Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

Hi everyone,

I’m writing a paper for a musicology class on the state of the harp in ITM. (The thing with strings, that is…and levers. Not a big classical harp, either.)

What I want from you guys is your gut reaction to the phrase “harp playing dance tunes,” whether positive or negative. I especially want to know to what extent you think the harp is capable of recreating the essential stylistic characteristics that are *required* of other instruments (as discussed in the “Do you have to be Irish?” thread….you know, lilt, nyaah, etc.) Does the harp have a place in the modern ITM scene? Should the harp even be required to be able to imitate the stylistic effects that are natural on traditional instruments, even if it can? If you have any specific observations, that helps; if you have any kind of opinion at all, that helps too.
Thanks everyone!

(I always feel like I’m getting away with something when I manage to find a way to write one of my required papers on Irish music)

Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

Without getting analytical (you said a gut reaction) mine would be emphatically positive. For example listen to the playing of Michael Rooney or even some of the younger harpists such as Lindsay Moynagh from Dublin or Michelle Mulcahy from Abbeyfeale and I think you’ll agree with me.

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Yes, the harp has a place in traditional Irish music. Can it capture the lilt, and the essential characteristics of the music? My gosh, just listen to the Cd’s of Maire Ni Chathasaigh, Grainne Hambly, and her teache rJanet Harbison, (check out her school in Limerick--there’s a website, don’t have it off hand.) I play the dance tunes in sessions on the harp. Melody not back up--though there’s nothing wrong with that either. I can’t think of anything else to say right now, but hopefully Morganna and Mark will pipe up--er I should say harp up--with their opinions, too!

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Oh yes, Michael Rooney too--also was a student of Janet Harbison and a great player! Thanks Bannerman.

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Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

“gut” reaction--ha ha! my strings are made of nylon! 🙂

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Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

Beth Leachman plays with us sometimes (when she’s not on tour or whatever), and we always enjoy having her. She largely plays backup, not melody. The punters love it -- or maybe it’s the attractive Miss Beth and the lovely songs she gives us that they love, who knows -- but there’s always more money in the tip jar and more compliments on the nights she plays with us…

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Weren’t the harp strings made of brass wire in the old days?
Trevor

Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

Definitely a place in ITM. I wouldn’t put the stress on *dance* tunes, though. Harp music has always a very soothing and relaxing influence on me (and on many other people I know as well). I enjoyed an all-harp concert by Grainne Hambly tremendously, but at the same time had to fight with not sliding off my chair, that’s how relaxed I was! And after every set, it seemed that the whole audience had some trouble to come out of the trance the beautiful music had put them in to applaud this great harp player. 😉

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Wow guys!
7 responses already, no bashing yet! I have to say I anticipated some comments along the lines of “well, it’s very nice, but it just isn’t Irish…”
And yes Trevor, the strings were made of brass in the old days. I didn’t even realize the pun on gut…I don’t think gut sounds very good for dance tunes. The new light-gauge gut is ok, though…

Now I have another question. Most of the harp players mentioned above have very, very different styles--even Grainne Hambly and Michael Rooney, who both studied with Janet Harbison. Grainne and Michael both play other traditional instruments--both play concertina and Michael also plays flute (if memory serves), Michelle plays a whole slew of things like box, concertina, melodeon, and piano and Maire ni Chathasaigh played whistle, pipes, and classical piano (not sure if she ever did Irish piano.) As listeners, do you find that there is any difference in how close these players come to replicating the effects of other instruments? I am not asking which is objectively better, but if anyone wants to give a personal opinion on what they enjoy most or what sounds most “traditional” that would help also. And if anyone wants to get analytical now that I know the general gut reaction is overwhelmingly positive, please feel free!!
Thanks again~

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I don’t know the first thing about harps, except that it is brewed in Dundalk. However, I heard Helen Lyons play harp at a cracking after-hours session at Gaelic Roots, & I absolutely fell in love with the harp playing dance tunes in an ensemble situation.

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Lots of great harp players. On the Scotttish scene, we have Sileas, Savourna Stevenson, Phamie Gow to name but a few--not laid back and twee at all. Very lively for dancing etc

Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

Some of the differences I hear in the style of say Grainne Hambly and someone else would be in the left hand especially. Oh, the left hand is what plays the bass or accompainment for those not harp savvy. Grainne is great for lots of synchopation, walking bass lines, little bits of harmony here and there. Is that traditional? Probably about as traditional as guitar back up. And no one can say the harp isn’t Irish! What do you think those faeries have been dancing to for eons? Harps, of course!

