The harp is one of the oldest instruments in the world, journeying extensively from Middle Eastern origins as well as developing indigenously in many cultures due to its connection to the bow and arrow and other everyday objects. As such, there are many variations of harp, starting with the extremely simple design of a small bow harp to the complex concert pedal harp weighing in at up to 90lbs./40kg. Therefore we find many approaches to harp composition, influenced by the actual harp design itself, materials used (different types of wood, strings, sharpening devices, and so on all affect the physical possibilities as well as timbres), the culture the harp finds itself in, and the role the harp is playing at that particular moment. The high status and profound symbolism attached to harps and harpists in the past and throughout cultures has left us with many stories and images regarding this instrument, which have been crucial in reconstructing both lost music and extinct harps.
Unlike the piano, the harp continues to change quite significantly as it is increasingly asked to meet the demands of many different musical genres; in this paper we noted the development of sliders to accommodate microtones, extra long strings over a bridge to facilitate string bending, and experimentation with new materials such as carbon, to name just a few innovations. We also saw the reconstruction of ancient harps such as the konghou (angular harp) is order to revive long-last timbres. Finally, we saw the creation of hybrid harps such as the modern ceng, which takes cues from the classical Ottoman Turkish harp and combines this instrument with Chinese guzheng and Arabic kanun elements, or the modern Chinese konghou, a hybrid of pedal harp and guzheng.
These innovations are addressing several major reasons why the harp declined in popularity from its previous high status throughout many cultures and eras: unable to easily handle modulation, whether it be regarding equal temperament chromatic music or shifting between microtonal maqamat, the harp was seen as inflexible, and the materials used to create harps unreliable. These innovations now make it easy for harps to navigate these musical demands.
Deductions regarding contemporary composition for harp
As Western classical music came to worldwide prominence (for reasons ranging from artistic to political to geographical), other types of harp started to fade from the spotlight, and certain conventions in harp composition started solidifying. While many of these techniques are indeed beautiful on the harp, as we have noted they are quite influenced by Western keyboard technique and notation, both of which to cannot exploit the full potential of the harp. Further, the mistaken relegation of much harp music to the “folk” realm has led composers and artists to not take the devices therein seriously. Lastly, until the emergence of the French pedal harp school founded by Hasselmans in the 19th century, the Western harp was increasingly finding itself confined to a private, feminine salon realm, decreasing its scope on all levels.
As a result, we have overlooked a great treasure trove of world harp techniques that are extremely effective on lever and pedal harp composition today. Revisiting the music of harps worldwide and throughout history - classical lyres and the wide array of African harps, Middle Eastern angular harps and their offshoots such as the kanun (this trend reflected in Indian music with its ancient vina morphing into the main instruments of Indian music today such as the sitar), Asian harps such as the unbroken ancient tradition of Burmese harp, the ever-popular guzheng and innovations such as the modern konghou, Latin American harps (an interesting example of a foreign (Spanish) instrument being fully absorbed into a culture and melded with its own characteristics), to historical and so-called folk European harps of so many shapes and sizes - offers tremendous inspiration in the following categories:
- Physical techniques and gestures: alternative fingering, alternative hand positions, finger stances, attention to articulation and timbre via varying use of fingernails and finger pads, attention to the different qualities of each finger, greatly varied harp holding and body positioning postures, blocking and strumming techniques, bending the actual instrument body to create pitch variations, string bending by pushing on the string (or several strings) to vary pitch, kinetic playing which concentrates on profile and physical sensation rather than exact melodic repetition of songs, various physical approaches to harmonics (such as those similar to guitar technique, or via blocking multiple strings and executing multiple harmonics, as with Latin American harp), glissandi and tremolos, employment of pitchless techniques such as blocking all strings and strumming
- Alternative Scales / Modes / Maqamat / Ragas, plus their various characteristic contours, microtonal variations, modulation conventions, achievement of chromatics via string stopping and cross-tuning (scordatura), non-linear tuning such as with the krar and begena
- Alternative Temperaments such as just intonation, Pythagorean, European options such as mean tone, Burmese temperaments, and other conventions such as de-tuning strings
- Rhythms and Cycles: polyrhythms, development of groove, arrhythmic approaches, syncopation, highly classified rhythms, rhythmic cycles, great attention to varied dampening techniques as a facilitator of implied rhythm
- Ornamentation and Phrasing: characteristic variations of ornament, developed genres such as pibroch ornamentation, phrasing shapes counter to standard conventions, ornamentation affecting phrase contour
- Textures: monophonic, heterophonic, polyphonic; linear as opposed to a vertical or homophonic orientation
- Forms, such as the many variations we find in Middle Eastern and Indian music, improvisation a highly developed concept
- Role: solo, ensemble, featured, background, sacred, secular, folk, art, indoor, outdoor, ancient, modern
- High level concepts: spiritual, programmatic, improvisational (attention to lack of control, non-linear thinking, kinetic)
- Accessories: sharpening rings/devices, batons, hammers, plectra, buzzing devices, etc.
- Employing other materials such as carbon body harps & different string substances, electronification of harps