May 20, 2016 @ 7:30
Logan Center for the Performing Arts
University of Chicago, Hyde Park
Tomorrow’s Music Today II
An everywhere of silver,
With ropes of sand
To keep it from effacing
The track called land.
Over the past six months I’ve had the pleasure of working on Phil’s harp concerto, an everywhere of silver. Phil has an innate sense of the instrument, and his writing clearly shows a tactile, immediate understanding of harp technique. Blended with the pursuit to explore every nuance of resonance, in Phil’s writing the harp truly blossoms in sound.
There are traces of Ginastera’s concerto throughout silver’s 30 minutes, though this piece pushes farther, sings more expressively, and hits harder (quite literally). It is a tour-de-force of virtuosic – sometimes violent – writing balanced by passages of innovatively-notated expressive freedom.
There is something soul-fulfilling about playing this piece. To me, each passage is like an invitation – to dig in and to go for it.
an everywhere of silver will be (correct me if I am wrong) your second long-form piece for harp after Night. What originally attracted you to the harp to write Night and what questions did it leave with you?
I think it’s tough to write a solo or concerto for any instrument, because my knowledge of how to write effectively for that instrument is on display, naked and totally exposed. I can’t hide behind anything. For certain instruments like harp, piano, accordion, organ, guitar—capable of complex counterpoint, or needing more than two limbs to operate—unless they play that instrument, I think composers might approach that task with more apprehension. But if you can work closely with someone who knows that instrument well and is brilliant at sharing how it works and what it can do, you can have a great experience that results in effective music. Night arose out of this kind of setting: I love the sound of the harp, but didn’t know much about writing well for it at all. I worked closely with Alison Attar, with whom I wanted to collaborate for some time. She helped me navigate the capabilities and possibilities of the instrument—through her I learned how to write idiomatically, and from there I could push different boundaries for her and for myself.
Of course, Night is a seven-minute work and it focuses around a few musical facets of the instrument. an everywhere of silver is nearly five times that length, more virtuosic, and scored not just for harp but for an ensemble of fourteen musicians. A lot of friends and colleagues asked if I was going the Berio route, using the solo piece as a kind of seed to grow the concerto, but the truth is the two pieces have little in common—they inhabit different spaces. I used the lessons I learned writing Night as a jumping-off point to go exploring other musical territory.
One of the things that I appreciate about your notational practice is the space it affords the performer within highly detailed specificity; you’re exacting with dynamics, macro-rhythmic values, and expressive markings, but within each phrase the performer is granted room for expressive interpretation. I would further add that the harp, being an instrument constrained by its relatively fast sound decay, is generally not perceived as a “lyrical” or “horizontal” instrument. In Silver, the musical success of these phrases depends on a sense of lyricism. How did you develop this notation and where did the idea come from?
I started developing this ‘rubato’ notation after a number of experiences where I tried to achieve flexibility through more traditional means and found I was never 100% satisfied with the result. Spatial notation might have been the closest solution, but it’s more effective in small groups and I wanted something easier to incorporate with more traditional notation. I sought a way to let performers know the general shape of phrases, how much time they take to play, and give them enough anchor points along the way to keep the music clear and connected—especially if other players are still following the beat. Doing it this way requires me to have a lot of trust in the individual performers, to let them know that some things are off the grid and that it’s completely okay to shape it the way they want within that context. For the actual notation system, I was partly inspired by composers like Corigliano and Gubaidulina who are interested in capturing both rhythmic precision and extreme flexibility at the same time.
I strongly believe that any instrument is capable of lyricism if a sensitive performer is playing it, regardless of sustaining power. I’m a pianist, and there’s a long and successful history of finding creative ways to overcome that instrument’s lack of sustain. Sensitive percussionists can make unpitched woods and metals sound melodic. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to explore and celebrate the harp’s “horizontal” side—that stage has been set magnificently by Ravel, among many others since.
Silver is in two movements, each with an extended cadenza. Can you tell us a little about the form and how the two movements play with/against each other?
On the largest scale, I think of the two-movement structure as an enormous antecedent-consequent phrase that lasts half an hour. The first movement is this single, deep inhalation, where each phrase builds upon the previous ones in a kind of crystalline structure, patiently gathering until it begins to break open bit by bit. It ends with a question mark, or an ellipsis, which the longer second movement then expands into something resembling a giant theme-and-variations set with all its edges melted together, fused into a single arc. Each variation opens up its own space, and these spaces continue expanding until there’s enough room for other layers of musical development inside. Both movements are linked through shared material but explore and pursue those materials to different ends: the cadenzas, each placed toward the end of a movement, are one of a number of structural echoes built into the two sides of the diptych.
Elements of the Ginastera concerto’s influence can be seen in a few passages throughout silver. What do you like about that concerto and what elements stuck with you as you wrote Silver?
The Ginastera concerto is ubiquitous in the harp world. Besides being a great showpiece, I think it’s influential because the work did so much to transform and break perceived limits of the instrument. Ginastera took many well-tread harp tropes—glissandi, arpeggiated chords, figurations—and reshaped them to unlock a new sound world, a world capable of violence, mystery, poignance, and a fiery, primal energy. Not everything convinces me, and I don’t think it’s the greatest piece ever written, but there are passages that are bewitching and very powerful, and that sound world certainly has an effect on the space that Silver inhabits.
On that same note, the 3rd movement of the Ginastera, post-cadenza, approaches turning the harp into a many-stringed percussion instrument. Some gestures in Silver are percussive, though you use them far less frequently than Ginastera does. How do they operate in this context?
My approach toward percussive effects on the harp doesn’t come from wanting to make it a percussion instrument per se. It’s capable of a diverse range of sounds, many of which are fascinating and unique—but whatever sounds I use, traditional or not, I need to be convinced that they have to be there, that they fit the musical context. I restrict my palette to those sounds that I personally find effective and that make sense with the sound world of the piece as a whole. That also means finding resonances with other instruments and their timbral ranges, and building those into the music—for instance, the harpist’s ability to pluck a string and rebound off the soundboard has obvious similarities to snap pizzicato in the strings, and in turn this finds percussive analogues in the whip, or rim shots on a snare drum. String and pedal-induced buzzes (which I don’t think Ginastera uses, but which have become part of the vast extended-technique canon) echo unpitched metal instruments like the tam-tam or cymbals of various kinds, as well as the buzz of the horn flutter-tonguing in its low register. From there I can go in many different directions, but that’s how I begin to think about these sounds and weave them into the musical fabric.
For me, one of the most immediately apparent elements of your harp writing is how deeply, richly resonant the harp becomes. Some of this is from our work together, re-voicing chords, etc. to create the kind of “sing” you want, but speaking more broadly, how does this reflect your approach to any instrument or ensemble?
Figuring out how the harp resonates was something that completely surprised me in our meetings! When we were re-voicing chords, if a single inner voice was doubled somewhere, or a slight spacing difference made, that could transform a sound that was merely acceptable, workable, into something that seemed to bloom from the core of the harp—carrying much more heft, seeming more solid. That’s really important when you have to be heard over the rest of an ensemble. I often think about the relative resonance of an instrument’s different registers, how they can be “consonant” or “dissonant” in terms of affecting both timbre and carrying power, and how those elements influence balance and musical character.
See you on May 20th!