Scorpion Tales by Duo Scorpio


While many contemporary composers are often hesitant to write for harp, perhaps due to its inherent diatonic nature, other composers like Bernard Andrès excel at it, and find ways of composing for harp that make you believe it is a chromatic instrument. Andrès is one of the most widely performed composers of harp music, and his works are regularly performed by the world’s greatest harpists. His music fuses contemporary techniques with lyrical melodies and a strong sense of form, and he seamlessly integrates French tonal tradition with a more modern atonal sensibility, creating a hybrid musical form that is all at once engaging and distinctive.

Of the two harp duos by Andrès performed this evening, Le Jardin des Paons (The Garden of Peacocks) is the most recent, having been completed in 1993. In this piece, Andrès call on the performers to execute many colorful effects, including fast enharmonic trills between two adjacent notes tuned to the same pitch, harmonics (playing strings while touching the node, creating bell-like tones that sound an octave higher), pinching instead of plucking strings, and gentle glissandos that cascade over each other, creating delicate, feathery textures.

Andrès has said that this work is inspired by the relationship between Zeus and Hera, who were not only husband and wife, but also brother and sister. (Incestuous relationships are not an unheard of phenomenon in Greek mythology, and even their parents, Cronus and Rhea, were married siblings.) Of course, since the Peacock was sacred to Hera, we have to wonder where Andrès derived the image of a garden of peacocks. In Hellenistic imagery, Hera’s chariot was said to be pulled by peacocks. The eyes in the peacock’s feathers come from Argus, whose hundred eyes were placed in the peacock’s feathers by Hera in memory of his role as the guard of Io, a lover of Zeus that Hera had punished. The eyes are also said to symbolize the vault of heaven and the “eyes” of the stars. It is not known whether Andrès was inspired by these images in particular, so we are left to our own imagination and should feel free to read into this beautiful piece in our own way.

LISTEN: Le Jardin des Paons – Excerpt – Duo Scorpio


Gruesome creatures have always fascinated me, so when Duo Scorpio asked me if I would be interested in writing them a new piece, and their only request was that I incorporate the scorpion as a theme, I was happy to oblige.

The first movement, Trinidad Scorpion, is inspired by a fiery red pepper called the Trinidad Scorpion “Butch T”, currently the hottest pepper in the world. It measures a blistering 1,463,700 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). (A typical jalapeno pepper measures around 5,000 SHU, while a habanero pepper measures up to 350,000 SHU.) The tempo is appropriately marked con fuoco, and the contrapuntal middle section is subtly infused with Ca- lypso rhythms.

Promenade à deux is the title of the second movement, borrowed from a colorful description of the scor- pion’s complex courting and mating ritual. This begins when the male and female locate and identify each other using a mixture of pheromones and vibrational communication. The courtship starts with the male grasping the female’s pedipalps with his own; the pair then perform a “dance” called the promenade à deux. The courtship ritual can involve several other behaviours such as juddering and a cheliceral kiss, in which the male’s claw-like mouthparts grasp the female’s. In some cases, the male will inject her with a small amount of venom, perhaps as a means of pacifying her. Once mating is complete, they separate. The male generally retreats quickly, most likely to avoid being cannibalised by the female, although sexual cannibalism is infrequent with scorpions. Scorpions glow fluorescent under black lights, so I imagine the scorpions basking in a fluorescent afterglow after completing their courtship.

The third movement, The Tale of Orion, is inspired by an ancient Greek myth. According to legend, Orion boasted to goddess Artemis and her mother, Leto, that he would kill every animal on earth. Although Artemis was known to be a hunter herself, she offered protection to all creatures. Artemis and her mother sent a scorpion to deal with Orion. The pair battled and the scorpion killed Orion. The contest was apparently lively enough to catch Zeus’s attention, so he raised the scorpion to heaven and afterwards, at the request of Artemis, did the same for Orion. This served as a reminder for mortals to curb their excessive pride. A second version describes Orion and Artemis growing fond of each other. Learning of this development, Apollo, Artemis’s twin brother, grew angry and sent a scorpion to attack Orion. After Orion was killed, Artemis asked Zeus to put Orion up in the sky. So every winter Orion hunts in the sky, but every summer he flees as the constellation of the scorpion approaches. Scorpion Tales was commissioned by harpists Kathryn Andrews and Kristi Shade of Duo Scorpio through a grant from the American Harp Society.


RAGA (2006)

A raga, the musical framework for the art music of India, is both a mode and a melodic form, and is associated with specific emotions and with a season or a time of day. (Definition : Le Petit Larousse, 2005)

In general a raga opens with a simple and quiet musical statement that is gradually amplified until all the elements of the music intertwine and catch fire.

Everything begins in this raga with a strange drumstick sliding on the metal strings of the harp to make a plaintive, distant sound; it resembles the song of a whale on the high seas. And off we go, riding the waves, until we come ashore in India with one of that land’s typical scales. We buy several percussion instruments, and then sail off again with the good old pentatonic scale oscillating between minor and major, spiced up by bells and antique cymbals … A raga for two harps with Indian spices and delicate Western flavors.

Commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for “Québec in concert” production, the Raga was composed in 2006 for harpists Judy Loman and Jennifer Swartz.

LISTEN: Raga – Excerpt – Duo Scorpio

PARVIS (1974)

Parvis was composed in 1974 and is in two sections, Cortege and Danse.  The ever-present tuning key is used as a percussion instrument, with the harpist tapping on her tuning pins as well as using the tuning key in place of fingers to strike individual notes and to evoke metallic, forceful glissandi.  The Danse movement is an energetic 7/8 moto perpetuo rhythm punctuated by quick downward glissandi played with fingernails, and numerous sections featuring the dry, percussive sound of notes being plucked close to the soundboard.

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