Drumming Up New Music with Michael Compitello

by Michael Compitello

Michael Compitello. Photo by Matt Dine.

I’m a musician whose mission is to advocate for the efficacy of contemporary music in contemporary society. Whether with my cello/percussion duo New Morse Code, as a soloist, at Avaloch Farm Music Institute (where I am Assistant Director), or as Assistant Professor of Percussion at the University of Kansas, my goal is to build community through and around the arts.

Commissioning and incubating new works from dynamic composers is at the core of my work. I work collaboratively with composers whose music I admire and whose friendship I value. Typically, we brainstorm ideas together and workshop material in the process of being composed, allowing me to have more of a creative voice in new works than I might otherwise.

To that end, I’m excited to announce Unsnared Drum, a new project dedicated to pushing the limit of what’s possible with the snare drum. Over the next year, four of my favorite composers—Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Tonia Ko, and Amy Beth Kirsten—will collaborate with me on new works for snare drum solo with or without electronics or video.  These four composers will expand the expressive potential of this underutilized instrument through dramatic, sensitive, creative, and multimedia solos.  In the process, we will change the way that people think about, listen to, perform, and practice the snare drum.

As we work together, we will post video and audio of our explorations, written reflections of our work together, and all sorts of snare drum-related miscellany which you can follow on my website, Instagram, and Facebook. Thanks to Vic Firth, each of the composers will have an assortment of sticks, mallets, and other implements with which to experiment as they write. I’m also grateful for the support of Pearl Drums, whose drums the composers will be exploring over the next year.  

Amy Kirsten: Screenplay

Last July, Amy Kirsten and I began working on her portion of Unsnared Drum at Avaloch Farm Music Institute. Amy and I have known one another since our days at the Peabody Conservatory, and I’ve loved he work since she drafted me to play percussion in the first performance of her Ophelia Forever.  She’s a composer, director, singer, writer, visual artist (and a lot more) who highlights the theater present in music performance. Whether it’s a piece for concert programs or a fully staged production, Amy’s music is gripping, full of melodic invention, otherworldly sounds, and hypnotic rhythms. (Do yourself a favor and check out Columbine’s Paradise TheaterQuixoteand Savior.

Amy Kirsten. Photo by Gennadi Novash.

 Amy is also Co-Founder and Co-Managing Director of HOWL, a collaborative arts ensemble which Amy calls “equal parts storefront theatre, opera company, and grotesque chamber ensemble.” Bringing together artists from across disciplines, HOWL builds integrative, innovative, and unclassifiable new works that defy expectations of genre and medium alike.

HOWL is representative of Amy’s creative process, and a big part of why I wanted to work with her again.  How better to create a boundary-pushing work for a fairly type-cast percussion instrument than by going big?  At the same time, Amy’s process matches very well my collaborative ideal.  She develops most of her new work through workshop sessions which generate and refine ideas and structures.  As a result, her music draws upon the unique skills of the performers with whom she works and turns her interpreters into advocates.

Our Work

Amy’s overarching goal for our time together was to create a mockup of a piece as a feasibility test and proof of concept.  Her initial idea for Screenplay features a single live performer flanked by two life-sized pre-recorded video versions of himself, creating a trio for snare drums.

Amy had two inspirations for our work together.  First, she was taken by the virtuosic interaction between live performer and video in Michel van der Aa’s Blank Out. In van der Aa’s opera, the typical roles of pre-recorded video and live performers are inverted. A single live performer is (spoiler alert) the memory of a child’s deceased mother, and the part of the now-adult child is played by a pre-recorded singer displayed on a 3D screen.  The piece has some wonderful tricks—performers handing objects between the video screen and the stage, and a wrenching trio between the mother and two digital doppelgängers.  Amy was taken with the way in which van der Aa makes the digital images indispensable to the narrative.  In Screenplay, she wants to highlight the intimacy of musical interaction by giving me chamber music to play with myself.

