Background Noise

(Transcript from the podcast The Second Page)

Trio for Harp, Piano, and Celesta is the longest piece I’ve written, clocking in at roughly a half hour without break. I wrote it over the course of four years, in eight sections that ultimately became one unit. It is the most architectural of my works— little moments that result from the serendipitous alignment of canons, like sunlight glimmering through a stained glass mobile, are reworked to form the scaffolding that keeps the entire piece one level removed from emotionally present, from being truthful.

I rehearsed this piece every Monday evening for three months. Until the ending, there is no silence. Bells are constantly ringing out in some form until at long last, we hear the far off strumming of the harp, mimicking a lost mandolin player. Then, with a sigh, the mobile falls apart, free falling in slow motion, and silence emerges in the cracks between the sounds of bells, striking the soft earth, each now looking up longing at where they together once hung. After this, I walked home alone in the quiet of snow or rain each week, midnight having arrived surreptitiously, the presence of silence, stillness, amplified ever louder.

I didn’t notice during the performance, but in the first recording of Trio, during this silence, a child outside of the concert hall calls out briefly for his mother, all but muffled, echoing in the antechamber as he runs away, his steps completely silenced. It is still uncanny to me, how this cry is so perfectly transformed— the smear of sound (which he repeats, softer—a shadow I didn’t catch sight of for another year) in the background of Trio has become its most important gesture. In the aftermath of the sojourn of the piece, duration is palpable. We have aged by the end. The ringing is mature, mournful. The cry of the boy is precisely the tinge of naivety I miss during these silences.

(the child’s call is heard very faintly in the background)

My largest work, my time at Oberlin, my years with kindred spirits, these were all ending. As I listen, with newly adult ears, I hear calling, the endlessness of youth, passing once more through the stars as though by accident.

Sean Hanson