Composing for a new music group is a challenging endeavor. One strives to write something musically inventive, or technically challenging, perhaps contextually relevant, or socially aware, and maybe esoteric…sometimes all the above! Lately I have been really trying to separate any expectations or presumptions and just write in the most direct manner I possibly can to get the aural result that I want. I think the first step to this is trust. Wild Rumpus is a wonderful collection of talented Bay Area new music performers. I knew I could (and needed to) trust them to interpret my music and make it their own.
Another approach I have been using lately is finding the title of a work before deciding what the music will be. The title for this piece, The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time…, is loosely adapted from one of the last lines of the movie American Beauty. I began thinking: what if I took a moment, an energy, and let it grow as organically as I could into a huge moment, and then stretched that moment out? To do this I needed to change time perception continuously, from one range to another, from a rhythm into a pitch, or a tone or a noise into a formal structure. I also decided early on to compose the music entirely using duration, so the performers would use a timer to follow the music. This approach probes into the nature of duration itself, particularly as it relates to human experience. I needed to convey that the dynamic of duration is not only change but growth through change. When the brain receives a lot of new information, it takes a while to process it all. The longer this takes, the longer that period of time feels. Reciprocally, time seems to move faster if there is less to process even if the same amount of time has transpired. With this piece I didn’t want to merely stretch out sound to make it seem like a long time, but I wanted to play with the cognitive process. Most of this was empirical and intuitive, myself being the guinea pig. It is fascinating hearing how others perceive time in this piece. People I’ve spoken to tell me the first five minutes feels like only a few, perhaps due to the complex sonorities occurring. And I build up to these moments with extreme simplicity so there is a continuous change in time perception.
After composing the full score using an Excel spreadsheet and a stopwatch, I began writing out each part. It was like writing a story from the perspective of each individual character (musician) using the global narration (score) as a guide. Each performer’s part had a timeline on the left side of the page and musical indications on the right. For the first reading all the musicians took out their smart phones and pressed a timer at the same time. Nathaniel Berman, Wild Rumpus’s conductor, merely counted off the moment for the performers to press start on their phones. Thankfully, Sean Dougall (the talented husband of Wild Rumpus’ Co-Director Jen Wang) coded a clever full screen timer that the entire group could follow on a laptop. So, now the laptop is the conductor.
The night before the world premiere at Composers, Inc.’s annual !BAMM! 2015 concert, all the members of Wild Rumpus, audio engineer Zach Miley, videographer Taylor Joshua Rankin, and I went into a dark, cold church in Oakland, California, and recorded The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time… into the wee hours of the night. This video is the result of the entire process. So, go into a quiet and dark place, turn the volume up, and enjoy!
New Foundation Will Support Performance and Commissioning of American Music
Chicago Classical Review founder Lawrence A. Johnson has announced the creation of American Music Project, a nonprofit organization focused on supporting performances of American classical music and the commissioning of new work. The foundation’s first announced commission is Amy Wurtz’s Piano Quintet.
A post on Chicago Classical Review offered further background:
As a “facilitator and encourager of American music,” Johnson said the foundation will fund musical organizations, orchestras, opera companies, chamber ensembles and presenters who take on American repertory for events starting in the fall of 2015. They can submit proposals for American projects and, if they meet the foundation’s criteria, will receive financial support.
“If, for example, somebody wants to put on a festival of American string quartets, or a cycle of American symphonies, we would provide a check to underwrite some of it,” said Johnson.
He hopes to give music organizations room to challenge current conventional wisdom about what kinds of classical music audiences will pay to hear. He said the American Music Project wants to step in where presenters may feel constrained by their budgets and by the risks associated with selling too few tickets to a concert with less-familiar American repertory.
According to the project’s website, the “interim goal for the first year is to raise $500,000 from individuals and foundations with an ultimate aim of creating a standing endowment of $1 million.”
