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, although I have done several workshops for composers at the Norwegian academy of Music and for Ny Musikk Bergen in the past. Nowadays though, I have limited time to do research on the topic, so I will base my knowledge on my experiences in my daytime job as a harpist and the research I did 2008-2015.
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. However, even the good ones are not sufficient, because they seem to skim over the essential elements of the instrument. 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. Beware though, that there has been made an effort to standardize the harp notation and it is a great benefit to using the known notation when it is applicable. 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.
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 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 listening 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
Many composers have heard about the pedals on the harp as something to be dreaded. This is unfortunate, and reflects more on the composers who are teaching instrumentation than on the instrument itself. There is no doubt that the pedal system demands a pragmatic approach to the harmonic developments and need to be understood by the composer. However, there is a much higher risk for being harmonically too careful than for writing something that is wrong or impossible. If your style is within the 12-tone technique or modernistic, you need to focus a great deal on pedal positions and changes. If you are in a different style, you should not worry too much. That being said, everyone needs to understand how the pedals work, and there are many good descriptions available, as in the sources mentioned above. It is common to keep track of pedal changes while composing. Please write all pedal inscriptions below the notation system (not in the middle). I rarely meet composers who manage to keep track of all pedal changes, so corrections and adding pedal changes are the norm for harpists. In addition, the harpist might find a different enharmonic solution and make changes accordingly. This is not a sign that you have failed as a composer, but a perfectly normal thing to do for a harpist who works thoroughly on your score. The skill to find enharmonic solutions among harpists varies, and some are true geniuses in the field. To expect that you as a composer should master this on the same level, is not necessary in order to compose well for harp. Also, if you watch the feet of the harpist, you will immediately observe a very fast action. Harpists change pedals all the time and fast. Personally, I much more prefer that composers write what they want harmonically and leave it to me to decide if it is possible. This requires a flexibility from the composer, in case I return with a few things that should be revised. However, I have surprised myself many times that passages that seemed impossible suddenly resolved themselves after weeks of trying to find solutions. This again depends on the situation of course. If you are composing an orchestra part, there is always a shortage of study time, and therefor a stronger demand for the score to be ready, also with regards to pedal changes.
What I would like to say though, is that when composers focus too much on pedals and regard the harp as “harmonically challenging”, they lose focus on the real challenges of writing a solid harp part. When I am faced with something that seems impossible, it rarely has to do with pedals. Composers should pay more attention to how the hands work, when they interact, are overlapping (helping each other) or the amount of independence in the hands (layering). Also, how to build the appropriate sound (how to build a voluminous sounding chord, a projecting sound, a clear progression, a strong sound), or to not go against the natural reverberations of the harp (by for example stopping the sound too early by using the same string or nearby strings), are challenges that many underestimate. The same can be said for the many playing techniques (variations of sound) that are very common on the harp. Most composers use a very small range of playing techniques available. All of the above are not the same as piano, so comparisons tend to be unhelpful.
Level of complexity
Remember to always write for the level of the musician you are working with. Yes, it is perfectly fine to challenge the musician, and for the musician to learn something they have not done before. This is in the very nature of creating something new I think. However, there are some composers who aspires to write for the very best of performers or dreams of musicians who can play ever faster, stronger, softer or jumping effortlessly from one element to the other. Even with the best, there is always a limit to what the musician can do physically. Your choice as a composer is when you say yes or no to composing for that particular musician. Saying yes, you need to trust the feed back from this musician, and to trust that you are working towards the same goal of creating the best possible composition. If the goal is to have your music communicated to the audience (as it is with most :-)), you need to compose something that is within the range of the musician you are working with, and perhaps something they are even comfortable with (!). The musical value of a musician who can play something confidently is not to be underestimated. That being said, there are those composers who see value in working at the very limit of what a musician can do. This is a style in itself and has its own qualities. Making the musician aware of this could be helpful.