Michael Compitello's Unsnared Drum reframes how people think about, perform, and practice the snare drum, freeing the drum from its historical and idiomatic chains. It asks whether the snare drum can be bold, coy, suave, and elegant: in short, interesting. The album features works written in close collaboration with Compitello by Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko; surprising and inventive new works for solo snare drum. The result is a collection of pieces which highlight the snare drum’s breadth of sonic possibility and depth of expressivity, revealing an instrument of drama, grace, and heart.
What does it mean to Unsnare something? To free an instrument from expectation? The instrument is called the snare drum because of the wires underneath it; the metal, gut, or cable which give the drum a crisp, focused, energetic, and loud snap. In addition to its militaristic pedigree, the snare drum functions often as a timekeeper, offers coloristic effect, and is a technical proving ground for percussionists. What does a performer do with an instrument which has such a seemingly narrow role? To Michael Compitello, the drum’s repertoire seemed a beautiful courtyard: wondrous and fertile, but ultimately constrained by walls of our own making.
Unsnared Drum reframes how people think about, perform, and practice the snare drum, freeing the drum from its historical and idiomatic chains. It asks whether the snare drum can be bold, coy, suave, and elegant: in short, interesting. To that end, over the past four years, Nina Young, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko have patiently collaborated with Compitello on surprising and inventive new works for solo snare drum. Each composer was sent a drum and a collection of sticks, mallets, and other implements, and they investigated the instrument from the ground up. The result is a collection of pieces which highlight the snare drum’s breadth of sonic possibility and depth of expressivity, revealing an instrument of drama, grace, and heart.
Nina Young’s Heart.throb inverts our conception of percussive virtuosity with sly wit. In the piece, the characteristics most associated with percussive skill (quick, crisp, fleet passagework) are largely confined to the rim of the drum rather than the head and muddied by electronic delay. Nina affixes a transducer to the head of the drum, turning the instrument into a speaker which broadcasts a pulsating and undulating bed of sinusoids.
Crisp, precise, dynamic, sharp, and uncompromising, Hannah Lash’s Start challenges the performer to begin again constantly. Start is based on a handful of sharp motives which are continuously, obsessively, monomaniacally, tenaciously, and explosively developed. The performer highlights these themes with (hopefully) dynamic élan, abetted by an array of implements (brushes, hands, metal and wood chopsticks) whose colors delineate formal sections.
Where Start uses timbre to elucidate motive, Amy Beth Kirsten’s Ghost in the Machine turns to color to reveal the true soul of the instrument. Like a modernist chef mobilizing myriad advanced techniques (and plenty of silverware) in pursuit of the “essence” of a flavor, Ghost in the Machine calls upon the performer to use a number of implements to chase the “pure” sound of the snare drum, that ghost so often caught in the machinery of rigid, militaristic music.
Unsnared Drum concludes with Tonia Ko’s Negative Magic, which discovers an all-but-hidden realm of melody, harmony, and resonance by almost completely loosening the drum’s tuning. After an acclimating ritual which calls to mind an ancient storyteller finding their voice, we hear a meandering conversation between the clattering shell of the drum and the ringing head and a series of melodious sonic waterfalls which emulate the same vertiginous acceleration, transforming from curious to sinister. Directly in the center of the piece, the snares are activated, and the music repeats, buzzing with new life as sharp accents are juxtaposed against a tremulous texture. By the end, the performer gradually loosens the snares until they are deactivated again, unspooling Negative Magic’s rhythmic process. The only sound possible is the head itself, scratched by nails. The drum dissolves into air, escaping the beautiful garden’s walls.
“The drum reveals the drummer.” Nina’s program note for Heart.throb could aptly describe all of Unsnared Drum. Each of these works subverts our expectations of what the snare drum can do. More importantly, Compitello’s workshop sessions, notational experiments, and sonic adventures with the composers challenged him to rethink what a percussionist can be, asking him to develop and refine new expressive pathways and percussive techniques while freeing him from rigid expectation and dogma. In the end, it is the performer—not the instrument—who is freed.
– Michael Compitello
Michael Compitello is a dynamic, “fast rising” (WQXR) percussionist dedicated to commissioning and premiering new works that explore the sonic and expressive possibilities of percussion instruments.
