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“A cocktail of modern Portugal”

Curious harpists on the hunt for new pedal harp music do well to explore harpaXXI.pt: the new album from Salomé Pais Matos. We’ve co-sponsored its realisation; it comprises six intriguing, attractive contemporary works, and a special focus on Portuguese living composers. “I wanted to celebrate Portgual’s talented new generation of composers”, says Salomé, “and also inspire more of them to write for the harp! The harp is such an eclectic instrument, capable of evoking many different traditions. It’s ideal for expressing the richness of Portuguese culture in the 21st century.”

The first track cuts straight to the heart of Portugal: the mighty river Tagus, which flows all the way from the Montes Universales in Spain, all the way across Portugal and out to Lisbon and the Atlantic. Prelúdio ao Rio (“A prelude to the river”, 2016), by Vasco Abranches, was premiered at the well-known Rio Harp Festival. The title is a play on words, between “Rio” as in Rio de Janeiro, and the Rio Tejo – the Tagus. It combines watery serenity – no stranger to the harp – with more rhythmic elements, including bossa nova. Salomé describes it as “a very cool piece…and audiences love it!”. 

Track 2: O lugar suspenso (“The suspended place”), is a prizewinning composition by Mariana Vieira, holder of 2017’s European Composer Award. “It is extraordinary how Mariana harmonies electronic effects with sound of the harp”, Salomé explains. “She combines sampling of unfinished (suspended) sentences, harmonics, tuning key glissandos and other effects with incredible fluidity. It’s a real duet, and it’s hard to tell where the harp leaves off, and the electronics begin. It’s a very clever exploration of the sound of the harp, and its contemporary voices.”

Speaking of new voices: the jazz pianist and composer’s Diogo Vida‘s Jogos e Danças (“Games and Dances”) is completely different in character, inspired by traditional Portuguese children’s games. “It reminds me of when I was a child, I played in the street all the time”, says Salomé. “I love it because of its cheeky ending, but it’s also full of contrasts, including moments that are very peaceful. This commission has a nice story behind it. Diogo and I were students at music college together, and he asked me to play at his wedding. He’d composed a harp piece for the entrance of his bride. It was so well-written for the harp, I asked him to write me something more!”

The Portuguese have always been great sailors and maritime explorers. João Antunes’s Prelúdio à deriva (“Drifting prelude”) is based on Versos ao Mar (“Poems to the Sea)” by Sebastião da Gama. Da Gama, who died tragically young, was a poet from the south of Lisbon, where the beaches are sandy and the water very clear. Both his poems to the sea, and Antunes’s musical interpretation of them, are about Portuguese voyages to discover the world. The music is abstract in style, with a sense of the ship balancing and shifting on the high seas.

4 Canções do Cante Alentejano (“4 Songs of Cante Alentejano”), by José Martins, evoke the quite different tradition of Cante Alentejano, a type of two-part amateur choral singing and part of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. There are four melodies. “This part of Portugal is very sunny and dry, and extremely hot”, Salomé explains. “Nobody can work in the fields during the first part of the day. The first melody describes this landscape. Then, we hear a cuckoo singing, and then people leaving for work as the day gets cooler. There is also a sense of the traditional marching bands that are so popular in the centre of Portugal, and a more Romantic melody. The songs return to the heat and the quiet at the end, with a perdendosi. It’s like a day in the life of Portugal, in some ways.” 

The album’s final track, Daniel Schvetz’s Tece-se a trama, Cante Tejo Alfama (“Weave the plot, Sing Tagus Alfama”), is also full of scene-painting, but in very different ways. “This is really a cocktail of modern Portugal”, says Salomé. “Daniel Schvetz is actually Argentinian, but he’s lived in Lisbon for a long time and I love his writing. That’s why I asked him to write something for me! Here, he also takes inspiration from folk elements, like Cante Alentejano and the traditional songs of Portuguese fishermen. But he combines them with Fado, which is urban popular song – and also electronic samples of Almada Negreiros’s famous Anti-Dantas Manifesto, which rejected bourgeois traditionalism. This piece also has a lot of electronics, and the harp should improvise a lot to evoke the mood of their message.” 

harpaXXI.pt will be released in December (preorders here), and will be available in both CD and digital format. 

 

 

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