Why do you use unconventional techniques? Harold Meltzer



Harold Meltzer

What I like about unconventional uses of familiar instruments is how the uses can proceed from a reconsideration of the instrument as an object. It’s hard for me to reconsider the piano, because my fingers start wandering on the keyboard along so many prescribed paths. And while I’m familiar with much of the string playing within the instrument, my own thoughts cannot go much farther than what I’ve heard. With instruments I don’t play it’s so much easier to pick up the instruments myself and to ask silly questions of smart players.

The unconventional uses themselves, though, are only a start. It’s more interesting to follow the implications of the techniques. If plucking something differently or removing a head joint means that you lose five pitches from an octave, or gain another twenty-two within the same range, then you can look for new harmonic or timbral rules that emerge from the new techniques. And this, in turn, allows you more easily to overcome your default mode as a creator, finding what’s most expressive about the technique more than forcing the techniques to operate in your language. Once I feel comfortable in this reconsidered world of an instrument, I like to go back and embrace conventional techniques as well, making a kind of counterpoint of sound worlds.

It was about five years ago that I got interested in alternative approaches to instruments. I was writing some scores for theater companies. I had a cello to use for Macbeth, and a brass quintet for The Merchant of Venice. There was so much underscoring to do, and yet so much brilliant text to be rendered. So I experimented with ways to make the levels of sound uneven, writing attacks that would give way to virtual nothingness even as the listener experienced the musical line as continuing, a sudden rush of overtone-laden sound when a lower speaking voice came in. I became interested in sonic gossamer and the techniques required to produce it, and how it relates to more sonorous material. This interest has stuck with me, in a series of guitar pieces that occupy me this year, in writing for solo cello over the last couple of years, and in a series of works for flute: Rumors, a set of four pieces for different solo flutes, and Giraffes.