Splectra   CB0056

The music

Splectra (2014) is an elegant, fetching, virtuosic harp solo embellished with subtle digital processing. Each of the work’s two movements/parts (one echoing the other in structure) gradually expands a simple rising motive, becoming harmonically richer by adding pitches related to its opening note’s (low C) harmonic series. The composer writes, “Digital processing of the acoustic tones emphasizes the harp’s upper frequencies, presenting a timbral analogue to the piece’s harmonic structure.” It is performed by Grammy-winning harpist Alison Bjorkedal, with digital processing that captures and sustains certain overtones via a Max software patch designed and realized by Robert Carl and Matt Sargent.

This release is part of Cold Blue Music’s series of CD singles (begun in the early 1980s with a series of vinyl EPs)—one-course musical meals that are fully satisfying by themselves. The press has taken note of this series: “Cold Blue Music’s singles [are] a medium that the label does better than everyone else. . . . The idea is to offer a single work and to let it stand on its own, rather than making it share space with other music, and perhaps diminishing its impact on the listener. Less is more, Cold Blue Music seems to say. . . . It’s nice to know that not everything needs to be stretched or padded, and that a 20-minute work can be sufficient unto itself.” (Fanfare magazine) “Cold Blue . . . not only puts out albums with a unified profile but also makes use of the much-neglected, much-needed CD single format.” (Los Angeles Times) “Cold Blue’s series of CD singles is an extremely welcome and refreshingly daring experiment . . . and for this they deserve a great deal of credit.” (Sequenza21) “One of the most exciting innovations in the recording and marketing of modern composition . . . [is] Cold Blue Music’s series of ‘singles’—a new, minimalist or post-minimalist work . . . premiered on its own disc in the label’s usual beautiful packaging.” (Igloo Magazine)

The composer

Robert Carl is a prolific composer, a performer, and an author of books and articles on new music. His eclectic, often serene compositions—rooted in the spirit of transcendentalism and experiment—usually explore a harmonic language based in the overtone series. They have been performed around the world and recorded by various labels, including New World, Koch International, Innova, Opus One, and Lotus. Carl has received awards and fellowships from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the National Endowment for the Arts, Chamber Music America, Tanglewood, and others. He has held residencies in the U.S. at Yaddo, Djerassi, Ragdale, and the MacDowell and Millay colonies. His international residencies include the Camargo Foundation (France), the Bogliasco Foundation (Italy), the Rockefeller International Study Center (Italy), and the Youkobo Art Space and Tokyo Wonder Site (Japan). Carl is chair of the composition department at the Hartt School, University of Hartford. (robertcarlcomposer.com)

“Robert Carl would seem to have a hard time writing dull music.” (Boston Globe) “[Carl’s] writing is free of the predictable trappings and dogma, conveying an intelligence that doesn’t need to bury itself in theory in order to express something serious and compelling.” (Time Out New York) “[Carl’s] work possesses a great deal of immediate, surface appeal, and yet every piece has deeper layers that repay further listening and consideration.” (Fanfaremagazine)

The performer

Alison Bjorkedal, a Grammy-winning harpist, is a member of Southwest Chamber Music and has performed with the San Diego Symphony, Pasadena Symphony, Long Beach Symphony, Long Beach Opera, Opera Santa Barbara, Just Strings, and wildUp. She has recorded music by Wadada Leo Smith, Harry Partch, James Tenney, and others on the Microfest, New World, Cuneiform, and Bridge labels. “Bjorkedal’s harp swept us away. She is an extraordinary harpist. . . . Her technique was flawless, her artistry inspired.” (LA Culture Spot)



“An excellent, and sadly, however, an all-too-short work.”—Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly 

“Wonderful! We are offered another installment in the Cold Blue Singles series…. Robert Carl’s Splectra is as unified and diverse as his whimsically multifarious title suggests, and he could find no better collaborators than composer and sound designer Matt Sargent and harpist Alison Bjorkedal to bring his vision to fruition.

Just to maintain some semblance of the poor reviewer’s sanity, let’s examine this two-part composition serially, though I’m going to circumvent chronology’s blow-by-blow ensnarement. Carl states that the piece is based on C’s overtone series, but his innovative approach to its inherent complexities cannot be squeezed into any of the boxes most often fashioned to hold music with the Minimalist moniker. Check out the motors, sounding more like something out of C.P.E. Bach than anything readily associated with the 21st century, when the vast harmonic progression finally finds its way from C-minor to G-minor, or something approaching it. It is a real joy to hear Carl’s melodic invention as lines form from the places where tone and line converge. Tempo and rhythm are delightfully unpredictable from the outset. As if that weren’t enough, as with the mirror ending Webern’s symphony and mirroring its form in hindsight, we’re given a blueprint at Splectra’s conclusion.

