Latin America’s largest university (UNAM) in Mexico City, has a professional symphony orchestra, OFUNAM, where I work. Last December 4th we premiered a piece by Jorge Torres Sáenz (born 1968), Moshe Atzmon conducting. The title of the work is SALÓN CALAVERA.
Cuarteto Latinoamericano played the world premiere of the original quartet version last September, and both events were part of the celebrations of the Mexican Independence (200 years anniversary) and Revolution (100 years anniversary).
Jorge Torres Sáenz kindly allowed me to include the harp part of the piece and answered some questions I wanted to post here, regarding the importance of the harp in his piece, as well as other interesting aspects of his thoughts about music making and collaboration between players and composers:
“In the two existing versions of “Salón Calavera”, for symphony orchestra and chamber orchestra, the harp plays a fundamental role. It not only works as a continuo that threads the phrases, but also punctuates and gives projection to the general gesture of the piece”.
“My piece is a reminder of the attitude of Mexican theater in the seventies and eighties, severely criticizing the ruling party and its barbaric practices. Now it’s my turn to offer a caricature of Mexican society. I believe this is all about underlining the reasons and places where the future may be cancelled. The process is closely related to the ideas of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin regarding the retake of forgotten archives, thrown away by our blindly progressive history, the ones that mark and ruin the conditions of culture. Just like automats in the window of an old Parisian shop, where my musical materials appear to be old merchandise full of dust and completely ruined. In SALÓN CALAVERA one can find movie related music from the decadent Mexican films made in the 70s as well as a complete movement from Vivaldi´s Seasons, completely fragmented and decomposed”.
“My relationship to the harp has definitely been signed by the friendship relation I have with Mercedes Gómez. From the very first piece that I wrote ten years ago the harp is systematically present in my music, in chamber and orchestral pieces alike. Generally speaking, I find that the harp has a main role in my music. In “The World According to Shitao”, for instance, premiered with Mercedes Gómez, the harp, together with the accordion, define the spirit of the piece. The other instruments, – flute, clarinet and piano – seem to be linked around the harp that due to its versatility puts the equilibrium of the other instruments at risk. For me the harp has become an indispensable instrument that I cannot put aside while composing”.
“Regarding the relationship of the team formed by composer-player, the case of the harp in my life is particularly illustrative. This instrument has enormous qualities: versatility, dynamism, expressive capacity, colors, projection, etc. Maybe the future has to do with form as a subtle intuition that may take us musicians to new ways of exploring the instrument. And right there is where the generosity of a player is indispensable: advice, opinions and suggestions shared with the composer will all be fundamental in the generation of new finished and polished scores which shall become part of the incontrovertible universal movement of the harp technique renovation. The 21st century will most likely present a renaissance for the harp”.
Jorge Torres Sáenz
A YOUNG COMPOSER WHO BECAME REALLY FAMOUS LATER ON…
– an excuse to talk about the harp in the orchestra.
One of the best ways to learn is to teach. I’m old enough now to know the difference, whether to refresh knowledge or expand it, or to refocus on one’s social task as a musician.
I remember now the Swedish pun: “Man lär så länge man har elever”. (You learn as long as you teach).
I’m no musicologist, but to me composers of all periods could be put into two groups. Well, they could actually be catalogued in many odd different ways: with-or-without wigs, happy-or-sad life endings, rich-or-poor guys, with-or-without children, in power or on their own, sober-or-drunk, ill-or-healthy, etc.
But the classification that interests me the most is on one hand the group of those who made the wheel of musical evolution jump decades ahead, provoking scandal and rejection from audiences, critics and players. The other group includes those others who wrote/write music which was/is totally accepted by their contemporaries and the collective ear used to music composed in earlier centuries. (Some people are faster than others, just like different species in the evolution). This second kind of music making causes no conflict with their contemporaries and sells well since it involves no risk of people not liking it.
Since this blog includes part of my work guiding the young composers at Kungliga Musikhögskolan i Stockholm, the orchestral piece IM SOMMERWIND, Idyll für Orchester, (1904), gives me an opportunity to underline some of what I consider important as an orchestra harp player. With a few examples of difficulties often found in harp parts, together with some possible solutions).
I chose it because it was written by an extremely young student, just like the ones I am working with now – who are teaching me as well!
His name was Anton Webern (1883-1945) and he was only twenty years old when he composed it in Preglhof during the summer holidays of 1904, the same year he started composition studies with Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) who became such an important influence to him.
The piece is Webern’s first orchestral score. It’s based on a poem by Bruno Wille. It’sfirst performance in Mexico took place with the orchestra where I work, under Jan Latham-Koenig,January 15 and 16, 2011 in Sala Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico City.
