Insider Interview: andPlay Duo

On September 27, 2019, the pioneering violin and viola duo, andPlay release their debut album "playlist" on New Focus Recordings (FCR233). In this Insider Interview we spoke with Maya Bennardo and Hannah Levinson about how their duo began, how they developed their musical aesthetic, and more.

How did you meet, and what inspired you to form andPlay? 

andPlay met many moons ago when we were both undergrads at the Oberlin Conservatory. We were friends through Maya’s freshman roommate, and reconnected at the roommate’s wedding before Maya moved to NYC. Once Maya had made the move we ended up playing in a new music ensemble together. The ensemble asked if small groups of players would be interested in going to Fire Island to play chamber music concerts. Maya loves the beach and did not want to pass up the opportunity, so she called me [Hannah] and we decided to play violin/viola duos. We scoured the NYU music library and asked around to find some good music, and ended up putting together a very challenging and fun program of music by Stefano Gervasoni, August Reed Thomas, Brendan Faegre, and Christian Wolff that went over quite well with the beach-loving audiences! After that we decided that we wanted to play more together, so we booked a show and starting racking our brains for an ensemble name. andPlay was born, and the rest is history...

How did you come up with your name, and how does it describe the aesthetics (or any other aspect) of your ensemble?   How would you describe andPlay’s style? 

andPlay was born out of another freelance gig that Maya was part of in her early days in NYC. In this piece a group of 12 performers each had their own tape part with headphones that would tell the performers when to play. Maya would wait and wait until a firm voice would quickly say “and PLAY”. We spent a great deal of time making lists and contemplating different ensemble names, and one evening at my [Hannah’s] apartment while hosting a monthly cake night we workshopped some names around to the group. There were a few contenders, but andPlay was the one that everyone kept coming back to. 

We liked the connotations of the name and how succinct it was. There is something playful and mischievous about it that keeps you on your toes. This curiosity and light-hearted nature is something that we always strive to bring to our collaborations and performances. Even when performing very “serious” music, we try to remember that we are “playing,” both in the sense that we are literally playing our instruments, and that we are enjoying making something together!

How did your interest in music by contemporary composers develop?  How has your taste in various compositional styles changed over the years?

Like I mentioned before, we both went to the Oberlin Conservatory where the Contemporary Music Ensemble and new music in general was woven into the fabric of the community in the same way that Bach and Brahms are. Our professors encouraged us to explore music outside of the traditional repertoire and we both fell in love with the collaborative quality of performing music that was being written in our time and by people that we could actually have a conversation with. 

Over the years our tastes have broadened and we experiment with and discover new styles of music. We have been performing a lot more music by the Wandelweiser collective in the past three years, and have become quite enamored with exploring the intimacy of two voices playing static or sparse music. We have also commissioned music in Just Intonation and have committed to delving into this musical world and learning as much as we can. 

Your upcoming debut album, playlist, features world premiere recordings of works that you commissioned. What do you look for in selecting composers to write works for the duo? 

When we commission new works we are looking for composers that are writing music that speaks to us and who we can imagine writing something genuinely unique for our instrumentation. So much of the early repertoire for violin/viola duo was written as if it were almost two different hands on a piano - someone has the melody, someone accompanies them, and vice versa! We are really interested in composers who push past that and treat the ensemble as one giant instrument, figuring out creative ways to compose for two similar instruments.  Some of our commissions stem from long-term collaborations with composers and their music, whether with andPlay, or through other ensemble or solo pieces. Those types of relationships are really special to us because it means that we develop a musical language together that we have fully immersed ourselves in over the years, like the two pieces by David Bird featured on this album, which were written four years apart. 

What other projects are keeping each of you busy, both with the duo and elsewhere? 

We are constantly dreaming and have a long list of projects that we want to bring to life in the coming years with andPlay. So much of our creative energy is thrown into the duo, and our differing yet complementary personalities keep us both grounded/idealistic enough to pinpoint the projects that we know will be both fulfilling, exciting, and possible for the ensemble. This season we are looking forward to new commissions, a collaborative project with some LA-based musicians, the second season of our audience engagement series,  and performances throughout the United States. Stay tuned for some larger projects on the horizon in the next few years! We can both also be found performing with other ensembles in NYC and around the world; we are definitely keeping busy!