Amy was also inspired by the capability of percussive sound to surprise and shock us. Near the end of each movement in David Lang’s the so-called laws of nature, Lang introduces a shocking new timbre, made more surprising by these unexpected sounds’ synchronicity between players. Similarly, in Thierry de Mey’s Silence Must Be!, a silent introduction is shattered by the introduction of sound miraculously synced with the gestures of the performer. In Screenplay, Amy wants to experiment with synchronizing sound with gesture, and how surprising gestures can inflect the structure of a piece.

Experimenting and Cultivating

With these ideas in mind we devoted our first session to improvisation as a way to explore as many surprising and unique sounds as we could.  For us, this meant exploring techniques and sounds which strayed as far from drumsticks striking a head as possible. Amy is a phenomenal singer, and in our improvising, we looked for ways to make the drum breathe, sigh, and shape a phrase as vocally as possible.

In her stage drama Quixote, Amy asks a percussion quartet to activate tuning forks by striking them against soft rubber objects (a free weight with neoprene covering) then touch the two prongs against a drum, piece of paper, altos tin, or any other sound-making object. The resulting buzz is haunting: full of pitch, but ghastly.  We explored this technique on the snare drum, playing with upward glissandi created when the prongs are dragged along the edge of the drumhead, creating morse code rhythms across the drum’s head and shell, and touching the prongs to egg carton foam to generate a muted beep.  But the most stunning effect was when we touched the vibrating prongs to the snare wires themselves for a shimmering sound.  We then turned the drum over and used two more tuning forks as shims to lift the snares away from the drumhead. By touching the vibrating prongs to the snare wires, we produced a resonant, shimmering, gong-like tone.

Codifying, Refining, Recording

Our next steps were to categorize the sounds with which we improvised, refine them, and record them.  After our wide-ranging improvisations, Amy and I recorded a series of videos in which I improvised with an individual technique with the intention of layering the results into the two video screens stationed on either side of the live performer.  In the end, our sound categories ranged from tuning forks on drumheads to slowly scraping the snares of an overturned drum.

Inspired by the tight rhythmic connection between visual gesture and sonic result in works like Silence Must Be! and Aphasia, we recorded my lips and hands performing a series of improvised gestures.  While Amy edited our “technique improvisations,” I took the silent films of my hands and mouth and worked to assign snare drum sounds to each gesture.  In the afternoon, we recorded each of these sounds and synced them with the video, creating a set of videos with foley sounds.

By the end of our short time together, Amy had a strong sense that Screenplay was viable, and that the snare drum could sustain sonic and dramatic interest.  While our mockups were crude, we left feeling inspired.

To Video and Beyond

Since last summer, Amy and I have remained in communication about Screenplay’s raison d’etre. Amy has become more and more preoccupied with the video’s purpose. What will separate this piece from a work for three live performers? Can the video be an artistic partner in the piece?  Could it highlight elements of the live performance while making its own artistic statement?  Amy’s ideas seemed to require more than a competent videographer.  We had questions about what was possible, what kinds of approaches could be most effective in live settings.  We needed another collaborator.

I immediately thought of Hannah Wasileski, a projection designer and video artist whose work I adore. Hannah designs projections for theater, opera, and concert performances. What I love about her work is the way in which her images intuitively highlight interesting parts of the music while making their own artistic statement.  I met Hannah at the Yale Cabaret, where she designed and filmed projections for a show I was part of which retold the Orpheus myth.  Since then New Morse Code commissioned a video from Hannah for Robert Honstein’s Unwind, where the slowly moving patterns highlight the gradual unwinding of the patterns in the piece.

So that brings us to where we are now: as Amy and I continue crafting the shapes and sounds of “Screenplay,” we have started working with Hannah to integrate a video component that will bring my digital chamber partners to life.

Our collaboration has resulted in an expansion of the snare drum’s sonic and dramatic potential through intuitive dramatic gestures—exactly what I dreamed for Unsnared Drum.  I cannot wait to share the results!

Leave a Reply