LAWRENCE – There’s not a lot of repertoire for cello and percussion, so University of Kansas faculty members Hannah Collins and Michael Compitello, the cellist and percussionist, respectively, who form the duo New Morse Code, commissioned some of their favorite composers to write for them.
The result is the group’s first album, “Simplicity Itself,” released on CD late last year by New Focus Recordings.
“We create the repertoire to a large extent,” said Compitello, assistant professor of music. “There are some things, particularly from a famous percussionist and cellist who worked together in the 1990s. But most music we play is stuff we have commissioned and we have worked with the composer on, to some extent, either in the compositional process – bouncing ideas off of one another, workshopping a piece together, making changes together – or even at the foundational level.
“Our friends who are composers, we developed relationships together, traded music that we liked, went to concerts together, played together in some cases,” he said. “And so when we asked them to write a piece for us, it really became a piece for the two of us as people, instead of us as those two instruments.”
Some of the composers represented on the album are world-renowned, including 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music winner Caroline Shaw and 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient Tonia Ko.
“Most of the pieces we play now are written for our two personalities,” Compitello said. “On some – like Robert Honstein’s ‘Down, Down Baby’ – we play a single cello; I don’t even play percussion. And then you have a piece like ‘Unwind,’ which is another piece of Robert’s, where we are playing one marimba together.
“It’s really about the relationships that we have with composers and how we interact with them.”
Collins, also an assistant professor of music, said that many great works throughout classical music history have been inspired by the personal relationships between composers and particular performers.
“I like to be a part of that process in that way,” she said.
She said the name of the group, New Morse Code, was inspired by the notion of communicating by tapping on something.
“The idea came from a friend of ours,” Collins said. “I liked it because it captured a little bit of our mission: sending information to people who are maybe miles apart using a sonic language.”
As to whether their group’s music is classical, Compitello and Collins aren’t quite sure. It’s written down, not improvised. But it’s new, so what makes it classical, if anything?
“Those boundaries are starting to break down,” Compitello said. The composers New Morse Code has worked with “don’t feel like they are not allowed to include a bit of bluegrass fiddling or a bit of plain, no-vibrato singing, or a rock drum beat, or an electric guitar riff that might be familiar to people, or a reference to a song a lot of people know.”
“I think we’re living in a really cool time now,” Compitello said, “when the border between contemporary music and what a pop performer like Bjork or Radiohead does is really pretty thin. You’re getting to the point now where the drummer for the rock band Wilco is sitting in the audience as the composer of a piece for solo percussion. The guitarist in Radiohead, Jonny Greenwood, is writing orchestral music. And Bryce Dessner, the guitarist for The National, has a degree in classical guitar from Yale and is writing percussion quartets.
“So rigid formalism is not necessarily as important anymore. The academy typically didn’t place as high a value on audience reception as on craft. Now, however, composers are allowing themselves to be more fluid with how their music expresses itself.”