Harpist Ben Melsky, of Ensemble Dal Niente, a staple on the Chicago new music scene, releases a recording of innovative chamber works with his colleagues by a wonderful collection of composers including Wang Lu, Fred Gifford, Tomás Gueglio, Alican Çamcı, Igor Santos, and Eliza Brown.
After L'Addio / FeltTomás Gueglio
|Ben Melsky, harp|
|01||I. After L'Addio|
I. After L'Addio
|Emma Hospelhorn, bass flute, Ben Melsky, harp||8:21|
|04||Mobile 2015: Satirise|
Mobile 2015: Satirise
|Jesse Langen, guitar, Ben Melsky, harp||7:14|
|05||After some remarks by CW on his work|
After some remarks by CW on his work
|Katie Schoepflin Jimoh, clarinet, Ben Melsky, harp||6:04|
|Kyle Flens, percussion, Ben Melsky, harp||13:22|
|Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, soprano, Ben Melsky, harp||8:34|
On this recording of new repertoire for harp, Ben Melsky of Chicago’s Ensemble Dal Niente (along with colleagues flutist Emma Hospelhorn, guitarist Jesse Langen, clarinetist Katie Schoepflin Jimoh, percussionist Kyle Flens, and soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett) present several new works written by composers in their closely knit community that establish the instrument as an ideal vehicle for contemporary aesthetic exploration. Through extended techniques on the instrument, as well as vocalizations, alternate tunings, and experiments with open form notation, these works engage with the leading edge of compositional experimentation through the lens of one of music’s oldest, and most ubiquitous, instruments.
Tomás Gueglio’s After L’Addio (a reference to Sciarrino’s solo harp work, L’Addio a Trachis) opens the album by directly confronting the most recognizable of harp gestures, the glissando, combining it with a technique he and Melsky developed involving dragging finger calluses along the string, cheekily called the “Guegliando.” The dry, obscured contour of the calloused gesture is splashed with the color of fully pitched glissandi, trills, and accented notes, creating a multi-dimensional, multi-registral texture. Felt (describing material used by the performer to produce a modified attack on the strings as well as a subtle sustained sound on the body of the instrument) stands in opposition to the opening work in its use of mitigating material between the player and the instrument. The music is spacious and introspective, unfolding in contemplative phrases, each separated by a brief pause.
Alican Çamcı’s perde was composed through a process of transcription. Çamcı recited fragments of a 15th century Persian religious poem called a masnavi, and then used the resultant rhythmic contour as the basis for the organization of the piece. Since the masnavi is written in strict poetic meter, there is a multi-layered process of translation from the original pacing inherent in the poetic fragments to the resultant musical material. By combining spoken and sung syllables through the flute, extended techniques, and unison and composite rhythms between the two instruments, Çamcı establishes a ritualistic deconstruction of this poetic fragment.Read More
Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile series explores indeterminacy, asking the performers to reorder materials to create a unique performance of the work each time it is played. Mobile 2015: Satirise, for guitar and harp, takes particular advantage of the shared timbral territory between these two instruments -- plucked, strummed, hit, and rubbed on their respective bodies. The microtonal tuning between them further reinforces the otherworldly nature of this work of discovery.
Composer Christian Wolff’s extensive work with alternative notation and new systems for facilitating structured improvisation provides the source of Wang Lu’s inspiration in After some remarks by CW on his work for harp and clarinet. Opening with rich multiphonics in the clarinet, punctuated by bell-like harmonics in the harp, the work explores what Wang Lu describes as “delicate sound objects” — intricate hybrid timbres and poignant expressive moments underscoring the contrast between sustained notes and the immediacy of plucking.
The expression marking for Igor Santos’ Anima is “mechanically,” an apt directive for a work that erects repetitive loops of glitchy percussive sounds around infectious composite melodies. The work’s kinetic inevitability is interrupted on several occasions for a closer examination of the sonic components of a given loop, while other times the loop itself gets stuck like a skipping record. A haunting, spacious middle section and a delicate coda of croaking and scratching sounds provide disembodied contrast.
Eliza Brown waited until the later stages of composing On-dit to choose and incorporate the short text fragment by Voltaire. First, she composed the harp part and the breathy material in the voice as well as some of the melodic material, adding the text last. The result is a work that prioritizes a patient meditation on the timbres of the voice and harp over a text driven structure.