In 1945 when the Russian troops arrived in Vienna, Webern buried the original score in his garden. After the horrendous incident where the composer by mistake was shot by an American soldier, his daughter-in-law Hermine rescued the score and kept it.
IM SOMMERWIND was premiered on May 25, 1962, almost sixty years later, at the Webern International Festival in Seattle, with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. All thanks to his biographer Hans Moldenhauer.
Anton Webern definitely belongs to the first group of composers in my classification. You might know why or want to read more in Claude Rostand’s ANTON WEBERN essay.
Before the first rehearsal of this week’s program, as I try to do when there is an available recording of what I must play next, I listened carefully to Pierre Boulez’s version of the piece (Berlin Philharmonic), as well as another version with Christoph Dohnányi conducting the Cleveland Orchestra.
This preparation is basically useful to:
1- Locate the context in which the harp appears.
2- Figure approximate tempo.
3- Write important cues in my score.
4- Take note of important changes of meter.
5- Notice tonalities and needed pedal changes.
6- Observe where Harp 1 and 2 play together or complement each other.
Preparing the individual harp part of a piece like Webern’s (with 2 harps) requires pencil and eraser like any other with only one harp for trying each passage and decide fingerings, discover patterns, write pedal charts in every logic section where the conductor might stop and very probably ask: “Harps, one measure before letter H”
And this was the case when the conductor mentioned this specific spot even before we started playing, so here are some of my observations around it. Measure 105 (1 bar before H)already indicates that harp 1 and 2 must help each other, since the descendant chromatic triplets are impossible to play as written for one harp. Right and left hand require DIFFERENT pedal movements in the same feet at the same time for different pedals. ThereforeHarp 1 plays the right hand notes and Harp 2 the left hand ones. It´s still uncomfortable and could have been written in a different way.
Other interesting places which can be played with enharmonic sounds as shown are measures 128–129, 133, and the passage after 186. I include possible fingerings. When there are too many enharmonic sounds needed, I re-write the passage with the string I actually must play in order to avoid confusions.
Measure 42 (just like most of Richard Strauss harp parts), has plenty of different possible fingerings. Both hands play too close to each other, so a first chord with left hand plus a fast jump to divide the rest of the notes in both hands might help. I recommend focusing on the pulse to make sure that the first three notes played in the second half of the first beat and the next six notes in the second beat are perfectly even and they all land correctly in the third beat. The next measure includes a very important nicht arpeggiert chord that should be played with a lot of guts!
These examples lead to some thoughts about a harp section. If you are lucky enough to have a harp section with a wonderful colleague like my harp duo partner Janet Paulus, then agreements about the following important aspects of the orchestra harp will happen smoothly, all for the sake of good music making. (You must really love music, first of all…)
1- How to sit, first and second harp. We prefer the first harp to the left, this way the second harp can see the principal and follow.
2- How to tune. We tune in flats, to A-442. The ideal is to always talk about this with the oboist and to the piano tuner, but if they disagree, you will have to make your own decisions regarding how warm the hall is, how much the strings’ pitch can raise after a while of playing and if the wind section in your orchestra respects intonation and the A–442. Beware: it does not always happen… Now, with electronic tuners it’s so much easier than it was before, when we had to tune with a tuning fork, check by fifths, octaves all around the circle of fifths. But there was an advantage: we trained our ears to listen for pitch nuances and became more aware of the differences in tuning. Besides, the first tuning with the electronic tools should be, in my opinion, only the beginning of a deeper check up of passages, which must always take in consideration if the music happens in flats, naturals or sharps, if the notes are played together with other instruments etc. This also involves checking the notes with the other player and to be aware of if the harp is properly regulated so as to give the half tones produced by the pedals accurately
3- How to divide a passage like the one I will include in this post, or many others, where composers ask for ten note chords (we only have 8 fingers playing at the same time: Stravinski’s Petrushka and Firebird come to my mind). Or a terribly crowded first harp part with nothing to do for the second harp but to embroider, read, learn another language, write Christmas cards, clean the locker or, if needed and if it makes the music better: play along with the first harp! I must add that playing second harp is at times harder than the first one. One has to adapt to the other player, help with cues and counting when necessary. Some parts for Harp 2 are more demanding, like Berlioz Symphonie Fantastique or Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, where the second harp has an exposed part accompanying the soloist boy singer. And some passages of Im Sommerwind!
