Unsnared Drum; Dur: 38:10; New Focus Recordings; Catalog No. fcr310; Released August 20, 2021.

Michael Compitello’s debut solo album, Unsnared Drum, was created in collaboration between Compitello and a cohort of composers. In Compitello’s hands, the otherwise humble snare drum becomes a force to be reckoned with. The four new compositions were penned by top-tier composers: Nina C. Young, Hannah Lash, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Tonia Ko. From the angular, Hopper-like cover artwork designed by Laura Grey and Molly Haig, to Compitello’s splendid program notes and the impressive music within, this album will captivate serious new music listeners, percussion enthusiasts, and pandemic survivors looking for inspiration.

Compitello is a performer, teacher and passionate promoter of new music. He performs with cellist Hannah Collins in the duo New Morse Code; he is also a member of The Percussion Collective, an ensemble dedicated to performing contemporary works. Compitello holds a DMA and MA from Yale School of Music and a BM from Peabody Conservatory. He is a member of the music department faculty at Arizona State University.

On this project, Compitello shared his unbridled collaborative spirit by offering snare drum kits to colleagues, working with them, and trusting they would spin out compelling works from wells of immense creativity. Like curious children turned loose with the pleasure of an amazing new toy, they responded with an impressive set of compositions.

Nina C. Young, composer and sonic artist, is the winner of the 2015-16 Rome Prize and a 2021 Guggenheim Fellowship. Her work has been performed by notable musicians in prestigious venues in the U.S. and abroad. She is Assistant Professor of Composition at USC’s Thorton School of Music.

Young’s “Heart.throb” (2019) is witty, imaginative, and inventive. With a transducer placed under the drum head, an eccentric partner emerges. The duo (drum and drummer) create a lively conversation that made me laugh out loud. I was reminded of the master of early electronic music, Allen Strange (1943-2008) and his sometimes quirky pieces. Compitello’s commanding performance enticed me to listen again.

An award-winning and internationally acclaimed composer and harpist, Hannah Lash is a faculty member of the Mannes Schooll of Music at the College of Performing Arts. Her works include orchestral, chamber, solo, and vocal/dramatic compositions. I would compare “Start” to eventing for horses. It’s a demanding composition that calls for strength, agility, and intense concentration. The player strikes the drum with traditional sticks and brushes, as well as chopsticks, knitting needles and his fingertips, each creating unique timbre. The result is a complex yet minimalistic set of variations that would challenge even the best of percussionists. Compitello’s is a five-star performance.

To follow is a contrasting piece by Amy Beth Kirsten. Known for her evening-length Jacob in Chains and the highly acclaimed Quixote, Kirsten brings a dramatic flair to her work. Her awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations. Kirsten teaches at the Longy School of Music at Bard College.

In “Ghost in the Machine” (2019), Kirsten utilizes a variety of tools to summon unearthly sounds from the drum – a triangle resting on the top of the drum and a glass the percussionist moves across the head. There are hypnotic moments, but the simple, archetypal counterpoint of a tick-tock is enough to send one for cover! The audio recording offers a unique imaginative opportunity (I recalled The Twilight Zone on my parents’ old black and white TV). Compitello’s superb performance brings it to life.

Tonia Ko’s “Negative Magic” (2019) begins like a sacred work for dance. Compitello skillfully choreographs space and tempo changes. Structured in sections, the composer exploits the textural and timbral possibilities of the drum. Examples include turning the snares on (previously off) in the middle of the piece, or sliding a soft mallet across the head of the drum. It’s a stunning piece. Like all four compositions, Compitello’s intense concentration and technical ability transform this work into something far greater than the scribbles of notation on a page.

Listening again allowed me to let my mind wander into memory and story-telling mode. Watching video recordings of Compitello’s riveting performances reminded me how fortunate we are to have all of this technology. However, I look forward to a live performance of these works. For now, I am grateful for this inspired album. Get it and have a listen; it will make your heart sing!