With this release, Melsky and his Dal Niente colleagues document seven substantial new works in the harp chamber music repertoire that speak to many of the aesthetic concerns captivating composers today. This recording also celebrates Melsky’s tireless advocacy in asserting a prominent role for one of the world’s oldest instruments in the current avant-garde.
– D. Lippel
Recorded at Experimental Sound Studios, Chicago, 2018/19
Engineers: Alex Inglesian & Ralph Loza
Dedicated to connecting audiences to the music of the 20th and 21st centuries, Chicago-based Ben Melsky is Executive Director and harpist of the internationally-acclaimed Ensemble Dal Niente. In close collaboration with composers and performers he encourages the creation of new work to break pre-conceived notions of the harp’s capabilities, activating new techniques, sounds, and performance practices.
Ben’s concert activities include national and international appearances in solo and chamber ensemble configurations. Most recently he has performed at the Library of Congress, the Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC), the Ecstatic Music Festival at the Kaufmann Center (NYC), Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music (Germany), and Art Institute of Chicago with upcoming engagements at the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Festival Noon to Midnight, Stanford University, New Music New College, University of California Davis, and the Foro Internacional de Musica Nueva (Mexico City, MX). Having premiered hundreds of new works featuring the harp, he has worked closely with composers George Lewis, Raphael Cendo, Augusta Read Thomas, Enno Poppe, Anthony Cheung, Wang Lu, Mark Andre, Tomas Gueglio, Alican Çamci, Timothy Page, Drew Baker, Eliza Brown, Katherine Young, Jeff Parker, Marcos Balter, Fredrick Gifford, Sky Macklay, Chris Fisher-Lochhead, Mikel Kuehn, and Suzanne Farrin. Also, regularly collaborating with artists across disciplines and across borders, Ben has worked closely with the German-Icelandic contemporary music quartet Ensemble Adapter, indie noise rock group Deerhoof, and dance company Delfos Danza Contemporanea (Mazatlán, MX) with whom he was in residence at La Escuela Profesional de Danza de Mazatlán developing Proa, a new multidisciplinary piece for harp, prepared piano, and four dancers.
Additionally Ben is the principal harpist of the Joffrey Ballet and a core member of the Grossman Ensemble, the resident ensemble of the University of Chicago’s Center for Contemporary Composition comprised of thirteen of the country’s leading contemporary music specialists. Ben has played with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Grant Park Music Festival, Ann Arbor Symphony, and Chicago Opera Theater and has played in Jeff-Award winning musicals Sunday in the Park with George and Follies at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, A Little Night Music at Writer’s Theater, Animal Crackers at the Goodman Theater, and East of Eden at Steppenwolf Theater.
His discography includes: Assemblage (New World Records) an Ensemble Dal Niente portrait album of American composer and scholar George Lewis which was named “Best of 2017” by the National Sawdust Log and one of the “Notable performances and recordings of 2017” by Alex Ross; Balter / Saunier (New Amsterdam Records) Dal Niente’s collaboration with rock band Deerhoof called “a weird and wonderful musical exchange” by Pitchfork Magazine; and a forthcoming solo album of works by Tomás Gueglio, Alican Çamci, Wang Lu, Marc Andre, Eliza Brown, and Fredrick Gifford.
Under his leadership, Ensemble Dal Niente increased its concert activities to over forty concerts per year broadening its international listenership. In 2017 the ensemble launched STAGED, a series of four fully-staged productions that brought together collaborators from theater, scenic design, movement, shadow puppetry and lighting design. Building on its reputation for commissioning and premiering major new works, the group has landed commissions of composers Ted Hearne, Anthony Cheung, Sky Macklay, and Erin Gee. Dal Niente continues to be a model for contemporary music ensembles; producing risk-taking, intellectually rigorous, and aesthetically inspiring musical performances while expanding organizational capacity and building long-term sustainability.
With Dal Niente, Ben has been in residence at Brown University, Brandeis University, The University of Chicago, Northwestern University, East Carolina University, Western Michigan University, University of California Davis with upcoming engagements at Stanford University, New Music New College, June in Buffalo Festival, and the Splice Institute for electronic music.
Ben received his Doctorate of Musical Arts from Northwestern University where he studied with Elizabeth Cifani and also where he received both BM and MM. He was a student participant in the 2016 Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music where he worked with harpist Gunnhilder Einarsdottir.
