Music for harp solo with flute, clarinet and string quartet.
8.10.2013. Camerata Hall, Musikkitalo, Helsinki
Franco Donatoni (1927-2000) Chantal (1990)
Wolfgang Rihm (*1952) En plain air (2004/2005)
Sarah Nemtsov (*1980) Zimmer (2013)
Tristan Murail (*1947) L'attente (1972/1992)
Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) Introduction et Allegro (1906)
Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir harp
Kristjana Helgadóttir flute
Ingólfur Vilhjálmsson clarinet
Matthias Engler assistant
Asasello String Quartet:
Rostislav Kozhevnikov violin
Barbara Kuster violin
Justyna Śliwa viola
Wolfgang Zamastil cello
Scott Voyles conductor
In this last of my five doctoral concerts I present a program dedicated to pieces written for solo harp with the accompaniment of flute, clarinet and string quartet. This instrumentation was first introduced by Maurice Ravel in the piece Introduction et Allegro that he composed at the request of the instrument maker Erard in 1905. The piece was in fact meant to promote the company's pedal-harp and its many possibilities. Now, more than 100 years later the pedal harp still needs promoting and indeed the goal of my doctoral concert series has been to demonstrate how different contemporary composers have used the harp in their compositions and to show different sides and aspects of the harp's versatile sound-world.
Quite early in my doctoral research I discovered the three pieces by Murail, Rihm and Donatoni, which used the same instrumentation as Ravel. I was surprised to discover that such renowned composers had written these works that, nevertheless, are not commonly known among harpists or performed in any of the countless concerts where the Ravel septet is performed. In fact one of the things I have realized during my research and work is that the harp's contemporary repertoire not only needs promoting among composers and the general concert audience, but also among harpists themselves. Although many important composers have dealt with the harp, many good pieces remain unplayed and unnoticed. A greater openness and further research is needed!
Fortunately the harp has come a long way in the last 100 years. It is no longer considered an outsider or a second-class instrument, both notions the great harpist and composer Carlos Salzedo spent most of his carrier fighting. In an article in the magazine Overtones from 1930 he wrote:
"There is a paradox as regards the harp. The less that people know about this instrument, the more they tend to express authoritative opinions of its potentialities. A statement generally made by reviewers who hear the harp for the first time "the harp is the most ancient of musical instruments". While this is true historically speaking, it is, musically, a fallacy, For the harp of the Jews, Egyptians, Greeks, Irish and so forth, bears as much relation to the harp of the 1930 as an ox – historically the oldest means of transportation – to an airplane, scientifically the most modern instrument of transportation. The statement quoted above is often followed by another remark that " the harp is a very limited musical instrument". Another fallacy! There will be less talk of these so-called "limitations" when people become adequately informed concerning the most modern aspects of the instrument."
My doctoral thesis, a website about contemporary harp technique and notation with both audio-visual and notational examples, is now ready and will be published soon. It is indeed my hope that it will contribute to a greater understanding of the harp and its "most modern aspects". Like Salzedo did during his lifetime, I will continue to promote my instrument and hope to make it, and its repertoire, an even more regular sight in concert halls. To end this introduction I will quote Salzedo's article in Overtones again, since his words might as well have been written today:
"The wealth and variety of musical color and effects of the contemporary harp has already induced leading composes of our time to enrich music literature with works for harp solo, harp as basis for chamber music , and harp with accompaniment of orchestra. This literature, although not yet very large, includes works no less significant and musically important than those written for the other concert instruments. In short, our repertoire, as it stands, may be said to present the harp as a true medium of our age."
Franco Donatoni – Chantal
Franco Donatoni was, together with Luciano Berio and Luigi Nono, one of the most important composers of his generation. His early works were under the influence of music by Bela Bartok, but later Bruno Maderna's music had a great impact on him. In the 50´s he attended the summer courses at Darmstadt and met composers like Boulez, Stockhausen and Cage.
After an identity crisis in the early 60's, Donatoni finally found his distinctive style in 1966 with the piece – Etwas ruhiger im Ausdruk – a piece based on a fragment by Schoenberg. Short fragments remained a characteristic element in Donatoni's music, along with quick, almost cinematic cuts between different textures and a compulsive development of rhythms and short melodic fragments. Donatoni had a very intellectual and radical approach to music. In his opinion one of the main roles of a composer was to explore the material of music, to identify it and to transform and explore it, and ultimately to allow the material to form itself into a musical composition. Donatoni was fascinated with symbols, numerology and alchemy, and his music, carefully constructed from small musical cells, is often based on numbers or numeric relations.
The piece Chantal, for example, originally had the title Settimino. It is written for seven instruments and constantly plays around with the number seven. The piece was commissioned by Radio France and is dedicated to the harpist Chantal Mathieu. The harp has a very soloistic role in the piece. As in his other pieces for harp, Donatoni uses only plucked notes and no other effects or playing techniques. The harp part is very complex and technical and not very harp-typical, however it is very precisely written and always possible and aptly demonstrates well Donatoni's profound understanding of the instrument.
