A Conversation with Godelieve Schrama

Let the Harp Sound! page 136-144 (more info here)

A conversation with Godelieve Schrama,  March 2009

Godelieve Schrama is a Dutch harpist, educated in both Holland and France and now a harp professor in Germany (at the Hochschule für Musik in Detmold). Her discography counts six solo albums, among others the remarkable “Harp Concertos from the Netherlands”, in which she performs four new harp concertos by Dutch composers. As a soloist she collaborates with renowned conductors and orchestras. She is also a core member of the ASKO|Schoenberg ensemble for contemporary music. Her commitment to keeping the harp tradition alive takes various forms. She has commissioned works by many composers, collaborating closely with them, some of which are interdisciplinary projects bringing art forms together. In 1996, she was awarded the Dutch Music Prize for her work, the highest distinction conferred on classical musicians in the Netherlands.

Sunniva: I would like to start our conversation by asking you about your studies-, where and with whom did you study?

Godelieve: I stayed in Holland actually, while studying with Germaine Lorenzini in France. I started to work and freelance a little bit, so I decided not to live in Lyon because I wanted to stay in a musical circle I knew and have experience in working. I travelled to Lyon for my lessons. The studying with Lorenzini was a very important and also very good experience.

S: When did you start to develop an interest for contemporary music?

G: I have always been interested in contemporary music but I didn’t know so much. My grandfather was a composer, so the fact that people write music today was something that was normal for me. We would go and listen to his music whenever he had finished something. Later on I think it was always part of my “menu”, so with all my teachers it was normal that I was always working on something from the 20th century. When I was still at Den Haag Conservatory I was already meeting with people who were composing or organizing things in contemporary music and doing small jobs within the field. At that time I founded a quintet in the normal instrumentation; for string trio, flute and harp. Among other things we commissioned pieces. The violinist of this quintet, was just starting as a principal violinist of the Schoenberg Ensemble, which is a contemporary music group. I think it was through her that I got my first invitation to go and play there. This is how I was just very gradually rolled into the scene really. Also, I have never done only contemporary music I have always done everything really.

S: You seem to play more contemporary music than other music. Do you also play more contemporary music than most harpists?

G: Yes I think so. When you go into an orchestra you get an other diet than if you play in a contemporary music group. For ten years I have done more or less steady playing with the Schoenberg Ensemble. I have always continued to commission people to write new pieces. I started by commissioning solo pieces and then I commissioned several Concertos.

In the last years however, I have decided that it might be more useful to put the harp in a broader context. There are several reasons for doing so; If you commission a Concerto it is very nice. You can get a nice concert with a good orchestra and a radio recording and some attention; someone writing about you in the newspaper. Unfortunately it is usually only once that this piece will be played. This does not do the composer much service because I believe that music must be played more often then once. Therefore I think it is much more important that I let my instrument grow or develop with the music. Therefor I am looking for setups with other instruments or for occasions where we can have pieces that can be played more often. So I try to put harp in a wider context. If you ask for a solo piece it is very nice to play and to work on it, but it is very very difficult to programme. If you already have the opportunity to play a recital you can maybe put in a modern piece, but only one, because people don’t want to hear modern music all the time. Except for when you go to a modern music series which is sometimes possible of course. I have a lot of good quality work but it doesn’t mean I can do a contemporary recital or a different programme every year, there is no way. So I think chamber music, more in the direction of musical theatre, or projects that also have other elements like contemporary art will have a better chance of being played.

S: Do you know how many solo and chamber music pieces you have been world premiering?

G: Well, I think there might be around twenty? Might be a little bit more. And also with the Schoenberg Ensemble I premiered a lot of pieces but I didn’t commission them. Personally there have been about five Concertos, 10 or 12 solo pieces and then some chamber music.

S: Could you tell us about the projects and collaborations you have been in, and maybe say something about why you chose to work with those composers in particular?

G: I chose them partly because I knew them from the Conservatory, or I played a piece or heard a piece and thought “oh, this is a nice composer to ask”.