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Oh yeah John--those two ladies in Sileas rock!

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Ostritchfeathers--When you say “replicating the effect of other instruments”, what do you mean? Does a fiddle try to replicate the effects of other instruments? I will now answer my own question. Yes in the instance of say a bowed triplet where it is replicating the sound of the pipes. But a fiddle also just is a fiddle and sounds like itself and does not try to replicate the effects of any other instrument.

Same with the harp. It can do a treble for example--striking the same string 3 times with fingers 4,3,2--usually. That imitates the effect of the pipes or a fiddle imitating the pipes when it’s doing a bowed triplet. But, just like the fiddle, the harp has its own sound by right, and does not need to imitate effects of any other instrument. It just needs to stay within the idiom of traditional Irish music (Ha! I may be getting a bit out of my element here!).

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I meant to quote Ostritchfeathers as saying “replicating the effects” not effect. It changes the meaning of the sentence somewhat. I am very talkative tonight aren’t I?

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Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

Hi Andee,

What I actually meant probably was more along the lines of “effect,” actually, whiich does include specific “effects.” I think that the difference with the harp as opposed to other traditional instruments is that it wasn’t part of the living tradition until 20-30 years ago, whereas the traditional style and repertoire developed around instruments like the pipes and fiddle for the last two hundred or so years. So we harpists have to figure out how we fit into this, being relative newcomers…for example slurring is very important on the fiddle to create the subtleties of rhythm that we all think of as typically Irish, and while there are many regional and individual variations on this sort of thing, a fiddler who doesn’t have any reference to this at all (i.e., the classical violinist who has not got very far with listening to traditional music and learning from it, and probably doesn’t really see the need to) will be derided by all and sundry. The whole existence of the “you don’t have to be Irish” thread implies that playing in a “correct” traditional style (or not) is a big deal for other instruments. In the case of the harp, there are players that try to imitate things like the rhythm and accenting of other instruments, and there are players who don’t --at this point it is not in the same situation as the violin. There is fairly wide acceptance, even in Ireland and in the fleadhs, of an effect that would not be much from a classical harpist sitting down and reading an arrangement out of Grainne’s or Maire’s out of their books, although actually using a published arrangement in competition is frowned upon, especially in the older age categories. Adjudicators and professional performers seem to differ very widely in what they think about this issue, and what constitutes “staying within the idiom of traditional Irish music.” Because there is no single universally accepted approach accepted approach I wanted to gather and compare opinions of both harpists and non-harpist Irish musicians, exploring the issue on both sides. (It gets even stickier when you realize that the standard Comhaltas adjudication sheet used for all instrumetnts allots 50 out of 100 points for traditional style and only 20 or 30 for technical facility.)

Sorry for the long post…I should have explained this better before…Thanks again to everyone who reads and takes the time to answer this thread!!

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I don’t know Ostritchfeathers, this may be a little over my head.

But do know that you can imitate (and I guess I don’t like that word because it connotes something not genuine, fake, false) the hythm and accent of "the music*. All you need to do is listen a lot, just like with any other instrument. And like you said, sitting down and reading the arrangements of Grainne or Maire is just the same exact thing as sitting down and reading the arrangements of any famous fiddler. No you won’t get the lilt, rhythm or timing right if you haven’t been exposed to the music. A fiddle slur in and of itself won’t give you the lilt if you don’t know what it’s supposed to sound like. Will and I were just talking about this on a recent thread. (help me out Will !!) So there isn’t much reason to imitate a slur on the harp since you can’t do it anyway. I guess you could imitate the resulting lilt of the slur, but any other instrument can as well. I assume, we as harpists don’t have to prove anything since it *has* been part of the living tradition for 20 or 30 years now and the very fact that you can compete in the Comhaltas fleadh shows that.

Maybe I just don’t see the need to intellectualize it so much.

