Verlassene Orte

Selected chamber music with harp.

A presentation of recordings. May, 2013.

Sarah Nemtsov (1980):

Verlassene Ohrte/ Berlin (2010)   
Laterna Magica / Combray (2011)  
Landscapes/Desert  (2010)  

From: Sarah Nemtsov. Deutscher Musikrat/Edition zeitgenössische Musik. WERGO 2012.

Tom Rojo Poller (1978):

Aporie (über die Zeit) (2006)    
Constellatio Splendens (2004)   

From: Gehen, Ensemble- und Kammermusik 2004-2007. ToRo Music 2010.

David Brynjar Franzson (1977):

The principals of Order (2009)      

From: a guide for the Dead through the Underworld (2006-2009). Deutschlandradio/Carrier Records 2010.

Paul Friedrich Frick (1979):

Destroy Erase Improve (2009) (DVD)  

From: Destroy Erase ImproveEnsemble Adapter 2010.


All recordings were performed by Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir and Ensemble Adapter.

Program notes:

The goal of my doctoral-project is to promote the harp as an important instrument in contemporary music, to show its possibilities, and to encourage composers to write for it in new and inventive ways.

My thesis is closely connected with this goal. The thesis, presented in the form of a web site, is a manual of contemporary harp techniques and notation for composers. Although the harp has become increasingly popular in recent years, general knowledge of the instrument's essence, its functions, and in particular its notation still seems to be inadequate and inconsistent. Orchestration books are outdated, and new playing techniques call for new notation guidelines.

My doctoral concerts have focused on demonstrating various aspects of the exciting contemporary harp repertoire. From large-scale solo harp works to smaller chamber works, the pieces in my concerts have one aspect in common. They were all written by composers who were not harpists themselves. Furthermore, most of the composers have worked closely together with a harpist during the composition of their work. Perhaps the most famous example of this kind of collaboration is the Sequenza II by Luciano Berio from 1963, written for and in cooperation with the famous harpist Francis Pierre.

These kinds of collaborations have been the most important part of my doctoral project. During the course of my studies I have been a full time freelance harpist working exclusively in the field of contemporary music. I have worked with a number of composers, both on solo works, chamber music, pieces for ensemble, orchestral works and operas. These encounters have taught me a great deal.  In a sense my professional career has been my laboratory. The encounters with different composers have given me a place to try out my ideas and to discuss different solutions to notational problems. I have also been able to use my knowledge of the existing repertoire to provide ideas and inspiration or solutions to notational problems.

I have had the pleasure to work with great masters of the contemporary music world, such as Helmut Lachenman, Hans Werner Henze and Toshio Hosokawa and with the younger generations of composers, such as Sarah Nemtsov, Francois Sarhan, Jarkko Hartikainen, Hans Thomalla and others. All have shown me that composers today are very interested in the harp and that there is still much to be discovered.

Of these collaborations, I have found it most fruitful to work with composers over a long period of time, on different compositions. In that way, as a performer, I can even influence the composers' musical language, and give input that in turn leads to new discoveries. This is the experience I had while working on the four recordings presented here. The four composers Sarah Nemtsov, Tom Rojo Poller, Davið Brynjar Franszon and Paul Friedrich Frick have all been long-term collaborators of mine. The three CD´s and one DVD were recorded during my doctoral-project, and all the composers have contributed to my thesis in various ways. For example, Sarah Nemtsov and I have invented several different preparations for the harp and have experimented with bowed sounds. Tom Rojo Poller has inspired my thoughts on different damping techniques and the use of scordatura, while Davíð Brynjar Franszon has experimented extensively with muting technique and various percussive effects. Paul Friedrich Frick and I have experimented with various rhythmical aspects of the harp and the instrument's usage in pop- and techno music.

The four recordings are included in their entirety, however, I have made a selection of pieces that specially feature the harp and show the different aspects of my collaboration with the composers. The selected tracks have been complied on one CD except for the DVD, which includes only one track/film.

The first three tracks are taken from the portrait CD of Sarah Nemtsov, recorded by Ensemble Adapter for the German recording company Wergo. Sarah Nemtsov and I have worked closely together for several years, and her curiosity and fascination for the harp has been an inspiration for me. In her music she often uses distorted sounds or even sounds from non-musical objects, such as children's toys, typewriters or keys.  One of the most interesting sounds she invented for the harp is the so-called gong effect. The strings of the harp are prepared with a small hair-clips placed precisely at a point 2/3 of the strings length away from the sounding board. The resulting sound is similar to that of a gong, a muted-bell-like effect, rich in overtones. This effect can be heard clearly in the first half of Laterna Magica, where seven strings are prepared with hair-clips.

