The Sound Within

© Joseph Jourdain – Josephus Harp Shop – 2019

The "Sound Within" is a personal testimony to the creators of sound and music and what it means to harp designers. It was written in the 1990's for the Folk Harp Journal. This is a revised version. The picture is a laser engraving I did for my wife on a left over Sitka spruce board.

We need to realise that harp stringing can only be evaluated within the elements of harp performance. By that, I mean the music being played, the musician's style, the listener or audience if any, and the place where all that happens. From my experience I have found that these factors are primordial to all other harp characteristics - including harp stringing. To illustrate that point of view I will tell you four personal stories that have dramatically changed my perception of the subject. After, I will try to put into perspective some of the issues they raise in regard to harp designing and stringing evaluation.

1) The Troubadour III

A few years ago the Troubadour III had taken a bit of a beating in the FHJ for its stringing. Lyon and Healy sometimes use heavy monofilament nylon for its middle range, making the sound what it is, and somewhat unpopular with some harp makers and string makers. In these early days I was inclined to agree with their view until a professional harpist gave a concert in a small lobby room of a country hotel. Before the concert I had a chance to talk to her,  and introduced myself as a harp maker and a reader of the FHJ. She was somewhat reserved. She seemed to be new to that business, showing some level of anxiety. I dared to asked her why she played a Troubadour and what she liked about her harp. She replied it was the only harp that she knew that had a "Dark" sound, that she did not like the bright sound of the new California harps, that she liked the tightness of the strings, and that she had a special feel for that harp. I was amazed by the clarity of her answer. It was clear, direct, unambiguous. I thanked her and waited for the concert to start. The theme of her  concert was early music. A small crowd of about 50 people arrived. The hotel manager started a fire in the fire place. All the lights were off. We were all waiting quietly, listening to the fire cracking when she came. She briefly introduced herself and started to play those lovely early music tunes. We were all captured by her playing. It was not loud, but well paced and smooth, and as she said, there was that deep dark sound that suited so well the music and that small room. The concert lasted no more than  40 minutes but it was timeless. The marriage between the instrument,  the musician, the music, the audience and the milieu was perfect. I was stunned!

2) The unfinished, broken harp

One year I went to a music camp in California. A German  harp teacher was the highlight for the harp novices. When I saw his harp I shook my head.  What was he playing?  His harp was unfinished with rough carving on it, some parts were broken and fixed up with wire. He had  wooden sharping levers that  buzzed and that could not hold the tension of the strings. The strings were not  tuned in a diatonic scale and were of an uneven feel. He started his classes with a musical demonstration of his talent. We sat down around him and he played for about 5 or 10 minutes. He said his music had a middle east influence since he had spent something like 5 years in Turkey. His music had a strange scale, was fast, rhythmic, repetitive and somewhat hypnotic. Every aspect of his harp contributed to the music, even the buzzing. It was incredible. He had complete control of the instrument and what he did with it sounded good and was beautiful. I could not believe what I heard because when he let me play his harp it sounded so awful and awkward to me.

3) The young girl

A few years ago I went to what you might call a student concert, where at the end of a harp seminar students show their talents to the public. The concert took place in a small performing theatre, the stage was quite a bit higher than the area where the audience seated, which held about 100 people. One of the performers - the young girl - played a harp that made a strong impression on me. The sound of her harp filled the entire theatre, it was clear without being too bright, and was soft without being too muddy. The top strings and the bass sounded evenly. I remember saying to myself, "I like the sound of this harp". The next day I dropped by the school where the class was in session. As I arrived the teacher had just started a round of improvisation whith students playing their instruments in turn. This gave me a good opportunity to listen to the wide range of harps. I was waiting for the young girl's turn. In an elementary class room the sound of harp playing is quite different from an auditorium, and when the young girl started to play I could not believe how different her harp sounded. It was very loud with almost a clunky sound. I did not like the sound at all. I was very puzzled. I did not know that a harp played by the same person in a different room could undergo such a big change in tonality from my perceived "very good" to "pretty bad".

4) The lady and the Irish harp

Again at a harp workshop, I was approached by the teacher to look at the harp of one of her students, as she was worried that there was something wrong with her harp. So I looked at the harp with the student when everybody was gone. I asked her what the problem was. She told me that her harp was very quiet in comparison to the rest of the class's harps and that the classmates had told her that perhaps she should change the stringing on her harp. The harp was beautiful and made in England with a strong but even tension. The harp was holding the tension very well. I asked her if she liked the sound of her harp. She told me yes. Did she need to have a strong voice on the harp for performance? No, because she mostly played the harp for herself and did not perform in public. So I told her that there was nothing wrong with her harp. The harp was designed to be the way it is, high tension with a small voice, though she might contact the maker and ask him/her if he/she has an alternative stringing for that harp. If she really wanted, I could do a string analysis for the harp and suggest an alternative stringing, but that would require some time and a small fee. I saw her a few days later and told me she was very happy I had had a chance to look at her harp, and that she liked her harp even more now. She was glad to know there was nothing wrong with her harp. It was just different and she liked it that way.

For the past few years I have really thought hard about these experiences, especially in conjunction with the mathematical evaluation of stringbands. I have come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of  "bad" sound. The first one is the sound that the harp makes when it breaks strings and the second is the sound that the strings make when they break the harp. Anything in between is OK if you like it. If you don't then maybe there is something that can be done by re-stringing the harp or even by making minor alterations to the harp itself. However, I believe the quest for the equivalent of the "Stradevarius harp" is purely mythical and illusive, and ought to remain so. The small harp is a very special and magical instrument, partly because there is such variety and it has not yet been defined with a narrow set of conventions and expectations. As the stories I have just told illustrate, the folk harp can have many different characteristics, and each of these characteristics are better suited for specific situations and talents. One is not better than the other but reflects a unique musical expression that is loved by some.

HERE is a video that Marilyn made from 4 differents harps she collected over the years. Two Clark style's  harps, a paraguan harp and a concert pedal harp. All different with unique qualities. Which ones are you most attrated to? Many harpists have more than one harps because of portability, style of music, and traditional aspirations.

Below is my own poetical musical experience after a concert about the historical Irish/Scottish/Welsh harper musical presence in society. Through music, the harper was a mediator for the voice of our inner world. I felt it for a moment.

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