Let the Harp Sound! Updating understanding of the sound and artistic role of the harp in Norwegian contemporary music.
By Sunniva Rødland, 2014
Among many Norwegians, the harp is associated with angels. As a harpist I have been told numerous times how harp-playing is viewed as feminine and elegant, both visually and musically. The harp itself is often used to create a visual impact, with an impressive shape and with its decorations in gold. It is sometimes viewed as a luxurious instrument, mysterious for being unknown to most audiences and extravagant on display. Many harpists have earned their living performing in a white dress and even with angel wings on their back. Using the harp in such a way builds a myth around the harp. However, the same myths that provide the harpists such a unique position, can artistically become an obstacle. If audience learn that harp performances are angelic and soft, it becomes difficult to present music that does not answer to their expectations; Music that needs to be listened to for its autonomy, without the myth of the harp surrounding it. Perhaps the same myths also make it difficult for composers to use the harp.
“And the pieces I liked…they broke with the tradition. And…I tried to get more people to like this kind of music for the harp. But everyone wanted the expectations of the harp to be met. Even not bringing a gold harp was wrong.” S.R., 20111
As a harpist, I don’t view harp-playing as anything close to angelic. Pulling the strings, with all their tension, requires strength. Playing the strings while changing the seven pedals, the whole body is at work, demanding extensive coordination and control of body movements. Also, the role of the harpist in ensemble is often singular and musically exposed, creating harpists who are independent decision-makers, with a need to be creatively flexible as well as strong-minded. I consider harpists as musicians to have similar attitudes towards playing as those of percussionists; frequently performing music of different styles, using multiple playing techniques, a pragmatic problem-solving approach and within a wide variety of musical functions.
The harp itself is orchestral in its tonal range. It has a wealth and variety of sound. Dynamically, its range continues to increase, due to development in construction and playing techniques.
“…The complex evolution of harp playing, which for the past twenty-five years offers a wealth and variety of musical color and effect larger than any other instrument, pipe organ excepted. It seems in order here to recollect that what differentiates the harp from any other musical instrument is the fact that it is orchestral in its tonal range.” Carlos Salzedo, 19442.
The hope is that the harp will gain a wider recognition in Norway, not only being known for its stereotypical “romantic” sides. The instrument should be recognized for its flexibility and broad usability. As a folk instrument, an instrument in dance music, as an orchestra instrument, a solo instrument, a chamber instrument, a baroque instrument, an electric instrument, an instrument used in pop, rock, new age, indie, jazz or classical music, as a primitive instrument and as an extravagant instrument.
“A sound machine of limitless capacity” Zeena Parkins3
The harp has unique qualities compared to other instruments. What particularly distinguishes the harp is that the sound is produced by the physical touch of the string. There are no hammers or plectrums between the harpist and the instrument. How the harp sounds is therefore not only dependent on the harp itself, but on the body and technique of the harpist; for example the angle of the fingertips, the way the hand closes or the amount of force used. The musical outcome is therefore deeply connected to the physical execution of the score.
To understand how to use this physicality and to compose for the harp should be an exciting process. The hope is that composers use the harp boldly, and not approach it as a restricted instrument. To compose for the harp is often unnecessarily problematized, even in literature on orchestration. However, by approaching the harp as a unique instrument, and not, for example, in comparison with a piano, the challenge of understanding the harp will become easier. All composers base their ideas on previous experiences. “Let the Harp Sound!” points out that there exist many more possibilities on the harp than what is often portrayed, which hopefully will encourage composers to explore the harp more thoroughly, on the harp’s own terms. An important premise is nevertheless that composers listen to harp music.
“…to make the instrument sound well and make the most of its resources…The secrets of the harp are far simpler than certain people imagine, and its possibilities are never-ending for those who have faith.”
Marcel Tournier, 19594
The harp is only an other instrument5. An instrument is a source of sound. How the instrument is being used is decided by the people using it. This view creates numerous possibilities. However, I have learned how to play the harp in a certain way. What I have learned have been knowledge inherited from the harpists before me, who inherited knowledge from the harpists before them and so on. My starting point is from within a long tradition of harp playing. This knowledge will be with me. But meeting new challenges, the traditional knowledge is continuously in question. “Let the Harp Sound!” is a project that portrays a classically trained musician’s journey from a traditional idiomatic approach to music of contemporary aesthetic directions; such as hyper-idiomatic instrumentalism, open form, new complexity or radically idiomatic instrumentalism. Although the project’s main focus is on the harp’s possibilities and broadening the use of harp, the project indirectly reflects upon the musician’s position in perspective of the development of new music. It displays how the musician’s knowledge, curiosity and openness, or the musician’s willingness to let go of tradition, affects the development of music.
“So, I want the harp in a new context. Someone accused me of wanting the harp to be something else than it is. But that’s not the case. I just don’t want the harp to be locked down in what a harp could be.”
- S.R.’s text in Henrik Hellstenius’ «Heritage»(2011) for harp, harpist and video. ↩︎
- Carlos Salzedo: ”The Harp – Musical Medium of Our Age” in Musical America, January 10, 1944 ↩︎
- Quote from Zeena Parkins’ website, accessed 14.06.14, http://www.zeenaparkins.com/about.html ↩︎
- Marcel Tournier: «The Harp, a history of the harp throughout the world, harp notation», p. 93, H.Lemoine, 1959. ↩︎
- ”Musical instrument – A device for producing musical sounds”, The Oxford English Reference Dictionary, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996. ↩︎
- S.R.’s text in Henrik Hellstenius’ «Heritage»(2011), for harp, harpist and video ↩︎