S: Did you become interested in asking them because of their music in general or because of their way of treating the harp?

G: No, usually because of their music in general. I used to think they would need to have an affinity with the instrument in order for them to compose for it, but I am more interested now in concept than I was before. So I was much more interested in the harp and now I am interested in what the composer wants to say. I worked with a lot of dutch composers myself. I started with quite conventional ones like Theo Verbey and Roel Van Oosten. They are on one of my CDs. Then I came to Willem Jeths which is also on the CD, but his is not a conventional piece.

S: I think Willem Jeths’ piece is a remarkable piece.

G: Yes, it is a fantastic piece, but the first time I had to play it I was completely confused, because it demands something of you that has in fact not much to do with playing harp. Because I am standing up and beating the strings with a stick for twenty- five minutes (except for one part where I am sitting down to play). I find it very hard to find a way to do that.

S: Did he say something about that, how you should do things?

G: Well, I have to admit that we fought a lot. He also did a solo piece for me and we saw each other a little bit too much, so we just got angry about everything. I thought it was very hard, it is a very aggressive piece to play, but I was very fortunate that I had the chance to do it again two years ago in Switzerland. It is avery good piece, very strong. Even if everything it says about the instrument is not about the instrument. Fas/Nefas means what is allowed and what is not allowed, to be exactly on the borderline. That is what this piece is about; Is it allowed to beat on the harp with the stick or should you only play it with your fingers for example? However I think the first time I did it I didn’t understand it yet. It doesn’t mean I didn’t play it well, but I really didn’t understand it yet. I think I understand it better now.

S: What drew you to him as a composer?

G: Well somebody told me that he was very good, so I just called him! Very simple really.

S: Did you know that you could expect something unconventional from him?

G: Yes, I went to listen to some pieces so I knew he was unconventional, but you still don’t know what to expect if somebody is going to write for your instrument for the first time. I tend to give composers a kind of “Carte Blanche”, and then they can do what they want sort of.

S: When you initiate a project with a composer who has little experience with the harp, what information do you give them? Do you refer them to any material, like orchestration books?

G: I don’t give them much information really. They usually know what they need to know. The Berlioz (Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise) they all have. If they want I show them some repertoire. Usually I show them how the way of writing can be very varied. I show them Caplet’s Espagnole from 1924, which is quite contemporary really. And I show them Berio’s Sequenza for harp. I often find however, that composers who have something to say not really are interested in what someone else has been saying before them. They want to invent their own language. Though sometimes you get really stupid questions like; How far can you spread your fingers, is it a decime or is it more or less? If you answer that it is in fact a decime you know they might write sixteenth notes in a very fast tempo in decimes, which of course is not possible! That is why I dont tell them anything. Usually I get sketches and we discuss then what they wrote. I try to prepare the sketches as well as I can. I am not very good at sightreading contemporary music so I have to practice the samples before I get a feel for them. When working with the composers it sometimes helps me when they explain what they really tried to do. Then the notes that I previously didn’t understand make much more sense. Writing down music is maybe fifty percent you know, the other fifty percent you have to find by asking yourself questions all the time; What does the composer really mean?

S: So when you get the first sketches from the composers, do you find that there are any re-occuring elements that are general challenges when composers write for harp?

G: Yes, I still get the seventh B (Sub Contra B) all the time, the note B which is not on the harp. A lot of composers don’t know that it is not there and “big” composers such as Rihm, Boulez or Carter are no different. They don’t think about it and then they just write it.

S: You mentioned earlier what you do when you receive a part for a new piece. I would like to ask you how you view the issue of being non-idiomatic versus being idiomatic? How do you approach new ways of using the harp and where do you draw the line of what is possible and not? For instance; we know to draw the line if the hand is too big, because it will hurt us, but are there other limitations that you won’t do if someone asked it of you?

G: Well, I won’t do anything that really damages the instrument, that’s for sure.

S: That is interesting because this view of what damages the harp has changed as well, hasn’t it?

