for harp and live electronics
commissioned and premiered by electroacoustic harpist Carrie Tollett
Creation and Commentary
“Moirai” (2021) for harp and live electronics was commissioned and premiered by electroacoustic harpist Carrie Anderson (Tollett). According to ancient Greek mythology, the Moirai, also known as The Fates, are the three sister goddesses responsible for creating, determining, and executing the mortal destiny. My piece “Moirai,” is presented in three attacca movements, each exploring the three sisters’ mythical powers sonified through contemporary harp techniques and live electronics processing in a cue-based patch of parallel effects processing I created in MaxMSP. The contemporary techniques include sliding the palms across the soundboard of the harp in circular motions creating noise, muting the strings with the hand, rattling the string between pedal positions, and using fingernails, knuckles, and a guitar pick for varying timbral effects. To notate these techniques, I created a performance notes key included in the score.
The first movement is “Clotho.” The youngest of the Fates, Clotho is responsible for spinning the thread of life. In this movement, the harp bisbigliando, harmonics, and timbral effects alongside ambient electronic reverb and delay set the scene for the creation of life.
The second movement is “Lachesis.” The middle sister, Lachesis, is responsible for measuring the mortal destiny—the length of the mortal thread. This movement explores sonic connotations of the measuring and passing of time with samples of winding and ticking clocks as well as live effects processing on the melodic and canonic harp voice. Cue 5 starts a fixed media track that blends the live pedal rattle into an electronically manipulated pedal rattle to begin the fixed media accompaniment for the second movement.
I produced the fixed media in Pro Tools using samples of Carrie’s harp playing as well as source materials that evoke a sense of time, and furthermore, measurement of time. These samples include a variety of clock ticks and windings.
I performed a variable time-stretch effect on the ticking clocks to be uneven in their speeds, and slowed the primary clock tick to a BPM of 56, matching the indicated tempo of the movement, for the purposes of alignment with the live harp and for the practical purpose of providing a metronomic reference for the harpist. The harpist performs her own imitations of the winding and ticking clocks by tapping on the soundboard with her knuckle or fingernail and performing vertical sweeps down the coiled harp strings with a guitar pick.
The third movement is “Atropos.” The eldest of the Moirai, Atropos executes the cutting of the mortal thread. Through distortion and volatile melodies, this movement embodies death. Rising chromaticism and acceleration lead to a climactic fortissimo low B-flat, made more dramatic by the live electronic distortion. The return to the gentle melodic motif in measure 112 symbolizes the passing of the mortal life into the next realm. After one final fermata-held E-flat, the piece comes to a close.
The live electronics in “Moirai” draw upon four main effects: reverb, delay, filter, and distortion. Each of these effects is running parallel to one another and triggered on and off in varying combinations and capacities by cue messages corresponding to the cue numbers in the score. The user (either the harpist or an onstage engineer) triggers the cues via pedal or spacebar from the following graphic user interface in Presentation Mode.
Behind the Presentation Mode GUI lies the object-oriented signal flow of the patch.
The cues are message-based, where message boxes send the named objects and/or patch inputs messages with specific settings for the various parameters of the reverb, delay, filter, distortion, or sample playback subpatches within the “Moirai” patch in a subpatch called “Score.” Within the score, message boxes are triggered based upon cues 0-10.
My decision to use the “Moirai” as the subject matter for this piece draws upon my fascination with mythical feminine figureheads and archetypes for their goddess strength and power. I choose not to observe these mythical goddesses for their femininity as defined by their beauty and/or their role in support of their male counterparts. Instead, I am drawn to their feminine power, because strength has always rewarded me more than beauty. I choose to focus my artistic representation of these figureheads on that power—as a form of my own autobiographical and contemporary application of these myths. As my introductory chapter proposed, I seek to celebrate and recontextualize femininity through my music. By focusing on the power of these sister goddesses, I employ musical and performative techniques than challenge stereotypical harp repertoire and the long-held connotations of the harp as a beautiful and delicate instrument. With harsher, more dissonant pitch collections and extended techniques like guitar pick sweeps and noisy pedal rattles, I hope to empower the harpist, and the listener, to recontextualize the harp, and these goddesses, to be a modern kind of feminine. More than beautiful—powerful.