Harpo
January 29, 2019 7:44 PM   Subscribe

Harpists spend 90 percent of their lives tuning their harps and 10 percent playing out of tune. -- Igor Stravinsky

I never thought much about harps. To me they were minor instruments that provided dreamy arpeggios for romantic music. But then I heard and watched Amy Turk's transcription of J.S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. I stand corrected...
posted by jim in austin (51 comments total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
 
That was incredible! One amazing thing about Bach's music is that it sounds so wonderful on any instrument, but it must have taken a hell of a lot of work to make that harp transcription.

To me they were minor instruments that provided dreamy arpeggios for romantic music.

John Coltrane was obsessed with harp music, which he used to practice on the saxophone. That's how Alice Coltrane got involved (pdf) with it.
posted by thelonius at 8:02 PM on January 29, 2019 [5 favorites]


Also a lesser-known jazz instrument: Dorothy Ashby, who''s the biggest jazz harpist name I know, and here's someone named Tamsin Dearnly doing a fantastic Take Five.
posted by curious nu at 8:02 PM on January 29, 2019 [13 favorites]


Oooh! Is it Harp Day? Maybe it's Harp Day! I was just listening to this lovely transcription of Smetana's Moldau for solo harp. This lady kills it!

And here's a sweet Saariaho piece for harp and electronics!
posted by daisystomper at 8:12 PM on January 29, 2019 [5 favorites]


It's like watching her weave the music on a loom...
posted by jim in austin at 8:13 PM on January 29, 2019 [5 favorites]


I think that's the first harp piece I've ever heard where the instrument reveals that it has got actual guts.
posted by flabdablet at 8:21 PM on January 29, 2019 [4 favorites]


Also, everyone should have mad respect for all harpists:
- it's a super difficult instrument
- it's a massive, expensive, temperamental instrument that requires constant care and upkeep
- just changing keys with the complex, esoteric pedal system is its own course of study
- harp is awesome and capable of so much more than pretty arpeggios
- many harpists are daring souls who will try all kinds of weird sounds and new ideas

So here's to harpists everywhere! (from a non-harpist composer)
posted by daisystomper at 9:06 PM on January 29, 2019 [17 favorites]


- it's a massive, expensive, temperamental instrument that requires constant care and upkeep

I saw Joanna Newsom a few years ago on a night with really bad weather. She came out on stage to wild applause, didn't say a word, and sat and tuned her harp for about 20 minutes. Then she went backstage to do her vocal exercises for about half an hour. Then she came out and tuned her harp again for another ten minutes before starting the show.

(It was worth the wait, and she was nice enough to explain the delay during a break in her set. Apparently harp techs are expensive.)
posted by hydrophonic at 9:19 PM on January 29, 2019 [5 favorites]


African harp is a completely different and rather less twee variation.

Freak folk harpist Joanna Newsom -- by coincidence the cousin of California's governor Gavin -- came as much out of African harp as the more common (in the US) Irish style, and you can hear in more rhythmic approach of a song like "The Book of Right-On."
posted by msalt at 9:27 PM on January 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


Wow! I am seldom rendered speechless over a musical performance, but i sat enraptured the entire 10 minutes just watching those fingers fly to produce notes I thought so familiar. lovely.
posted by OHenryPacey at 9:29 PM on January 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


Absolutely astonishing. Her playing was so skillful and complex I couldn’t even follow it. Looked like plucking 3-5 notes at once.
I watched Disney’s Fantasia as a kid and this really takes me back...
posted by cricketcello at 9:50 PM on January 29, 2019 [1 favorite]


The need to quell lower strings from harmonic resonance was notable. Also was the feel that this was somehow related to flamenco guitar arrangements of classical pieces. Insofar as watching the performance, anyway.