G: Yes I agree, because I do beat it up! I must say, and I can show you on my harp, that the varnish has actually cracked because of Berio with his Bartók-pizzicatos. So I do damage the harp in a way. I think I forget those things in the process, I forget the problems, maybe we change how we think about it in the process. But what I do is that when I play the Concerto by Jeths for instance, which is with percussion sticks on the string, I have to change all the basses afterwards because I completely beat them out of tune. So for sure, I damage the strings and I spend 300Euro on replacing the strings. It is an expensive concerto! (Laughs)

S: So in general, if something would negatively affect your health or affect your instrument- that would be off-limit for you?

G: Yes, although your health is always affected! Every time I get a new piece I say to my husband: “Never again I give a commission!” I say this because it is a hard process! I have so much regard for someone who wants to be a composer, but I always shout at them, allthough privately and not in person. Composing is also a very difficult process. It is something that is really out of human range almost. So you have to be a little bit insane to be able to compose. I have a lot of respect for people who are able to do that. So I try to understand, that is the basic thing, I try to understand what someone is trying to tell.

S: You mentioned that you work with sketches of the new pieces; How well do you need to know something or try out something before you view it as too difficult or impossible?

G: Well, if you want to learn a big piece out of the standard repertoire, always you reserve a certain amount of time, say four months or six months? So why not accept that this time is also needed for the new music? But we are impatient, me too, we want to know what the music is about. I want to hear what it should sound like, but maybe it just takes more time? Playing techniques have also developed, so I am sure you can also bring the technique further by trying or keep on trying. But it is difficult when you don’t understand why you are having to do that. Like the example you showed me (R.S.Gjertsen:Grains); with a pattern that is irregular and incomprehensible, making life very difficult. So the only way you can do it is by automatizing it, but that will take you a lot of time since it is irregular. And yet, Carter writes very difficult for the harp but he is a very good composer. So good compositions makes it worth it I guess.

S: When starting to work with the composers, what kind of expectations did you have to your collaboration?

G: It always varies I think. It depends on the commission. Usually, what is coming out is not what I expected. Which is good in a way, it is fine, you just have to make a step back and accept that this is something else. Maybe he did something to the harp that was not expected or maybe he didn’t do what I hoped for, but there is something there, there is always something that is worth exploring. I have had discussions with other musicians who thinks I should set my commissions stricter, that I should say that I only want this or that-, but I can not do it! I think that someone who has to create something new should have the freedom to choose which way he wants to go, even if that affects my pleasure.

S: When you initiate a project how do you view your ownership in it? What is your role in the collaboration? To explain wat I mean by this question; I think that you on the one hand have the ownership in the project because you are the one initiating it. Then, there is the issue of how far this ownership should go; for instance which artistic choices you make for the commission. On the other hand, you have an ownership in the process; you comment on sketches, you revise scores and you influence the process throughout more or less, depending on the individual project. This goes against the idea perhaps of the autonomous composer, where the musician’s role is only to be a servant, not influencing the creative process at all. How do you view your role with these perspectives in mind?

G: Well I know that if I don’t initiate a project it won’t happen, so it is true that I am the motor really, but I consider the composition as owned by the composer entirely. Because I am sure that if I do a premiere, if it is a good piece and someone else is going to play it, it is probably going to be played better then, because it already has a history. The first performance is usually not the best performance. Which is fine. If the piece is good enough it is nice that it is carried on by other people. However the ownership is not always obvious, I’ll grant you that. I do know that since I started to make real concepts I do feel that it is necessary that my part in it is described, and not only the fact that I play the harp in it, but also that I have sort of made thoughts about the idea. In financial terms it would be nice if you get compensation for that part of the work. But in the end you know it is such fun to do anyway.

S: As a harpist, how you feel about the stigmas concerning the harp, white dresses and such, have you experienced any of that?

