Robert Honstein: RE: You

, composer


The pieces on Robert Honstein's Re:You are inspired by an experience which is a window into a uniquely 21st century phenomenon – an errant string of messages written by an internet dating site hopeful, ending up in an unsuspecting inbox and providing a glimpse into the trials and vulnerability of the search for love in the virtual age. 


RE: You is a lot of fun. So it may not be obvious that it is also the result of a modern online-privacy violation nightmare. The unusual titles of these unusual tracks are taken from a series of about 100 messages, both incoming and outgoing, that were erroneously cc’d to me by a popular online-dating site in 2008. In some database on some server in some highly-air-conditioned room somewhere, some Midwestern, middle-aged Jeffrey K. Miller’s online profile had been mistakenly paired with my email address, and the result was a ringside seat at the romantic travails of a total stranger.

In 2008, dating online was generally considered a shameful admission of social defeat, a desperate attempt to connect made by those who couldn't cut it in the real world. That summer, as Robert and I read these messages, watching the font colors change, encountering strange new emoticons, witnessing a proliferation of maximalist orthography and punctuation not seen since the Vorticist movement (or a sixth-grader’s IM history), it was tempting to dismiss them for being ridiculous and naive. And from the perspective of The Elements of Style, of course, they are. Nevertheless, that very same naiveté gave us access to an emotional life that was too human and too real to ignore. We had to admit that we were not only amused; we were also moved.

Heard as a whole, these songs do not take us on the journey of a love affair, but on the journey of a longing for one. They trace the arc of a very real desire for something to happen. But for all their moments of excitement and absurdity, they never allow us to rise from the solitude of the desk chair, where the sound of the pounding heart is transformed by the fact that there is no one else around to hear it. This strange sensitivity that attends digital romance can be felt in every moment of these compositions. Now that I have experienced it myself, I've started cc'ing Robert on all my romantic communiques, in hopes that he can use them, too, to create something wonderful. I am still waiting, anxiously, to hear back.

-Jeffrey K. Miller

February 2014

Engineer: Ryan Streber
Producer: Ryan Streber
Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Yonkers, NY

Robert Honstein

Celebrated for his “waves of colorful sounds” (New York Times) and “smart, appealing works” (The New Yorker), Robert Honstein (b. 1980) is a New York based composer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal music. Raised in New Jersey, Honstein creates music rooted in performance and personal narrative. His background as a pianist and singer brings a deep love of instrumental and vocal practice to collaborations with leading musicians from around the world.

Fueled by an omnivorous musical appetite, Robert’s compositions are noted for their “dry humor” (San Francisco Classical Voice), “breathless eruptions” (New York Times) and “devilishly fun writing” (The Arts Fuse). At times “profoundly moving” (Shepherd Express) and “genuinely touching” (Chicago Classical Review), Robert combines a fascination with narrative, environment, and everyday experience to create “deeply contemplative” (Bandcamp) works that probe the vicissitudes of contemporary life from the banal to the sublime. A growing interest in story-telling, physicality and expressive embodiment infuses his work with a direct, evocative sensibility that is equal parts riotous frenzy, austere lyricism, and minimalist-tinged romanticism.

Leading orchestras, ensembles and soloists from around the world have performed Robert’s music including the Chicago Symphony, Albany Symphony, Orchestre Symphonique du Mulhouse, Slovenian National Theater Opera and Ballet Ljubljana, American Composers Orchestra, Eighth Blackbird, Ensemble Dal Niente, Present Music, Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, Third Angle New Music, New Music Detroit, Quince, Mivos Quartet, Del Sol Quartet, Argus Quartet, Hub New Music, Chatterbird, TIGUE, New Morse Code, Colin Currie, Theo Bleckmann, Doug Perkins, Michael Burritt, Karl Larson, Michael Compitello and Ashley Bathgate, among others. A keen interest in interdisciplinary collaboration has led to projects with artists across many disciplines, including photographer Chris McCaw, projection designer Hannash Wasileski, graphic designer Laura Grey, and director Daniel Fish. His music has also been choreographed by numerous dance companies such as the Cincinnati Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, Nancy Karp and Dancers, Urbanity Dance, and Frame Dance, among others.