But wow, this was outstanding! i'm so glad you posted this! Thank you!
posted by hippybear at 10:23 PM on January 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


Is there a notation in harp music about silencing resonating strings? Or is this just taught technique?
posted by hippybear at 10:25 PM on January 29, 2019


I love the harp. I hope everyone reading this has heard Mary Lattimore's fantastic album from last year! A new and wonderful spin on the instrument's potential.
posted by saul wright at 10:27 PM on January 29, 2019 [3 favorites]


If this is harp day for people who can't stand harps, I offer you Philip Glass' Metamorphosis, by Lavinia Meijer.
posted by ouke at 10:57 PM on January 29, 2019 [7 favorites]


Lovely stuff! - many thanks for the post, jim in austin. I enjoy the collaborations between Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita: see for axample Bach to Baïsso; Bamba.
posted by misteraitch at 11:22 PM on January 29, 2019 [2 favorites]


By way of contrast, pianists spend 0 percent of their lives tuning their pianos and 100 percent playing out of tune - but that is a post for another day, I suppose.
posted by flug at 11:34 PM on January 29, 2019 [5 favorites]


Beautiful performance of Bach on the harp -- but the intro of that piece is so closely associated with drama or foreboding, and the harp to me feels so light and crisp that I couldn't properly appreciate it without a blatant jump to 2 or so minutes into the piece. I'm always up to hear Bach in a new setting -- would love to hear some of WTC pieces on harp.

Harping in general: +1 Dorothy Ashby, was coming to mention her but curious nu got that shout out first. Her harp albums from the 70s are unreal, but after learning that she and her husband were involved with original stage productions in the late 60s/early 70s, I've desperately wanted to find time to learn more about that facet of her career.

And as I make a case that harp brings a light and airy sound that doesn't fit with Bach's Toccata, possibly my single favorite harping moment (again from Dorothy Ashby) plays alongside the decidedly not-light-and-airy funk of James Brown. Or, at least, James Brown's band, recording as A.A.B.B. (said to stand for 'Above Average Black Band') Not the virtuosity of the other performances linked (wow that link from misteraitch!) but that ethereal harp trickling out over the hard-driving bass and clavinet always gets me.
posted by Theophrastus Johnson at 11:36 PM on January 29, 2019 [1 favorite]


And from a completely different amateur harp wheelhouse, a fragment of Harpsona's Sailor Moon harp adaptation went viral on Twitter a while ago and she just posted the full version of Moonlight Densetsu. Does have the requisite arpeggios!
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:15 AM on January 30, 2019




Seconding saul wright that Mary Lattimore is fantastic and lovely. My favorite mellowing out music of the moment.
posted by kokaku at 1:13 AM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


Amazing. Having been 13 years old in 1983, when I hear this piece I'm transported back to a smoky bowling alley arcade where I'm playing Gyruss.
posted by freecellwizard at 6:19 AM on January 30, 2019 [6 favorites]


Gyruss! (insert "I see you're a man of culture as well" GIF here) My first exposure to this piece was actually in the opening credits of Rollerball. (The original, obviously, not the remake.) It left an impression.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 6:43 AM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


This transcription and performance are completely amazing -- I mean utterly transformative and mind-blowing.

For some context, here's the piece on a massive, church-filling, pipe organ complete with multi-level keyboards, an entirely separate keyboard for your feet, and a surly-looking dude whose entire job is to stand behind the organist and pull stops. Skip to 5:40 or so if you get bored and watch the pedal-work. It's an amazing performance.

Now compare what this guy (not just any guy, to be fair--a master) is doing, using everything he's got, with what Turk is doing using just her fingers. She's miraculous.
posted by The Bellman at 6:47 AM on January 30, 2019 [3 favorites]


Zeena Parkins, solo electric harp, for a totally different kind of harp playing
posted by idiopath at 6:57 AM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


Over here in Portland there’s an artist going by Dolphin Midwives that y’all should check out. Article about their album that just came out this year.
posted by gucci mane at 7:50 AM on January 30, 2019


Genuinely curious, are harpists trained to always... emote so much when playing? It's very theatrical, with the head tilted back, eyes half-shut, slightly-NSFW facial expressions.

Don't get me wrong, the arrangement and performance is lovely to the ear. But am I supposed to be getting a boudoir-photo feeling from the video? Because I am.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 8:20 AM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]


Jazz harp, you say? I'm a fan of the ridiculously talented Park Stickney.
posted by mefireader at 8:55 AM on January 30, 2019


Genuinely curious, are harpists trained to always... emote so much when playing? I

Pretty much, yeah. They have mirrored ceilings on the practice rooms at the Royal College.
posted by thelonius at 8:56 AM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


But am I supposed to be getting a boudoir-photo feeling from the video? Because I am.