4- When to muffle. Due tothe harp’s resonance, (one of its best qualities, but also a possible problem, especially in recordings), the sound must be stopped when silence is indicated. Some harpists think it’s only important to attack in the right place. Mostly it’s players who don’t play chamber music and have never been scolded by a wind player (who stop their sound by simply not blowing) about how annoying the previous harmony can be when the piece has already moved on to a new one. In the orchestral parts, as well as in any score, the ideal is to respect the silences chosen by the composer, but if the muffling (or damping) is too noisy, and/or the general resonance of the harmony produced by the other players is the same, it can be really nice to let it ring. Some conductors ask for a specific place to stop the sound. In romantic music it happens a lot with the stringsection. Check C. Franck’s Symphony in d minor. Practice it with slightly arpeggiated chords and then repeat the passage with non arpeggiated chords. With accurate muffling before moving pedals and without it. Conductors might have different preferences according to their version. No matter what, you should know exactly when to write and move pedals, and have pedal charts ready to start in any spot of the music. This is a tricky passage due to so many pedal changes for notes that are still ringing!
5- Just like in the previous case (for one harp), you can also decide in your section when to play an arpeggiated chord and when not to. Some times it is not specified in the harp part, so it has to do with the interpretation and the orchestration. It’s easier for 2 or more harps to be together if the chord is slightly rolled than with a plaqué chord. Precise attack is difficult with harps. It’s good to agree about these details before the first rehearsal with the entire orchestra. Also if attacks will be exactly with the conductor or a fraction of a second later, waiting for the winds to produce their sound.
6- Dynamics, like many other aspects of life, is very subjective. If the hall has a good acoustic, you have a good instrument or a big sound, the decision will be different than if you are playing with microphones in a park, with string players that don’t respect pianissimos, etc. No matter how hard you will play in some tutti in huge orchestra music like R. Strauss, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Wagner, the harp will only provide or contribute to texture, so use your energy to work refining the sound and deciding dynamics in the more exposed places.
7- Breathing together in a string instrument which is plucked by finger flesh might sound impossible, but you must work on that as well. A good signal from harp 1 will be very helpful. Raise your hand a little over the previously prepared strings you will immediately attack, and do this on the preceding beat like a conductor giving a clear upbeat or levare. I consider it a very good habit, even if you play an orchestra piece with one harp. It will give the conductor some peace of mind about how focused you are and will be interpreted as you being tuned in to the same channel as his/her baton, breathing and phrasing. This is indispensable in chamber music, which by the way is one of the best ways to become a better orchestra player!
8- Context: Since you figured out the context in which the harp appears while listening to the recording, you will know your role in that spot. It can be only color, part of a general atmosphere. But in more exposed passages, whether you accompany some solo (violin, cello, flute, clarinet, oboe among the most popular in orchestration from late 19th and first half of 20th Century) or you mark a pulse or you play a solo yourself. In the first case, try to sing the melody yourself while practicing your accompanying part at home. Use the famous Julius Caesar strategy phrase “Divide et vinces”, converted into this variant: subdivide and you shall win. If you have different rhythmical patterns with the same pulse (such as the ones in R. Strauss Tod und Verklärung, Don Juan, Mahler symphonies, Wagner operas and such heavy duty parts), keep your inner pulse, count the beats and help its accuracy by thinking in subdivisions, specially at the beginning and end of a phrase. Ah, and if you are accompanying singers, be ready to catch up with their melody at any time and write the vocal clues!
9- Three-directional looking. The harp player needs to watchthree fields simultaneously: the strings, the score and the conductor. This is especially difficult in passages in the upper part of the harp, which makes the harpist turn away from the conductor, who sometimes needs to be reminded that they need to look at the harp player in such passage. This skill of focusing on 3 different places has to be done at some moments in the corner of the eye, and requires jumping from place to place with the eye. It’s good to practice without looking directly at the score, and knowing where to find the next spot in the music when needed. Harmonic analysis helps a lot to this, since we are used to think in patterns and to prepare hands accordingly. Red markings for pedals and pedal charts help as well. The conductor can be placed in the background (with your eye), when the passage keeps going, but you should shift your focus when the beginning and end of an important passage occurs. If your neck hurts, stop practicing for a while or take a nap in a hammock if your doctor is not available! (It’s also good to know when to stop practicing!)
10- Glissandi: pay attention to their rhythm and when to stop them!
I stop writing as well, happy to have found a music school in Stockholm that accepted my project for this master degree, and grateful to its team of composition teachers who motivates young composers to find their own voice. Just like Anton Webern did in his time!
This small sample of excuses to talk about orchestral harp in the young Webern’s piece is a good way to notice how a very famous composer – who became famous for his use of twelve tones – started by trying first with post-romantic writing (some spots sound to me like Mahler or R. Strauss), afterwards finding his very unique and personal way to make music.
It also shows that he did ask a harpist how things might work on the instrument. It may be interesting to compare this harp part with his later orchestral pieces with harp, as well as with any orchestral works by Ravel and Debussy, who had obviously more than one session working with a harpist, and a lot of wonderful advice. Their music simply lands perfectly in a harpist’s hands. I am grateful to composers who mastered writing for this instrument. French repertoire of their time means today to me a synonym of excellence in harp writing, using its colors and capacities of expression to its full extent.