Robert has received awards, grants, and recognition from Carnegie Hall, the Barlow Foundation, Copland House, the New York Youth Symphony, ASCAP, the Albany Symphony, New Music USA, and the League of American Orchestras. His work has been featured at festivals around the United States, including the Tanglewood Music Center, the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, and the Bang on a Can Summer Institute. He has also received residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Copland House, and I-Park.

Robert is a founding member of the New York-based composer collective Sleeping Giant, a group of “five talented guys” (The New Yorker) that are “rapidly gaining notice for their daring innovations, stylistic range and acute attention to instrumental nuance” (WQXR). Projects have included evening length works for Eighth Blackbird, Ensemble ACJW and the Deviant Septet as well as a multi-year residency with the Albany Symphony. ‘Hand Eye’ for Eighth Blackbird was released on Cedille Records to critical acclaim, while the Giants most recent project ‘Ash’ was released on New Amsterdam Records with cellist Ashley Bathgate.

With a commitment to building community around the music of our time Robert co-founded Fast Forward Austin, an annual marathon new music festival in Austin, TX and Times Two, a Boston-based concert series that paired artists from diverse backgrounds in a laid back, accessible context. As an educator, Robert has participated in outreach projects around the country, while also serving as Program Manager and Composition Faculty at NYU, Steinhardt.

His debut album, RE: You, was released by New Focus Recordings in 2014 and his second album, Night Scenes from the Ospedale, a collaboration with the Sebastians, was released on Soundspells Productions in 2015. In 2018 his album ‘An Economy of Means’, featuring Doug Perkins and Karl Larson was released on New Focus Recordings. NPR included his piece ‘Pulse’ from Eighth Blackbird’s ‘Hand Eye’ as one of their top 100 songs of 2016. ‘Pulse’ was also featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series featuring Eighth Blackbird.

Robert’s original score to the Showtime Documentary The Real Charlie Chaplin was nominated for a 2022 News and Documentary Emmy for best original score. Recent commissions include, Juvenalia, a percussion concerto for Colin Currie, Endless Landscape, a chamber orchestra work for Ensemble Connect, and Lost and Found, a work for prepared solo marimba, for Michael Compitello and a consortium of percussionists. Upcoming projects include new works for Duo Vis, No Exit New Music Ensemble, and flutist Michael Avitable.

last updated 3/6/23
10 Oct, 2016

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Last November, I had the opportunity to participate in the New Voices, New Music workshop in NYC. The program, spearheaded by composer David Lang in conjunction with the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), features a week-long series of workshops and culminates in a performance of newly commissioned pieces at Carnegie Hall. Last year, four music critics were also invited, of which I was one. Though theoretically not a great deal of time, a week was long enough to breed at least a modicum of familiarity among the participants. And it has been a distinct pleasure to follow the often interesting work which my colleagues from the program have been busy producing since.

Robert Honstein is just such a colleague. A Boston (formerly Brooklyn) based composer, Honstein recently earned his DMA from Yale. He has also recently come out with a new album, entitled RE:you. The eight tracks are all of a piece in that they are inspired by a common theme and have a unified sound world. The theme? A series of wrongfully cc'd messages from an online dating site. Because of this uncanny circumstance, the titles – "Why are you not answering? I don't wish to play games," "Better find those little blue pills if you plan on giving her more than lip service," and "I am hidden my dear from you!!!!!!!" among others – all have the aura of missed connections, but ones which were never meant to be in the first place. Like all nostalgia, it is about a longing for what never was.