The foundation will officially launch with a concert of American music performed by the Chicago Q Ensemble in Chicago’s Ganz Hall on October 5. Wurtz will join the ensemble at the piano for the performance of her piece.
Chicago: The ancient future-music of Sam Scranton
The premiere of Sam Scranton‘s Detritivore, presented in the tucked-away space of Experimental Sound Studio, felt like a major art event. It is an evening-length ensemble work that is both theatrical and restrained, simultaneously epic and intimate, and was so absorbing that I could not write about it without participating in the reverberations of the piece itself. Scranton’s music is richly layered, allowing dense textures of live spoken text to coexist with folk percussion instruments and found sounds. His compositional voice, drawing on the willingness of minimalism to sit with one sonic idea for a courageously long time, is also utterly his own. It is a rare treat to hear a work that feels both contemporary and timeless, presented by an artist taking wholehearted risks.
Experimental Sound Studio, under the leadership of Lou Mallozzi, has what Mallozzi calls “a long history of presenting work that makes innovative use of text.” Detritivore uses texts that feel both futuristic and ancient, and the work’s humor and humanity make it a true standout. Performed by Scranton along with Andrew Tham, Deidre Huckabay, and Bill Frisch, the piece was originally intended to be performed by a small army of performers. After the premiere performance, Scranton described to me an enormous downtown Chicago food court as a potential space for a repeat performance. Stay tuned, for someday soon you too could read your secrets into a time capsule.
May 9, 2014 A.D. 20:03 hours. I see the trees and houses of Ravenswood Avenue moving quickly in and out of my field of vision. I hear my gasping breath and the pounding of my feet on the sidewalk. I think maybe I shouldn’t have gone to yoga before this concert; shouldn’t have tried to do so much today.
20:07 hours. I see the man at Experimental Sound Studios holding programs. I hear him telling me admission is ten dollars. I tell him I’m on the press list. I think I maybe should’ve bought a ticket anyway, but I also think I’m broke. I think thank God these things never start on time.
20:12 hours. I see the patch of floor where I will stand through the entire hour-long work. There’s nowhere to sit. I hear the conversation of the people next to me; one of them is moving to a new city. He says he sold everything but his patio furniture and his couch. I think it might be hard to stand up through this whole thing.
20:15 hours. I see the stage and the instruments: tall vases, light bulbs, bricks, clay tiles. Plastic cassette players sit beside animal-skin drums. I hear the audience applauding. The performers aren’t coming onstage. I hear the man behind me say, “We’ll just have to clap again louder next time.” I think he’s wrong and that the ensemble is doing this on purpose.
20:16 hours. I see the four performers coming onstage in white v-neck t-shirts and jeans. I see the contact mics and headphone cords attached close to their necks by white tape, like bandages on a wound. I hear the long silence that is the beginning of this piece. I think I love my friends, the performers, all four of them now sitting cross-legged on the floor, about to play music that’s never been heard before. I think I’d like to be up there with them.
The piece had five parts. This is what I imagined during each part.
In the first part of the piece the performers were a lost pilot on a long, long flight. They read hours, minutes, altitude, azimuth. They were a lonely astronaut in outer space, except that they had drums. They were a forest-dwelling man on a strange military assignment. They read the numbers for a long, long time. I worried the pilot wouldn’t make it. I wondered how long his flight would be. I think I heard them count to twenty hours.
In the second part of the piece the performers were praying for the astronaut. They were on the ground, sending prayers and smoke signals to their family member in the sky. Their lips moved and I didn’t know what they were saying. By the end of this part it felt like a burial ritual for the lost pilot.
In the third part the performers became themselves again. They all spoke at once, reading stories from their day into tall glass tubes, as if making recordings for a time capsule. I craned my neck to try to get closer to them and hear what they were saying. One performer said, “I think about having a full time job.” Another said, “I think about taking a shower but I don’t really want to.” The composer said, “I think Edie is being very sweet and good today.” I knew that Edie is his daughter. In the silences, it was awkward and intense. I was afraid one of them would say something embarrassing, or something I didn’t want to hear.
