andPlay

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!

andPlay duo: new release of world premieres on New Focus Recordings

Debut album by andPlay features world premiere recordings commissioned by the duo

Violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson perform works by David Bird, Clara Iannotta and Ashkhan Behzadi

“playlist” on New Focus Recordings is released on September 27, 2019

When violinist Maya Bennardo and violist Hannah Levinson decided to form the duo andPlay in 2012, their mission was to expand the repertoire for their instrumentation. By any measure, this New York-based duo has already succeeded. andPlay has commissioned and premiered nearly three dozen works to date, in addition to performing other rarely heard 21st century works, in venues from New York City to Stockholm.

All four of the works on andPlay’s debut album, “playlist” (New Focus Recordings, FCR233, release date September 27, 2019) are world premiere studio recordings. The duo commissioned three of these: Crescita Plastica by Ashkan Behzadi, and two pieces by David Bird: Bezier and Apocrypha. The fourth work, Clara Iannotta's Limun, was previously released as a live recording, and is heard here for the first time in a studio performance.

This collection of composers represents diverse cultural backgrounds and styles. Iranian-American Ashkan Behzadi’s Crescita Plastica(2015) “begins like a mad virtuoso falling off a cliff, as though all the wild expressiveness of music over the last 400 years were suddenly unleashed,” writes Meghan Burke in the liner notes. The work is a dense struggle between opposing musical elements — sustained lines with crescendi of varying lengths; violent interjections of double stops; furious microtonal passage work; and razor thin ponticello outbursts.

New York composer David Bird’s Bezier (2013)opens with a playful cataloging of timbres on the instruments, a vocabulary of scratches, cracks, pops, and breathy bow sounds in childlike exploration. Emerging from this texture are ethereal harmonic trills, briefly conjuring the fragile sound world of Sciarrino’s solo violin works, floating into a remarkable section of chirping sounds that could be mistaken for a field recording in a bird sanctuary. The second work by Bird on the album,Apocrypha (2017), incorporates electronics, producing a dialogue between the acoustic and digital sounds in which the acoustic sounds struggle to maintain their organic identity.

The sonic palette in Italian-born Clara Iannotta’sLimun (2011) explores shimmering harmonics, brilliant ponticello exclamations, and weightless glissandi, forming composite phrases that establish a tactile sensuality. The work requires the participation of two page turners who serve double-duty: they each play a high drone on a small harmonica.

Maya Bennardo and Hannah Levinson are true ambassadors for their instrumentation, pushing their collaborators to find new ways of writing for their instruments that sound like more than just a violin and a viola. This album goes beyond exploring the limits of instrumental technique and sound, engaging with aesthetic boundaries and possessing the ineffable, mysterious quality of communicating emotional truths far greater than the sum of their parts.

andPlay performs on October 4 at Metropolis in New York City; in Columbus, Ohio on November 20 and at Kent State University on November 21; details forthcoming. Contact ClassicalCommunications@gmail.com to request a physical or digital copy of this recording.

TRACKS

1. Ashkan Behzadi – Crescita Plastica (2015) - 14:30

2. David Bird – Bezier (2013) - 9:18

3. Clara Iannotta – Limun (2011) - 7:24

4. David Bird – Apocrypha (2017) - 16:47

I Care If You Listen reviews andPlay

ALYSSA KAYSER-HIRSH

on January 3, 2018

Despite the icy cold winter day outside, a still and quiet warmth filled Benzaquen Hall at The DiMenna Center on December 14, 2017, creating an intimate chamber music salon. The stacks of chairs and stands in the corner of the small and unassuming room combined with the lack of printed program made for a relaxed evening that foregrounded the music and performance.

Karl Larson and Ravi Kittappa’s Permutations, a new music series based in both New York City and San Francisco, aims to present a wide variety of contemporary music. Permutations121417 did just that. By bringing together New York-based duo andPlay(Maya Bennardo, violin and Hannah Levinson, viola) with an improvising quartet (Dana Jessen, bassoon, Erica Dicker, violin, Taylor Ho Bynum, cornet, and Michael Vatcher, percussion), the carefully curated program highlighted two disparate styles of contemporary music, but also brought to light their similarities.

On the first half, andPlay presented four works they have commissioned in the last two years. In addition to being enthusiastic champions for new music and collaboration, andPlay performs with a welcoming and dynamic spirit. The duo opened with Kristofer Svensson‘s quiet Den intimitet som finns i smultron (The intimacy of wild strawberries), which they executed with thoughtfulness and care that pulled the audience in, allowing us to feel a part of a collective introspection. The opening gesture uses the breath-like quality of harmonics to evoke a specific kind of chilly stillness. As this gesture unfolds, the violin and viola move together through a series of melodic fragments, separated by pure silence. The fragments build upon each other, with each fluttery vocalism becoming more conversational. Just when I felt I had been entirely enveloped in this world, single sustained pitches faded as both performers muted the sound with their fingers and drew the bow across the string, almost as if they disappeared into the bleak expanse they had just created.

The intimate concert experience became even more warm and personal when andPlay moved in front of their stands to perform the New York premiere of Ravi Kittappa’s Tacitwithout music. The work includes a set of transitions for the performers to travel through, which, as the composer describes, necessitate a “keen understanding of each other’s playing and an capability for ‘tacit’ communication.” Here, andPlay’s synergy was key. Kittappa utilizes the full capability of the instruments, incorporating widely different textures such as bowing the wood of the instrument for a windy effect or quietly dropping the bow for a bouncing saltando. Throughout the work, hushed, slow figures emerge and quickly expand, becoming faster and more aggressive until the insistence of the ideas seems more important than the ideas themselves.

Stillness and silence also permeated Leaha Maria Villarreal’s Ghosting, but as the title suggests, here evoked a more haunting atmosphere. Villarreal’s exploration of the “permanence or impermanence of our connection to people” creates a work that is both eerie and beautiful. andPlay brought this idea to life as they traded a breathy figure back and forth until occasional moments of harmony or fragments of melody appeared, enveloped you, and then transitioned into another realm.

The final work of the set was the world premiere of Scott Wollschleger’s Violain, which proved that intimacy does not only have to be soft and still. Violain is built with repeated cells, made of similar sounds or gestures that are linked, using as Wollschleger describes, a collage technique. These fragmented cells expand, becoming increasingly conversational. andPlay’s technical mastery and dynamic performance shone through varied techniques—a descending pizzicato slide, active circular bowing, rapid high-pitched murmurings, and resonant chords with full vibrato. Wollschleger seamlessly integrates juxtapositions of extremes in volume, speed and timbre, creating a wild ride.

After a brief pause, the unlikely combination of bassoon, violin, cornet, and percussion took the stage for a set of improvisations. The vast array of sounds and textures from these four instruments created a unique aural experience. The visual component was equally compelling as each performer explored the full capability of their instruments. Ho Bynum’s variety of cornet mutes, Jessen’s vocalisms, Decker’s use of different tools (most notably a string of beads), and Vatcher’s expanded drum-set all provided unusually contrasting images. In improvisation, reading the body language of one’s fellow performers is usually vital, but this quartet performed largely with their eyes closed, almost as if the four musicians were moving through their own worlds. Intimacy took on a new light here, as I was unsure whether I was watching a performance or private moment.

The sound fragments and unusual techniques settled into a calm stasis as the percussion dropped out, bassoon became very quiet, violin tremolo shimmered, and a muted cornet evoked a far-off birdcall. In this way, the improvising quartet and andPlay became linked through a shared sensibility toward stillness and silence.