If you put up a poster that said “Erin Rodgers: Live” and no other information, I would not have the first clue what that show would involve despite having professionally covered her for around a decade. So, when she announced that her latest album would be a series of duets for clarinet and piano written as an exquisite corpse via airmail with Anthony Barilla, the only appropriate response was “sounds about right.”
It is also amazing.
Released on Bandcamp under Rodgers’s National Pleasure moniker and Barilla’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission name, Correspondence Compositions is 11 short songs that invoke a rambling sense of melancholy. Each composition was written in pieces over the course of two years over mail by the two Houstonians, who live within walking distance of each other but still send each other posts regularly.
“I still have pen pals,” says Rodgers. “It got frustrating. Drawing staff lines by ruler onto a piece of airmail is a lot, but it was dramatic. Dramatic is a good word. And it was prettier. It was a fun experience because we had to go find them by shopping for vintage email online.”
The rules of the album were simple. Each would write about five measures on a piece of airmail, the largest piece of single sheet mail they could find. They acquired the airmail from all over the world, usually from eBay. Over the course of the collaboration, the marginalia would get filled with instructions to the post office and cancelled stamps, writing crawling up and down the sides like a mad wander. Only one piece ever got lost.
“We severely limited ourselves,” says Barilla. “It could only be asl long as we could get it on the thing. To some extent we had to be able to play it. We had no idea what the other person was going to do with the parameters that we set.”
The result is a strange, but soothing album. It runs less than 15 minutes including a bonus remix by L.I.M.B that explains the rules of tetherball of all things, but the brief time allows the songs to have a compressed identity. Each is named after the origin of the airmail, and they sound like dreams of travel thanks to Rodgers’s mournful but playful style and Barilla’s steady foundation of chords.
For Rodgers, the project allowed her to reconnect with her musical roots. Her degree is in clarinet performance, and she’s played with all kinds of acts across Houston with the instrument. While she has mostly been songwriting with guitar and piano lately because it makes writing easier when solo, she fondly remembers mastering the instrument while rebelling against the standard repertoire.
“I don’t think it’s an intentional resistance,” she says. “I just know what my voice is and I have the tools to express my voice. I don’t want to [play for the symphony]. I knew what I wanted to sound like. It doesn’t come out in one instrument or one media.”
Meanwhile, Barilla has been putting together a handsome complement for the album. He saved all the pieces of mail and scanned them to create a limited edition sheet music collection. It adds a tactile experience to the music for the lucky 50 who will be able to get one before they’re gone.
“I love vinyl, but it’s also really expensive, and it takes a long time to make, and only other vinyl nerds like it,” says Barilla. “I make a lot of things, and sometimes I don’t want to wait a year for vinyl to come out. I like [the sheet music] because it’s also impractical in a certain way. It’s just a little standalone piece of art that’s beautiful. These airmail letters, all raggedy with stamps, the post office getting confused. All these little quirks, they make it wonderful.”
Correspondence Compositions is out now on Bandcamp. $10 for the album, $20 for the sheet music.