In the fourth section, each performer read a different chronology. Deidre read the history of Blockbuster Video. Andrew read the history of Detroit. Sam read the history of the creation of the universe. At the end of the section, Sam was left alone, his history catapulting forward into the future. He said that in the year 1 trillion A.D. the universe would enter a dark period. I thought about how the tragedies of Blockbuster, or the city of Detroit, felt smaller and sadder to me than the end of the world.
In the fifth section, the performers gathered cross-legged in a circle on the floor. They took their time-capsule vases and bowed them. I think they were having a funeral for the universe, which by the end of Sam’s oral history, had pretty much been destroyed. At the end of the piece was a silence longer than I’ve ever heard at a concert.
Austin: Mozart Requiem–Undead
I’m a bit OCD about arriving on time. My wife is laid back about these things, but I just can’t be late. Can’t. Be. Late. So even though I arrived a good fifteen minutes prior to the scheduled downbeat of Mozart Requiem: Undead, when I came upon a line of about 100 people I got nervous. I thought, “I knew I should have gotten here when the doors opened an hour before the show, but we’re at the French Legation Museum…How many people could possibly show up?”
Built in 1840, the French Legation Museum is a sprawling outdoor affair featuring some of the oldest surviving structures in town, and it’s surrounded by huge lawns and six-foot stone walls. The place is so big nobody’s filling it up, especially with concert music.
As I shifted from one foot to the other, I noticed that several people around me had the same worried look, and soon a guy walked past saying, “We’re not getting in. They are contacting the Fire Marshall to see if more people can be allowed in, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.” I poked my head over the wall and saw this:
You know how it is when you’re trying to take a picture of something huge and the photo just can’t do it justice? See above. You can see a bit of the orchestra and maybe ¼ of the main lawn. On a Wednesday. After seeing that, I knew something had to be done. Suffice it to say I finagled my way in to see what was happening on the other side of that wall.
Mozart Requiem: Undead is the brainchild of Graham Reynolds, Peter Stopchinski, and Brent Baldwin. The trio commissioned Glenn Kotche, Caroline Shaw, DJ Spooky, Adrian Quesada, Kate Moore, Todd Reynolds, Petra Hayden, and Justin Sherburn to “finish” the Requiem based on a computer analysis of the original manuscript that “definitively separated out what Mozart had written.” The composers were asked to keep the original vocal parts intact, but otherwise all bets were off. Of course, putting this all together requires a marshalling of considerable musical forces. Reynolds and Stopchinski’s Golden Hornet Project was joined by Baldwin’s Texas Choral Consort, Texas Performing Arts, Fusebox Festival, and Convergence Vocal Ensemble to put on the event. Presented as the kickoff for the 2014 Fusebox Festival, the performance featured over 200 artists (including the chorus, full orchestra, rhythm section, and electronics).
Twelve movements and ten composers—in addition to the commissions, Reynolds and Stopchinski took a few movements—make for a very full plate, and the arrangements ranged from full re-imaginings to more subtle alterations. Todd Reynolds “Dies Irae” was one of the former, with whispers building to shouts and a smattering of hi-hat on half-time drums. Pizzicato strings held the power of the work in check for a time, but the chorus would not be denied, belting out the lines until the final moment when they all fell down. Which they did (all fall down, that is). Glenn Kotche’s “Rex Tremendae” came in like a lamb with marimba, crotales, and shaker, the drum kit entering as Rex along with big choir roars before the whole thing drifted away in the wind. Stopchinski’s “Lacrimosa” had a Middle-Eastern flavor and featured violin soloist Roberto Riggio performing twists and turns over drones accompanied by strings and organ. DJ Spooky laid some beats over “Hostias” while Justin Sherburn (of Okkervil River) and Adrian Quesada brought a rock vibe to the proceedings. It was the loosening of an already colorful tie when Quesada and his band took the stage, strapped on their guitars, and began doling out the power chords to a wildly diverse festival crowd, complete with little kids doing cartwheels in front of the stage.