He has developed sustained collaborations with composers such as Thomas Kotcheff, Tonia Ko, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Robert Honstein on new works, in addition to working with Helmut Lachenmann, David Lang, John Luther Adams, Alejandro Viñao, Marc Applebaum, and Martin Bresnick on premieres and performances of new solo and chamber works.
With cellist Hannah Collins as the “remarkably inventive and resourceful” (Gramophone) New Morse Code, Michael has created a singular and personal repertoire through collaboration with some of America’s most esteemed young composers. New Morse Code's 2017 debut album Simplicity Itself on New Focus Recordings was described “an ebullient passage through pieces that each showcase the duo’s clarity of artistic vision and their near-perfect synchronicity” (I Care if You Listen) and “a flag of genuineness raised” (Q2 Music). In 2019 they released the title suite of Matthew Barnson’s portrait album, Vanitas, on Innova recordings and collaborated with Eliza Bagg, Lee Dionne, and andPlay on and all the days were purple, Alex Weiser’s Pulitzer Prize-finalist work on Cantaloupe Music.
Michael is also a member of Percussion Collective, an ensemble dedicated to refined performances of contemporary percussion repertoire. He is currently Assistant Professor of Percussion at Arizona State University. He holds degrees from The Yale School of Music and the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University.
Composer and sonic artist Nina C. Young (b.1984) creates works, ranging from acoustic concert pieces to interactive installations, that explore aural architectures, resonance, timbre, and the ephemeral. Her music has garnered international acclaim through performances by the American Composers Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Minnesota Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Phoenix Symphony, the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, the Aizuri Quartet, Sixtrum, the JACK Quartet, and wild Up. Winner of the 2015-16 Rome Prize, Nina has received recognition from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Koussevitzky Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri, Fromm, the Montalvo Arts Center, and BMI. Recent commissions include "Tread softly" for the NYPhil's Project 19, a violin concerto for Jennifer Koh with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, and a multimedia performative installation piece for the American Brass Quintet and EMPAC’s wavefield synthesis spatial audio system. Young holds degrees from MIT, McGill, and Columbia, and is an Assistant Professor of Composition at USC's Thornton School of Music. She serves as Co-Artistic Director of NY-based new music sinfonietta Ensemble Échappé. Her music is published by Peermusic Classical.
Hailed by The New York Times as “striking and resourceful...handsomely brooding,” Hannah Lash’s music has been performed at such major venues as Carnegie Hall, Los Angeles Walt Disney Concert Hall, Lincoln Center, the Times Center in Manhattan, the Chicago Art Institute, Tanglewood Music Center, and the Aspen Music Festival & School, among others. In 2016, Lash was honored with a Composer Portrait Concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre, which included commissioned works for pianist Lisa Moore (Six Etudes and a Dream) and loadbang (Music for Eight Lungs). In the 2017-2018 season, Lash’s Piano Concerto No. 1 “In Pursuit of Flying” was given its premiere performances by Jeremy Denk and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra; the Atlantic Classical Orchestra debuted Facets of Motion for orchestra; and Music for Nine, Ringing was performed at the Music Academy of the West School and Festival. In the 2018-2019 season, Paul Appleby and Natalia Katyukova gave the world premiere of Songs of Imagined Love, a song cycle commissioned by Carnegie Hall. Hannah Lash’s music is published exclusively by Schott Music.
Recognized with artist fellowships from the John S. Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, Amy Beth Kirsten’s musical and conceptual language is characterized by an abiding interest in exploring theatrical elements of creation, performance, and presentation. Her body of work fuses music, language, voice, and theatre and often considers musicians’ instruments, bodies, and voices as equal vehicles of expression. Ms. Kirsten has composed evening- length, fully-staged composed theatre works as well as traditional concert works for her own ensemble HOWL, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the New World Symphony, Peak Performances, the multi-Grammy-winning eighth blackbird, and American Composers Orchestra, among many others. Ms. Kirsten teaches privately and at the HighSCORE summer festival in Pavia, Italy. She joined the Composition Faculty of the Longy School of Music of Bard College in the Fall of 2017.