Every instrument has a face that goes with it. Here, for example, is electric guitar face.

You know that thing where you're tightening a nut with a wrench and you notice your teeth are clenched? Or when you're concentrating super hard on threading a needle and find that your tongue is sticking out a bit? Human nervous systems are wired up weird. There's a lot of crosstalk in the motor subsystem.

When you're as completely in the moment as a master musician like Turk, and especially on something as devilishly complicated as a harp, playing your instrument is more like dancing with a partner than operating a machine. What matters is the sound and the feeling of the sound, nothing else, and you will put your hands and your body and your head and your ears wherever they need to be to get the sound and build the feeling that you want. What that looks like to anybody else, and what happens to your face while you do it, matters not a whit.

If what a master musician is doing looks genuinely reminiscent of sex, that will not be because the musician is deliberately attempting to look sexy; it will be because both good sex and compelling musicianship necessarily involve the unfiltered expression of raw emotion. Neither musicianship nor sex reduces to the other, but they definitely share a common ancestor.

Musicians who do deliberately attempt to look sexy generally come off as kind of immature and a bit ridiculous. Which is fine if that's what they're trying to do, but personally I find it kind of tiresome.

Prince was kind of tiresome. Hendrix wasn't, and neither is Amy Turk.
posted by flabdablet at 9:07 AM on January 30, 2019 [9 favorites]


Her channel is super fun. Way more Zelda music than I was expecting and way more Zelda themed jewelry than I think anyone would reasonably expect.
posted by es_de_bah at 9:27 AM on January 30, 2019


Skip to 5:40 or so if you get bored and watch the pedal-work. It's an amazing performance.

That's incredible! Watching him play the keyboards, I could see a keyboardist going, yeah, I could learn to play that......but playing that complex, melodic Bach bass with your feet at the same time?
posted by thelonius at 9:31 AM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


Like two days ago I watched a neat video of the Met's harpist in the pit playing what I think were the closing lines of Pelleas with this expression of ecstasy (sweet or kind of bizarre, depending on your mood) on his face, and now I can't post it because I deactivated facebook half an hour ago. I'm sure this description of it is totally taking you there, though.
posted by Smearcase at 9:48 AM on January 30, 2019


...but playing that complex, melodic Bach bass with your feet at the same time?

Toccata and Fugue for Four Appendages.

Amy is doing a lot of pedal work as well, although she isn't playing notes like an organist or dampening/sustaining notes like a pianist. She does all that with her fingers. She is, on the fly, switching the tuning of strings amongst the diatonic and chromatic scales, which must be devilishly difficult and complex. Note the "pedal-cam" insert that appears from time to time in the lower right portion of the video...
posted by jim in austin at 10:09 AM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


Sweet. That's as awesome as the best performance of that I've witnessed -- on hammered dulcimer (solo till the fugue started, then duo) at a Renn Faire.
posted by Quasirandom at 11:14 AM on January 30, 2019


YOU CAN SEE THE MATHS!!!
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 12:44 PM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


A musician named Lena Woods appeared on the French Voice in 2016. She (as far as I'm aware) is a classically-trained harpist, who plays an electric harp in her rock band. (Here she is covering "Halo" in her blind audition.) Lena is a great performer and has a lovely voice; catching one of her band's shows if I ever find myself in France is "on my list".

There are a couple of other harp performances I can think of off the top of my head from various Voice shows: Anna McLuckie on the UK voice, doing a cover of Daft Punk's Get Lucky, and Johanna Ewald covering (once again) "Halo" on the 2014 German Voice.

Later performances from the same artists on the show often also feature them on the harp, if you like the congruence of "classical" instruments and pop music.

A friend's son has a friend who plays the harp for a number of symphonies around North America, as it's not an instrument commonly called for and maintaining both a harp and a harpist is not in the budget for many smaller organizations.
posted by maxwelton at 1:07 PM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


Beautiful performance of Bach on the harp -- but the intro of that piece is so closely associated with drama or foreboding, and the harp to me feels so light and crisp that I couldn't properly appreciate it without a blatant jump to 2 or so minutes into the piece.

