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.