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.
- D. Lippel
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
For More Information
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. As tireless advocates for new music, they seek out diverse venues and strive to connect with disparate audiences by way of their accessible intellect and dynamic musicality.
Over the past decade, the “remarkably inventive and resourceful duo” (Gramophone) has developed projects responding to our society’s most pressing issues, including The Emigrants, a documentary chamber work by George Lam, and dwb (driving while black), a chamber opera by Roberta Gumbel and Susan Kander, called “The Most Relevant, Hauntingly Evocative New Chamber Opera in Years” (Lucid Culture - New York New Music Daily). Their long-term collaboration with Christopher Stark on The Language of Landscapes (commissioned in 2014 by Chamber Music America) incorporates found discarded objects, field-collected environmental recordings, and live electronic processing as a way of making commentary on the urgency of the climate crisis. As the recently named inaugural grand prize winners of the Ariel Avant Impact Performance Prize, they will develop and tour a program featuring Stark’s work alongside new pieces which address sustainability and scientific innovation.
New Morse Code's 2017 debut album Simplicity Itself on New Focus Recordings was described by icareifyoulisten.com as “an ebullient passage through pieces that each showcase the duo’s clarity of artistic vision and their near-perfect synchronicity,” while Q2 Music called the album “a flag of genuineness raised.” In 2019 they 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. They have also recorded for innova, Albany, and Navona Records.https://www.newmorsecode.com/
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
Back in 2011 while they were still students at Yale, cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello formed New Morse Code, and their newly-released debut album, Simplicity Itself, is a finely-wrought celebration of the path the duo has so far forged in championing the work of living composers. Released on New Focus Recordings, the album features a selection of five relatively short pieces by some of the duo’s long-time friends and collaborators: Caroline Shaw, Tonia Ko, and the duo’s fellow Yale alumni, Robert Honstein and Paul Kerekes. The album is an ebullient passage through pieces that each showcase the duo’s clarity of artistic vision and their near-perfect synchronicity. When placed alongside each other, each distinct piece acts as a rivulet flowing from a unified source. New Morse Code has traced the subtle threads common to each piece; the shifting push and pull at work beneath the surface calm of the first three works ruptures in Kerekes’s Trio in Two Parts and returns with the album’s ecstatic closing track, Unwind by Sleeping Giant composer Robert Honstein.
Simplicity Itself opens in warm tranquillity with Honstein’s Patter, a hypnotic, minimalist lullaby of falling pizzicato string lines (the duo is joined in this piece by violinist Katie Hyun) and gentle marimba strokes. The piece has a zen-like equilibrium in its repeated descending motifs. Its expressive elements remain constant, with a repeated, accented tonic punctuating lines that call to mind water over stones. Patter briefly moves into ascending figures before finishing unexpectedly in the muted relative minor.
The spirit of playfulness and wonder continues in Tonia Ko’s vivid, flickering Hush, the three movements of which weave spoken and sung fragments of Virginia Woolf’s short story The String Quartet. (The phrase “simplicity itself” is in fact one of these excerpts.) Hush shifts between frenetic Cage-like pointillism and entrancing passages of fragile calm. With precise execution and a sophisticated sense of the layered energy states, Collins (on cello) mimics the skittering flower pot gestures of Compitello’s percussion lines, and a cymbal blurs the decay of a glassy cello chord. The third movement in particular is darkly beautiful and full of disquiet; percussive attacks threaten to obliterate the calm facade. New Morse Code performs Ko’s piece with agility and self-possession and their playing sounds almost effortless, the cello and percussion lines bleeding into each other and dissolving.
Caroline Shaw’s Boris Kerner – named for a Russian-German traffic physicist – is a study in flux and flow for cello and flower pots. Kerner’s theory of traffic congestion is based on the idea of “phase transition” between flow states, and Shaw’s piece is a morphing state of rich, Baroque-like cello phrases with urgent percussive elements, and throbbing, low-register double stops with a Reich-like groove on the flower pots. The reverberant arpeggiated cello line is sublimated by a kind of timbral panning between harsh and resonant clay pot sonorities. The instruments work against each other and then fall into step before coming apart again. Compitello finds a broad and surprisingly beautiful sonic range in the terracotta flower pots, and cellist Hannah Collins plays with sensitivity and extraordinary control, the duo always holding in perfect balance the dense and the sparse, and the very old and the very new.
Pianist and composer Timo Andres joins New Morse Code on Paul Kerekes’ muscular, breathless Trio in Two Parts. A duo within the trio plays in unison for much of the blistering first movement with the third performer disrupting rapid, minimalist lines. The starkly contrasting second movement retains a sense of relentlessness in its more subdued, stepwise modal lines. Collins’s pure high register is plaintive and delicate and carves a romantic arc over the piano tremolos and low marimba strokes before transitioning to meaty, textural double stops in a mass of dense, repetitive piano chords.
The album concludes with a second work by Robert Honstein, Unwind, a melancholy and meditative piece in the spirit of David Lang for mallet instruments. Collins swaps her cello for marimba and vibraphone and the duo play ascending layers of slow-moving asynchronous rhythms which climb towards a blissful zenith. It says something about the quality of New Morse Code’s programming choices (and maybe something about my own daydreaming tendencies) that it wasn’t until my third or fourth listening of Simplicity Itself that it struck me how daring a choice the duo has made in finishing their debut album with Collins playing on a secondary instrument. The piece is a perfect summation of the multifaceted talent of Collins and Compitello and the duo’s overarching philosophy of performing works by living composers that are explicitly affective and shot through with delight.