February 26, 2010

Pedal Harps and Folk Harps, Harpists and Harpers

Aeron sent me this article by Wm. Rees, and I thought it was worth sharing.  I'm down with almost everything he says, except for one thing: the pedal harp is a spectacular solo instrument!  Some of the most impressive instrumental solos I've ever heard are pedal harp solos.  I challenge anyone to listen to Carlos Salzedo's "Whirlwind" or "Variations on a theme in ancient style" and say otherwise.

Although I disagree with that conclusion of his, what he says about the acoustical differences between the two instruments is spot on.  The smaller folk harps have a different, often more subtle tone that makes them the better choice for solos in which harmony and counterpoint, as opposed to sheer technical range and prowess, is the focus.  They're obviously better suited for intimate settings, and they're preferable to pedal harps for accompaniment of voice and duets with certain instruments, such as guitar, lute or recorders.  They are different instruments that are made for different music.

I learned to play pedal harps as a teenager, and before I started playing Gertrude, I absolutely fell into the ignorant mindset that folk harps were dinky little wanna-be versions of "real harps."  I now know that could not be further from the truth.  Although I still miss wrapping my body around a harp that's bigger than me and ripping the hell out of it, I'm having a great time exploring the capabilities of folk harps!

But I think part of the reason I was so ripe for that misconcpetion was that I hadn't been exposed to much really excellent folk harp, whereas I took lessons from a former student of Salzedo's.  Now granted, I still am not really a part of any folk harp "scene," and most of my very limited exposure to folk harps has been through the SCA.  But so many players of folk harps never break out of plinky little chords and arpeggios, never really explore their dynamic range.  Folk harps are cheaper, so the ratio of "beginners" to "advanced players" can be quite a bit larger than with their more expensive and commitment-demanding counterparts.

I think this is why I have a hard time calling myself a "harper" (although I do).  I realize the distinction is this:  harpers play folk harp, harpists play pedal harp.  I have no pedal harp right now, so I'm unambiguously a harper.  But somewhere deep in my prejudiced little psyche, I also associate pedal harps with big, difficult, macho technique, whereas I associate folk harps with pretty, tinkly, simple technique (in fairness, folk harp technique can be very difficult, but big and macho it aint).  Guess which association I like best?

So in an effort to break down this bias, both in my own head and in the bit of the world I can touch, I'm going to continue to try to improve my technique and to write blisteringly hard accompaniment to my songs (I've slacked on that lately, I can do better).  I'll also look into local folk harp "scenes" - there's one here in Madison, but I'll probably have to wait until I move to DC to really have time to dive in.  I'm also going to try to feature examples of really excellent and impressive harpers on my website.  This'll require some research on my part, but I think we'll start with Patrick Ball.  Stay tuned.

February 25, 2010

Bardic Madness is WHEN?????

This weekend???  In two days???  No, it's all good.

Got my class handouts copied.  I recently came into a fistfull of free copy cards, so there will be extras - oh mama, will there be extras.  I'll also post the PDF here after the event.  I'd like to go through and add some footnotes before I post it, but there wasn't going to be time before the class itself.  The class is "Period Songs:  Where to find them, how to write them."  *froths at the mouth*

Got my songs...set.  Mostly.  Alternate lyrics to "Aeron's Song" are done and memorized, and it's practiced up.  Still hoping to rework the chords on "Sunufatarungo" to something more period.  Still hoping to memorize the melody (and perhaps the lyrics as well) to "Oh how I love the Springtime gay."  Ensemble pieces practiced.  Need to practice everything (including walking through my class in my head) a few more times before I feel really good about it.

Now I just need to cook and pack food so's we don't have to eat at restaurants on the way there and back.  Cuz we are broke, broke, broke!

February 20, 2010

The Best of All Possible Loaner-Harps


This is a gothic harp.  Harps like this were the standard in Europe during the late middle ages - around the 14th through 16th centuries.  She has 24 gut strings starting an octave below Gertrude's lowest note, and she has a gorgeously complex tone!  She's quieter than my nylon-strung Gertrude, of course, but not by nearly as much as I'd expected.  Her strings are also, of course, looser than Gertrude's (gut tends to be), which is taking a bit of adjusting to - I can't rip the hell out of her in the loud bits like I did Gertrude.  She has brays, but they're so stiff and difficult to turn on and off, I'm just leaving them all off.

I was offered this by contacts through the school of music - the professor in charge of the Early Music Ensemble set it up for me, and I'm sooooooo glad he did!  Aeron should have a new neck and pillar done for Gertrude in a couple of weeks, but I think I'll keep playing this harp with the Early Music Ensemble for the rest of the semester, and bring Gertrude to events.  She's just that cool, and that period.  And so gorgeous!

D's been working on one much like this in our living room for a while now.  His will be shorter (a good thing - this one is just too large to hold in my lap the way I like to), but the same range (don't ask me how that works - I do languages, not physics).  The joinery will be better, and the brays more usable, thanks in part to having this one to look at.