G: Well I don’t have a white dress! (Laughs) I try to avoid stigmas. What maybe annoys me though, is that if you go into chamber music clubs, or societies who organise a series of concerts a year, there are lots who don’t want to programme harp. Not as a recital and not as chamber music. Because the repertoire is to difficult they say. It is too new, harpists have no Beethoven, no Mozart and no Haydn. They don’t want to take the risk because it might be too difficult for the audience. It doesn’t have to do with stigmas, although it does have to do with my instrument. Obviously this is the repertoire we have. However it mostly says something about how old fashioned a lot of classical music lovers are, or people who think they love classical music. They are very scared of anything that is new. Only by the moment you get on stage it is no longer an issue; the audience love repertoire being different and they like it. That is if you make a good programme of course, not if you make a shit one. I do have the privilege of being able to play in very nice places. But even there, even my agent who is making a tour like that possible, encounters places where they say “no, Debussy is really too modern for our series…”

S: Have you experienced composers having set expectations, and that those expectations or prejudices limit their use of harp?

G: Prejudices for sure. Sometimes they are very disappointed if things don’t work as they thought. Someone who does not seem to be limited is Wolfgang Rihm who is a very very interesting composer. I did several pieces by him. There are no solo pieces or Concerto or anything, but a lot of ensemble pieces. And there is one piece which is called “Des stücke des Sängers”, for harp solo and then only brass and percussion. Very loud; four trombones and two tubas and you know- some really crazy combination. And what he does is always using very small clusters, extremely loud or very soft. So I always get blisters when I practice it and it is not harpistic at all really. It is all “DANG DANG DANG”. That is his language, but it is very strong music, it is very good. But there is not one glissando or arpeggio or anything in there.

S: Towards the end I would like to ask you how you view your possibilities for expressing yourself on the harp? Some harpists I have met seem to think that the harp is somewhat limited in its possibility of expression compared to other instruments. How do you feel about this aspect of playing the harp?

G: Well, I think this goes up and down. The fact that I chose the harp can not have been at random. There is always a reason why a child at the age of five chooses an instrument, so there must be an infinity with the sound or something that I cannot describe. I have often been a little disappointed with the repertoire of the harp. There is a lot of repertoire for other instruments, especially with the piano repertoire, that I would love to be able to explore. And I think we are very disadvantaged not being able to go through the whole Beethoven Sonatas for example or Bach or Schubert if you wish. It would be helpful in order to develop our musical taste and our musical facilities. However I am sure that something in the sound and probably in the actual movement of playing the harp, the actual touch you make when you move the strings is exactly the right thing for me. This is what I had to be, I couldn’t be a pianist because this is the instrument I should play. I don’t know why, but I am sure. I think in expressing myself I don’t feel restricted. I think that if I should feel restricted it is because I am in a phase in my life where I have not accessed all the expression that I would have liked to have access to. And I think even if a piece only awakens one part or one element of my expression facilities, it can be fulfilling anyway. I am a performer for sure, you know, I like to be on stage, I am scared, but I love it and I love to make the sound, so the possibility is always there to express myself. You know I am just thinking about the poem at the end of the Gubaidulina trio, where she says “tomorrow we will play another tune”. That is what is so great about music that you can fill the time with the piece and then do it again and again. And it will always be something different. So if today this expression is part of my personality tomorrow it can be another part. If I don’t understand you today I might understand you tomorrow. Or maybe in ten years I say that now I want to do it completely different. Regardless if it is contemporary or non contemporary.


Works cited:

Berio, Luciano: Sequenza II (1963), pour harpe, Vienna: Universal Editions.
Caplet, André: Divertissements, No2 à l’Espagnole pour harpe (1924), Paris: Durand Editions Musicales
Gjertsen, Ruben Sverre: Grains (2003), for viola, harp, and percussion, Oslo: MIC Norway.
Gubaidulina, Sofia: Garden of Joy and Sorrow (1981), for harp, flute, viola, and reciter (ad lib.), Hamburg: Edition Sikorski 845. Jeths, Willem: Fas/Nefas (1997), for harp and orchestra, Amsterdam: Donemus.
Rihm, Wolfgang: Die Stucke des Sängers (2000–2001/2008), for harp and ensemble, Vienna: Universal Editions.

Berlioz, Hector: Berlioz’s Orchestration Treatise, ed. Hugh MacDonald (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).