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The transitive property of instruments

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

Anyone who knows me will not be shocked to find out I didn’t even consider that Sunday is the Super Bowl when we scheduled this concert. Oops. Astraios will not have commercials or nachos, but we can definitely promise you a fantastic concert.

This program is music for flute, viola, and harp, which means you are thinking one of two things:

1. Huh? Why would you put those instruments together? -OR-

2. Oh, flute, viola, and harp. You’re playing the Debussy Sonata, right?

Well, no, actually, we’re NOT playing the Debussy, but Debussy is a great example of why these three instruments work together.

On the surface, you’d be correct in seeing some challenges. One instrument is plucked, one is bowed, and one is blown. Since the sounds are produced such different ways, entrances and blending can be quite tricky. Flute and harp have a long history together, though, including in famous orchestra repertoire:

Flute and bowed strings also go together splendidly (in an orchestra, half the time the flute section is just reinforcing the violins anyway…) but we have some fantastic chamber repertoire together, too:

Remember in algebra class where if a=b and b=c, then a=c? Therefore, by the transitive property of instruments, if harp goes with flute and flute goes with violas, then harp goes with viola…and flute, viola, and harp are one big happy family. Right?

Claude Debussy (French composer, 1862-1918) wrote his Sonata for Flute, Viola, and Harp in 1915. Near the end of his life he specifically chose to write music for “diverse instruments,” not “typical” ensembles such as string quartets. (This is an idea Astraios completely supports!)

If you listen to just the first 30 seconds of the Sonata's first movement, you’ll understand why this combination of instruments works so well.

The flute and harp blend into one sound, and the flute makes a pure fade into the viola entrance. The core sound of each instrument melds perfectly with the other two. When describing his Sonata, Debussy wrote “One hardly knows whether to laugh or to cry.” The pure sounds are beautiful and yet unexpected and mesmerizing at the same time!

Other composers did write for these three instruments before Debussy, but his Sonata was the first major composition for this combination. While it’s a great piece and Astraios performed it multiple times in 2010, we’re moving on to new repertoire.

We’ll open our concert with a piece by Canadian composer Milton Barnes called Harbord Street. It’s 6 short movements depicting scenes of a street in Toronto. Barnes trained as a jazz drummer, so this work is filled with jazz elements and some great humor. (Did you know a viola can sound like a car horn? We’ll prove it!)

Next up will be Sally Beamish’s Between Earth and Sea. Written in memory of twin baby girls who died shortly after birth, the piece explores grief through birdcalls, wind, and the ocean.

The longest piece on the program is William Mathias’s Zodiac Trio. The three movements are Pisces, Aries, and Taurus, and push the sounds each instrument can make. The flute has multiple extended sections of fluttertonguing (essentially rolling your Rs while playing—it makes my nose tickle!). Jaymee (on harp) has a moment of “Look Ma! No hands!” as she makes sound using only the pedals of the harp.

We’ll close with Don Davis’s Slam Ahead. Best known as the film composer for The Matrix, Davis has created a work with repeated rhythms that requires the performers to count like crazy. Slam Ahead takes the three separate instruments and blends them together into one locked machine.

Join us Sunday at 3pm for this underappreciated combination of instruments. You’ll still be home by kickoff.

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