Laying the Groundwork for Michael Ippolito’s GroundWork(s) Premiere
In retrospect, I got incredibly lucky that the very first GroundWork(s) concert featured composer Michael Ippolito. Every new initiative features a slew of stomach-turning unknowns and “what-ifs,” but this commission was a dream collaboration in every sense — the perfect way to begin a multiyear new-music project. I was so fortunate to have a musical partner like Michael, who was completely on board with every harebrained scheme and approached this collaboration with enthusiasm and curiosity.
I first met Michael in 2019, when the Dallas Symphony Orchestra performed his piece Nocturne. Struck by his beautiful and well-executed harp writing, I did a quick internet search to find out where Michael was from — Tampa, Florida — and then took the plunge, combining an introduction and a collaboration request into one quick exchange at rehearsal break:
Hello, my name is Emily — I love your harp writing and I see you’re from Florida. Do you want to write a harp-centric work that will premiere in Tampa?*
* Conversation abridged for clarity and maximum suspense.
As I came to learn, Michael is as wonderful a human being as he is a deeply thoughtful composer. He enthusiastically signed on to the project, choosing solo harp as the medium for his new work.
Bringing Mythos to life on the harp
Michael’s piece is an incredible asset to the harp’s repertoire. In three movements, Mythos reimagines the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur as told from the perspective of the monster, rather than the hero. In Michael’s own words:
Mythos is based on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. In the original tale, the Minotaur was a monster – half-man, half-bull – who lived in an elaborate labyrinth kept by the king of Crete, Minos. King Minos ruled Athens from across the sea and demanded they send a tribute to him every nine years: seven young men and seven young women who were put into the labyrinth for the Minotaur’s prey. Theseus, the Athenian hero of the story, was sent to Crete as part of this tribute, but instead managed to kill the Minotaur, and then retrace his steps out of the labyrinth (with the help of a string given to him by Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter). I became fascinated with this story and also by Jorge Luis Borges’ 1947 story La casa de Asterión. Borges puts a twist on the standard myth, telling the story from the Minotaur’s point of view, as a misanthropic loner, living out his seemingly endless days in his home of seemingly endless corridors and rooms. The Minotaur marks time according to the sacrificial offerings and waits for deliverance at the hands of his “redeemer.” At the end the of the story, the perspective shifts abruptly to Theseus: “Would you believe it, Ariadne?…The minotaur hardly put up a fight.”
Mythos is in three movements. First, a brief, improvisatory “Prologos” sets the atmosphere, introducing fragments of music that will reappear in the next two movements. “Lavyrinthos” is a musical depiction of Theseus running through the twisting paths of the labyrinth. In this movement, the structure of “turns” – shifts in harmony, or transitions between musical ideas – follows the structure and proportion of a classical seven-course labyrinth, a design found on coins and other artefacts from over two millennia ago. This movement ends at the center of the labyrinth, where I imagine a brief pause as Theseus and the Minotaur encounter each other, before Theseus dispatches the Minotaur with a single blow. The final movement “Lyrikon” is an imagined song from the Minotaur’s perspective. Since the Minotaur is dead, in my mind, the only way for its voice to be heard is through the instrument itself. So, the harp becomes a lyre – not formed from the entrails of Apollo’s sacred cow, as another story goes, but from the body of the slain Minotaur.
You would never know this was Michael’s first time writing for solo harp. The lyrical passages highlight the instrument’s resonance and infinite variations in color, while the technical passages are just tricky enough without being awkward or overly challenging.
The second movement especially toes this line so brilliantly. (You’ll see an excerpt from the score below.) If the accompaniment line presented here was done only in one hand, not only would the performer lose speed rapidly — the process of repeatedly replacing onto the same strings is very taxing on the hand — there would also be a clunky stop in the sound.
But just look at this perfect execution! Because the left hand is able to join in and play a few of these repeated notes, you get a passage that allows for speed, clarity, and resonance.
Of course, we needed to adjust a few things as we went along, which I’ve included here in case any composers are reading!
- We replaced the low C with a wire slap. The lowest two strings on the harp — 7th octave D and C — aren’t the most powerful. (They’re too long to have the same tension as higher bass wires.) Hitting the wires allowed for the oomph we needed.
- Adding octaves in the left hand gives it much more power than just one note here.
- We workshopped several versions of this pattern, figuring out which was the most idiomatic on the harp. The final result was actually a hybrid, where I played a high F flat, E natural, and a lower F flat.
Putting the Tampa premiere together
Thanks to some connections I had to musicians in the area, and because Michael is a pianist as well as a composer, we decided to present a harp and piano recital exploring Michael’s music and his musical influences. Eunmi Ko, an associate professor of piano at the University of South Florida, organized the use of Barness Hall, where she and I each played a half recital. Eunmi played Grieg, Dorothy Rudd Moore, and Michael’s Blackbird Variations, while I played Bach, Brahms, and Mythos. We then ended with a beautiful miniature work for harp and piano to finish the program.
(Side note: There’s a desperate need for good repertoire for harp and piano! Future GroundWork(s) commission, anyone?)
The concert was filled with people who knew Michael — a mix of family, friends, and professional acquaintances. The atmosphere in the room was so electric and supportive. It was exactly what I hoped GroundWork(s) would be: a celebration of Michael and his music. Premiering Mythos was one of those performance moments that has a permanent place in my memory. I could feel the audience going on this labyrinthian journey with me.
So many thank-yous …
There are a few people I want to thank, without whom this concert would not have been possible. Kim Noltemy and the support of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s principal grant fund. Harpist Anna Kate Mackle, who lent me such a gorgeous harp to play. Eunmi Ko, for her beautiful collaboration and logistics wizardry. Mimi Osiason, for being such a generous host. And Michael, for being such an amazing collaborator as we forayed into a totally unknown adventure.
The next GroundWork(s) recap will highlight for composer Aaron Holloway Nahum and his work for two harps and ensemble, which premiered in Chicago. Stay tuned!*
* Obligatory harp pun