Ben Melsky: Ben Melsky / Ensemble Dal Niente


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.


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.

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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

Ben Melsky

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.


Avant Music News

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

Avant Scena

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

Midwest Record

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

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