Music Monday: Lash: Moth Sketches

Like many a Yale concert series, the performers for New Music New Haven often wound up rehearsing in the Band Room. (This wasn't totally random. After all, we did have all the percussion. . .) As a result, my hours working away in the library would often be accompanied by strange flutterings and trillings, ostinatos and thumps, players bringing life to parts that were barely cool from being printed. I could also eavesdrop on the composers' comments, listening to their words to try to understand their music. When it came time to hear the works in performance, it was less like the usual grappling with complete unknowns and more like suddenly stepping back and seeing a completed puzzle, whereas before I'd only been privy to isolated pieces. (There would also be moments, inevitably, where I'd smile when the ensemble sailed thru a passage that had snarled them in rehearsal, or delight in discovering a delicate passage that had earlier been obliterated by the photocopier*.)

As it happened, I wasn't able to attend the concert that today's work was featured on (I was tied up working on sound for a play), but the fragments that I heard in the rehearsal process were so captivating that I made a very firm mental note of the piece and resolved to keep an eye out for any further works by the same composer. I'm not the only one to be so impressed: Hannah Lash (born 1981) is almost absurdly decorated when it comes to compositional awards and prestigious performances — from ASCAP to the Fromm Foundation, Eighth Blackbird to the LA Philharmonic, people are taking note of Hannah Lash.

She started out early, taking up the violin at the tender age of four, and was so into it that she invented her own system of musical notation before learning to read the standard Western one. After being homeschooled thru high school, she entered the Eastman Conservatory, where she began to compose in earnest. (At some point, she switched over to playing harp as her primary instrument; I'm not sure just when, but the recordings of her playing her own works for the instrument are well worth checking out.) Relentlessly inventive, she once composed an original audience-participation piece for her wedding inspired by the springtime choruses of frogs. After earning additional degrees at Harvard, Cincinnati, and Yale, she was hired as a professor at the Yale School of Music, where she currently teaches. (And hence her work's appearance on the new music concert in question.)

Hardly any information about Moth Sketches (2013) is floating around on the internet — even the listing on her publisher's site is a bare-bones rundown of instrumentation and duration — but according to an archived copy of the program from the première performance, the work started out as a score for a short animated film about a moth. Eventually, the music parted ways from the movie and became a stand-alone work, but the origins left their imprint, and she found herself thinking of different materials as quasi-dramatic characters. The form is still abstract, however; she describes it as being like a braided rope, "involving many strands of differing colors" such that the surface is constantly changing as the piece unfolds.

Hushed whispers start the piece, which you can hear at the works section of her website (go to "Chamber" and scroll down to M). After this texture is established, the trumpet floats up out of the turbulent flow with a line that's shortly taken over by the piccolo and solo violin. Gradually the music thins, the ripples ebbing away until we wind up in a garden of starker shapes, albeit still draped in gossamer strands of mystery. Intertwined lines abound, as tho the solo instruments are themselves moths, flitting guilelessly thru the air on a lazy summer evening at twilight. A persistent quiet ringing from the percussion nudges things gently forward, the trumpet again taking a leading role. Eventually, this spills over into fretful pluckings in the strings under irregular interjections from the tambourine and woodblock, the texture gradually overwhelming any sense of persistent melody. This builds to quite a rush before the regularity breaks down and the percussive hold disintegrates back into delicate lines on the violin.

After a tranquil interlude, a steady pulse returns, along with echoes from the starker shapes heard earlier (in keeping with the idea of a braid, much of the material returns thruout in various guises, some transformations more obvious than others). The music continues to float along in this course, a mixture of strange, eerie cries and a blissful oblivion to their strangeness. There is a final murmur from the harp before the music slips into silence, gliding out of sight like a half-glimpsed shape winging into the peaceful darkness of night.

*I should probably take this moment to apologize to any rehearsals that were derailed by this chugging and groaning. I did my best to time it for pauses when I could, but there's only so much noise the flimsy office door can keep out.