How to write for harp

Thank you for being interested in how to write for harp. My plan for this section of this website is to finally sit down and express some thoughts I have on how to approach the harp in new music. I have already written quite a lot on the subject as part of my artistic PhD from 2015. If you are interested you will find the document here. It includes topics such as

  • dealing with harp stereotypes,
  • expanding the expressional range,
  • in-depth texts on my collaborations with S.Steen-Andersen, H.Hellstenius, M.Adderley or Ø.Torvund
  • interviews with Judy Loman, Willy Postma, Godelieve Schrama and Elisabeth Sønstevold
  • learning techniques and working on music by R.Murray Schafer and R.S.Gjertsen

Since 2015 I have continued to collaborate with composers as well as studied already written works. This experience has inevitably led to new thoughts. It is time to try to put them together in a way that might benefit others who wish to explore the harp. This text will continue to develop, since the world of harp in extensive and one can always explain more and better. Please be patient. 🙂 I would also clarify that teaching composers is not a full-time activity for me, and I have limited time to do research on the topic at the moment, so I will base my knowledge on my experiences in my daytime job as a harpist.

Resources

First off, I will start by addressing the resources on harp for composers. My recommendation is that you find specialized and relatively modern harp literature. Many many composers use the standardized orchestration literature, where they find a chapter on harp. Some are quite good, but most are seriously misleading. There has been a positive development recently, where more and more quality information has become available, so you might find a source that you trust and like on your own. The ones I have read and can recommend are listed below.

  • Harp Notation by Gunnhildur Einarsdóttir: www.harpnotation.com. Check out the videos of a huge range of techniques!
  • Guide to the Contemporary Harp by Mathilde Aubat-Andrieu, Laurence Bancaut, Aurélie Barbe and Hélène Breschand. Originally in French, recently translated to English.
  • Composing for Harp by Miriam Overlach and Sabien Canton: www.composingforharp.com
  • Writing for the Harp by Ruth K.Inglefield and Lou Anne Neill.

Starting off

My second recommendation to anyone who is composing for harp is listening to recordings or concerts. Unlike other instruments, harp is an instrument that is often less heard. While the imaginative sound of a piano or a violin is based on multiple experiences with listening to music on these instruments, it is not likely that you have heard the same range of experience with harp sounds. When composing or imagining what you would like to compose, it is crucial that you base this on a full understanding of what the instrument can sound like. Not long ago, it was very hard to get hold of modern recordings for harp, but this has improved. However, I also recommend to listen to all styles and genres, even if they are not in the style you relate to. There are multiple tips and tricks in creating sound, combining techniques, different ambiences, the speed of playing, and more, in the more traditional repertoire. The interesting question is how you translate these into your particular style. You might also be surprised to find what is out there, when you go beyond the known stuff like Debussy and Ravel… To get you started I have listed a few recordings below.

  • Chimera, Judy Loman/Orford String Quartet, Centrediscs 2012
  • Visions, Lavinia Meijer, Harp, Channel Classics Records 2009
  • Coraline, Soundtrack, Koch Records, 2005
  • Captiva, Zeena Parkins, Good Child Music 2017