No matter how traditional or experimental the medium, Tonia Ko’s music reveals a core that is whimsical, questioning, and lyrical. She has collaborated with leading soloists and ensembles across a variety of media, from acoustic concert pieces to improvisations and sound installations. In the attempt to follow aural, visual, and tactile instincts in a holistic way, Ko mediates between the identities of composer, sound artist, and visual artist— most prominently in “Breath, Contained”, an ongoing project using bubble wrap as a canvas for both art and sound.
Recipient of numerous accolades including a Guggenheim Fellowship, Ko’s music has been performed throughout the US as well as in Europe and Asia, and lauded by The New York Times for its “captivating” details and “vivid orchestral palette.” She has been supported by the Barlow Foundation, Fromm Music Foundation, Chamber Music America, as well as residencies at MacDowell, Copland House, and Djerassi. Born in Hong Kong and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, Tonia holds a DMA from Cornell University and served as 2015-17 Composer-in-Residence for Young Concert Artists. She was appointed Lecturer in Composition at Royal Holloway, University of London in 2020.http://toniako.com
All my musical doubts and questionings about the snare drum’s credibility as a solo instrument immediately vanished with a crash as I listened to American percussionist/teacher Michael Compitello perform the compositions he commissioned for his solo snare drum project.
Compitello provided each invited composer a snare drum, sticks, mallets and “other implements” to explore the instrument’s extended musical capabilities while working in close collaboration with him. Nina C. Young’s Heart.throb (2019) opens with an attention-grabbing roll and crescendo. Young’s added transducers feature electronic tonal/dynamic held notes against constant snare and brush hits which emulate heart throbs until a final “classic” loud snare drum build to a closing solo electronic held note. Hannah Lash’s Start (2018) is scored for snare only and various stick types. Fascinating diverse sounds from loud to soft and short/crisp to quieter vibrating, tell a mood-changing, pulsating story. Amy Beth Kirsten’s Ghost in the Machine (2019) is hypnotic, with more pulses, clicks, washes and brief high-pitched rings and conversational effects aided by such added snare sound-creating “implements” as triangle and shot glasses. Tonia Ko’s Negative Magic (2019) opens with snares turned off, as resounding deep sounds alternate with rim shots. Musical sections include drops to almost inaudibility and to more mysterious sounds. Midpiece, the snare is abruptly turned on for welcome short hits, rolls and clicks. Snares off again as rolls and scratches lead to silence.
Compitello performs these solo snare drum compositional explorations with precision, dedication, control and phenomenal musicality.
— Tiina Kiik, 10.28.2021
It isn’t very often you’re going to hear a solo snare drum record, but Michael Compitello joined forces with 4 composers for this unusual but exciting effort that truly illustrates the versatile potential of the instrument, where dramatic moments meet sophistication amid much intrigue.
“Heart.throb”, by Nina C. Young, starts the listen with tumbling drums that makes great use of space and tension as the rim of the drum and is used percussively and combined with a transducer attached to the head of the drum, essentially making it a speaker.
Hannah Lash’s “Start” follows with a very crisp and dynamic delivery, where hands, brushes, and chopsticks help cultivate the precise flow, while “Ghost In The Machine” presents a soulful and adventurous 9+ minutes of fascinating snare drum prowess in the Amy Beth Kirsten tune.
“Negative Magic” exits the listen and eases the drums tuning to elicit a rhythmic, harmonic and melodic appeal that’s detectable to only the most ardent listener and, that, near the end, ushers in waves of sonic, drumming acrobatics.
Compitello has already worked with Robert Honstein, Thomas Kotcheff and many others, and this venture furthers his resume of iconoclastic and articulate leaps into the possibilities of percussive instruments in a way that few others could replicate.
— Tom Haugen, 9.21.2021
Michael Compitello's debut solo album, Unsnared Drum, was created in collaboration between Compitello and a cohort of composers. In Compitello's hands, the otherwise humble snare drum becomes a force to be reckoned with. The four new compositions were penned by top-tier composers: Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko. From the angular, Hopper-like cover artwork designed by Laura Grey and Molly Haig, to Compitello's splendid program notes and the impressive music within, this album will captivate serious new music listeners, percussion enthusiasts, and pandemic survivors looking for inspiration.