Besides checking the books of excerpts, and working passages with your teacher, listening to recordings and making your own notes, if you are going to play orchestral repertoire for the first time, I recommend you to find a harpist you trust and ask permission to sit close to her or him at rehearsals. Always use a pencil in your own part and keep very open ears, eyes – and heart, to enjoy!
ENTRE IRSE Y QUEDARSE, by Octavio Paz (1914-1998)
“Todo es visible
y todo es elusivo,
Todo está cerca y todo es intocable.
…En el centro de un ojo me descubro:
No me mira, me miro en su mirada.
…Se disipa el instante. Sin moverme,
Yo me quedo y me voy: soy una pausa”.
All is visible and all is elusive,
Everything is near and everything is untouchable.
In the center of an eye I discover myself:
It does not look at me, I see myself in its look.
The instant dissipates. Without moving,
I stay and I go: I am a pause.
Translation: M. Gómez
Maria Horn, one of the young talented composers at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm with whom I am working, chose to make a ritual out of her harp piece.
This first draft of her piece is in four episodes, each with its specific instructions in a non conventional harp part, pointing out routes to follow, certain pitches, intervals and pedal positions. Bowing the harp is one of the techniques, passing hair from a violin bow over certain strings thus creating an expression and colors through its texture. It specifies clearly the atmospheres that should be built while playing and focusing in a certain emotional mood, as a theater performer would, and indicates how musical elements should be interwoven.
Its main aspect is improvisation over the essence of the chosen verses from a poem by laureate Mexican poet Octavio Paz. (Cervantes prize, 1981; Nobel prize, 1990).
Maria asks the player to repeat these verses, whispering as a mantra within the piece, which should be imagined as a ritual of a weaver and her threads.
The electronic part will be performed live as a response to the sound created by the harpist. We have been talking and trying things, sharing ideas in fun skype sessions until the structure she is proposing now takes a clear road.
I am very interested in the development of this piece for its connection with poetry and for its closeness to theater rituals, besides the thrilling challenge of improvisation. I wish I had started earlier with what master jazz players have brought to such high levels. I think nowadays this skill should be included in all musical training, even when not specialized in jazz: improvisation as one of the many tools of fine music making. It’s similarity with composition is overwhelming, only in real time!
Maria imagined the beginning of the piece remembering a Swedish tale from her childhood about a lady sorcerer with magical powers weaving with her threads.
Researchers in theater have studied the power of rituals in humankind. Therefore I’m moved to play Maria’s piece. Rituals are part of our daily lives, even when we are not aware of them or we ignore if they are secular or religious-spiritual.
From Greek old times, continuing with medieval traditions, passing through shamans and people powered by all sorts of convictions and communication techniques, plays and rituals have underlined symbols and messages through stories. Therefore, a performance in public can be the recreation of myth, of belief, a story or an emotional statement. It reflects our humanness and it is this aspect of how Maria conceived the piece -not only with technical skills, but including references to emotions- that engages me deeply as a player.
The other interesting aspect of her inspiration for the piece, as mentioned before, is her choice of fragments from an Octavio Paz poem.
“Concerning the poem, it is a totally new thing for me to use poetry in music. The point with it is to get a feeling of sacred words repeated in a prayer or meditation. The words themselves are not the main thing, thought I got stuck on them in some way while searching for text material. To be honest, I do not know much about Octavio Paz and about his status as a poet. Since its actual purpose is to put you in the right spirit, I am open for replacing the text, if you got suggestions or other ideas” (Maria Horn).
This reply not only makes me want to keep her excellent choice of poetry, but also makes me rejoice with its underlining of the power of words and the fact that the Poet trapped the Composer. There is a strong parallel between the images of the poem and the emotional aspects of the thread in Maria’s improvisation instructions. Paz’s verse ends with a pause, which is what gives, both in music and poetry, the perfect space to put us in contact with our deepest humanness. There is a strong connection between breathing and silence, which both poets and musicians know when they decide what to say – and how to say it.
Therefore, the way these two creators happen to make contact is fascinating, almost magical. Different generation, culture, land, one alive, the other dead…
I also discovered now that Octavio Paz translated four Swedish poets, along with Pierre Zekeli. It’s always good to learn new things! Now I have the exciting challenge to know something about Harry Martinson, Artur Lundkvist, Gunnar Ekelöf and Erik Lindegren whom I have no clue about. Well, I already discovered that Harry Martinson writes about how “time disappears through closed gates” and “the wind looks for something lost”…
Thanks Maria, for putting your music in my hands. Thanks, Octavio Paz for the two enormous books of your complete poetic life work, standing on my night table and travelling with me through life!