Many in the new music community are preoccupied with broadening the audience by changing venue and ceremony, and at times it seems a bit forced, like parents trying to be cool. When Golden Hornet Project puts a show together, there’s never any of that “Try it, you’ll like it!” earnest convincing going on, they just lay it out there and see what happens. The confidence that comes from curating hundreds of events in many shapes and sizes really shows when you see them pull off something this big. From the diversity and geographic range of the composers to the breadth and depth of performers to the ginormous attendance, the whole thing stood as an example of what you should do if you’re trying to reach a wider crowd.
And what a crowd it was. Seeing people of all stripes enjoying adult beverages while kicking back on blankets before an outdoor orchestra is one well-worn thing, but seeing them on a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of a school/work week attending a concert featuring a single tune is another. Granted, the Requiem is a big old piece, but still. Graham, dressed in a suit and ten gallon hat, and Peter in a tux with tails provided just enough funky formality while Brent Baldwin ran the whole thing like a champ. Notable also in this endeavor is that the whole thing was free. This year’s Fusebox Festival, once a ticketed affair, is now accessible to all. As board member Joe Randel explained, “We felt that making the festival entirely free was important in order to facilitate the discovery of new work for the audience, but that was just part of our goal. There is a common misconception that if people buy tickets to a performance, they’re “covering the tab,” so to speak. In reality, the box office receipts rarely cover the cost of presenting this kind of work, and they don’t even begin to recognize the artist’s costs associated with creating the work, so we hoped to stimulate a broader conversation about the reality of those costs.”
Free concerts combining hundreds of artists in town with some of the best composers from Austin and across the country? I want to have that conversation every day.
New England’s Prospect: Boston Symphony Chamber Players Celebrate 50 Years
Musical institutions have the amnesiac pleasure of getting themselves birthday presents and still being surprised. On February 9, the Boston Symphony Chamber Players unwrapped the bulk of their 50th-anniversary loot: four commissioned pieces, premiered en masse. (Another commission, Sebastian Currier’s Parallel Worlds, will have its premiere in Arizona before coming to Boston in April.) That nearly doubles the group’s commissioned repertoire all at once; up until this year, only seven other pieces (going by the handy list of repertoire included in Sunday’s program) had been written for them. Then again, I suppose 50 is a plausibly sitcom-ish age for suddenly realizing that you’ve always wanted a lot of new toys.
And, then again, the Chamber Players have always been institutionally unusual. They were founded (as I learned from Jeremy Eichler) as a side effect of Tanglewood’s long flirtation with the automobile; Erich Leinsdorf wanted prelude concerts to give patrons an extra hour to deal with traffic and recruited some of the BSO’s principals to fill the bill. (The members are all still principals, with the exception of cellist Jules Eskin, the lone veteran of that 1964 lineup.) Those commissions are technically BSO commissions, funded by the same pool that keeps the orchestra intermittently current. So the birthday party is both a calendrical observation and a confirmation of the Players’ success—five commissions is a strong commitment from the parent company.
The four new pieces on Sunday’s concert were deliberately local—a couple of old familiar Bostonians (Gunther Schuller and Yehudi Wyner), and a couple of newer connections (Kati Agócs, who teaches at the New England Conservatory, and Hannah Lash, who graduated from Harvard). Agócs’s contribution, Devotion, for horn, harp, and string quintet, hovered in an area somewhere between chamber and orchestral music—one could imagine the strings, at times, blown up to a full symphonic complement. (It did warrant a conductor, outgoing BSO assistant Andris Poga.) The harp (Jessica Zhou) primes the piece with a healthy dose of glitter, a kind of harmonic respiration between diatonic and synthetic scales, under which the strings (Malcolm Lowe, Haldan Martinson, Steven Ansell, Eskin, and Ed Barker) provide a cushion; over it all, the horn (James Sommerville) sweeps and soars, much of it haute-contre high. The middle section was a contrast in almost every way, triggered by Sommerville shifting from the highest part of the horn’s range to the lowest, one snarling pedal tone after another; the viola tiptoes around a melody; the violins and cello stalk soft chords; harp and double-bass keep a hesitant tick-tock. The horn rises back up to the top of its range, an A-section recapitulation, and a wheels-on-the-tarmac unison ending.
