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 the commissions land with equal weight – I found myself wanting to follow the Caroline Shaw and Paul Kerekes numbers further down their respective rabbit holes in terms of development – 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