Wolfgang Rihm – En plain air
Wolfgang Rihm is one of Germany's most prominent living composers. With over 400 works to his name, his style is versatile yet distinctive. He is a proficient writer, teacher, lecturer and poet, and his works often have literary references. Rihm studied composition both with Stockhausen and Klaus Huber and attended summer courses at Darmstadt. He teaches composition at the music University in his hometown Karlsruhe and is a prominent figure in the German contemporary music scene. Rihm's music projects an enormous desire for expression and communication. His style is ever evolving, and often he continues to work on the pieces after their creation. Rihm seeks to surprise his listeners and himself, with each piece trying to answer questions raised in the previous one.
The piece En plain air is dedicated to Klaus Lauder and the Römerbad-Musiktagen festival. Ravel´s Introduction et Allegro was on the program of the festival and the performing ensemble asked Rihm to write a new piece using the same instrumentation. Before starting to compose, Rihm asked Sarah O´Brien, the harpist of the ensemble, what she thought of the ways he had used the harp in his previous compositions. Rihm had mostly used the harp in quite a radical way, exploring the extremes of the instruments registers, using loud and percussive chords and so on. Sarah O'Brien asked him if he could rather focus on using the natural sound of the harp and investigate the instruments lyrical side. Indeed the piece is surprisingly lyrical for Rihm's style and influences from Ravel and French impressionism are obvious. The piece is inspired by a quote from L'etranger, by Baudelaire and the name of the piece is also derived from Baudelaire´s name. (en plain (baudel)arie.).
- Eh! Qu'aimes-tu donc, extraordinaire étranger?
- J'aime les nuages ... les nuages qui passent ... là-bas ... là-bas
... les merveilleux nuages !
Charles Baudelaire, L'Ètranger (from: Le Spleen de Paris)
Sara Nemtsov Zimmer
Sarah Nemtsov is one of Germany's leading composers among the younger generation. Her music is frequently played by many major ensembles and she has won several prestigious awards such as the Deutsche Musikautorenpreis (GEMA) in 2012 and the Busoni Composition Price in 2013. In 201l the Bavarian State Opera staged her opera Hertzland and another opera of hers, L'absense had its premiere in 2012 at the Munchener Biennale.
Sarah Nemtsov and Ensemble Adapter are long-term collaborators and therefore I felt it appropriate to ask her for a new piece for my concert. Sarah continuously tries to challenge herself and find new ways to use instruments. Because of our collaboration she has written frequently for the harp and has experimented a lot with different ways to distort its sound by using various types of preparations. In Zimmer she goes one step further and uses an electronic device, a chaos-pad to distort the sound. Sarah has recently been experimenting with electronics and has found that these kind of analog live electronics fit her music well. The piece also includes another new trend in Sarah's music, and that is the layering of several independent pieces to create a whole. The piece is in fact three different pieces, or rooms (Zimmer): one for the solo-harp and assistant, one for flute and clarinet and one for the string quartet. Each piece can stand alone and can be played individually but they are composed to fit together when played at the same time. In this way Sarah creates a very special sound world with a strange and mysterious energy between the pieces and the performers.
Sarah Nemtsov notes about her piece:
"In the beginning the harp is detuned. The detuning is notated exactly and is a composed part of the piece. The 17 microtonally detuned strings create a completely new harmonic perspective, and open up the possibility of making the harmony "float". In this piece I deliberately did not use many preparations or other accessories (the harp only needs the hands, tuning key and the feet for the pedals...), the chaos-pad is the preparation! The sound of the harp is picked up with microphones and sent to the speaker directly trough the chaos-pad, which modifies and distorts the sound by means of different filters. The distortion of the sound is controlled live with the chaos-pad. The solo part is, therefore, a duo that melts together to become one instrument: the (chaos-pad)prepared solo-harp. Therefore the harp plays consequently almost only "normal" notes. In the notes I look for harmonic modulations -to be exact, in a single-voice polyphony- and follow paths, into the movements themselves, paths that lead to a sort of perpetuum mobile. There suddenly appear, detuned references to Couperins "barricades misterieuses". An own room, an own world. He who is inside turns in and around himself and jet; in the imagination the room is open, without walls, without time. There are windows and also a door that leads to other rooms: a room for the bass-flute and the bass-clarinet as well as a room for the string quartet."
