The harp is one of those instruments whose extraordinary versatility makes it well-suited to musical experimentation. Berio’s 1963 Sequenza II for solo harp showed just how rich the instrument’s sonic resources are, given a willingness to extend technique beyond the conventional. The new and recent works on harpist Ben Melsky’s self-titled album continue in that decidedly untraditional tradition.
Melsky specializes in modern and contemporary music for the harp and has a particular interest in expanding the repertoire of challenging new compositions for the instrument. He’s joined on this album by members of the contemporary chamber ensemble Dal Niente, of which he is Executive Director as well as harpist. It’s quite simply a beautiful recording that manages to be both sensuous and cerebral all at once.
As different as the album’s individual pieces are, there are a couple of features that recur throughout the recording: a basic interest in foregrounding timbre over pitch, generally through the uses of extended technique and imaginative instrumental pairings; and uncluttered textures often made up of discrete sound events.
Except for Tomás Gueglio’s two-part After L’Addio/Felt (2014) for solo harp, all of the compositions are for harp in a duet setting. After L’Addio places a continuo of rough, scraping sounds under glissandi and individually plucked notes; the aptly titled Felt filters a measured sequence of atonal notes and harmonics through felt applied to the instrument. Whereas L’Addio/Felt draws timbral contrasts through extended technique for harp alone, the other works explore the timbral implications of different instrumental pairings. The phrasing in Alican Çamci’s Perde for bass flute and harp (2014) is based on the rhythms of a 15th century Persian poem; the resonant, vocal quality of the line is emphasized by having bass flutist Emma Hospelhorn sing and speak through her instrument while Melsky supplies staccato punctuation and accents. On-dit (2014) by Eliza Brown also matches voice to harp; soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett sings, whispers, and sustains notes over the harp’s more fragmentary interventions.
Mobile 2015: Satirise, an open-form work by Frederick Gifford, was written for an inspired combination of harp and guitar (played by Jesse Langen), two instruments with similar timbral profiles. It’s a similarity that, paradoxically, dramatizes their differences by virtue of their not being identical. The piece’s microtonality adds another, subtle degree of separation between the two. Igor Santos’ 2019 Anima for harp and percussion has percussionist Kyle Flens and Melsky converge on spiky, composite timbres, while Wang Lu’s After some remarks by CW on his work (2018) for harp and clarinet blends ample open spaces, multiphonics from Katie Schoepflin’s clarinet, and harp harmonics in a sequence of sound-islands of uncanny, composite timbres.