After L'Addio / Felt (2014) is a two movement piece composed in collaboration with Ben. The premiere of this work took place in a recital in which a performance of Salvatore Sciarrino's "Addio a Trachis" preceded. After L'Addio features varying levels of referentiality and filiation with "Addio...", from literal quoting to variation, to more esoteric and personal connections. Generally speaking, After is a frantic and highly tactile piece in which different levels of friction between hands and strings become syntactically relevant. Felt appears as the textural opposite of After in that the contact between performer and instrument is reduced considerably: the right hand plays with a felt pick for the entirety of the movement and the left hand features, for the most part, harmonics.

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(From Ben Melsky's Chicago Harp Lab - Click HERE to go to Ben's Blog)

After L’addio/Felt was commissioned in the spring of 2014, its title referencing Salvatore Sciarrino’s solo harp work L’Addio a Trachis (1980).  A piece that overcomes the harp’s idiosyncratic sustain problem by using same-note trills over long stretches of time. Over the summer we worked together to develop a mini-repertoire of glissandi offering differing balances of pitch and noise. The “Guegliando” was born – using the callous at the base of the middle finger and a not-so-insignificant amount of pressure, gliding downwards to make a rrrrrrrrrr sound – it’s the very first thing you hear in the movement. The piece expands and contrasts this idea with knuckle, nail, and skin glissandi. As a secondary narrative thread, Tomás quotes Sciarrino’s work, using Sciarrino’s distinctive high, sustained bisbigliandi in three discrete moments.

Balancing After‘s physicality is the mechanically nuanced second movement, Felt, named for the felt pick used to ever-so-gently pluck notes in harp’s highest two registers.  These tiny notes sometimes blend and sometimes clash with 7th and 8th partials produced from a systematized sequence of harmonics from descending scales in the low bass wires.

In the practice room I’ll experiment with different interpretive decisions ahead of time, as one does, but in the case of Felt, in particular, I simply can’t predict which interpretation is going to come out – something more mechanical or something more, we’ll say, rubato/expressive/free.  For me, what I love about this music is the discovery one undergoes as the work is realized in the moment of performance.  It appeals to a sense of spontaneity, breathing in the energy of its environment.

Enough from me, here’s the composer himself:

Tell me a little bit about the form of the 1st movement and how it operates on both smaller and larger scales and how do the different timbres (glissandi, harmonics…) that you are working with operate within the form you set up?

The first movement is centered on a very specific type of glissando. Around this characteristic sound other materials and motives unfold, namely, different types of glissandi (skin, nail, knuckle and palm), different kinds of harmonics (3rd, 5th, 7th), and a few low clusters. The unfolding of these materials is handled by superposing formal patterns. Each parameter is subjected to a different permutational scheme with the aim of creating a particular sense of depth. Some of these schemes are then replicated at the large-scale level.  

In Felt, how do you envision the sounds produced by each hand to relate to each other? What kind of system is set up?

In Felt each hand serves a very specific role. The right hand plays angular pitch material using a felt pick, and the left hand performs harmonics following a predetermined trajectory on the strings. They are unified by rhythm (playing for the most part homorrythmically) and dynamics (both playing very softly). The result is a texture that shifts in timbre constantly, even if subtly.

The form is actually quite systematic. It is essentially a permutational array of four amounts of notes. As the work evolves those four amounts are progressively reduced by one, resulting in a very slow formal “fade away”.

From your perspective, how does knowing the performer’s personality work its way into the piece (if at all)?

In a collaboration like the one that led to the composition of After / Felt the performer is really more of a co-composer. In that regard his or her personality has an enormous agency in both the drafting stages and the final result. In this particular case, there is recorded evidence of how the Eureka! moments in the composing of this piece were the consequence of a shared effort.

What further questions does writing After/Felt raise for you and what would you like to pursue?

In terms of the possibilities of the harp, I feel I’ve opened a Pandora’s box. The amount of timbral alternatives the instrument has to offer is astounding. In terms of my composing in general, After / Felt is the second piece in which I systematically employ layering, permutation and process. This combo I plan to use in at least a couple more pieces…