The combination of the bassoon and harp is one you might least expect to hear improvising together. Dana Jessen and Stephan Haluska defied those expectations Friday evening, April 2, as they presented an hour-long set on the BOP STOP livestream stage. Both classically trained musicians, the bassoonist and harpist have since directed their career towards new music and improvisation, experimenting with extended techniques. Indeed, with its high musical expression and visual persuasion, last week’s performance demonstrated how the capabilities of the bassoon and harp reach far beyond the classical music tradition.
A low growl from the bassoon opened the performance, complemented by rapid, whispering notes in the middle register of the harp. Jessen gracefully alternated between the growl and high-range flutter tongue effects, her body language emulating the bassoon’s ranging colors. Haluska throughout was also highly impressive. He never seemed to tire from the continuous movement of both hands strumming several strings in a quick repeated fashion — an effect harpists call bisbigliando.
Over the course of the hour both performers experimented with an array of color effects. Jessen toyed with silence and breath, vocalizations and multiphonics, also brilliantly incorporating enharmonic trills. Haluska used a variety of objects to alter the harp’s timbre — a long piece of cloth weaving in and out of the upper strings, metal pans to clang against the body, and narrow objects to create a buzzing effect. He also played at the bottom of the strings (prés de la table) and rubbed his hands along the body of the harp.
Equally mesmerizing to watch was the manner in which the duo paid acute attention to each other. One would formulate musical responses to the other’s shifts in color, expression, or technique. Halfway through, following a cloud of experimental sounds, Jessen introduced trembling diatonic chords in what felt like an ominous yet lulling suspension of time — a gesture soon picked up by Haluska. Each wove in and out of this landscape, with constant shifts in the dominant instrument and color.
Towards the end, the improvisation turned increasingly ethereal, as the shimmering harp — sounding like music wafting from a distance (a broken record or music box?) — set the scene for a haunting bassoon solo. This sensitive and persuasive atmosphere closed the performance.
The BOP STOP’s quality recording equipment allowed the improvisation to translate vividly via the livestream. Key clicks, subtle timbral shifts, breath sounds, and enharmonic trills were clearly audible.
In last week’s performance, Jessen and Haluska provided an entirely new and unanticipated musical experience for many listeners — one that was presented to great effect.
Click here to watch the performance.