Sounds Heard: Duo Scorpio—Scorpion Tales
With Scorpion Tales, Duo Scorpio doesn’t require you to set aside all of your wedding prelude and garden party images of the harp before you hit play, but they are going to stretch those sonic ideas out of whack once things get going. This may be the sum distillation of the work included on this album—it doesn’t build barriers out of repertoire, but it does open quite a few windows in the library.
And that suits the broader mission of the ensemble quite neatly. When harpists Kathryn Andrews and Kristi Shade founded Duo Scorpio (they were both born on November 5, 1982, hence the astrological nod), they noticed somewhat of a hole when it came to contemporary repertoire for this instrumentation and set about trying to correct that absence through commissioning and arranging existing compositions. A portion of that work resulted in a Kickstarter campaign to record some of these pieces and promote them more broadly—an album that would ultimately feature three premiere recordings (including one commission) plus three other pieces for harp duo by contemporary composers. They exceeded their $12,000 goal and produced an impressively packaged collection drenched in the ethereal photography of Frances J. Melhop.
The disc takes its name from the nearly 15-minute work contributed by Robert Paterson (a commission by Duo Scorpio and the American Harp Society), each of its three movements a play off of the scorpion—animal, vegetable (hot pepper), and Greek mythological legend. Plenty of those iconic cascading harp lines run through each of the movements, but they appear in the mix amid intricately orchestrated moments, two harps and four hands filling the sonic image from top to bottom to deliver a neatly locking quartet-worth of sonic information. The play of harmonics, the dark and loose vibration of low strings, and the tight unison playing elsewhere accent the balanced clockwork-like integration of these passages.
Premiere recordings of Sebastian Currier’s Crossfade and Stephen Taylor’s Unfurl both take the harp out a few paces further into the stereotype-challenge, playing more aggressively with technique, rhythmic material, and slightly altered tuning. In Crossfade, quickly strummed repeated notes and patterns build a bed of nervous energy atop which each instrument rises and recedes, riding her own wave and offering sharp statements as she passes by, one often interlocking with the other in interesting ways. Where Currier was rhythmically adventurous, Taylor creates a floating (or perhaps drowning) world of unconventional harmonies. The retuning of certain strings is something his program notes suggest is an optional way to present the piece, but I can’t imagine the work not having this amazing color. Despite the sharp staccato of much of the delivery, this gives the same material an intriguing watery-edged gloss. For Caroline Lizotte’s Raga, the duo grabs a few extra-curricular percussion instruments and mixes in some Hindustani-flavored extended techniques in the harp lines, conjuring Indian colors that float in and out of the frame, accenting more than stealing the focus of the work. Perhaps we might subtitle this one “two Western harpists dream of the Subcontinent.”
Works by Bernard Andrès bookend the disc: the shimmering Le Jardin des Paons and the exotic Parvis. Both works, in their way, showcase the diverse range of timbral color that the harp is capable of delivering. If there was actually any question at the outset that the harp was the instrument of angels, fairies, and cocktail receptions, Andrews and Shade will likely have erased that notion by the close of the album (if they hadn’t succeeded in doing so within the first five minutes). Scorpion Tales is a showcase of way contemporary composers are finding their music within its timbral compass, and it’s likely to leave music makers and fans inspired to seek out more. I suspect Duo Scorpio will consider that appraisal mission accomplished.