After I introduced Nemtsov to the usage of violin bow hairs, she has used the effect in almost every harp part written since. Using bow hairs allows the harpist to create a smooth transition from a beautiful bowed tone to a scratching sound and to control the dynamic of the bowed note better than when applying the quite common practice of using a violin bow to bow the harp. In Verlassene Ohrte, for example, the bowed harp notes in the beginning of the piece are short gestures, moving quickly from a soft to a loud dynamic. Furthermore the quick changes between bowed and regular notes are only possible by using bow hairs that can be kept on the string without disturbing the natural sound of the sting when plucked normally.

Nemtsov´s harp writing is always quite challenging but at the same time very rewarding for the player. She understands the possibilities of the instrument well and acknowledges its potential. She is one of the few who also sees a darker side to the harp and often tries to bring out its more brutal side. Her background as a professional oboist gives her a deep understanding of the job of the performer, and she manages to find a good balance between exact instructions and the space the performer needs to let his or her musicality through.

Below are the original program texts for the three pieces:

Verlassene Orte / Berlin for alto flute, bass clarinet, harp, prepared piano, and percussion, was inspired by Walter Benjamin's Berlin Childhood Around 1900. Ties to the literary text result from linguistic images and sentence fragments written into the score as a goad to the performer' imagination. In some passages, e.g. Where speech rhythm seems to determine the musical delivery, the relation between the literary words behind the noise of key click conjure up an everyday urban environment in the form of Berlin place names, or when the use of toy harmonicas causes flashes of clumsy child's play to enter the music as an evocative sound-symbol.

Laterna magica /Combray for prepared harp solo, piano, percussion and humming toys, takes as its starting point the depiction of a childhood memory in Proust's In search of lost time -namely, the Laterna Magica in the nursery and its associated illusions of colours, light and darkness. Here the distortion that takes hold of the reality of the room in the writer's memory has been transferred to the choice of instruments, and thereby anchored in the level of sound: the foreground instrument – the harp – is altered with preparations using strips of paper and hairpins and expanded with the addition of a gong and an alpine cowbell. The other instruments frequently relate to this layer in the manner of resonators: the percussion reinforces the percussive aspects of the harp part, while the piano lends sharper focus to its harmonic dimension. The use of seven humming toys tuned harmonically to the alpine cowbells can be read as yet another acoustic symbol of childhood.

Landscapes/desert (2010) for clarinet, cello, harp, amplified cembalo and percussion, a "musical road-trip" through California and the Mojave desert, marks the end point of Sarah Nemtsov's cycle. On the margins of the score the composer writes short comments on different natural phenomena, plants, geological formations or geographical places as a reflecion on her own experiences that form the inspiration of the piece. The listener, on the other hand, only perceives quickly moving sonic images that in their suggestive formulation, dominated by shifting focus between the individual instruments and the detuning of the harp and the cembalo, leave a multicoloured visual impression. For example when sounds, scratched sounds or sizzling paper sounds, remind of a gust of wind or when the metrically strict percussion part reminds of the beats of forgotten pop-songs.
(Dr. Stefan Drees)
(For space reasons, Landscapes/desert was not included on the final CD. However the track was made available for free download on the composers website.)

In 2010 ToRo music published a portrait CD of Tom Rojo Poller. On the CD, works from the period 2004–2007 can be found, all written for, and in close cooperation with Ensemble Adapter. Poller has a distinctive compositional style. His music deals with rhythmic textures and temporal relations juxtaposed with microtonal colouring of harmony and harmonic progressions. In the beginning of our collaboration he found it quite a challenge to incorporate the harp into his musical language, but he later developed excellent ways to do so. The resonance of the harp was, for example, something that bothered Poller when writing fast rhythmical passages. In Apoire, he found a way to use this resonance deliberately. The harp and the piano play unisonous chordal attacks. The attack of the harp is inaudible, but the resonance lives on after the sound of the piano has vanished. The microtonal tuning of the harp gives the resonance of the chord a microtonal color. In this way Poller manages to create almost a new instrument, an instrument that is capable of a normally tuned chord attack with a microtonal resonance.

As can be expected Poller uses scordatura in the harp extensively. However, over the course of our collaborations he switched from detuning 38 strings on the harp, as in Aporie, to detuning only about 4 or 5 in his newer works, since he found that he could reach the result he was aiming at with only a few detuned strings.

Below are the original program notes for the two works:

The piece Aporie (Über die Zeit) was inspired by the poem "Aporie Augustinus (Über die Zeit)" by the German poet Durs Grünbein. In this poem, Grünbein addresses the famous problem of St. Augustine, posed in his "Confessions", concerning the essence of time:  "If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know.". Grübein's poem paraphrases Augustine's conflict between the intuition about the nature of time and the inability to explain it in several intensifying stanzas until at the end a surprising solution is vaguely hinted at. My piece reflects this dramaturgy in its formal construction: Juxtaposed episodes keep evolving different paths of time experience, but only at the end, after the climax of the piece, a new time and space dimension is opened that might suggest a sense of timelessness.

