March 02, 2010

Awesome Harpers Part 1: Patrick Ball

Patrick Ball is a Celtic harper and storyteller from California.  Inspired by the harpers and storytellers of Ireland and the oral tradition of the Appalachian region, Ball tours and records instrumental and spoken-word performances that highlight in particular the music and oral history of Ireland.

I consider him an excellent example of what one can do with a folk harp - specifically a wire strung Celtic harp, which differs significantly from gut or nylon strung harps in a number of ways.  Wire strung harps, or "clarsachs," are and have historically been played with sharpened fingernails, rather than the pads of the fingers (this feels like nails on a chalkboard to me, which is why I prefer to play on gut or nylon, though I admire the music and skill of wire-harpers).  Related to this, the strings are closer together than on a gut/nylon harp.  Because wire strings ring much longer than gut or nylon strings, the technique involves dampening the strings with the fingers as you play.  Otherwise, the sound is muddy and the notes hard to discern - like playing the piano with the sustain pedal on the whole time.  Ball has really mastered this, and plays delightfully intricate music on his harp.

His website includes sound links to previews of the music on each of his nine CDs.  His work is inspired by the Celtic bards, who also inspire many in the SCA, and about whose music we know sadly little.  His music focuses on post-period figures such as Turlough O'Carolan and skillfully performed "traditional" Irish music.

From an SCA standpoint, Patrick Ball's material, and indeed his instrument, are decidedly post-period.  Although clarsachs were consistently larger than their gut-strung, continental counterparts, they did not reach the size of Ball's instrument until well after period and were played against the left shoulder, rather than the right (we can tell from the wear patterns on extant harps - how cool is that?).  The techniques of dampening and playing with fingernails is, as far as we can tell, accurate as far back as wire strung harps go - which is to say at least as far back as 1185 CE.*  But regardless of period focus, any harper should be inspired by the skill and dexterity with which Ball plays his instrument.  He is an example of the level of skill I'd like to achieve on my harps, and anyone interested in mingling music with storytelling will find a good example in his spoken word repertoire.  

*The Norman ecclesiastic Gerald de Barri describes "bronze strings" on harps in Scotland and Wales after a visit in 1185, which means they were around long enough before then for harpers to develop a thriving tradition and a good deal of technical skill.  Kinnarid, Alison and Sanger, Keith.  Tree of Strings.  Kinmore Music:  Shillinghill, Scotland, 1992.  p 85.

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