The harp glissando: it’s a recognizable gesture, one that listeners might associate with cinematic depictions of high society, dream sequences, or the heavens. Not only is it recognizable, it’s everywhere, and that saturation often places the harp in the realm of the cliché. One would think that an album of harp music intending to break from tradition would avoid the prominent use of glissandi, but in New Works for Harp (New Focus Recordings), Ben Melsky of Ensemble Dal Niente opens with this gesture – and absolutely pulls it off.
Tomás Gueglio’s After L’Addio (referencing Sciarrino’s L’Addio a Trachis for solo harp) sets the tone for Melsky’s sonic exploration of the instrument by immediately obscuring the iconic glissando gesture. The piece combines the traditional glissando with sharp plucking, harmonics, bisbigliandi, and the “Guegliando” (devised by Melsky and Gueglio, a glissando with calloused fingertips and strong pressure, creating a dry sound). The significant time spent in collaboration between composer and performer pays off–Gueglio’s timbral language is immediately captivating, and Melsky performs with impeccable fluidity. Following After L’Addio is its sister piece Felt, which starkly contrasts the bombast of glissandi and glissando-like figures with introverted gestures combining harmonics and a felt pick. Despite the seeming simplicity of this piece, the techniques are incredibly virtuosic, requiring precise finger placement to get the right clash or consonance of overtones against equal-tempered plucking. Melsky’s command of emotional contrast is stunning.
The effective construction of New Works for Harp doesn’t end with its firm opening statement. After demonstrating the harp’s expressive and experimental potential as a solo instrument, Melsky showcases some of the instrument’s best natural synergies in a series of duets. Alican Çamci’s Perde is an excellent example of synergistic timbral exploration. Organized around Çamci’s transcription of a ‘Masnavi’ (a 15th-century Sufi poetic form), the speech-like piece is realized to great effect through corresponding extended techniques and composite and unison rhythmic motion between flute and harp. Çamci’s further complements this pairing echoing the flute sounds with the natural resonance of the harp. The lower flute sounds when paired with harp harmonics lead to some tuning issues, but overall, the empathetic timbral shifts offer several sublime moments.
Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise provides a different perspective on the timbral profile of the harp by pairing it with a similar instrument: the guitar. The pairing is just homogenous enough to create granular shifts in color, emphasized by the detuning of the guitar and the open form encouraging conversational interplay between Melsky and guitarist Jesse Langen. Mobile 2015: Satirise is subtly humorous, and provides a nice palate cleanser for the middle of the album. Following the timbral similarity of the Gifford, Wang Lu’s After some remarks by CW on his work is pleasantly striking in its exploration of opposites. Earthy clarinet multiphonics open the piece accompanied by the ethereal texture of low clusters and resonant harmonics in the harp. The exploration of glissando returns in this track, and Wang Lu’s use of detuning perfectly balances familiarity and variety with goosebump-inducing effectiveness.
Igor Santos takes the listener about as far away from conventional harp music as one can get by exploring its vast, often untapped percussive potential. His work Anima pairs harmonics, muted plucking, and striking of the soundboard with several percussion implements and vocal sounds. The piece is highly episodic without sacrificing a clear trajectory, interrupting directional development with timbral studies of the space between previously dissimilar textures. Santos, Melsky, and percussionist Kyle Flens exemplify the sensitivity to tone color and atypical musical expression which have placed Ensemble Dal Niente (and the composers with whom they collaborate) among the best contemporary ensembles in the world.
Eliza Brown’s On-dit serves as an exquisite ending to this album. While many of the previous selections are captivating through their sonic density, Brown maintains the listener’s attention through her adept display of patience with the musical material. On-dit washes over the listener with infinitesimal shifts between breathy, dry gestures and fully intoned ones, a sound world perfectly suited to soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett’s voice. In fact, it is DeBoer Bartlett’s chameleonic interplay with the harp that makes this performance truly special, creating such smooth sonic development that the sparse interruptions of material become particularly impactful.
Considering the album as a whole, the reinvention of the harp glissando at the beginning feels even more appropriate. In New Works for Harp, Ben Melsky wordlessly argues the flexibility and expressivity of the harp, first by directly confronting the instrument’s historical convention, then by comprehensively demonstrating its often-untapped capacities. New Works for Harp is simultaneously an outstanding academic source for the harp and an emotional voyage for the casual listener.