Lash’s Three Shades Without Angles also put Zhou’s harp front and center, flanked by Debussyian flute (Elizabeth Rowe) and viola (Ansell). The harp part started as an exercise in stamina, a moto perpetuo ride the other instruments hopped onto, all mixed meters and crossed accents; the effect was something like the world’s most dreamy and delicate action movie. Then the harp abruptly turned taciturn, offering occasional punctuation for flute and viola recitatives, before laying down arpeggios over which the other two strung a loping, wide-interval melody, hopping from stone to stone across a flowing stream. Like Devotion, Three Shades had that 21st-century sense of moving flats and bright outlines—sharp and deliberate section breaks, a constantly churning counterpoint that, however, keeps stirring through a seemingly single harmonic color (in this case, a higher-overtone, dominant-seventh plus sharp-9 and 11 sort of shimmer). Both pieces had an almost Vermeer-like polish: tightly framed, smoothly varnished vignettes of carefully modulated luminosity.
Where Agócs and Lash used controlled brushwork, Schuller and Wyner opted for more freewheeling lines. Schuller, 88, is a more frail presence than he used to be, but his music—on Sunday, it was Games, a compact divertimento for wind and string quintets—keeps doubling down on musical and intellectual energy. UNESCO has a program where they periodically designate a certain craft or tradition as (and I love this phrase) an Intangible Culture Heritage; if I was in charge of making that list, I would be sorely tempted to include Gunther Schuller’s late-period gonzo stream-of-consciousness style. Every piece of his I’ve heard over the past few years—his Four Vignettes, the Piano Trio No. 3, Dreamscape—is the product of a deep, singular, and probably inimitable reserve of skills and experiences being rummaged through with a compulsively entertaining raconteur’s disdain for restraint or the unities. Games is dense, mutable fun. The opening, a chattering overlap of conflicting tuplets, soon gives way to an entire midway of ideas: a Stravinskian ostinato stuck in its own groove; a burlesque quote of Ravel (the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, transformed into something gleefully ignoble and unsentimental), whisked away behind some disjointed pointillism; a slashing, slapstick ending swiped from Mozart’s Musical Joke. Along the way, Schuller has a lot of fun with the sheer timbre of dissonance, odd combinations of instruments, and intervals that, on at least a half-dozen occasions, had me half out of my seat, trying to parse what strange alchemy had created such an unexpected sonority. Games was about half the length of any of the other new pieces, but it contained at least twice as much music. (Oboist John Ferrillo, clarinetist William Hudgins, and bassoonist Richard Svoboda joined the crowd; Poga again conducted.)
Wyner’s piece was nowhere near as manic as Schuller’s bag of tricks, but it, too, ended up covering a significant amount of ground. Into the Evening Air put a traditional ensemble (a wind quintet) into a traditional mood (nocturnal, in both susurrant and serene varieties), but deviated from the path just enough to keep the ear continually attuned. Both the busy, twittering opening and the languid dissonance it turned into nodded toward other staples of the repertoire (Samuel Barber’s Summer Music came to mind more than once), but only from a distance. In an analogous way, Wyner paid heed to customary quintet allegiances—flute and oboe, horn and bassoon, clarinet as a free agent—but then, in a section of passed-around solos, used some deft play with range to expand and shift those alliances: horn and bassoon going up into their higher notes to let low flute join in, oboe going down to its lowest tones to make common cause with the horn and bassoon, the flute and bassoon suddenly stalking about in wide-spaced octaves, the other three instruments slipping into the gap. Into the Evening Air moves from idea to idea with a kind of diaristic nonchalance. The conversation slows almost to a frozen stasis before Wyner turns one last nifty corner: a soft chord that fades into a single clarinet note, which then dovetails into a quietly questioning call from the flute.
