Getting Plucky: No Strings Attached - Q&A with Ben Melsky and Jesse Langen

Getting Plucky: New Music for Harp and Guitar

Q: When and how did the two of you dream up the idea of collaborating to commission new music for harp and guitar?

Ben:  Jesse and I have consistently remarked, after every ensemble piece that we’ve been included on,  (I think the first time was when we did a Radiohead arrangement in DN’s early days at Northwestern) at how well we play together.  It’s just really solid - which is rare - especially considering our instruments and how difficult it can be to pluck notes at precisely the same time.  In an ensemble, harp and guitar are often their own “sections” so to speak, which is kind of uniting in a way. We  face similar challenges incorporating our sound with the ensemble while trying to lining things up rhythmically. Anyway, we did some repertoire searches and decided we needed to add some pieces to that list.   It’s interesting how alike the two instruments are in sound, technique, and role within an ensemble and yet there is remarkably little written for two as a duet.

Jesse:  It seems like such a natural combination; it makes sense for the same reasons that a string quartet or a wind quintet make sense.  It seems strange that there isn’t already a large repertoire; and in that light we saw it as a rare undeveloped opportunity, which we’re eagerly exploiting.

Q: Can you tell us how you identified the composers that you ended up working with? What are the highlights of each piece that we'll hear on the January 23 performance at Elastic Arts?

Ben: We pretty much agreed upon Fred, Drew, Tomás and Kasia immediately and I’m beyond thrilled that they all agreed to write for us.  I think we were interested in approaching composers who had experience with harp/guitar (and with us as performers) who would explore the tiniest timbral details because of the breadth of sound colors available between the two instruments.

I don’t want to give away the game completely but I’ll say the four pieces are totally different approaches to the duet, and have some unique challenges as chamber music. You’ll hear some mysteriously beautiful microtonal tuning, a good heap of character/gesture/pantomime, and a kind of plucky kaleidoscope of sound. Stay “tuned”...

Jesse: When I heard Tomás’ solo piece (After L’addio/Felt) for Ben, my first thought was that I have to get this guy to write me a solo piece!  Followed immediately by the realization that even better might be a duo for Ben and me.  His plucked string writing is virtuosic in an intimate way that comes from a hands-on mentality, and sure enough in rehearsals Tomás is able to take my guitar from me and show me corrections and ideas.  Fredrick Gifford is very familiar with both the guitar and the harp, and the very idea of this duo evokes in my mind a Gifford-temperament soundworld. Kasia is an accomplished harpist herself, but the real reason we thought of her is her creativity with drama in performance, which we thought would (and, in fact, most certainly does!) mesh well with our pursuit of ensemble virtuosity.  I think Drew was an impulse...we just had a feeling that asking him was a good idea.  This impulse paid off richly in the incandescent ass-kicker we got from him.

Q: What are the challenges and rewards of uniting these two instruments as an ensemble?

Challenge: Playing all the notes exactly together.
Reward: When we do, it sounds awesome.

Jesse: I would add on the rewards side that it’s therapeutic to rehearse together.  If you play violin, or flute, or any normal instrument, you get to play with people who play in your family of instruments all the time.  For Ben and for me, if we’re on a gig, it usually means there aren’t any other guitarists or harpists in the room.  So rehearsing together is not only a joy, but a kind of relief.  Ben plays when I think he’ll play, at the volume I expect, with the phrasing I expect.  I think string players, wind players, singers and so forth have this experience all the time, but it’s novel for us.

Q: It's Dal Niente's 10th Anniversary Season. In honor of this special occasion, what have been some of your favorite experiences as part of the ensemble?

Ben: Certainly the Deerhoof Variations come to mind, both performances of In Vain, Schnee… I feel like this season I’ve watched the group really embrace its identity as a music collective, with the blog and the DN Presents series, everyone has contributed in original ways to generate excitement around what we do.  It’s not a specific memory, but I also would have to add how much I love hearing everyone’s ideas at meetings concerts etc.  It’s kind of like a little musical “think tank” - thinking up repertoire, concert ideas, composers to approach, then figuring out how to turn them into reality.

Jesse: At the first Party, neither Matt Oliphant nor I were on any of the pieces, and I remember us exchanging a moment as we realized how great it was to sit back and listen to our favorite people entertain us (and eat and drink all the while) for hours on end.  When I think of Dal Niente moments that I revisit and savor in my head, it’s always my friends playing, and my sitting back thinking how lucky I am to be in the room and listening.

Dal Niente Presents: Ben Melsky and Jesse Langen
Saturday, January 23, 2016

Elastic Arts
3429 W. Diversey, #208
Chicago, IL 60647
Tickets $20/$15 (cash only at door)

Photo credit by Aleksandr Karjaka