It’s my first full day at Avaloch Farm Music Institute, a place which can be described simply as a musician’s paradise. Rural New Hampshire’s isolation offers both seclusion and quietude, and the immediate proximity of practice studios to one’s bedroom and dining hall offer the opportunity to focus and work with as much or as little interruption as you wish. A Grove Dictionary of Music sits at one end of the barn, a sign that one has the time and space not only to practice, but to satisfy any sudden curiosity about a composer or piece. To get to the lake, one walks through an apple orchard where one can pick a snack off a tree (though the home-cooked food here fills and satisfies dozens of New-Yorquinos who might normally be precious about their Phad Thai or almond latte). For those seeking some animal therapy, there’s ample time to commune with Jessie, a large German Shepherd who often appears at mealtimes along with her owner Fred Tauber, Avaloch’s godfather and spiritual leader.
There are broadly no restrictions here, yet the atmosphere engenders a positivity which tacitly enforces one golden rule: don’t spoil it. There are new and familiar faces alike, but no cliques. Though there are discussions about life and work in New York, they somehow don’t revolve around the MTA’s existential state of dysfunction or the price of real estate (subjects of roughly 40% of Manhattanite conversations). Vulgarity is seldom heard. Exhibitions of resentment or negativity are absent. One gets the feeling that this is what summer camp was supposed to be like when you were a kid, had it not been for inhibiting factors such as homesickness, puberty or adolescent low self-esteem.
All of us are here are working on new music in some form. This week, the resident ensembles include several string quartets, a brass group, a jazz ensemble as well as some soloists collaborating with composers on fresh pieces. Having brought my baroque and modern harps up with me from New York, I’ve met up here with composer/violinist George Meyer and mandolinist/composer Tom Morrison. Having worked with each other in various capacities at Juilliard, we decided to see what we could create if we put ourselves and our instruments together in a room.
This morning’s session started off with the first movement of Bach’s Trio Sonata in E-flat, BWV 525. While the exercise was to collaboratively create a unified sound, the process was one of personal humility. Finding ways to feed off the combination of three different instruments, we took opportunity to listen to the correspondence between bow strokes and mandolin plucks, and pay close attention to how the sounds we produce might accidentally sustain over another instrument. String instruments, be they bowed or plucked, are incredibly noisy and fussy. For instance, an expressive scratch on a bow, perhaps ideal for Brahms or Franck, can cover up a mandolin’s phrase or arc. A boomy line from the harp’s mid-range can turn a refined texture into baby-foody mush. Thus, we worked on the initial attacks of individual notes, only then determining the color and spin of the subsequent production of tone. Introducing one’s presence in the texture becomes a humbling enterprise, so as to ensure that one isn’t obfuscating the mellifluous line of another instrument. This is the joy of chamber music: a process whereby happiness can be derived not just from playing with others, but in witnessing how you can lend encouragement to your colleagues so that they might reveal the best of themselves.
From there we took a break and started improvising, simply to enjoy what might evolving out of some free collaborative chemistry. Initially, Tom and I figured out how to make the combined texture of the harp and mandolin line up, so as to give a wide and flexible base for George to work with. (For those who don’t know George’s playing, it’s really fun to play with. He’s to switch between classical and fiddling styles with incredible virtuosic ease, transforming a downtown minimalist vibe into a soundscape from middle America.) Starting with two note-cells and then moving one by one to 4 or 5 note groupings, we found a common language that would allow the other voice to emerge clearly though seamlessly. As George started playing, patterns of implied harmonies started to take the small melodic shapes he would feed us, and in turn all three of us started to learn each other’s go-to ticks and instincts – the tools we use to get messages across. Before long, a structure took shape, and with each miniature jam session, more would be loosely notated.
The morning and afternoon sessions flew by, both insanely productive, so after dinner we decided to have the evening off. As George and Tom headed down to the basement to play ping-pong with members of the Momenta Quartet, I returned to the studio for some time alone with the baroque harp. Lately I’ve been working through the toccatas from Girolamo Diruta’s Il Transilvano, a collection of pieces not only by Diruta, but by several of his Venetian colleagues, such as Claudio Merulo and Luzzasco Luzzaschi. Diruta’s curatorial project offers insight into how organists and keyboardists were taught in the late 16th century. But more importantly for me, it also offers insight into how harp music started to take off in the same period. Though baroque HP nerds talk about the “Italian Baroque Harp” colloquially, much of it characteristic identity as a florid scale and arpeggio machine is derived from a group of composers in Naples who travelled north to study with the likes of Luzzaschi and Merulo. Since Avaloch is a space for exploration, I decided to start from the source and see what harpists and harp composers were being handed by their keyboardist progenitors.
Throughout Il Transilvano there are scales upon scales upon more scales throughout the manuscript, initially encouraging an impassioned Liszt-like frenzy. Fortunately, Diruta’s accompanying treatise on playing the organ itself offers a key piece of advice early on, telling students that even if they wish to play with force or agility, that they ought to maintain a supple hand, “as if handling an infant.” Luzzaschi’s Toccata del Quarto Tono grants a particular challenge in balancing the sweet with the virtuosic. Because of the huge amount of acoustic ringing that goes on beneath a harp’s sounding board, calculating the proper velocity of attack on the strings takes an anally high level of of care and treatment. For instance, the scales have to pass seamlessly between hands – one has to ensure that the two hands are moving the strings the same amount so that there isn’t a sudden bump when there’s an exchange. The scales themselves also have to sound at an appropriate volume level so that the level virtuosity doesn’t cover up the implicit harmonies. Conversely, one has to accept that there are things that will inevitably not be as clear as on the organ or the harpsichord (confronting the harp’s idiosyncrasies realistically is the flip-side of the coin). The exercise prompts an internal conversation between your hands, the music and the instrument. Each has an equal say in the process, but your hands and sensibilities cannot become constricted or forced.
Sitting in bed, I’m overwhelmed by the care that goes into a space like Avaloch’s. For the first time in a very long while, it feels as if innocence and humility can truly sit side by side with intense and high-pressured creative processes. As my generation’s musical mentors and trailblazers continue to disappoint us in the ongoing revelations of the #MeToo era, a space dedicated to honest and open creative enterprises are more important than ever, as they don’t simply foster musical innovation but emotional restoration. I find myself asking what more I could be doing with my own approach to music this week, as I continue to transport organ music to the harp bench. Organists spend so much time alone, that a week spent with a collaborative mindset is still jarring to the sensibilities. Organists are a notoriously proud breed, isolated by their sincerity yes, but perhaps by a misplaced solemnity which translates into pride. Here at Avaloch, the scenery is too beautiful, the accommodations too comfortable, and the people too honest for any expression of pride. My residency here has already proven to be a humbling experience.