The group surrounded their bounty of novelty with a pair of turn-of-the-last-century works that extended the locavore theme—more New England composers—but also encompassed the program’s contrasts: mood and structure, formal and feisty, male and female. Ansell, Ferrillo and pianist Randall Hodgkinson opened the show with a lush and equable mezzotint reading of Charles Loeffler’s Two Rhapsodies. Hodgkinson was back, joined by Rowe, Martinson, Ansell, and Eskin, for the finale, Amy Beach’s brawny op. 67 Piano Quintet, in a performance that made a pretty good nomination for the Quintet’s admission to the Academy of the Underrated. (The Quintet’s Adagio espressivo movement, certainly, is a stretch of late-Romantic mastery that can take its place alongside anything at all.) Give the Boston Symphony Chamber Players their due as hosts and hostesses: the party favors were as good as the presents.
100 Guitars Rock West Coast Premiere of Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose
On November 17, 100 electric guitarists gathered with their instruments and their amps on stage at the Craneway Pavilion—a former car assembly plant situated on the San Francisco Bay in Richmond, California—for the West Coast premiere of Rhys Chatham’s A Secret Rose. Written in 2006, A Secret Rose had only received two prior performances, undoubtedly due in part to the scale of the venture: musicians for this performance, which was presented by Other Minds, traveled from Europe, South America, and at least a dozen states across the country to be part of this guitar orchestra performance, conducted by Chatham.
What does an orchestra of 100 electric guitars sound like? Chatham has been exploring the many possible answers to this question for three decades, starting with his 1983 work An Angel Moves Too Fast to See. Built in five movements over approximately 75 minutes (with a short tuning break), A Secret Rose fulfills one’s expectations of 100 electric guitars playing simultaneously in the same 45,000 square-foot room—that is, tongue-lollingly loud shredding that triggers involuntary head bobbing—but Chatham covers far more ground than that, and the use of volume is not simply for volume’s sake. The influence of Chatham’s early work with La Monte Young exploring tunings, drones, and overtones emerges in sections where the fundamental is so strongly established that a broad range of aural images emerge hallucinogenically in the air through the overtones: people chanting and yelling, swarms of insects, giant revving motors, dog whistles, and an airplane all made cameos in my mind’s ear.
The musicians for A Secret Rose are divided into three groups, each with a section leader (in this case, David Daniell, Seth Olinski, and Tobin Summerfield); each group is further subdivided into two smaller groups. Holding the masses together were Chatham, dressed in a proper suit and tie at the center podium playing the part of the conductor with a baton, and the three section leaders stationed on the sides—cuing, clapping, yelling, fist-pumping, and paper-waving to help keep the train on track. The conducting team was supported impressively by bassist Lisa Mezzacappa and drummer Jordan Glenn, who provided a steady foundation and energetic drive throughout.
Chatham has said, “There’s nothing like the sound of 100 guitars playing quietly,” and he explores this sonority in the third movement, thinning out the texture and having individual musicians play single pitches. Chatham left his conducting post and walked among the musicians, triggering pointillistic mini-bursts of sound as he passed. As the nebula of aleatoric pitches amassed, a giant celestial harpsichord seemed to emerge, with the fingers of the guitarists as the plectra—perhaps unsurprising, given that Chatham’s first instrument as a child was a virginal.