-Adam O'Dell, 11.15.19, I Care If You Listen
I’m constantly telling people I love the harp. But it wasn’t until the opening notes of Tomás Gueglio’s After L’Addio/Felt (2014), the solo piece that starts off Melsky’s fascinating new collection, that I felt I was hearing the harp music I needed. Combining dry strums with the sweeping glissando for which the harp is known with brightly plucked notes, Gueglio gives us a sassy overview of the instrument’s reimagined sonic possibilities. The fact that the dry sounds are the result of a new technique of dragging Melsky’s calluses across the strings, speaks to not only a tight connection between composer and performer but also to Melsky’s dedication to his craft. In Alican Camçi’s Perde (2016), Melsky’s harp goes mano a mano with his Ensemble Dal Niente colleague Emma Hospelhorn’s bass flute, his swipes and melodic fragments moving in parallel with her husky whispers and staccato vocalizing. It’s slightly combative and if they never quite agree an invigorating detente is eventually reached.
Next is Frederick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise (2015), part of his series of indeterminate pieces, which give agency to the players in how they order the elements during their performance. This one is designed for harp and guitar, played here by Jesse Langen, and finds the players embracing the similarities between their instruments as much as the differences, creating a unified landscape of sound rife with topographical interest. Wang Lu, whose debut portrait album made such a splash last year, contributes the cheekily titled After some remarks by CW on his work (2018), with the CW standing for composer Christian Wolff, one of her inspirations. A dialogue for Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s clarinet and Melsky’s harp, the piece is a reflective gem.
Igor Santos’s Anima (2019) is the longest piece here at 13 minutes plus and turns Melsky’s harp into a cog in a machine created by a delightfully witty percussion part played by Kyle Flens. It must be a joy in concert. On-Dit (2014), Eliza Brown’s piece incorporating a short fragment of text by Voltaire, closes the album with dynamic writing for harp accompanied by an hypnotic vocal part sung by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. It’s a mysterious yet energizing conclusion to a landmark recording for Melsky’s chosen instrument. I put it alongside Michael Nicolas’s Transitions and Olivia de Prato’s Streya as an exemplar of what a modern collection like this can look like. And speaking of looks, New Focus Recordings has really gone above and beyond with the packaging for this one, giving it a wonderfully handmade feel. If you still buy physical media, put this at the top of your shopping list.
-Jeremy Shatan, 10.19.19, AnEarful
Ben Melsky’s New Works For Harp is an album I received just before it was released and I still cannot stop listening to it. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Ben perform live on a number of occasions, both as a soloist and with members of Ensemble Dal Niente. With each performance he makes me rethink the harp and what it is capable of, and this album is no different. The composers on this album often use Ben’s skill and creativity as a performer to ask him to do a number of nonstandard techniques, or at least playing techniques that casual harp listens are likely not accustomed to hearing. Melsky intertwines these sounds of half-pedaling (creating a rustling gritty tone), string harmonics, and a wealth of other techniques using implements against the strings creates a varied sound world that at times makes the listener question the specific sound sources. Beyond Melsky’s performances there is a host of other players who contribute to this album including Jesse Langen (guitar), Emma Hospelhorn (bass flute), Katie Schoepflin Jimoh (clarinet), Kyle Flens (percussion), and Amanda DeBoer Bartlett (soprano).
Tomás Gueglio’s After L’Addido/Felt opens the album and demonstrates Melsky’s skills as a soloist with a piece that is truly remarkable in terms of the timbral and expressive exploration of the glissandi - arguably the most recognizable and frequently associated with the instrument. The variation that Gueglio demands from the harp, all of which Melsky delivers with commanding control (some of the techniques the two developed together). The second movement, Felt, is much slower and reflective with more time taken between moments and a stronger focus on pitch and melody. Alican Camci’s Perde for harp and bass flute follows as the third track. Camci extensively explores and utilizes the timbral possibilities of the instruments, not only for variations/deviations from more standard playing techniques, but as sonic elements existing on their own merits and the primary material. The piece uses Persian religious poems called masnavi as source material with the music for flute and harp being transcriptions of these highly rhythmic poems. This comes through in the conversational nature, as well as the voiced/spoken elements through the flute and the percussive techniques from the instruments, both layered and in unison.
Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile for harp and guitar presents the two instruments playing a limited amount of pointillistic materials that are constantly reworked and varied throughout the piece, creating irregular overlaps and constantly shifting textures and layers. This is reinforced from the two instruments having similar timbres which creates, at times, an otherworldly kind of super-instrument where the harp and guitar seem to fuse into a single entity.
After Some Remarks by Wang Lu, for bass clarinet and harp, draws inspiration from Christian Wolff’s approach to controlled and structured improvisation. Like other compositions on the album, Lu takes a deep dive into exploring and utilizing extended techniques of the two instruments, opening with throbbing multiphonics in the bass clarinet with resonant harmonics, plucks and glissandi from the harp interspersed. As the piece unfolds the clarinet begins playing short sustained tones while the harp continues to present material in less conventional playing techniques, all of which expands the overall timbral and color palette.
Igor Santos’ Anima for percussion and harp is a mechanical presentation of a broad spectrum of percussive sounds from the harp and percussion instruments. The interplay of the two creates overlapping loops of material that are interlocked rhythmically. This particular method continues throughout the opening section of the piece and leads into a much slower and more expansive middle section that explores more sustained and howling timbres/gestures from both instruments. Both sections are contrasted by a short return to the rhythmic layering but with more frenetic rhythmic variation and followed by a short coda of gritty scratching noises from both instruments.
On-dit by Eliza Brown, for soprano and harp, fuses scratchy sounds from the harp and breath of the voice in the introductory section to create a fused timbre of the two elements, which blossoms into Melsky’s impeccable playing and a top-tier performance by soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett singing a fragmented text by Voltaire. The piece is an appropriate closing to the album, as Brown’s single composition - as well as the performances by DeBoer Bartlett and Melsky - is delicate though intense, broad in scope yet amazingly focused and executed with the utmost skill, all of which could be said for each piece/composer on the album and for all performances. This is truly a remarkable album that I believe will reshape how most people think about the harp in terms of its sounds and expressive capabilities.
-Jon Fielder, 10.15.19, Klang New Music
For many, the harp evokes the image of a musician contributing a soothing background soundtrack to an outdoors assemblage of wine-sipping minglers, an image that persists despite the harp's status as a core symphony orchestra instrument of long standing. On Ensemble Dal Niente, Ben Melsky presents the harp in an entirely different light, as an expressive vehicle for experimental music-making, an instrument as qualified to give voice to contemporary composition as any other. Challenging long-standing conventions is nothing new for Melsky, who's premiered hundreds of new works featuring the harp, is the principal harpist of the Joffrey Ballet, and who has performed with many different outfits, including Deerhoof.
Lilting melodies and angelic strums are eschewed on this challenging fifty-two-minute set; extended techniques are commonly deployed, and vocalizations and alternate tunings similarly appear. It's a bit of a family affair, with Melsky joined on the release by fellow members of Chicago's Ensemble Dal Niente collective. Only the opening pieces by Tomás Gueglio feature the harpist alone, the five subsequent works pairing him with one player at a time: flutist Emma Hospelhorn, guitarist Jesse Langen, clarinetist Katie Schoepflin Jimoh, percussionist Kyle Flens, and soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett. Besides Gueglio, Wang Lu, Fred Gifford, Tomás Gueglio, Alican Çamci, and Eliza Brown are the composers whose works are featured.
The album begins by exploiting one of the instrument's signatures, the glissando, in Gueglio's After L'Addio. The familiarity of those entrancing swirls is altered, however, by the addition of another technique, cheekily christened by the composer the “Guegliando.” Here the harpist drags finger calluses along the string to generate a dry, somewhat percussive effect markedly unlike the brilliant swirl of the glissando. Felt wends a slightly different route by comparison, the focus in this case on stark phrases, each plucked note separated from the next by a brief pause, and the character of the material spectral, ponderous, and introspective.
To write Perde, Çamci used the rhythmic contour established by recited fragments of a fifteenth-century Persian religious poem as a starting point. In this patiently unfolding performance, Hospelhorn uses her bass flute to produce spoken and sung syllables, with Melsky accompanying her rhythms, sometimes in unison. An intensely focused and rather ritualistic exploration results that manifests the unpredictable quality of a live improvisation, however formally notated the composition is.
