin Conservatory, and now known as inPlay, are two of them. Their program includes Crescita Plastica (2015) by Ashkan Behzadi (born 1983), Bézier (2013) by David Bird (born 1990), Limun (2011) by Clara Iannotta (born 1983) and the often-frantic Apocrypha (2017) by the aforementioned David Bird. (The latter, inspired by the sci-fi novel, and presumably the two movie versions, Solaris, adds digital noise to the mix.) Since the music on this CD stretches to extreme techniques—dissonantly close harmonies, stratospheric harmonics (overtones), whistles and slashing effects to twinge the ear. (In a grotesque way it reminds me of Arcangelo Corelli, at least for the close harmonies, though I doubt the Baroque master would agree.) Bézier, inspired by the Bézier parametric curves used in computer graphics, beats up the instruments with more percussion and twitters. Limun offers “skittering bows” and “a fluttering of harmonics” but also includes a quiet interlude in its closing moments. I think I like Apocrypha best because the electronics actually soften the combat between the instruments.
— Scott MacClelland, 1.21.2020
andPlay is a violin and viola duo comprised of, respectively, Maya Bennardo and Hannah Levinson. They have been playing together since 2012, and their mission is “to expand the repertoire for their instrumentation.” Thus, the four works on this CD, by three composers, were commissioned by them, and these are their world premiere recordings.
I am sorry to say that I do not think that other duos will be rushing to perform and record these pieces. At least for me, they have little appeal, apart from shock value, and the thrill of a good shock cannot be sustained over 48 minutes.
Fanfare readers know that I am no enemy of contemporary music. I am patient almost to the point of pathology, and tolerant to a fault, perhaps. (Not to air my dirty laundry, but I will never forget my late mother berating me for being “too open-minded.”) However, I really cannot grasp what these three composers are getting at in these works. Ashkan Behzadi’s Crescita Plastica “begins like a mad virtuoso falling off a cliff, as though all the wild expressiveness of music over the last 400 years were suddenly unleashed,” writes Meghan Burke in the booklet note. Said mad virtuoso then spends the next 14 minutes falling down that same cliff over and over again, and it was not long before I said, “Yes, yes, OK, what else have you got?” Extended playing techniques are the order of the day, often manifested as hoarse and aggressive attacks on the instruments, and microtonality is elevated to the point that “the distance of a semitone feels like an eternity.” The simile is apt. This music probably is more involving experienced under live conditions. Heard at home, without the benefit of the visual element, it goes on much too long.
David Bird’s Bezier picks up where Crescita Plastica left off. If anything, it is even more noisy. We read that it begins “with a playful cataloguing of timbres on the instruments, a vocabulary of scratches, cracks, pops, and breathy bow sounds in childlike exploration.” I imagined the two performers literally chewing on their instruments. Bezier sometimes sounds like electronic music (which, again, I generally like, but most electronic music uses a far broader palette of timbres), and Bird’s Apocrypha actually adds “digital noise” to the duo’s playing. Apocrypha was inspired by Stanisław Lem’s Solaris—one of my favorite books, I must say, but that fact really is the most interesting aspect of the piece. Again, watching this music being played probably makes it seem better.
Clara Iannotta’s Limun “opens with the sound of skidding bows, a fluttering of harmonics.” No surprise: It too is dependent on unconventional means of sound production. In this work, the performers are accompanied by page-turners, who “serve double-duty: they each play a high drone on a small harmonica.” That’s a pretty cool idea, but it does not make Limun any more engaging to this home listener.
I’m certainly not suggesting that andPlay should limit itself to Spohr and Stamitz. I think it is great that they are commissioning new works, and even challenging us and themselves with music that does not leap into one’s ear in a dog-like attempt to ingratiate. Nevertheless, these four works are solipsistic at best and self-indulgent at worst. They violently seized my attention and then just as violently (albeit more slowly) lost it.
— Raymond Tuttle, 3.10.2020