I'll be at Bardic Madness next weekend, able to play all of my songs on this harp.  Even "Beer is for Girls."  I am pleased and excited!

February 13, 2010

Harp Autopsy

We were sitting there eating dinner in our dining room when from the living room, we hear a sudden "KA-POW," like all of the strings on my harp had broken at once, or like she had fallen off a table onto a tile floor.  This was somewhat bewildering, as she had been resting on her back on the carpet floor.  The picture I posted earlier is what happened - she spontaneously snapped along the neck and pillar and flew apart.

Harps are at their strongest when the grain runs long down a piece, and at their weakest when it runs out across it.  You can see that where the split happened in the pillar was where the pillar starts to curve against the grain of the maple.  In order to counteract this, Aeron builds his necks and pillars out of three layers of wood with the grains crossed, so that a weakness in the grain of one wood is strengthened by another piece - essentially building his own plywood.  Unfortunately, 14 years ago this was only the second harp Aeron had built with this particular design, and he hadn't yet settled on the grain alignment he now uses.

The bad news is this happened two weeks before Bardic Madness.  I am as much an instrumentalist as I am a singer, and I feel very strongly that musical bardic performance is many times better with instrumental accompaniment, when possible - it's more of a complete musical experience.  And I wrote my songs for Gertrude.  I don't think I can bring myself to perform my songs a cappella

The good news is Aeron thinks he can build her a new neck and pillar in time for the event.  And, if that doesn't happen, I've already had one offer from a wonderful woman in my barony to let me use her harp at the event.  So.  Gertrude will rise again.  Like the mother-effing phoenix.  And phoenix or no phoenix, there will be harping at Bardic Madness.  Oh yes.  There will be harping.

RIP Gertrude


February 11, 2010


There are two songs who's melodies I particularly wanted to take a look at - "Lai Non Par" and "Lai Markiol."  So I trot my happy self down to the library to get a copy of Hendrik van der Werf's Extant Troubadour Melodies, the seminal collection of, you guessed it, extant troubadour melodies.  Checked out.  Blast.

Far from daunted, I figured the only other person likely to have it checked out was the professor in charge of the Early Music Ensemble, and that I'd beg it off of him for a few days at rehearsal.  So I get to rehearsal, and before I can even broach the subject, he tells me about this great book he has, and would I like to borrow it.  HELL YES I'D LIKE TO BORROW IT, THANK YOU!!!  I giddily drag it home on the bus (it's rather large), eagerly crack it open, and...not there.  Blast.

Utterly betrayed by van der Werf, I turn to the internet where I find generous fragments of the melodies, which thank you I already have in books and I want THE WHOLE THING!!!  But I do find some helpful footnotes...

To make a long story short, I spent this afternoon tearing through books in three languages (one of which I actually speak) and eventually find one book devoted to both songs, containing transcribed melodies in all their complete, stemless glory.  Deux lais en langue mixte, by Dominique Billy.  Yes, I did a geeky little end-zone dance there in the stacks which may or may not have involved antlers.  No, I do not speak French, so Billy's no doubt brilliant analysis and commentary will be utterly lost on me.  Fortunately, however, dots on a page transcend the petty constraints of national dialect.


February 10, 2010

Aeron's Song

The jewel of the sky has turned to steel. 
As I watch my lover's form recede, I feel 
The wind cut through my hollow body 
          like an empty, longing ache. 
"Come back!" I cry, too late with my appeal. 

Though he'll return to me, I long have known 
His scars have blinded him to why he is my own. 
Can he yet feel my jealous fingers 
          fight the wind to touch his hair, 
And never see how fair my love has grown? 

My scorching lips he feels against his face 
And never understands his beauty fuels their blaze. 
My lover's arms are strong, hands gentle, 
          body lithe and stature high, 
His soul burns from inside his shadowed gaze. 

He's noble as the oak, and still more strong, 
He'll neither flagrantly, nor lying do me wrong, 
But does he know my love is true 
          like love he's never known before? 
I've told him this and more through our years long. 

My love's not for the scarf I often tie. 
To all his word-fame and his laurel, I reply 
I'd love his soul, his hands, his body 
          were he peasant, don or king. 
He feels the love I bring him, but not why. 

Does he fear my love will blow away, 
          not rooted to the ground? 
Does he fear that I'll awaken 
          from some dream in which I'm bound?  

I'd have him look into my eyes 
          and see his grace reflected there. 
I look on Aeron, for he's where my love is found.

Notes:  Written for my husband.  This was my first attempt at composing a piece in a period style - actually, it was my first attempt at composing a piece period.  This here is Song #1.  :-)  I wrote it in the style of a troubadour canso, or love song, taking sylistic cues in particular from the songs of the trobaritz - the female troubadours.  There are some historical glitches - it's iambic, where troubadour poems were syllabic, there's only one melisma in the entire melody.  But overall, I think I achieved my goal.  And it makes Aeron blush.  Heee!  :-)  As you can see in the image, I displayed it transcribed into the square notation used in the troubadour manuscripts.  For the full documentation, download this here PDF.