Tristan Murail L'attente
The French composer Tristan Murail is considered to be one of the founders of the spectral music movement. He studied composition with Oliver Messiaen in Paris and was strongly influenced by the music of Xenakis, Scleci and Ligeti. Electronic music also played an important role in his development and he experimented widely with live electronics and computer assisted composition. In the 80's Murail started to collaborate with the electronic music studios at Ircam and began using computers to increase his understanding of acoustical phenomena. Murail was professor of composition at the Columbia University in the USA from 1997 until 2012 when he was appointed professor of composition at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
L'attente was composed in 1972 but revised in 1992. Murail notes about his piece:
"In 1970, strongly influenced by Ligeti in an orchestral piece baptized Altitude 8000, I experimented with a sound continuum that boldly reintroduced, and not without some provocation, fifths, fourths, octaves and "classical" chords. L'attente is an attempt to apply these ideas to a chamber music ensemble. It is a total rejection, of the solutions then considered à la mode: no "figures" or melodies, no development in the habitual sense, few ruptures and a choice of instrumentation that could seem to be outdated. Today the resulting music seems strange to me, for this reason I had hesitated to let it be played again. It is symptomatic of a critical phase as well as of my research. Its most obvious aspect is its work with continuity, with progressive transformations of sound textures and musical situations - all of which would later be formalized as a concept called "processes". The piece is a sort of psychological study of the situation of expectation. A posteriori, I explain it like this: one waits for someone who is dear to him, one searches for her among the advancing crowd. A hazy silhouette appears: there she is ! The silhouette approaches, the form becomes clear - no, it was someone else... The excitement dies away. The processes reoccur. Successive disappointments ? or, on the contrary, isn't the expectation better than the arrival of what was awaited ? The music is like a plastic mass, a sound lava, out of which contours continually try to emerge. A melody, a rhythm seems to take shape as the lava appears to solidify into a recognized sound configuration. But no, it was an illusion, and just as quickly, these apparently familiar elements are reabsorbed into the flow of sound. In a certain way, it is abstract music, in the sense that one could abstract the purely formal contents from the contours and colors of an ancient painting. Here, one could evoke Ravel's music, from which one had conscientiously expunged any themes, any formal breadth. Only the perfume remains. By dint of refusing any clear structure, precise sound object, strategy of development or composition, one hovers over the precipice of nothingness. L'attente's composition was essentially empirical, but one cannot far prolong the tenuity of a paradox."
The harp takes a more discreet role in Murail's piece than in the other pieces on this program. However it is always present and tries to break through the "sound lava". Murail's notation is both very exact and also gives space for improvisation. He stays true to a very "French" harp-style, a style that otherwise can mostly be found in Japanese contemporary music such as the music of Hosokawa or Takemitsu.
Maurice Ravel Introduction et Allegro
As said above, Ravel wrote the Introduction et Allegro on a commission from the instrument maker Sebastian Erard. Erard was a very prominent maker of pianos and harps in Paris and had invented the double action pedal harp mechanism in 1810. The double action pedal harp finally allowed playing in any tonality. However the mechanism was sensitive, clumsy and often inaccurate in tuning and therefore instrument makers continued to search for a way to simplify and improve the mechanism. Erard continued to improve the pedal harp, but his rival Gustav Lyon invented the chromatic harp, a harp without pedals and two cross-strung rows of strings. The instrument maker Playel put Lyon's invention into production in 1897 in direct competition with Erard's pedal harp. Playel put a lot of effort into establishing this new chromatic harp and a part of that effort was to commission a piece from Claude Debussy. Debussy wrote the piece Danse Sacreé et Danse Profane in 1904 for chromatic harp and string quartet. As a response Erard commissioned a piece from Ravel later that same year, and in the spring of 1905 Ravel composed the Introduction et Allegro for harp solo with flute, clarinet and string quartet.
The main difference between the chromatic harp and the pedal harp was that the pedal harp could use the pedals to create enharmonic doublings of strings. This made it possible, for example, on the pedal harp to play glissandos in different tonalities and even as chords rather than just a scale. On the chromatic harp, on the other hand, the harpist could change faster between different chromatic notes and even play a chromatic scale, yet it was only possible to make a glissando either on the natural string row or on the sharp/flat row, similar to making glissandos on the piano. Ravel showcases the qualities of the pedal harp brilliantly in his composition. He finds various ways to use glissandos and enharmonic doublings, but also explores the harps resonance and timbre. He plays around with harmonics and different combinations of harmonics and normal notes both in the beautiful cadenza and elsewhere in the piece. But Ravel does not only explore the possibilities of the harp as such in the piece, but also various ways to combine its sound with the different instruments of the ensemble. While some argue that Introduction et Allegro is a miniature harp concerto, the piece can also be seen as a delicate ensemble work. Ravel uses various combinations to both complement and contradict the soloistic harp-part, which is indeed tightly woven together with the lines of the other instruments.
Salzedo, Carlos. The harp – Medium of the modern age. Overtones: the monthly publication of the Curtis Institute of Music; Volume 1, Number 8; May 1930.
Sherman, Laura and Weidensaul, Jane. Ravel´s Introduction et Allegro: History and Lore. American Harp Journal. Vol. 17 no. 4, Winter 2000, p. 19-25.
Artist Biography by Robert Kirzinger. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/franco-donatoni-mn0001427614/biography. Accessed 23.8.2013
http://jeffreylevinemusic.com/franco-donatoni-and-me/. Accessed 23.8.2013
http://www.tristanmurail.com/ Accessed 23.8.2013
http://www.universaledition.com/Wolfgang-Rihm/composers-and-works/composer/599 Accessed 23.8.2013
Correspondence with harpist Sarah O´Brien.