Postcard from Heaven
John CAGE (1912-1992)
In a Landscape (1948) [8:43]
James TENNEY (1934-2006)
Harmonium No. 3 (1980) [4:31]
Alexander TCHEREPNIN (1899-1977)
Four Diatonic Caprices (1977) [6:43]
Gloria COATES (b. 1938)
Perchance to Dream (2014) [18:23]
Postcard from Heaven (1982) [15:30]
Susan Allen (harp)
Marilu Donavan, Ellie Choate, Jullian Risigari-Gai, Jaclyn Urlik (harp), Colton Lytle (bowed vibraphone)
rec. 2014, California Institute of the Arts
NEW WORLD RECORDS 80763-2 [55:15]
Harpist Susan Allen has a tremendous track record as an innovative musician, commissioning and performing a substantial amount of new repertoire for her instrument, and taking it as far as the jazz genre as an improviser.

This programme is one which places the timeless tones of the harp firmly into the world of 20th and 21st century music, but making the distinction between "composers who take to the harp" and "composers who attempt to write for the harp". The essence of these works is the harp as harp, rather than as a novelty springboard for boundary-stretching effects. John Cage's In a Landscape - originally for piano but also playable on the harp - is pure music in this regard, and I'd be prepared to bet that Cage's name would be one of the last to spring to mind for the vast majority of people heaing this rather sweet sounding work on blind audition. A limited number of notes creates a floating tonality, while phrases are guided by rhythmic sets which end up sounding like conventional 'melody' in music which has something of Erik Satie about it. It's only a shame that one or two strings sound as if they are a little out of tune, though as most of the works here seem set on using 'special' tunings of one kind or another I may be missing out on something.

James Tenney's Harmonium 3 is another superficially rather attractive piece which joins three harps to sound like a single instrument, etude-like arpeggios fanning out between the instruments in a single line, the strings tuned in special ways and the whole process of the work's progress working on a mathematical formula. The "fiendish" coordination between the players to get this right - something akin to change-ringing with church bells - seems a little like building a particle accelerator only for use as a machine for striking matches. I'm sure it must be impressive in live performance but the result, while intriguing, isn't especially memorable to my ears, despite claims from the booklet that we can expect music which "leaves a deep and lasting impression".

Alexander Tcherepnin has become better known of late with piano solo works, concertos and other repertoire now widely available on recordings. The Four Diatonic Caprices are described as "brief musical bonbons" originally for small Breton harp, but sounding gorgeously intimate and fragile even on the concert pedal harp used here. Their musical content ranges from gently impressionistic colours, deceptive pastoral simplicity and exotic Asian influences, closing with a rousing final Allegro.

Gloria Coates's Perchance to Dream places the sonorities of the harp alongside a halo of ringing tones from a vibraphone played using a bow from a string instrument. This sounds a little like a glass harmonica, giving the work an "otherworldly quality." There is a fascinating programmatic story to go along with the piece which is outlined in the booklet, with inspiration coming from Goethe's novelette Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Once again, simple-sounding material takes us into a strange and rather magical world. Commissioned by Susan Allen, this is the result of close collaboaration between composer and performer, and the detail in the relationship between bowed vibraphone and the microtonal tunings and de-tunings is something to behold. I worry about the re-tuning of the harp between the second and third of three movements in a concert context, but I'm sure they'll have thought of practical solutions. The final movement, An die Tueren Will Ich Schleichen, should really come with a health warning. If ever there was evidence of music having a Plato-esque effect on your mood and well-being then this might be held up as a prime example, "heightening the gloomy aura" of the poem it describes and sending us all rather dizzyingly into somewhere very profound and very profoundly dark.

Cage's Postcard from Heaven was one of his last works. It is written for between 1 and 20 harps, using ebows to resonate the strings without attack in the opening and end of the piece, and in between developing a vast range of innovative and non-harp-like effects more in the nature of what one would expect from this composer. Susan Allen worked and performed with Cage, so we can trust in her knowledge of the intentions behind this work - something which is all too easy to get wrong, though the great man is no longer around to tell us so. The music is based around "ragas" or pre-determined scale patterns and set pedal configurations, but the strength of this piece is its ticket into a place of unexpected strangeness within degrees of recognisability. We know and love a harp ensemble, but find outselves vicariously playing them with a virtual blindfold, teasing out shapes, sparks and subtle nuances - exchanging our ears for our eyes in order to see a way through.

This is a fascinating step into the unusual, the 'antique' sound of the harp meeting musical minds of our times. The recording is very good indeed, and there are very full notes on each work in the booklet.

Dominy Clements

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