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Composer Portraits: Hannah Lash

When I’m trying to find out as much as I can about an idea, sometimes I feel a bit like a zoologist. I’m trying to figure out what kind of animal it is that I’m observing. Is it a biped? Is it a quadruped? What kind of fur does it have? How fast does it run? How does it run? So that I’ll know, by the time it gets from point A to point B, what it will look like.  –Hannah Lash

Ideas. Hannah Lash’s are often quite short—a couple of intervals, given a rhythmic profile—but with the capacity to grow and change through a whole piece, or a movement of a piece. The process of transformation sounds logical, completely logical, but it will not be a logic quite like any you have heard before. That is the feat: to create a formality that is new—a formality that is, more to the point, alive.

Born upstate in the small town of Alfred in 1981, Lash studied composition and harp at the Eastman School, gained a composition doctorate at Harvard in 2010, and completed her training as a harpist at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Yale. Her composition teachers included Martin Bresnick, Bernard Rands, Julian Anderson, Steven Stucky, Augusta Read Thomas, and Robert Morris.

Though she is, at thirty-four, one of the youngest composers to have appeared in this series at Miller, and though her earliest published composition (Four Still, for string quartet, 2004) is barely more than a decade old, she already has a sizeable output behind her—and a notable publisher: Schott. Her works include a chamber opera to her own libretto, Beowulf, due to have its première in Boston next month, as well as other pieces with solo voices and some choral items, but so far she has given more attention to instrumental music, across the range from piano pieces to big orchestral scores. Last October, she was the soloist in the first performance of her Concerto for harp and chamber orchestra at Zankel Hall with the American Composers Orchestra; another work soon forthcoming is Chaconnes for string orchestra, commissioned for the Interlochen Arts Academy Orchestra to play at Lincoln Center in June. Stoned Prince, her first work for loadbang, has been released on CD; several other pieces are up on YouTube, including her Concerto for harp in its première performance.

Introduction by Paul Griffiths

Filigree in Textile (2011)

Filigree in Textile was inspired by tapestry art in the Middle Ages and early imitative contrapuntal practice. The materials used for the weft threads in these early textiles suggested the characters and titles of the three movements: “Gold,” “Silver,” and “Silk.”

“Gold” features the most complicated process of unfolding musical material: the primary melodic cell is developed against its counter-subject, transformed variously by melodic inversion, retrograde, and stretching out or compressing its intervals and rhythms. It ends with a return to a transformed version of the initial subject. “Silver” is a formal and somber dance in rhythmic unison. Its austerity is unbroken throughout, although its semi-strophic form flirts with development: chords and clusters evolving, harmonics that transform from their role as punctuators to the main timbre within a middle-section that lifts the dance icily en pointe. “Silk” is the most fluid of the movements, featuring constant tumbling motion and transformation. The harp emerges into the foreground of the ensemble: the outline of the tapestry’s depictions.

I was privileged to write this piece for Yolanda Kondonassis and the JACK Quartet. Yolanda was my beloved teacher for two years at the Cleveland Institute of Music when I was pursuing my performance degree in harp. The JACK Quartet is also very dear to me: I have known them since our days together at Eastman, and have written several pieces for them; they continue to inspire me with their unparalleled string quartet playing. This piece was made possible by a grant from the Fromm Music Foundation and had its first performance here at Miller in October 2011. 

Music for Eight Lungs (2015)

In writing Music for Eight Lungs I wanted to treat the voice similarly to the instruments, so that the piece would weave all four parts into a fabric equally. But I also wanted to play with our perception of the voice as a vehicle for communication and language. So the vocal part is given various phonemes which seem quite word-like at times, and in fact are often drawn from the vowel sounds from Henry Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. As I played with my own musical materials, the idea of a descending lament figure kept recurring in different ways, propelling the music forward.

Six Etudes and a Dream (2015)

Pianist Lisa Moore has an extraordinary charisma and energy at her instrument, with a kind of musical laser focus that I find tremendously inspiring. I wanted to write her a set of pieces that would play to her wonderful range and character as a performer. So I decided to write pieces in the spirit of etudes: each focuses on a different type of playing or technique or pianistic color. These pieces are often playful, energetic, and sometimes dark and contemplative. They reflect my deep admiration for Lisa’s musicianship and playing.

Program Notes by Hannah Lash