Re slurs and the like: My fiddle teacher (who is also my harp teacher, and she may be a good one to talk to but she doesn’t participate on this site--doesn’t have the time) says all the time,

"You can slurthere OR single bow it. It doesn’t matter. Slurring may be easier, it’ll give you a smoother sound. Single bowing may be more difficult, it’ll give you more of a Donegal sound. It all works, so long as you *know what it’s supposed to sound like.*

Ostritch, please feel free to beat it into my head if I’m still not getting what you mean…..

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Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

Have you considered taking a look at the Welsh harping tradition, which is the only unbroken harping tradition of the british isles? Perhaps some comparison can be draw with the Irish Tradition.

Playing in sessions - definitely. Lever harp was my main instrument for nearly 10 years, and playing in sessions can be a lot of fun, as both a melody and an accompaning instrument.

Whilst a lot of harpers and harpists do tend to learn towards airs and the slower tunes (because played well they sound so fantastic) there are also a lot of harp players out there playing the dance tunes, and playing them damn well 🙂

I second the mention above of Michael Rooney; I was fortunate enough to have a lesson with him many moons ago when he was out in Oz, and he can sure play a wicked dance tune 🙂

Imitating other instruments - well the very nature of plucked strings does make it hard to slur etc (although this is not impossible), given that the harp has a very distinct style of it’s own, I’m not sure why you would want to imitate other instruments.

(Side note: Although dealing with the Scots Harping tradition, I would definitely recommend “Harp of Strings” by Alison Kinnaird, which is a wealth of information in to the history of the harp).

Just a few random neurons firing,
Morgana

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Just so you know my background, Ostritch, in case it matters; I have no classical training on the harp. I came to it as a harp virgin. I learn by ear. I took a workshop with Janet Harbison in Ireland 5 years ago and realized her technique for teaching is the exact same as my teacher’s. I can read music, but I can’t read and play at the same time and would never want to either. So I never once questioned the authenticity of using the small harp in playing the dance tunes. The end result is the most important. The sound. The way a good traditional harper (as Grainne prefers the term over harpist) will make you want to dance. That’s what matters most.

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I so wish I could follow this discussion all day, but I’ve got to go to work now, so I’ll get back to you all tonite. Very rarely if at all does such a harp intensive discussion come up and I hate to be missing out…but alas, discuss away folks, and I’ll rejoin you all later…..

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Getting back to the question of whether the harp/clarsach etc can replicate or imitate other instruments-- Yes, there are tricks and techniques you can employ but it’s still a harp------just as you’ve seen dogs on variety show which can supposedly sing, they still sound like dogs. 🙂)
It’s place in Irish/Scottish music is still very valid, nonetheless. The harp, that is--not the singing dog 🙂)

I’ve learned techniques on the mandolin (from Simon Mayor workshops and listening to recordings) which are supposed to emulate the Highland bagpipes with droning effects. It’s all very nice to listen to but it’s not the real thing and the subtleties get lost in a big session, anyway. Some fiddlers are very good at pipey effects too e.g. Derek Hoy from Jock Tamson’s Bairns for one but it’s still a fiddle at the end of the day.

Personally, I think it’s good to try out different techniques and effects to emulate other instruments and styles of music. However, I wouldn’t argue that it was necessary or essential. Moreover, it’s probably more effective in solo performances or small groupings than in a big session.

John

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I’ll offer a dissenting position 🙂. We had a pretty driving session in Perth a few years ago and this lovely girl from Stab City (ahem) came in a few times with her harp. She is young, pretty, and a wonderful person. She has the voice of an angel and is an excellent harpist. Listening to her play and sing was a treat. But when we returned to jigs&reels while she could keep up with one hand tied behind her back, the effect of the harp was like a warm blanket: the comforting, soothing sound clashed with the energetic feel the rest of us produced.

This is a matter of taste obviously; for the most part the harp is certainly capable of playing tunes… I just think it has a feel to it that doesn’t blend exactly right; like adding a pipe organ or a didgeridoo. Some people might like the unusual mix; I think it detracts from the energy.

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Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

I had a nice wee session in Ullapool a few months back with that harpist lass from Cliar, the only time I’ve played with a harp/clarsach AFAIR. No problem with the harp as such… the only difficulty was that the sound really doesn’t cut through the people gabbing over their pints at the bar.