The harmonic, melodic and rhythmic intricacies of this slowly evolving masterpiece would be enough, but Carl and Sargent add a layer of processing, or is it better to say that the processing blooms from each note? It’s all very subtle in the first section, making itself known only on strategic pitches and at key moments, but in the second section, it creates a parallel harmonic layer. The timbres draw no further attention to themselves than necessary as they blanket Bjorkedal’s already subtle timbral counterpoint with nasally shimmering sonorities. They provide simultaneous commentary and development as they swell and ebb, each note complex amassing its own overtones and enriching the already sumptuous harmonic landscape.

There are so many discs that I review and never audition again, which speaks not so much to any lack of quality but to their becoming too familiar too quickly. Not so with Splectra, whose deceptive simplicity yields deep satisfaction every time I play it.” —Marc Medwin, Fanfare magazine [Five Stars]

“Another good one of those specially priced EPs from Cold Blue is Robert Carl’s Splectra, a solo harp work in two parts played with dexterous lyrical crispness by harpist Alison Bjorkedal. An elemental motif is the kernel to the exegesis, as the music unfolds and expands with great interest, not without advanced tonality. Anyone who loves the harp will find this very much in their wheelhouse, I suspect. Strongly recommended.” —Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

Splectra is a new compact disc of solo harp music by Robert Carl, recently released by Cold Blue Music as part of their innovative CD singles series. Alison Bjorkedal, a Grammy Award-winning harpist, performs in this two-part work with exquisite skill and a sure touch. Digital processing via Max software, crafted by the composer and collaborator Matt Sargent, highlight and extend certain harmonics in the acoustic harp tones, significantly enhancing the piece’s sonic footprint. Robert Carl writes, “Digital processing of the acoustic tones emphasizes the harp’s upper frequencies, presenting a timbral analogue to the piece’s harmonic structure.” The result is a firm melodic line and sinewy timbre that complements the power of Ms. Bjorkedal’s expressive playing.

“Splectra, Part 1 begins with a series of sharp single notes from the harp, repeated and then gradually played in syncopation. This proceeds in short phrases, and the digitally processed harp tones create a distinctly percussive sense of drama, much like that of sharply struck piano notes. Two- and three-note chords follow, creating stark passages that heighten a rising sense of uncertainty. The processing of the notes adds an unexpected power to the familiar acoustic of the harp, but the effects are always musical and complement the context of the phrasing. About halfwayin, the harp initiates a quiet trickle of rapidly descending scales from the higher registers, providing a vivid contrast to the stolid opening. The light touch here by Ms. Bjorkedal is especially effective and the final arpeggios are wonderfully translucent, grounded by the line of strong percussive notes that form the framework of this piece.

“Splectra, Part 2 opens somewhat more quietly, but incorporates the same structure of single declarative notes. As the section proceeds, these sounds strengthen, becoming progressively more percussive and brighter. Robust arpeggios follow, adding an element of drama and mystery. The digital processing creates a complementary sonic aura around the acoustic tones that heightens a sense of the unconventional. The tempo picks up and the interaction of the decaying overtones are accentuated in the sustained notes.  The complexity and dynamic variations of the harp line increase impressively as the piece reaches its climax. The final enigmatic phrases are separated by several beats of silence, as if posing a riddle. Ms. Bjorkedal again plays with confidence and solid technique.

“Carl’s music on this CD music is often robust and commanding, yet it can also be lightly delicate and pleasingly subtle. Splectra combines sophisticated digital processing with the notes from a familiar acoustic instrument to achieve a new palette of assertive sounds that increase the expressive power of the harp.” —Paul Muller, Sequenza21

“Presumably, the title is meant to address the exploration of the spectral qualities of plucked strings. The longer the string, the more likely it will be for the ear to apprehend those qualities. In this case that string is the lowest string on a pedal harp…. The overtones of that string are captured and enhanced electronically. All digital processing is realized through a Max software patch designed and implemented by Carl and Matt Sargent. The harp itself is played by Alison Bjorkedal, and the score involves more than just plucking that lowest string. Rather, her part involves the exploration of a variety of different arpeggio patterns, whose pitches then blend with the electronic enhancement of the overtones of that lowest string.