The music echoes these sentiments. Again, all the tracks are remarkably unified (for those keeping score: composers, I'm looking at you). An ostinato pattern establishes each piece from the start. Some of the patterns, like the one in "Better find those little blue pills...," are more rhythmically jagged than others. "Just please let me know..." starts with an amazingly simple yet satisfying additive figure led by the piano. The opening track, "My friend I understand 100%. I have no girlfriend," opens with a (nostalgically) mellow, arpeggiated minor progression. No matter their flavor, the ostinati form the basis of these pieces, and it is by tugging at them, inserting bursts of spin-off material, and otherwise modifying the texture that Honstein lends interest to the works. And yet, what is truly remarkable about his technique is how little he has to do. If I may paraphrase a quote attributed to Ravel, Honstein seems to have found complexity by eschewing complicatedness. It's the little things. Mostly, I think it's his ear for timbral color. The way that the flute and cello are melded into a single line in "Halfway????", or the way in which the high guitar and piano registers that open "I know the feeling..." are subtly saturated with (purposely) squeaky cello harmonics. It's the timbral details that make both the ostinati interesting and their derailments delightful. The whole album also has a toy-box vibe, due to the often disjointed gestures coupled with delicate orchestration (listen to the opening of "I'm hidden my dear for you!!!!!!!"). There is also a wonderfully liminal quality to this music which lies somewhere between reflective pop and more "serious" art music. Its modesty, its ability to work well as "background," is constantly undermined by new elements, imbuing the whole with a stimulating back-and-forth quality. Just when you think a piece has settled into a comfortable pattern, some rhythmic shift or timbral accretion undermines the sense of safety. It's one of the things that makes it stimulating (and inviting) to listen through the album multiple times. The performers are stellar. Domenica Fossati on flute really stands out (listen to "I'm hidden..." again) and I have a strong suspicion that a recording of this caliber wouldn't have been possible without a percussionist as committed and precise as Owen Weaver. The album is just out. I recommend giving it a listen, and then another.


New Music Box

Someone inadvertently picking up a copy of RE:you, Robert Honstein’s debut CD released earlier this year by New Focus Recordings, might initially assume that it’s an indie rock album. The stark plain white cover features only Honstein’s name in small caps in the corner and the large black letters of the title are strewn across the center, the colon an eye-catching green. The back is a similarly minimalist white, only instead of the title, large gray punctuation symbols form an emoticon-like image resembling two people facing one another: “(‘}{‘).” The CD itself does not even feature Honstein’s name; the perimeter is surrounded by exclamation points, the sequence only broken with “RE: you.” Then there are the titles of the eight tracks, listed in the gatefold of the digipack: e.g. “My friend I understand 100%, I have no girlfriend,” “Better find those little blue pills if you plan on giving her more than lip service,” etc.

The initial phrases of the opening track, with their gangly electric guitar and foregrounded percussion, also suggest an alternative pop album, as do the openings of just about every other track. But the vocals never come. Instead, the instrumental textures get manipulated in ways that are more reminiscent of contemporary chamber music. So while this is music that is clearly informed by indie rock songs, it is ultimately something else entirely. In fact, eschewing today’s common parlance where every kind of musical utterance is described as a song, Honstein—when we spoke with him a couple of weeks ago—described these pieces of music as “song-like” compositions. They reference many of the identifiable tropes of songs, but they are not quite songs:

"A lot of them are A-B-A and they’re short (though a couple of them do get kind of long), so I think in terms of concision and formal clarity they’re song-like. And also, some of them have this melodic thing that maybe evokes the sense that maybe it is a song. But I didn’t want it to be something so concrete as a song. I wanted it to be more oblique—a little bit strange, a little bit more misleading. In a sense they’re cinematic, I’m just not showing you the film. I don’t want to micromanage your experience."

As for the provocative titles he gave to those eight pieces, they derive from lines that were contained in over a hundred emails sent and received through an online dating site that were then accidentally transmitted to a friend of his. They hint at a dysfunctional and ultimately tragic relationship, but if there’s more to the story, Honstein has no intention of revealing it:

"How I came across these emails, who these people are, and what may or may not have happened—that to me is like a footnote. You can read a book and you can read the footnotes or not and you’ll still get something out of it. I don’t personally feel obliged to explain everything; those pieces are intentionally oblique. I’m merely suggesting what might have happened; I don’t want to give the answer. I think that’s a more interesting experience—to be confronted with something without an answer and then fill in your own blanks as to what it means. There is a line between what is for me and what is for the listener."

