How to play the Harp with a Milk Frother

Ahead of their Open Ear debut at LSO St Luke’s on 30 June, The Hermes Experiment gave us a sneak peek at some of their extended (and more caféological) performance techniques, as well as a look at the pieces they’ll be playing.

Take two milk frothers, some water, a sheet of tracing paper, some blue tack and a metronome. No, this isn't the transcript of a Blue Peter episode but instead is a list of some of the extra requirements for Pack of Orders by composer Joel Rust. This piece of music was written for our ensemble, The Hermes Experiment, in 2017 and we can safely say it has been one of the most challenging pieces we've ever had to learn as a group.

Part of the challenge comes from the number of these additional props Joel has asked for, as well as the very precise instructions he has given for their use. The milk frothers are combined with pieces of card to strum the strings of the harp and double bass (see our demonstration video to hear this effect!). Meanwhile the tracing paper is attached to the bell of the bass clarinet to produce a fluttery noise, and the metronome has to be precisely arranged so that it starts beating an uneven seven-part rhythm at a specific point. The water we mentioned is used fairly dramatically towards the end of the piece. We wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, you’ll have to come to watch the concert on the 30 June to see that in action!

Joel has said that he wants the instruments to sound like 'slightly malfunctioning androids'; the text for Pack of Orders was written by the early Soviet poet Aleksei Gastev and describes the operation of early cyborgs or robots. Gastev lived in a time of increasing mechanisation, and he was fascinated by the increasing closeness of humans and machines in modern life. Similarly in Joel's piece, human voices are blended with repetitive mechanical sounds and harsh inhuman interruptions to great effect.

Somewhat mechanical in a very different way, we will also be playing our harpist Anne’s arrangement of Double Fiesta by Meredith Monk. Overlapping and repeating music in the clarinet, harp and double bass accompany a fantastically individual and creative vocal line which features everything from rhythmical vowels to laughter, to chat about a vacation and meeting ‘a very nice girl’. It begins very simply with the voice on its own, the instruments enter gradually one-by-one. In true minimalistic style, the repeated accompaniment subtly changes and overlaps, giving an amazing cumulative effect. In the last minute of the piece there is an enormous build-up of texture (and speed!) and Héloïse branches out from just using her voice to embracing some body percussion. Double Fiesta was originally written in 1987 for voice and two pianos, and this arrangement has become one of our favourite pieces to perform.

While Joel Rust’s Pack of Orders is packed full of text, the words spinning and spiralling around an unfolding landscape of robotic outbursts, Tanka by Josephine Stephenson is an altogether different experience. Set to a poem by Ben Osborn which clocks in at just 11 words, Josephine’s music inhabits a dreamlike sound world, where the words of the poem are gradually deconstructed into solitary fragments that float away into the distance. Throughout the piece, there are multiple sections without a time signature, meaning all sense of rhythmic pulse disintegrates. Far from being chaotic or haphazard, Josephine writes a precise order of fragments of material for us to play, which invokes this ethereal, effervescent (yet still highly structured) sound world.

Tanka is one of our most-performed pieces; the harmonies are elusive and beautiful and the textures extremely well thought out, creating an amazingly effective backdrop as the singer's words crumble before our very ears. 

You can see The Hermes Experiment perform at BBC Radio 3 Open Ear at LSO St Luke's on Saturday 30 June. Click here to find out about the other performers and book your tickets