That unpredictability is built into Mobile 2015: Satirise, which, as part of Gifford's Mobile series, purposefully embraces indeterminacy when the composer asks the performers to reorder the material to generate a unique performance each time the work's played. More than any of the other pieces on the recording, Langen's guitar and Melsky's harp meld naturally when their timbral properties are so alike. Both performers liberally pluck, strum, pick, and rub their respective instruments' strings and bodies for seven explorative minutes, the spidery latticework created rendered more arresting by the use of microtonal tuning.
Clarinetist Jimoh joins Melsky on a performance of Lu's After some remarks by CW on his work, the title alluding to Christian Wolff and his study of different systems for facilitating structured improvisation. Unlike Gifford's setting, contrast is pronounced in Lu's, with the sustained expressions of the woodwind differentiating themselves from the harp's plucks and strums. Even greater contrast is present in Brown's closing On-dit, which pairs Melsky with soprano Bartlett. Working with a short text fragment by Voltaire, Brown created the harp and breathy parts first and added the text last, the move a deliberate subversion of the customary approach that sees text given priority.
At thirteen minutes the longest of the album's pieces, Santos's Anima tickles the ear with the diverse sonorities of Flens's percussive arsenal. The mechanical rhythms hint at gamelan, but in following multiple paths the material resists simple definition. That said, it's easy to imagine the piece as accompaniment to a Noh theatre performance, especially when the harp resembles a pipa in some moments and the percussion instruments (vibraphone, snare, gong, et al.) and vocal noises seem to tell a story all by themselves.
These harp chamber works are unconventional, for sure, and their experimental nature makes for challenging listening, but Melsky's recording definitely rewards the effort. Certainly his fellow harpists will be heartened by the release and his innovative approach, the recording doing much to broaden the conception of the instrument's possibilities.
-Ron Schepper, 10.12.19, textura
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 Fredrick 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.
-Daniel Barbiero, 9.20.19, Avant Music News
The new compositions by contemporary academical music composers – Tomas Gueglio, Alican Çamcı, Fredrick Gifford, Wang Lu, Igor Santos and Eliza Brown – were recorded by Ben Melsky and “Ensemble Dal Niente”. All the composers are talented and innovative composer of contemporary academical and experimental music scene. They had already created his own playing style based on effective modern playing manner, unique sound, inspiring and extended playing techniques and rich musical language. The music is filled with modern expressions, inventive, specific and original ways of playing, strange timbres and special effects. Composers are moderating huge range of styles, rhythms, tunes, sounds and expressions to create an awakening, bright and original compositions. “Ensemble Dal Niente” is a new and evocative ensemble which makes inspiring, experimental and original interpretations of various compositions. Their music is a mix of drive, passion, inspiration, wide musical knownledge and fascinating experiments. All the members of ensemble are the masters of their art – splendid virtuosity, masterful and impressive playing technique makes an effort to exclusive sound of this ensemble. Here, in this album, “Ensemble Dal Niente” is playing along with its colleagues – flutist Emma Hospelhorn, guitarist Jesse Langen, clarinetist Katie Schoepflin Jimoh, percussionist Kyle Flens, and soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett.
This album shows all the main tendencies of contemporary academical and experimental music. Modern innovations, the basics of academic avant-garde, extended playing techniques, sound experiments, interesting combos and exclusive instrumental section – that’s the base of the compositions. Each composer is different – they all have individual style, unique sound and an innovative point of view. Generally, the compositions are based on the modern innovations, fascinating sonoristic experiments gently blended with passionate solos, driving melodies and wide range of expressions. The emotions of all ranges become very important elements of all compositions – the composers and musicians are trying to express wide range of different emotions, characters and expressions. Sometimes the music is sophisticated, solemn and calm, when it gets deep, depressive and dark, or – strikes on sparkling, dramatic and terrific culminations accompanied by flowing passages, gorgeous ornaments and strange timbres. Light and gentle pizzicatto, remarkable glissando, moving tremolo, emotional solos, roaring frantic riffs, sharp timbres, strange tunes, minimalistic samples ehich meet dynamic and expressive melodies – all kinds of musical language’s elements are joined here. Open form, tonal and atonal music, electronics, sound experiments, the basics of concrete, spectral or sonoristic music are frequently used here. The compositions have a difficult structure – multi-layed musical pattern is the basic of it. Each composer succesfully manages to create a bright and exclusive instrumental section. It’s basically made from traditional and experimental ways of playing. Sonoristic experiments, special effects, innovative, specific or simply weird ways of playing make the main base of instrumental section. The musicians don’t forget to integrate classical and very well-known ways of playing – the basic and universal playing techniques, abbreviations, ornaments and chords sequences are used in the background. An open form is chosed almost everywhere – it’s based on synthesis of open and classical forms of contemporary academical music. Free improvisation makes an impressive effect – it brings surprising, thrilling and dynamic sound. Vocalisation gently fits here with all kinds of scales, open tonality, dodecaphony, serialism, puantilism and huge expansion of technical abilities of other instruments. This album has an inspiring, evocative and innovative sound.