Other sections drew strongly from Chatham’s rock background, with homages and references to myriad styles and artists scattered throughout—each person I spoke to afterwards heard a different selection of influences embedded within the piece. The second movement was at times downright tuneful, a series of giant-scale rock instrumentals; at other points, it presented a great vibrating wall of sound that you could feel on the skin. Chatham set major and minor chords grinding upon each other across the sections, all the more unsettling at a heightened volume. Multiple concurrent meters were frequently used, creating the sensation of a behemoth machine with a variety of differently sized gears, moving itself forward with an immense amount of energy and effort. Despite the near unanimity of orchestration, the textural variations that Chatham found made for a constantly shifting and surprising listening experience.
A Secret Rose was a special presentation by Other Minds, led by the San Francisco Bay Area’s experimental music evangelist Charles Amirkhanian. In June, Other Minds hosted a performance of Chatham’s seminal Guitar Trio at The Lab in the Mission (covered previously in NewMusicBox here) as a preview to A Secret Rose. At an event later that week, a lengthy conversation between Amirkhanian and Chatham was videotaped and posted in chunks on Vimeo. One excerpt, in which Chatham talks about going to his first rock concert ever—which happened to be the Ramones at CBGB—is posted above. Other Minds does an extraordinary job not just archiving the organization’s activities but also making those recordings available to the public. A full recording of this performance of A Secret Rose is scheduled to be posted at RadiOM when it is available.
As the guitarists were tuning after the quietly plucked third movement, I commented to my companion that it wasn’t quite as loud as I had anticipated, since free earplugs were available at the front desk when we arrived. The final movement removed any disappointment on that front: with the full ensemble pounding on one minor chord for minutes on end, overtones began screaming like banshees in the cavernous space of the pavilion, and 100 variations on how rock guitarists move and sweat while shredding came on display. As a final gesture, Chatham himself took up his guitar and turned to the audience, faced up to the skies and fell to his knees, providing that moment of punk rock catharsis that we all had been waiting for.
Sounds Heard: Duo Scorpio—Scorpion Tales
With Scorpion Tales, Duo Scorpio doesn’t require you to set aside all of your wedding prelude and garden party images of the harp before you hit play, but they are going to stretch those sonic ideas out of whack once things get going. This may be the sum distillation of the work included on this album—it doesn’t build barriers out of repertoire, but it does open quite a few windows in the library.
And that suits the broader mission of the ensemble quite neatly. When harpists Kathryn Andrews and Kristi Shade founded Duo Scorpio (they were both born on November 5, 1982, hence the astrological nod), they noticed somewhat of a hole when it came to contemporary repertoire for this instrumentation and set about trying to correct that absence through commissioning and arranging existing compositions. A portion of that work resulted in a Kickstarter campaign to record some of these pieces and promote them more broadly—an album that would ultimately feature three premiere recordings (including one commission) plus three other pieces for harp duo by contemporary composers. They exceeded their $12,000 goal and produced an impressively packaged collection drenched in the ethereal photography of Frances J. Melhop.
The disc takes its name from the nearly 15-minute work contributed by Robert Paterson (a commission by Duo Scorpio and the American Harp Society), each of its three movements a play off of the scorpion—animal, vegetable (hot pepper), and Greek mythological legend. Plenty of those iconic cascading harp lines run through each of the movements, but they appear in the mix amid intricately orchestrated moments, two harps and four hands filling the sonic image from top to bottom to deliver a neatly locking quartet-worth of sonic information. The play of harmonics, the dark and loose vibration of low strings, and the tight unison playing elsewhere accent the balanced clockwork-like integration of these passages.
Works by Bernard Andrès bookend the disc: the shimmering Le Jardin des Paons and the exotic Parvis. Both works, in their way, showcase the diverse range of timbral color that the harp is capable of delivering. If there was actually any question at the outset that the harp was the instrument of angels, fairies, and cocktail receptions, Andrews and Shade will likely have erased that notion by the close of the album (if they hadn’t succeeded in doing so within the first five minutes). Scorpion Tales is a showcase of way contemporary composers are finding their music within its timbral compass, and it’s likely to leave music makers and fans inspired to seek out more. I suspect Duo Scorpio will consider that appraisal mission accomplished.