Compitello is a performer, teacher and passionate promoter of new music. He performs with cellist Hannah Collins in the duo New Morse Code; he is also a member of The Percussion Collective, an ensemble dedicated to performing contemporary works. Compitello holds a DMA and MA from Yale School of Music and a BM from Peabody Conservatory. He is a member of the music department faculty at Arizona State University.
On this project, Compitello shared his unbridled collaborative spirit by offering snare drum kits to colleagues, working with them, and trusting they would spin out compelling works from wells of immense creativity. Like curious children turned loose with the pleasure of an amazing new toy, they responded with an impressive set of compositions.
Nina C. Young, composer and sonic artist, is the winner of the 2015-16 Rome Prize and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work has been performed by notable musicians in prestigious venues in the U.S. and abroad. She is Assistant Professor of Composition at USC's Thorton School of Music.
Young's "Heart.throb" (2019) is witty, imaginative, and inventive. With a transducer placed under the drum head, an eccentric partner emerges. The duo (drum and drummer) create a lively conversation that made me laugh out loud. I was reminded of the master of early electronic music, Allen Strange (1943-2008) and his sometimes quirky pieces. Compitello's commanding performance enticed me to listen again.
An award-winning and internationally acclaimed composer and harpist, Hannah Lash is a faculty member of the Mannes Schooll of Music at the College of Performing Arts. Her works include orchestral, chamber, solo, and vocal/dramatic compositions. I would compare "Start" to eventing for horses. It's a demanding composition that calls for strength, agility, and intense concentration. The player strikes the drum with traditional sticks and brushes, as well as chopsticks, knitting needles and his fingertips, each creating unique timbre. The result is a complex yet minimalistic set of variations that would challenge even the best of percussionists. Compitello's is a five-star performance.
To follow is a contrasting piece by Amy Beth Kirsten. Known for her evening-length Jacob in Chains and the highly acclaimed Quixote, Kirsten brings a dramatic flair to her work. Her awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. Kirsten teaches at the Longy School of Music at Bard College.
In "Ghost in the Machine" (2019), Kirsten utilizes a variety of tools to summon unearthly sounds from the drum – a triangle resting on the top of the drum and a glass the percussionist moves across the head. There are hypnotic moments, but the simple, archetypal counterpoint of a tick-tock is enough to send one for cover! The audio recording offers a unique imaginative opportunity (I recalled The Twilight Zone on my parents' old black and white TV). Compitello's superb performance brings it to life.
Tonia Ko's "Negative Magic" (2019) begins like a sacred work for dance. Compitello skillfully choreographs space and tempo changes. Structured in sections, the composer exploits the textural and timbral possibilities of the drum. Examples include turning the snares on (previously off) in the middle of the piece, or sliding a soft mallet across the head of the drum. It's a stunning piece. Like all four compositions, Compitello's intense concentration and technical ability transform this work into something far greater than the scribbles of notation on a page.
Listening again allowed me to let my mind wander into memory and story-telling mode. Watching video recordings of Compitello's riveting performances reminded me how fortunate we are to have all of this technology. However, I look forward to a live performance of these works. For now, I am grateful for this inspired album. Get it and have a listen; it will make your heart sing!
— Karen E. Moorman, 9.06.2021
My first listen through this album for solo snare drum went through a few stages. I started skeptically, unsure that it was even a good idea. Then as it launched on the wings of Nina C. Young's remarkably textured, electronically enhanced Heart.Throb (2019), it turned into a high-wire act. Could Compitello really keep up this level of interest on pieces by Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko? After the resonance and mystery of Young's piece faded, Lash's Start (2018) arrested with its brittle bursts, causing my admiration for her to rise, not to mention my astonishment at Compitello's brilliant technique. Ghost In The Machine (2019), Kirsten's entry, leans into the clanky funk of the drum's possibilities, even calling Michael Blair's work for Tom Waits to mind. Finally, we get Negative Magic (2019) by Ko, which starts as an exploration of the instrument's authority and evolves into an expression of its flexibility. Besides causing a paradigm shift in my view of the snare drum, Compitello's album is just a damned good listen. It's a handsome package, too, in case you still do the whole physical media thing.