My solution to that phenomenon is to listen to the piece over and over until my new connection overwhelms the old connection.

Also, seconding ouke's recommendation - mesmerizing.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 2:27 PM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]


What...all these comments and no Harpo?
posted by Quasimike at 3:19 PM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think Harpo provides a really good example of the harp face and gestures thing. Here he is mugging away in his customarily comedic fashion, but all of that just stops while he's playing, because he's playing like he loves it and that's srs bzns.
posted by flabdablet at 5:37 PM on January 30, 2019 [3 favorites]


This is amazing. The toccata was very, very good, but I knew from the beginning the fugue would be sublime, and it was.

I dated a harpist in college, and was good friends with a bagpiper (they didn’t know each other, which might have been interesting). Music is strange, and wonderful.
posted by lhauser at 6:47 PM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]


brb. Just took in Metamorphosis and now I have to go down to the back shed and play drums for a bit.
posted by flabdablet at 6:55 PM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


By way of contrast, pianists spend 0 percent of their lives tuning their pianos and 100 percent playing out of tune - but that is a post for another day, I suppose. (flug)

After growing out of decades of hauling around my Fender-Rhodes, I do feel blessed to just walk into a club and play what's there. However, I'd adjust that 0% upwards a little: a carry around a tuning hammer to correct some of the more egregious notes, just in case.
posted by kozad at 7:54 PM on January 30, 2019


I never thought much about harps until my best friend was hospitalized for two weeks at LA's Cedars-Sinai hospital, where an absolutely wonderful old lady comes around late at night, wheeling an enormous harp, and pops her head into any rooms with the lights on and asks if you'd like her to play. Then she sits down on a stool she's carrying and fills your miserable hospital room with the most luscious, luxurious melodies, bringing peace and moments of transcendence to the patient and their guests, drowining out the sounds of the beeping machines, the bustle in the hallway, the person moaning down the hall. Out of misery, beauty. I'll never forget it.
posted by BlahLaLa at 9:19 PM on January 30, 2019 [8 favorites]


where an absolutely wonderful old lady comes around late at night, wheeling an enormous harp, and pops her head into any rooms with the lights on and asks if you'd like her to play. Then she sits down on a stool she's carrying and *edit* takes out her accordion and fills your miserable hospital room with the most luxurious polkas, drowning out the sounds of the beeping machines, the bustle in the hallway, the person moaning down the hall. Out of misery, vague hatred. I'll never forget it.
posted by hippybear at 9:44 PM on January 30, 2019


I mean, instrument choice matters.
posted by hippybear at 9:45 PM on January 30, 2019 [1 favorite]


So you're saying I should possibly reconsider my plan to train up in hospital bagpipes therapy?
posted by flabdablet at 9:54 PM on January 30, 2019 [2 favorites]


Okay, so entirely true story. This little town I live in, I live across the street from a church. And for the first 8 or so years we lived here, there was a bagpiper who would come and practice on the church grounds, for some reason.

There's something about bagpipes that aren't right in front of you and which might be echoing around a bit that makes them actually a welcome thing on a late Saturday morning while you're finally having breakfast.

It's possible that hospital bagpipe therapy involves you playing in the basement. It will echo up from there.

Don't give up your dream!
posted by hippybear at 10:10 PM on January 30, 2019


It's possible that hospital bagpipe therapy involves you playing in the basement.

Yes, I could see it working out that way.

"Nurse! Nurse! Is the hospital under attack? There's a weird noise coming through the heating vents!"
posted by flabdablet at 12:53 AM on January 31, 2019


Why not drums? If it was good enough for baby Jesus...
posted by msalt at 1:14 PM on February 1, 2019


My drum technique has been described by investigating police as "like a slow-motion car accident". There's not much pa rum pa pum pum there.
posted by flabdablet at 1:43 AM on February 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


I was in a slow-motion car accident once and it sounded a lot like parumpa pum pum. (Friend hit the brakes on ice going 10mph in huge old Lincoln and we broke through the brick wall of a bar.)
posted by msalt at 12:23 PM on February 2, 2019 [1 favorite]


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