June 30, 2012
American Harp Society 40th National Conference in New York City
Marriott Marquis Hotel
Sara Cutler, harp
Jack Stamp conducting the Keystone Wind Ensemble
fl, ob, bcl, asax, bsn, 2 tpts, hn, tbn, tba, harp
1. ...by the field.Program Note
Michael Torke: WILD GRASS, concerto for harp and double winds.
Wild Grass is written for harpist, Sara Cutler and co-commissioned by the American Harp Society and Jack Stamp, of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, with additional support from a consortium of eight universities.
Although the entire piece is functionally tonal—the keys of the three movements are F, E flat, and F—the musical idea I develop is actually a tone row, harkening back to the days of Modernism and Serialism. Most rows then had 12 pitches, the notes of the chromatic scale. My row has 44 notes, and none of them are chromatic! This would suit the harp, because to achieve a non-diatonic note, you need to change a pedal. I actually joked with Sara, before writing the piece, “Wouldn’t it be great if the piece had no pedal changes at all!”
When the harp enters, the arpeggiated flourish you first hear is the “row.” Then you hear the exact retrograde. One would think this might sound like an academic exercise, but given the speed, and the accumulated sound a harp makes, it is reminiscent of earlier French examples of harp writing. The woodwinds and brass primarily “etch,” the pitches that fly by; holding or reinforcing what the harp is playing. As Sara has told me, strings have a way of covering what a harpist is playing in a way that winds do not. Winds might prove to be more natural accompanying instruments for a harp soloist.
The contemplative second movement transforms the row by a factor of four: 4 times 44 or 176 notes in its “row.” We hear this first phrase completely unaccompanied.
In the third movement, it is fast again, and I’ve combined pairs of pitches to create the most syncopated version of this material. But in all three movements, a leading melody appears, which is completely constructed by inflection points in the row, and this helps unify the entire piece.