— Jeremy Shatan, 9.18.2021
The snare drum deserves to be nominated as the least credible instrument for a solo recital. Without the snare drum a Sousa march wouldn’t be a Sousa march, and Rossini assigned it three solo drumrolls to introduce the Overture to La gazza ladra. Yet once it has called attention to itself with its raspy, insistent voice, the snare drum has basically said all it has to say, until now. The amazingly adroit percussionist Michael Compitello handed a snare drum to four contemporary American composers, and working in collaboration with him, they have produced four astonishingly different works, each successful in its own way.
I speak as someone who approaches percussion concerts the way I approach a Maserati—it is much more fun to drive one than to be run over by one. Compitello is quick to call the typical use of the snare drum militaristic and even brutal. But in his eyes the instrument has a soul (you heard him right), and according to his highly articulate program notes, he was in search of music that “highlights the snare drum’s breadth of sonic possibility and depth of expressivity, revealing an instrument of drama, grace, and heart.”
Applying such poetry to the snare drum—the snare drum!—stretches the bounds of credulity, and I hope Compitello can share a smile with the reader when he extols the instrument as “bold, coy, suave, and elegant” in the right hands. On the whole the right hands accomplished the task he set forth. Compitello didn’t restrict the composers to a bare drum and a set of sticks. Taking full advantage of electronica, Heart.throb by Nina C. Young (b. 1984) creates an imaginative sound world that radically unsnares the drum, as the album’s title promises. The instrument acquires pitch like the timpani, performing swoops and glissandos that a timpanist couldn’t achieve by hand, added to which are delayed signals that afford an array of augmented noises I can’t verbally describe, but you are generally sure that there is a drum in there somewhere. At 11:28 minutes Heart.throb is the longest, densest, and most varied piece on the program.
Where Young’s music delivers the snare drum in a wealth of chameleon changes, Start by Hannah Lash (b. 1981) retains the instrument’s pure sound, using it for a Minimalist twist on theme and variations. The themes are rhythmic motifs easily distinguished by ear. These motifs return to their starting point with each variation (hence the work’s title), focusing our attention on the snare drum’s percussiveness alone. A restricted soundscape is created by using an array of implements such as hands, nails, and metal and wooden chopsticks. Formal structure is delineated by varying these implements, yet Start essentially demands constant appreciation of what Compitello calls “touch, finesse, and subtlety.” I’d praise Lash for showing how the instrument’s sharp, militant character can be turned on its head.
It helps to be old enough to remember bandleader Spike Jones and his spoof arrangements of popular tunes if you want to get the most out of Ghost in the Machine by Amy Beth Kirsten (b. 1972). The drum is struck with “shot glasses, knitting needles, and a wide assortment of sticks and mallets.” The range of colors rivals Heart.throb but without employing electronics. As Compitello describes it, “In addition to a triangle set on the head and jangled with finger or mallet to sound like a groaning electric guitar, Amy deploys popping, echoing, ticking, clicking, clacking, jangling, buzzing, and dinging sounds.” In common parlance “the ghost in the machine” is a metaphor for the human soul, and between them Compitello and Kirsten made me believe in the snare drum’s soulfulness by extracting so many unexpected sounds that the instrument gains a personality while losing its typical abruptness.
We turn to a middle ground between pure snare drum and sonic manipulation with the last work on the program, Negative Magic by Tonia Ko (b. 1988). By loosening almost entirely the head and the metal snares underneath the drum, Ko achieves a slippery tonality combined with percussive sounds on the rim and shell of the drum. After the work is half over, it is repeated with the snares attached. Given the piece’s rigor and ritualistic feel, Ko portrays the snare drum in a less expansive way than Heart.throb and Ghost in the Machine. It would make a more striking impression, I think, if heard alone or placed as the first item on the program.
By any normal standard Unsnared Drum was a kind of musical Mission: Impossible. I feel no reluctance in calling the achievement by Compitello and his four chosen composers nothing less than a tour de force. This release transcends its appeal to percussion devotees and opens a deep groove for anyone willing to take a wild ride.
— Huntley Dent, 3.22.2022