Magical New Music For Bass and Harp Duo
The River Town Duo‘s lineup – bass and concert harp – may be extremely rare, but they’re not the only such ensemble in the world. In fact, more than twenty composers have written for this unorthodox and magical pairing, which was somewhat more prevalent during the baroque era. The new album by the duo of bassist Philip Alejo and harpist Claire Happel Ashe – which hasn’t hit the web yet – comprises six fascinating, mostly rather quiet pieces by contemporary composers, covering all the bases throughout pretty much the entirety of the sonic spectrum. Alejo is called on to use his bow more than his fingers here, although he does both, while Ashe is occasionally engaged for extended technique as well.
They open with Caroline Shaw‘s dedication to them, For Claire & Philip. It’s pensive, driven by suspenseful pedalpoint from both instruments, and although the two get to build to some of the jaunty polyrhythms often found in Shaw’s work, it’s absolutely unique in her catalog.
Whitney Ashe‘s spaghetti western-influenced The Circuitous Six is even more starrily mysterious, Alejo’s stark bowing beneath its rhythmically shifting variations on a circling phrase. Derick Evans‘ surreallistically shapeshifting tableau On Lotusland draws inspiration from overlooking the Tucson cityscape at night, its cluster of lights surrounded by desolation. Alejo shifts from gritty overtones to keening, harmonically-tinged glissandos, Ashe bending her notes, the two rising to a slinky pulse tapped out on the body of the bass and eventually a plaintive neoromantic theme.
Hannah Lash‘s diptych Leaves, Space calmly and broodingly explores terse contrapuntal riffs and echo effects as well as the ways the harp can amplify phrases from the bass, Alejo fingerpicking emphatically before he picks up his bow again. The sepulchral second half is arguably the high point of the album.
Evan Premo contributes Two Meditations on Poems of Mary Oliver. The first, Early Morning, New Hampshire is a wistful, bucolic portrait of an old stone wall in the woods, Alejo backing away to provide atmospherics behind Ashe’s more enigmatic plucking. Although the second, Linen of Words explores the workmanlike, repetitive side of creating art, its folksy theme and variations make it one of the album’s catchiest tunes.
The duo conclude with Stephen Andrew Taylor‘s brief, lively five-part suite Oxygen. They follow a dancing, enigmatically circling theme with depictions of blood components, DNA and breathing. Alejo strains, bounces, slides and squirrels around while Ashe frequently mutes her strings for timbral unease. The moments of clarity are especially striking, especially the somber/twinkling dichotomies of the coda. It’s like the notorious PCR test come to life: you never know what kind of gunk might be floating through your veins until after many orders of magnification.