Performance prize winners focus on climate crisis

Hannah Collins (left) and Michael Compitello are New Morse Code. Credit: Tatiana Daubek

LAWRENCE – It’s a lot to ask a cellist and a percussionist – even aided by the electronics wizardry of their composer pal – to address climate change in a meaningful way.

But Hannah Collins, the cellist, is excited about an opportunity to do just that after her New Morse Code duo won the inaugural Impact Performance Grand Prize of Ariel AVANT, a competition run by the Boston-based Ariel Artists management company.

The juried award was announced in September 2020, but because of restrictions then in place to stem the spread of COVID-19, the winners were not immediately able to take advantage of the travel and outreach opportunities that are part of the prize. Their tour starts March 30 in Norfolk, Virginia, and includes an April 3 concert at the Lied Center of Kansas.

New Morse Code consists of Collins, assistant professor of music, and Michael Compitello, percussionist and former KU assistant professor of music, now at Arizona State University. Their debut album, “Simplicity Itself,” came out in 2017 on New Focus Recordings.

Given their unusual instrumentation, New Morse Code has been compelled to seek out commissions for original works, like “The Language of Landscapes” by St. Louis-based composer Christopher Stark, which they debuted in 2015. It forms the nucleus of their Ariel AVANT prize-winning performances.

“That was commissioned for us by Chamber Music America,” Collins said. “We spent time building this piece together where we took samples of sounds from the natural world in a lot of different locations, including my hometown in upstate New York and Chris' hometown in Montana, and other locations that we've traveled to together. And Chris created a long-form piece that has four different scenes that create opportunities for us to interact with these sounds.”

They’ve recorded it and have performed the piece live more than a dozen times, Collins said. The 20-minute composition will form the first half of the upcoming concerts, along with an eight-minute, newly commissioned work, as yet untitled, by composer Viet Cuong.

The second half of each concert will feature a new composition by Andy Akiho inspired by NASA’s ongoing OSIRIS-REx mission to retrieve a sample from asteroid Bennu.

The two new compositions are being funded by the Ariel AVANT prize’s commission component.

Prize applicants were urged to submit “performance proposals and engagement events designed to generate productive conversation and offer positive means of action around a social justice issue, particularly one related to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals prioritized to be achieved by 2030.”

So Collins and Compitello submitted a plan for a series of concerts and related public-engagement events designed, in the words of Ariel AVANT’s announcement, to “engage the audience in a conversation about the challenges and urgencies of climate action and responsible consumption while also presenting optimistic possibilities for renewable energy, scientific discovery and innovative technologies in space exploration.”

Collins praised Ariel AVANT founder Oni Buchanan for “incentivizing things that I think a lot of artists are very much wanting to do and just need the opportunity. These are the issues that we're trying to grapple with ourselves.”

Collins explained that in the “Language of Landscapes” performance, she and Compitello will be joined onstage by Stark.

“Chris uses electronics to blur the line between real and synthetic sound,” Collins said. “He takes the natural sounds that we recorded and manipulates them sometimes to the point that they sound synthetic. And then he takes the sounds that we're making, like, for example, Mike blowing on a beer bottle or hitting a Styrofoam bowl, and that might sound like the most natural sound in the world, even though it's coming from a manmade object. So there's this confusion and a sort of dialogue between that spectrum of sounds.”

Between Stark’s “Landscapes,” which focuses on the environment, and Akiho’s composition, which is inspired by space travel, the intervening piece by Cuong will focus on the forest ecosystem and was inspired by the poetry of Mary Oliver.

Before each concert, Collins said, she and Compitello will facilitate an interdisciplinary “engagement event” that attempts to highlight the particular environmental challenges of that region of the country.

“We're trying to create a space where we can ... think together and communicate with each other about how the climate crisis is affecting that community specifically. We'll be traveling to Norfolk, Virginia, which is a coastal community that deals with flooding as a major concern, whereas the concerns in Lawrence are much different, obviously. And the same will be true in Denver and elsewhere. So we'll be experiencing conversations and exchanges with communities all across the country about how the climate crisis is affecting them.”

Collins said those conversations started when she and Compitello had a two-week “incubation residency” at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in fall 2021.

“We filmed interviews with experts from many different fields, including a public-policy specialist, a scientist who studies natural disasters, an astronomer, a botanist and a visual artist and museum curator. We asked them about how the humanities and sciences intersect, especially in the challenge of trying to communicate information about how our world is changing,” Collins said. “We discussed how a community can come together and process that information and decide collectively how to respond. We're going to continue to have these conversations and share some of them on our website, so that even if people don't see us play the concert, they'll be able to see some of the interactions that we have as we're traveling the piece around.”

Image: Hannah Collins (left) and Michael Compitello are New Morse Code. Credit: Tatiana Daubek

Mon, 03/07/2022


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service