-Avant Scena, 9.27.19
Way cool, Chicago is rising up as a place for progressive classical music as Melsky takes harp to Mars and beyond for a set of modern works that aren’t bound by anything, including gravity. Working out with his normal crew, this is music for space heads---even if they aren’t your typical contemporary classical fan. A fine example of sonic inclusiveness, the beyond the pale aspects of this recording are thoroughly what makes it so engaging. You’ve got our ears open.
-Chris Spector, 8.23.19, Midwest Record
New Music for Harp With Edge, Bite and a Killer Sense of Humor
Once in a great while, someone writes album liner notes so priceless that they scream to be quoted. Here’s Michael Lewanski offering some background for Ben Melsky’s album New Works for Harp with his group Ensemble Dal Niente:
“There might be many things that strike you as odd about the idea of a new music harp album…the first is that there’s very little, strictly speaking, that is less new than the harp… it seems that earliest exemplars are found in the Sumerian city of Ur, from the mid-fourth millennium BCE, perhaps before very many people had figured out how to write. You also find them, starting in 3000 BCE or so, painted on tombs of Egyptian pharaohs who apparently wanted enjoyable-but-not-too-noisy entertainment in the afterlife.) It doesn’t get much more basic than plucking a string; no wonder this instrument has been around for awhile.
Another has to do with the hackneyed cliché, found among both musicians and non-, of the harp as an instrument that is the ne plus ultra of the elegant and genteel, nudging in the direction of the effete and decadent. (Along those lines, one of its best known moments in the so-called “standard repertoire” is the cadenza in the Valse des fleurs from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker: a work titled in a language foreign to the composer for a piece in which a waltz (a genre inextricably bound up with the most ennui’d of aristocracy) is danced by flowers in the Land of Sweets. I challenge you to find me something more froo-froo in the history of art.”
Needless to say, Melsky’s record – streaming at Bandcamp – is not exactly froo-froo. The first number is Tomás Guelio’s brief After L’Addio, its muted glissandos punctuated by spare accents and percussive figures along with a handful of coy doppler riffs. The title references a Salvatore Sciarrino work for harp which attempts to maximize what little sustain the instrument can deliver. Steadily plucked close harmonies and deliciously subtle overtones dominate the diptych’s second half, Felt for harp.
Emma Hospelhorn joins Melsky for a duo piece, Alican Çamci’s staggeredly syncopated, spacious Perde for Bass Flute and Harp, which with the flutist basically humming through her instrument much of the time is as playful as it is distantly disquieting. An alternate title for this increasingly magical, microtonally-spiced tableau could be Sonata for Fly and Music Box.
Another duo work, Fredrick Gifford’s Mobile 2015: Satirise features guitarist Jesse Langen and lots of extended technique, with plenty of whirry noise along with the spare, chiming interplay.
A Wang Lu shout-out to Christian Wolff contrasts Melsky’s slo-mo, acerbically circular phrases with Katie Schoepflin Jimoh’s alternately hazy and fluttery clarinet. The album’s longest, funniest and best number is Igor Santos’ Anima. Percussionist Kyle Flens adds warpy. singing bowl-like textures and all sorts of quasi-vocalized buffoonery, going back and forth with Melsky’s wry whistles and peek-a-book moments. As cartoon music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this.
With its sudden swells and triumphantly gritty flourishes contrasting with moments of silence, the album’s final number is Eliza Brown‘s On-dit (French for “they say”), soprano Amanda DeBoer Bartlett adding perhaps the album’s most terse, minimalistic contribution. This is a great late-night listen for people who like quiet, thoughtful music with an edge.
— delarue, 6.22.2020