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Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

I find myself agreeing with Glenn. When the harpist joins a session, and is able to keep the melody going with one hand and chords with the other, it sounds great. There are several harpists that join sessions here that come in and “vamp” chords and basically end up drowning out whoever sits next to him. I also agree with the idea of the clashing with the overall feel of the pulse of the music, at least in the lively sessions I have been to. The exceptions that play right along with the session are much rarer than the vampers here.

Harp music in an ensemble or solo is great to hear though, so I am not against harps per se.

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HI all,

I too agree with Glenn and Frances - as a harp player it’s quite a difficult thing to contribute to a session without it sounding all a bit like a warm blanket, sapping away the raw energy.

In terms of solo harp, the Welsh tradition is one of accompanying dancing, and I think the harp can sound great particular if it’s emphasising the beats which can “lift” the dancers’ feet off the floor. Robin Huw Bowen can do this really well.

In ITM sessions? Don’t know really - as a harpist I’m still struggling with what really improves the mix. Sometimes high open 5ths sound nice on the off-beats - I think it’s important that it adds to the energy rather than taking it away. I think high counter-melodies can be really great or even stuff which is at say half the speed of the melody. The harp can do great harmonies but it’s a matter of not over-complicating them as this doesn’t sound right. Of course the harp can sound great on quiet, slow stuff - just needs sensitivity like any other instrumentalist!!

It’s different in our band as that’s more of a planned performance than a “session” so of course all the instruments weave round each other and we (sort of!) plan what works well and stick with it.

Mark

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Hi again,

This is all really helpful to me! By the way, you could compete in the Comhaltas competitions long before harps were playing dance music, and not in the miscellaneous category either. They used to just play airs, or Carolan, or Thomas Moore melodies, or marches, etc. Now, you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere in those competitions doing that…it’s all dance music. Harps aren’t even required to play airs, and the judges often say they wish more young harpers would take an interest in playing airs…

A quick word about the comments that the sound of the harp takes away the “drive”--I agree that that’s a huge challenge for us as harpists. I’ve read an interview with Maire ni Chathasaigh where she explains that it was only when she heard a nylon harp did she really think she could make dance music work. It does seem to depend a lot on the sound of a particular harp, as well as how it is played. And in the case of accompaniment, the rhythm is all-important--to keep the rhythmic drive some way, the way a guitar or bouzouki would, and being heard without drowning everyone else out--yes, it’s a very difficult, but I think it’s possible.

Anyway, as I’m getting my topic more straight in my own head, here goes another angle:

There is a phenomenon among harpists in fleadhanna related to reel playing in the last couple years since it has become not just popular but expected. First of all the reels are played with no swing at all. Secondly, the primary way harp players try to recreate the “danceable” rhythmic effects is through altering the loudness or softness of notes and the duration of notes--the people who play “straight” also tend to play with even tone and volume on every note, and every eighth note is the same exact duration as every other one. Some people play everything very loud, others very soft, but all one volume, anyway. Some harpists say they prefer this because you can play faster without the swing, Essentially this type of player, especially the loud type, sounds as if they could be a classical player reading out of a book, which is the type of sound that would never go over in a fiddle competition or gain acceptance among fiddlers. But judging from some competition results, this style is on the verge of being accepted as one of a few “legitimate” harp styles. I’ve watched fiddle competitions where a very clean, polished, obviously strongly classically-influenced player was placed behind a player who had much less technical ability on the instrument and a less-than confident performance but definitely showed more knowledge of the Irish style, which is actually going right by the rules in the adjudicator’s manual ( and the scoresheet--50% of marks being for style, 20-30 for technique). And I’ve seen harp competitions where with different judges, it has gone either way--even in Ireland.

(In the US it is especially difficult to find good harp judges, since there are so few harp players that really know anything about Irish music, and those that do amost always have students competing. Often classical harpists who have a marginal interest in “folk music” end up judging. There has been some discussion about getting a non-harpist Irish musician to judge, to make sure it’s about the style, which happened at the Midwest Fleadh last time. Interestingly, he and Grainne (who judged at the All-Ireland) did a recall of the same two players for first place in the two separate competitions, so not being a harpist didn’t seem to hurt.

