“We’re excited to learn how we can all take action to create a culture of collaboration and empathy around, solving the larger issues facing our society.” —Michael Compitello
October Entrepreneurs of the Month are the members of New Morse Code, Hannah Collins and Michael Compitello! This cello-percussion duo is an inspiring example of how today’s musicians can directly tackle pressing sociocultural and environmental concerns in a way that is dynamic and engaging for audiences. It’s been wonderful to have them with us here at the Jacobs School of Music during their two-week residency – a result of them winning the Ariel Avant Impact Performance competition.
Learn about how Hannah and Michael approach new music, what they wished they had learned in music school, how the arts and sciences really have a lot to share with each other, and more (including which member of the duo would claim victory in a light saber duel…)!
Project Jumpstart: How did the two of you meet, and how did you begin collaborating?
Mike: Hannah and I met in graduate school and became interested in working together after comparing notes about musical experiences that had inspired us and finding we had similar priorities in the way we wanted to approach new projects. We did not set out to form a cello/percussion duo, per se, but we wanted to form an ensemble built on a shared sense of curiosity and a desire to work on new pieces of music with the same rigor and vitality typically reserved for older music.
Project Jumpstart: Can you tell us a bit about your passion for commissioning new works? Specifically, can you tell us a bit about The Emigrants or dwb (driving while black)?
Hannah: For us, collaboration involves drawing upon mutual influences while generating and refining material together over an extended period of time. Through close work with colleagues such as steel pan virtuoso and composer Andy Akiho, Hawaiian composer and visual artist Tonia Ko, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer/violinist/vocalist Caroline Shaw, we’ve generated a singular and personal repertoire which reflects both our friends’ creative voices and our own perspectives. We find when we are involved in every stage of the creative process, from improvising new sounds to experimenting with form and texture, we are better equipped to effectively interpret and advocate for the piece on stage.
One recent example is The Emigrants, a documentary chamber music work for cello, percussion and digital playback by composer George Lam. The project began by collecting oral history interviews with the emigrant musician community of New York City’s borough of Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse urban areas in the world. The interviewees’ voices are part of the score itself, creating a dialogue between the audience, the musicians (both live and recorded), and the stories. We worked closely with George throughout the process as he selected interview clips and found ways for our instruments to interact with the tones and rhythms of the speech. The collaboration also extended to designing the ways we have chosen to share the piece—from the premiere at the Queens Museum where we shared the concert with three of the musician interviewees, to video presentations and conversations for presenters across the country.
Project Jumpstart: On your website, you describe your approach to music making as “unrestricted.” What does this mean to you?
Mike: When we start working on a new collaboration, we never decide which instruments we will be playing or which musical languages we will be speaking in advance. We ask our collaborators to write music for two people, specifically for the two of us, and focus on finding a dialogue. This approach has led to works where we sing, talk, move, both play cello, both play percussion, or engage with completely different instruments or communicative tools.
Project Jumpstart: Can you tell us about a moment when you felt that your work was making an impact on the field of music or on the world?
One of the most important aspects of live performance to us is that it brings people together to a shared location and experience (whether virtual or in person), allowing discourse and interaction that would not otherwise happen. A very powerful project for us over the past several years has been dwb (driving while black), a chamber opera by soprano/librettist Roberta Gumbel and composer Susan Kander in which Roberta tells her own story of teaching her son how to drive. In the piece, Mike and I are the orchestra and the chorus and help to depict all of the hopes and fears that Roberta experiences daily as the mother of a black young man. At every performance of the work, we have a conversation about issues of racial profiling, parenthood, community safety, and other issues raised in the piece. Depending on who is in the audience and how much direct experience those listeners have with these issues, the conversation can take on very different directions. One memorable performance in 2019 took place at St. James United Methodist Church in Kansas City, Missouri and was followed by a very powerful panel discussion with a judge, a trauma psychologist, an activist, and a police representative from the wider community. Members of the audience asked questions and shared their personal experiences while the area news covered the performance as a way of highlighting a recent study of racial disparity in traffic stops in Missouri. For us, the most powerful part of that performance was creating an opportunity for these larger conversations.
Project Jumpstart: Your passion for environmentalism speaks to your conviction that engaging collaborations can occur between people working the arts and sciences. Can you speak a bit on how you understand the relationship between art and science? Do you have any suggestions for translating ideas across disciplines?
Mike: These are the questions we are tackling right now as part of our residency at the IU JSoM. Our Language of Landscapes project asks the question: what happens when we listen to the sounds of the natural world and the sounds of our community with more attention and care? What can we learn?
During our visit, we’re interviewing scientists, musicians, and members of the humanities community on campus. We’re hoping to learn more about how the arts can help us more fully comprehend issues and concepts which exist outside our normal bounds of perception or attention, how the arts can help us acquire the skills of observation and understanding, and how we can all find points of intersection about historical or sociological context for what we experience at a local level. Similarly, we’re excited to learn how we can all take action to create a culture of collaboration and empathy around solving the larger issues facing our society.
Project Jumpstart: What advice do you have for musicians looking to break into the contemporary scene?
Mike: Think about what you can bring that is valuable to your collaborators (and yourself) and focus on what you enjoy and do well. For example, your contribution to a collaboration with a composer or ensemble might be stellar playing, giving multiple performances, creating a great video, or passing along important performance information to other players. It will be helpful to learn skills like writing grants/fundraising and producing concerts/recordings, but you can learn those things as you go. Talk to composers you want to work with, find peers who you want to play with, find mentors who are doing what you want to be doing and ask them lots of questions!
Project Jumpstart: What is one thing you wish you’d learned in music school?
Hannah: My advice to a previous self would be to think less about short-term benchmarks and more about skills you want to have going forward. Things like learning a new language or becoming proficient in recording technology take time and sustained effort, but will help you well after graduation. This is the perfect time to get started. Also, your peers are your greatest resource, they will be your future colleagues, collaborators, administrators, etc. When you all pool your skills and expertise together, you will be able to get where you want to be!
Mike: Your relationships are a powerful resource. The friendships and collaborations you develop in school are essential to your development as a musician. The opportunity to share ideas, create new work, and experiment together is critical to developing a collaborative mindset. At the same time, developing friendships with your classmates and peers (both inside and outside the music area) will sustain and enhance your career.
I’d also echo Hannah here: school is a great time to learn new skills essential to a life in music that are traditionally thought of as “non-musical”: writing, recording, time management.
Project Jumpstart: What is your favorite part about commissioning new music?
Hannah: Bringing a piece to life. Being able to have our creative voices woven into the work. Feeling emboldened to advocate for the piece. Learning about our collaborators. Living in someone else’s imagination!