Decoding A Duo, One Tap At A Time

Toward the back of the English Building Markets on Chapel, the specter of physicist Boris Kerner – an unlikely candidate for vintage housewares and lightly worn ties – slithered and bent among the rafters, observing the ordeal slowly unfolding below.

Michael Compitello looked up and smiled, enchanted, from a grouping of ceramic flower pots arranged on a black yoga mat.

Hannah Collins glanced at him with a knowing grin. To her discordant, wavering cello, a series of hollow clinks started falling rapidly, filling a makeshift black box space.

Audience members shifted in their seats, three-phase traffic theory reaching up to meet whispers of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Fordlândia before their eyes.

Collins and Compitello make up New Morse Code, a cello and percussion duo that “is dedicated to enriching contemporary culture by advocating for new expressions in music and art.” The two perform an array of contemporary pieces, some – like Caroline’s Shaw’s “Boris Kerner” – written specifically for them.

On Monday night, they played a refreshingly recent, largely minimalist set as the first installment of the Second Movement Concert Series. The concert also included a rare sneak peek into Morse Music Academy’s percussion group, who opened the evening with segments of Steve Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood (1973).

Lucy Gellman Photo“I think that New Morse Code was one of the first groups I wrote to, and they were definitely the first who wrote back,” said David Perry, founder and organizer of the series, to chuckles from the audience. “And I’m so thrilled they did.” 

He – and attendees – had every reason to be: Collins and Compitello are much more than accomplished instrumentalists. They are mentors who get genuinely excited about educating—and learning alongside—the next generation of musicians. Monday, they personified this aspect of their mission as two students from Morse’s percussion group joined in on Reich’s “Clapping Music” (1972), adapted to accommodate four pairs of hands instead of two. They are, it seems, not just playing for the future of music, but vibrantly living in and shaping it.

They don’t stop there, though. The duo takes meaty, concept-driven pieces and renders them both readable and profoundly enjoyable, imbued with deep feeling that travels from Collins’ cello straight into the audience. Take pieces like “Boris Kerner” (excerpt above) or Tonia Ko’s “Hush” (2013), a three-movement composition for cello and percussion inspired by Virginia Woolf’s short-story “The String Quartet” (1921).

Written for the group, Ko’s piece is stunningly smart, a portal to a literary world that has still proven elusive to many of its readers. When the two take it on, however, it sheds any hint of impenetrability, transformed into part rock opera, part minimalist odyssey, and part experiment-gone-right. Brilliantly right.

Or Osvaldo Golijov’s “Mariel” (1999), composed by an author whose female friend of the same name died unexpectedly. In the piece, the sudden, violent moment of losing someone – of knowing there will be mourning but not knowing quite how to start it – is captured perfectly: never has a cello so closely approximated that slow, heated build of hysterical air in the chest cavity; the jagged, fragmented sob that finally escapes when the totality of it all has hit you. It isn’t hard to see why Collins calls it “one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard;” dormant in the work’s notes is the capacity to conjure melancholy itself. And she and Compitello do, absorbed as if the pieces are part of them, and have been for quite some time. 

The last work was a testament to that. Titled “Caught by the Sky with Wire” (1996), the piece is an experimental composition by Nick Didkovsky that uses a Markov chain to generate notes. The seven-movement result holds strong to notes of jazz and hip hop, pop, even hints of sitar. Take a listen below: 

Mathematical? Sure. Logical? Yes, in a fabulous way. Overly calculated?

With this group, never.

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