In Ireland, there seems to be a variety of different viewpoints on the subject of traditional style among adjudicators, depending on their taste, background, and to some extent age, since the whole dance tunes thing hasn’t really been around for that long and has been required and widespread for even less time. Grainne and Michael are probably among the first generation (or at least one of the first) that really grew up playing dance tunes, and I think they’re both still under 30.
I guess all this is to say that as strange at it may sound to non-harp Irish musicians, and even some harp players, there is this phenomenon out there, and I’m still interested to know if anyone has observed it at fleadhanna, sessions, on recordings, etc.

Geez, I can’t seem to keep this stuff short, can I? I can’t wait till the semester is over…

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Ostritchfeathers, interesting comment about the playing of reels straight as opposed to with swing. And also the loud-soft thing. I know what you mean. But still I’d like to hear the difference in 2 different harpers to really see what you mean. Would you say Grainne plays reels with swing or not?

As far as the sound of the harp throwing a wet blanket on a session because it tends to sound relaxing even when playing fast tunes-- I don’t know if I agree. It definitely can’t rock out the way a fiddle can that’s for sure, but mostly I think it tends to just get drowned out at a mid to large size session.

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Re: Opinions wanted: the harp in ITM

Hey Andee,

Let’s see, I wasn’t planning on naming names here because I am trying hard to keep the discussion free of value judgements or anything that could be construed as such about specific people regardless of my own opinions…But I definitely understand why an example would be helpful!! Maybe we could email privately to get into more detail on this?

In answer to your question, I think Grainne has done it both ways, and her playing may have changed since the first recording I have of her, from the Comhaltas tour in 1996. I think her version of the Glass of Beer was pretty straight; and the Bucks was also, which is the set she plays on that tape. On Between the Showers, though, she opens with a very swingy set of reels, the Crib of Perches and that other one in G…what the heck’s it called…oh well. But she also recorded the Bucks and Glass of Beer on Between the Showers. I think it sounded pretty much like the first time around, but I also recall reading or hearing that the same tracks were used from the older recording…but I have NO idea if that is actually true.

As for whether the harp can rock like a fiddle…I never really believed it could, and then I heard it done. I literally got chills. I think whether it’s a really kickass tune helps, too…I’m working on a bunch of Lunasa tunes now that have that potential, but when the semester’s over then we’ll really see if it’ll work.

Well, feel free to email me to talk more harp! Looks like maybe we’re the only ones still going on this, anyway!

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I know this might be a bit off-topic, but have you ever heard the playing of some colombian or paraguayan harp players? I’ve had the great fun of hearing people like Kike Pederson (who has also tried one of my Carolan arrangements out - I’ve yet to hear what he’s done with it!!) and Diego Laverde, who came to the UK for the first time ever in August and taught us a little about Colombian rhythms, especially when accompanied by the quatro (small guitar). If anyone doubts that the harp can be rhythmic they should hear some of this stuff - you just wouldn’t believe how simple and yet how totally compulsively toe-tapping this stuff is. Some of the cross-rhythms with quatro and harp have to be heard to be believed, and even then it’s difficult to unpick it. And then there are the fast Ecuadorian rhythms in 8-time with emphasis on beats 1, 4 and 7… there’s lots more. I’ve just got a book which has been brought back by a paraguayan friend and haven’t even started on it yet so I bet this is just the surface.

I also agree different harps have different characters, and interestingly the paraguayan harp is nylon-strung. My paraguayan harp is 6ft tall, nylon-strung and you can lift it with your little finger. The instrument has amazing power, sparkle and an almost visceral bass - quite a feat! There’s a lot of similarity too between some of the Venezuelan tunes and the modes of Welsh tunes like “David y Carreg Wen” (I think that’s the right spelling).

The wire-strung harp I have is different again, and can be great in a session. It really sparkles and adds greatly to the mix.

I’m thinking that just doubling a melody is a real characteristic of ITM session music but I don’t think the harp sounds right doubling a melody - to the point where if someone joins in on a melody instrument I’ll switch to a countermelody. Solo harp tunes can sound great but they need a real lift - although I love my gut-strung harp I do think maybe Nylon / carbon (Camaz Aziliz for example) / wire strung harps are better at this.

Mark

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Ok, Ostritchfeathers no more naming names, I see what you mean, but truly I have only great things to say about all of the harpers I mentioned! 🙂

I just may e-mail you to discuss stuff further!

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