“At the very least, this is an imaginative way to bring real-time software into an instrumental performance. Personally, I was drawn into the recording enough to hope that, at some time in the future, I might have the opportunity to listen to this composition in performance…. The fact is that those electronic enhancements are subtle; and, at least in my case, it took a few listening experiences before I began to become aware of them (even with the advantage of a relatively solid command of the sounds of upper harmonics). However, as one becomes more aware of those subtleties, one can also appreciate the role they play in bringing a unique rhetoric to what, on the surface, may mistakenly be dismissed as a mere technical exercise.” —Stephen Smoliar, The Rehearsal Studio

“Mesmerizing harp. Some 5,000 years ago a sculptor in the south Aegean Sea carved from white marble a small seated figure playing a lap harp. From then until now harp music has enchanted listeners in pubs and concert halls and has attracted composers on all continents.

“Robert Carl composed Splectra (spectrum plectrum) using limited harmonic material. Each of  Splectra’s two sections, he writes, expands a simple rising motive, growing harmonically richer as higher pitches relating to its opening note’s (low C) harmonic series are added. Digital processing emphasizes the harp’s upper frequencies.

“Harpist Alison Bjorkedal teaches and performs in Los Angeles area. An advocate for new music, she performs with Southwest Chamber Music, Golden State Pops Orchestra, and MUSE/IQUE and teaches at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

Splectra provides pleasant yet challenging listening and I look forward to hearing more from the composer and the performer.” —Paul Alan Baker, Only Strings

“An American composer with a very varied personality, Robert Carl offers us, in this EP released by Cold Blue Music, his work for harp—played by Alison Bjorkedal—divided into two movements, with a total duration of sixteen minutes. Carl’s idea is to expand a simple ascending motif, expanding its harmonic territory and amplifying its sound via digital processing effects. The result is music that has an undeniable charm, sometimes restless and disturbing, sometimes sensual and seductive—effects Carl achieves by working with wisdom on harmonic and timbre details.” —Kathodik (Italy)

“The harp possesses a very broad timbral dynamic and, in the right hands, can be an extraordinarily expressive instrument; when set outside of ‘conventional’ genre boundaries, the imagination’s the limit. On Splectra, composer Robert Carl, aided by fellow Cold Blue alumni Matt Sargent, seek to stretch the innate characteristics of the harp via some discrete digital processing and an innate sense of melodic drama. As performed by Alison Bjorkedal, this two-part composition comprises another of Cold Blue’s short but sweet EPs, a format that label owner Jim Fox takes particular pride in; conciseness seems to be the better part of valor. In this case, Bjorkedal’s colorful performance highlights the sharp tension and release inherent in the harp’s taut strings. Divided in two sections, “Splectra Part One” reflects the carefully wrought, more spacious prepared piano works of John Cage, as small clusters of stately notes roam blissfully within the soundfield. The shorter “Part Two” revels in its cousin’s systemic melancholy, punctuated by sudden, more emphatic handstrikes and coarser tones. The digital embellishments are subtle in their execution, but bring just enough resonance to make this a notable, compelling work.” —Darren Bergstein, Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter

“The harp may be a somewhat underrated instrument in experimental music. I think it’s time for a revaluation of this instrument—and a work like this will definitely help.” —Peter van Cooten, Ambientblog

Splectra by Robert Carl … is a two-movement work for solo harp that’s performed splendidly by Grammy-winning harpist Alison Bjorkedal; describing it as a solo work is accurate, yet the application of digital processing (overtones generated via a Max software patch designed by Carl and, wouldn’t you know, Matt Sargent) expands on the instrument’s sonorities so much that the recording can in certain moments seem to involve more than a single performer. Both movements build on simple rising motives, such that pitches relating to its opening note’s harmonic series are added and thereby enhance the harmonic richness of the sound design. The work’s lower-register beginning lends the material an initially brooding character, but soon enough dramatic contrasts between higher and lower plucks make for an engrossing presentation, especially when the sustain generated by the processing creates a layered effect that makes the music all the more bewitching. Bjorkedal’s realization of Carl’s material is virtuosic but not self-indulgent, the harpist’s energy focused on bringing the piece to fruition as the composer intended. As accomplished as the work itself is, this recording of Splectra rewards as much for the magical sound of the harp and Bjorkedal’s remarkable rendering of the material.” —Ron Schepper, Textura