Stella Splendens is a medieval tune from the 14th century. I first heard it when Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir, at the premiere of one of my earlier works, surprised me by playing it directly after my piece, thus creating an interesting and atmospheric connection of old and new. Inspired by this experience, I used the melody of Stella Splendens for two of my pieces as musical material. The longer one, Constellatio Splendens, derives its basic elements from the intervallic and rhythmical structure of the medieval melody and combines them in permanently changing constellations. The result is a kind of mosaic texture through which in parts is still recognizably reminiscent of the original melody.
(Tom Rojo Poller)

The principals of order was originally commissioned by the Norwegian ensemble Asamisimasa. In 2009 Franszon made a second version for Ensemble Adapter, and the piece was rewritten for bass clarinet, harp and percussion. The piece is a part of an hour-long cycle a guide for the dead though the underworld premiered by Ensemble Adapter at the Dark Music Days Festival in Iceland. The cycle was later performed at the Ultraschall festival in Berlin and recorded by Deutschalndradio for Carrier records.

The principals of Order features the harp in a rather unconventional way. The part was originally written for guitar, but was rewritten as a harp part in a close cooperation between composer and performer. In the part not a single note is played in the standard way, instead all notes are either muted, distorted or have yet another special effect. Franszon pays great attention to details, and together we tried countless different techniques and preparations for the harp. The result is a percussive harp part that focuses on the smallest details of sound and minimal changes of timbre and texture.  Every action is very deliberate and calculated, the performers must control the sound production completely.  Many of the sounds in the piece, both for the harp and for the percussion and clarinet, are very soft. Therefore we took quite a radical approach while recording the piece, using close-up placement of microphones to let the listener come "as close" to the sound as possible. On his web site, Franszon writes the following about his piece.

In the piece, idiomatic sounds make rapid connections forming coherence on the local level. Gradually these connections get more concrete and begin to form a number of fixed sound categories. Once these categories have been successfully formed they take over and become the surface material instead of the cells from which they were derived.
(Davíð Brynar Franzson)

On the Carrier Records web site the following text about the complete cycle can be found:

Davíð Brynjar Franzson's a Guide for the Dead through the Underworld, is a 12 part listening guide to the composer's immediate environment. The various noises that the instruments can produce are treated as representatives of sounds taken from his surroundings––from the ticking sound of a red toy duck, through the squealing brakes of large trucks as they grind to a halt on Amsterdam Avenue, to the low rumble of the boiler in the basement of his apartment. Through this process, Franzson not only creates something new, but creates a space wherein the new can take place. In this case a freak of nature: the Monster––a monster defined as the combination of objects (living or inanimate), each separately belonging to a natural category, but combined forming the "unnatural". By placing the disembodied sounds of the instruments within the context of his immediate environment, Franzson constructs unseen musical monsters, monsters that live right on the edge of our perception, briefly popping in to existence only to disappear again.
(Carrier Records)

The audio-visual piece Destroy Erase Improve was a collaboration between Ensemble Adapter, composer Paul Friedrich Frick, video artist Aron Kitzig and the photographer Harry Weber. The piece was composed for HörenSehen, a festival of Audio-visual art in the Berlinische Gallerie 2008. Frick and Kitzig came up with the concept of a low-fi audio-visual composition where the visual part would be completely integrated into the music. For that purpose they used a slide projector. The projector produces a certain rhythm when it is operated and this rhythm forms the basis for piece's rhythmical structure. Additionally the projector produces an image each time it is operated. The percussionist operates the projector so it becomes an instrument. Thus the images can be timed exactly with the music. Indeed the pictures that are projected are close-ups of the performers playing at that specific point in the piece. The piece has been performed several times live, but in 2010 Ensemble Adapter and Aron Kitzig produced the DVD adding a cinematic layer to the work. On the DVD the piece can be seen in whole as well as interviews with the participants and a short "making of" film.

Paul Friedrich Frick's music is intensely inspired by electronic techno. His pieces are normally very rhythmical and often they deal with rhythmical shifting and syncopation. Frick and I have experimented greatly with the rhythmical side of the harp. Finding ways to use various damping techniques or different articulation to create a steady and mechanic rhythmical result. Destroy Erase Improve was the first piece we worked on together, and despite its rather simple notation, much experimentation was needed to achieve the desired result. Frick's everlasting interest in the relation between man and machine is the inspiration for his unique aesthetic of mechanical music that sounds both human and irregular at the same time.