Contemporary Harp Music: Compositional Issues in the Music of:
Rands, Brun, Blankenship, Martin, Haken, Berg, Baxter, Rouse, Jolivet
After years of editing and rewriting harp parts by composers with whom I could not discuss issues, I concluded that the only remedy for my frustration was to work with living composers in the pursuit of creating viable idiomatic harp notation. My first endeavor was the writing of an article depicting the issues I encountered in the music of Rands, Brun, Martin, Rouse, Baxter, Haken, Jolivet, and Berg. Included in this article are examples of my own avant-garde composition: Metaphysical Waltz, harp solo.
Special Harp Notation
Bernard Rands: Formats 1-Les Geste
The visually provocative score of Les Gestes for solo harp was created by using a combination of graphic and traditional notation. Rands also employed extensive use and adaptations of special effect symbols created by the innovative composer, Carlos Salzedo, the famous harpist. The unique approach to bisbigliando in Les Gestes requires the performer to create new techniques to realize the intention of the composer.
Herbert Brun: Non-Sequitur VI
The harp part to Non-Sequitur VI, an ensemble work, was generated by a computer program. Due to the disjointed nature of the expansive gestures, numerous pedal changes, and rhythmic intricacies, it was and is a very challenging harp part. A recording of this work is included on an Album entitled Wayfaring Sounds.
Shirley Meyer Blankenship: Metaphysical Waltz
Metaphysical Waltz is an avant-garde type of composition for solo harp. Like the Rands composition, it employs special effects utilizing many of the symbols created by Carlos Salzedo. Although the piece appears to be extensively chromatic, the pedal changes are strategically and rhythmically placed so that there is little difficulty in executing them. On the final page, there is a sequence of short gestures that take place in rapid succession. This section requires special attention but is quite idiomatic once the performer becomes accustomed to the rather atypical hand placings.
Robert Martin: The Owl and The Pussycat
This highly chromatic work in 3 movements, Introduction and Waltz, Coming To Terms, From Quiet Conversation To Passion, was written for flute and harp. It is included on an album entitled Metamorphosis, an esoteric collection of new works. http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/beauportclassical5. Upon first glance, the first movement appears to be more difficult than it is in reality. Upon closer examination, it is clear that mostly only two intervals are employed, 7ths and 9ths. This fact makes the music accessible despite the predominance of wide intervallic spacings. Passages that contain a variety of placements are more difficult. The chromaticism results from the combination of the flute and harp and pedal setups that are in place before chromatic passages so that the harpist can concentrate on hand placements rather than on pedal changes.
Rudolf Haken: Quinquagenarium
This piece was presented on U-Tube in 2010. Since there was considerable use of the harp in the lowest register, it was often necessary to place the harp flat on the floor so that the right arm could reach the lower indicated strings. Although the last page is essentially a harp cadenza initiated in the upper register, it cascades into the lower range. Placing the harp flat on the floor at the outset made the playing of the final measures more graceful.
Alban Berg: 7 Early Songs
These songs are symphonic compositions with a solo tenor. Since Alban Berg was influenced by serialism, his music tends to be highly chromatic. Essentially it was possible to play everything as written except for a few measures that required enharmonic spellings. However, one passage was made inordinately difficult by doubling much of the other instrumentation. This passage necessitated intense concentration on the music due to numerous pedal changes and unusual hand placements on top of which there were tempo changes. Due to the necessity of focusing on the music and strings, watching the conductor was difficult if not impossible. Using the harp just to highlight the music would have made this passage just as effective and more viable.
Brian Baxter: Cahokia
In the opening of this minimalistic symphonic composition, is a gesture for harp that spans the better part of the range of the instrument. It involves the placing of wide intervals and hand crossings at a rapid tempo. Rendering this gesture accurately, even once, is risky but the difficulty is amplified by the fact that the gesture is repeated for perhaps as many as 6 times. By a subtle rearrangement of the notes, it is possible to acquire some consistency of performance without substantially changing the intent of the composer.
Christopher Rouse: Flute Concerto
In this engaging minimalistic work, an issue, involving the use of harmonics, emerged. Harmonics were written for the upper and shorter strings where it was impossible to place the left hand in the position required to create harmonics. Additionally, the harmonics occurred in a dense texture and were marked double forte indicating that they were intended to be heard. Harmonics do not generate much sound. By just playing the pitches intended by the harmonics, it was possible to produce sufficient volume to cut through the orchestration. The upper strings can be quite piercing.
Andre Jolivet: Alla Rustica
Alla Rustica, for flute and harp, is a virtuoso composition written in traditional notation full of chromatic alterations. Consequently, performing the work required numerous pedal changes. In the score, these changes seem to be indicated in a rather haphazard manner. In order to competently perform this work, it was necessary to ascertain definite places for the pedal changes to occur, i.e., on beats and in pairs when possible. In the 3 against 4 passage in the example provided, Jolivet wisely used notation that did not require focus on the pedals.