5 questions to Chris Paul Harman (composer)

The works of Canadian composer Chris Paul Harman have been performed by ensembles and orchestras including the Asko Ensemble, the CBC Radio Orchestra, the Esprit Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the New Music Concerts Ensemble, the Noordhollands Philharmonisch, the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tokyo Symphony, and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Harman’s many awards include the Grand Prize of the CBC Radio National Competition for Young Composers. Harman holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham in the UK and teaches Composition at the Schulich School of Music of McGill University in Montreal.

Many of your compositions are inspired by or are even in a sense “re-orchestrations” of the music of others, often reworked beyond recognition.  You even refer to transcription as “the first step towards composing” in a video interview for SMCQ from 2006. In particular, I am thinking of the Bach chorale in Der Tag mit seinem Licht, Schumann’s Kinderszenen in your two sets of solo piano pieces, and Burt Bacharach’s Close to You in the orchestral work Coyote Soul. How do you go about deconstructing and/or reconstructing this material?

I work primarily with melodic material, extracting a lengthy pitch series, which may in turn be thought of as a cantus firmus in my own work. Within this series, I arbitrarily create partitions, which may or may not correspond to the music’s original phrase structure, allowing me to re-contextualize the original pitch material and to redefine its function. Further operations may be applied to modify the pitch content within partitions; interpolations or extrapolations of secondary pitch materials are also possible. In all instances, working in this way affords me the opportunity to engage with different types of music that may have personal significance or significance to a given project’s concept, while reinterpreting it using the vocabulary and syntactical framework of my own musical world.

Chris Paul Harman

Chris Paul Harman

Your interest in shorter sections that constitute a whole is apparent from several works which are collections of smaller movements. What is it that draws you to miniature form?

My initial interest in large-scale form based on the juxtaposition of miniatures (or perhaps more accurately, fragments) owed much to the music of Kurtág. Subsequently, I pursued a hyper-brevity of musical fragments in an attempt to gauge the minimum amount of “information” required to convey an autonomous and intelligible musical statement, without regard for overall form or continuity (as exemplified in my chamber work Incipits, from 2002). More recently, my attentions lie in forging a degree of pseudo-continuity between disparate musical fragments of highly variable lengths.

I am intrigued by the frequent use of keyboard instruments in your orchestration (piano, celesta, prepared piano and toy piano) – why the toy piano, and how did you come to this instrument?

For several years, the use of keyboard instruments, percussion and harp as a concertino group has constituted an idée fixe in my approach to writing for large ensembles and orchestra. I often subvert the normative roles of other instruments (woodwinds, brass and strings) so that their principal function serves to “modulate” or alter the timbres provided by the concertino group. The toy piano itself comprises but one member a typical concertino group in my chamber and orchestral music.

I first heard the toy piano in concert at the Gaudeamus Music Week in Amsterdam in 2002 (in a recital by Isabel Ettenauer) and used it shortly thereafter in my piano concerto Mabushii Sora E. At the time, very few people owned such an instrument, and I was obliged to order my own Schoenhut Daycare Durable model (with 3-octave range) from the United States, and to ship it by courier from Toronto to Vancouver for the work’s premiere with the (now defunct) CBC Radio Orchestra.

Continuing on the theme of keyboards: in your piano writing, you use the sustain pedal as a device of “orchestration” (as mentioned in your recent PhD thesis). Can you elaborate on this?

To borrow a term from the visual arts, the liberal use of sustain pedal in my keyboard writing may be likened to “underpainting;” that is, providing a ground layer of paint upon which additional layers of paint are applied and which facilitates their blending. In a musical context, melodic and harmonic material may be clearly and continuously articulated (perhaps by constellations of different instruments) above the more abstract accumulated resonance in the keyboards (and pitched percussion).

In addition to musical influences, is there anything else that has had an impact on your output – such as literature, film, cultural or political events?

Beyond the initial selection of pre-existing musical works as source material, extra-musical influences figure occasionally into my work as determinants for one or more aspects of a given project’s content or its organization. For example, in my recently completed orchestra piece Cilla, I had initially planned to precede the work with an audio playback of a song by Burt Bacharach (The April Fools) as recorded by the English easy-listening singer Cilla Black. However, after viewing the film Breaking the Waves by Lars von Trier, in which ten major (melodramatic) scenes are each preceded by a lengthy “intermission feature” (replete with stereotyped nature scenes and still life images accompanied by popular songs from the likes of Elton John, T-Rex and others), I decided to follow the film’s structural model by composing three large formal blocks, each of which would be preceded by a different song recorded by Cilla Black. The resultant ratio of recorded music to live music thus became 1:2 (six minutes to twelve minutes), forging a very uneasy alliance indeed between these two musical worlds!