-Frank J. Oteri



Though Robert Honstein is, formally speaking, a composer of orchestral, chamber, and vocal music, his RE:you is hardly what one would call a conventional classical recording. By way of background, music by the Boston-based composer has been featured at The Tanglewood Music Center and the Bang on a Can Summer Institute; Honstein, who studied at Yale University with David Lang, Martin Bresnick, and Chris Theofanidis, is also a founding member of the NY-based composer collective Sleeping Giant and co-directs the Fast Forward Austin, an annual one-day new music marathon. NewMusicBox has described his music as “artistically curious, non-doctrinaire, and unpretentious”—a pretty good way, it turns out, of characterizing the general character of this forty-two-minute release.

One is struck by the unusual album title first, after which one's eye is similarly caught by the irreverent track titles, which originated from, in Honstein's words, “a series of about 100 messages, both incoming and outgoing, that were erroneously cc'd to me by a popular online-dating site in 2008.” Needless to say, a title such as “Better find those little blue pills if you plan on giving her more than lip service.” isn't the kind of thing one sees popping up on your everyday classical album.

None of which would amount to much if the music weren't worthy of attention, but, in this case, it assuredly is. Expectations are again challenged, however, asRE:you, while performed by a chamber music-styled collective (in differing configurations), is less pure classical than a hybrid form that merges contemporary classical and melodic pop; in fact, Honstein himself has referred to the recording's concise instrumentals as “song-like” compositions that adhere to an A-B-A pattern. The presence of electric guitar and percussion on certain pieces also strengthens the association with pop music.

The small-group arrangements benefit the music in allowing the individual instruments to come through with maximum clarity. In the opening “My friend I understand 100%. I have no girlfriend.” setting, the arrangement allows for maximum separation between the piano, percussion, clarinet, guitar, and glockenspiel, which in turn makes it all the easier to monitor the acrobatic interactions between the brooding piano patterns, fluttering guitar and clarinet phrases, and stop-start rhythms (so ably handled by Owen Weaver). The groan of the cello at the start of “I know the feeling...” is similarly rendered more audible when it's shadowed by subtle shadings of electric guitar and piano.

Another strength of the album is its plentiful mood contrasts, with the nervous hyperactivity of the opening piece and “Just please let me know and that's all I ask from you.” countered by the ponderous romanticism of “Why are you not answering? I don't wish to play games.” By comparison, “Better find those little blue pills if you plan on giving her more than lip service.” flirts with a kind of jagged funk style, due in large part to aggressive percussion and acoustic bass playing.

The large timbral range also bolsters the album's appeal, the most arresting example of which occurs within “I am hidden my dear for you!!!!!!!” where Asian flavour is introduced by the flute and percussion playing (especially when the sharp intake of breaths makes the flute resemble a shakuhachi). On the three pieces that feature Concert Black, a trio featuring flutist Domenica Fossati, percussionist Owen Weaver, and double bassist Lisa Dowling, the contrasts between the instruments are most vividly defined. Ultimately, though, while there's much to recommend RE:you, the most appealing thing about it is the way it sidesteps easy pigeonholing.


American Record Guide

Robert Honstein created RE: you as a result of a friend being mistakenly CC’d on numerous e-mails between participants in an online dating service. At first he found them funny, but grew to see them as deeply moving as he sympathized with the unknowing correspondents. A set of eight e-mails serve as the basis for this cycle of songs without words for chamber ensemble. Titles like ‘My friend I understand 100%. I have no girlfriend’ and ‘Why are you not answering? I do not wish to play games’ make the work both amusing and sad. There is also, of course, the moral ambiguity of broadcasting intercepted private messages to an audience, but very little actual text makes its way into the eight titles of the songs. The music itself is crisp and clean, dexterously shifting character between movements from post-minimalist grooves to dark, jazzy episodes colored by electric-guitar feedback. Honstein manages to set music to the highs and lows, the hopes and disappointments of dating that anyone can relate to, but with tongue in cheek. I recommend that you hear it, though it’s difficult to imagine this being a prized record to add to a collection.  --George Adams

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