Robert Rauschenberg with White Painting behind him. New York (1953). © Allan Grant, Life Magazine

New music (as in New Music) used to make me want to run and hide.  From my own inability to make any sense of it.  Without some kind of reference to melody I’m unanchored in a sea of sound that only seems to work for listeners who understand the history of music-making and a lot of music theory.  So even though I get why it’s called music in the same way that I get why Robert Rauschenberg’s White Painting is art—I don’t need to listen to it on the radio or hang it on my wall.  The very fact that I still think Modern Art and New Music are modern and new dates me for sure because they’ve long been part of academic creativity at least and I have a number of friends whose lives have shaped or been shaped by them. 

However, for the first time ever I got a glimpse of what is going on in 20th century classical music anyway when I attended the Kyoto Prize Pierre Boulez concert yesterday.  (Caveat- it was Pierre-less due to volcanic ash so the most excellent Stephen Schick stepped in to conduct.)  I went because Sur Incises is written for 3 harps and 3 pianos plus percussion including a marimba.  Ellie Choate, Susan Allen and Phala Tracy were playing the harp parts and I was ready to be dazzled.   Absolutely.  

 Evidently Boulez has used Sur Incises as a teaching tool in the past because there’s a 3 video sequence on you tube (the first one embedded here) that the presentation I just sat through—enrapt—was based on.  He builds the music phrase by phrase and instrument by instrument with explanations for each change so that by the end you understand the composition.  As Boulez was grounded in France, Philippe Manoury stepped in to narrate and did a great job presenting what the composer would have said if he were there.  So by watching the harpists I could both see and hear what was going on in the music in a whole new way.   Such a privilege.  Very uplifting and I’m grateful for the opportunity to creep closer to understanding at my own pace. 

My own pace being more in tune with the clip below which I understand completely.  So in many ways I’m as grateful to the maestro who posted Windows XP error music on one of the harp sites (thank you SV) as I am to Boulez, Manoury and the three world-class harpists who were willing to share their reality on my terms.


Flirting with nature

Mechanical Music Machine- Felix Thorn

Yesterday we discovered that the addition of an M-Audio Fast Track USB interface makes recording the harps directly into my laptop alarmingly simple. It appears that Fast Tracks are marketed primarily to guitarists (basement wizards, patio maestros, etc) but work just fine as entry level audio/MIDI tools for any number of other instruments.  I don’t want to understand how the interface business works because music geekdom is extremely enticing and I can totally see falling down that particular rabbit hole. Yet another procrastination activity… 

So there I am tangled up in guitar cords (borrowed from patient musician husband) playing around with Audacity when the power shimmers off and on, the harps start to shake and I realize that, yet again, CA is flirting with the big one.  Rather than do what you’re supposed to like dive and tuck under something sturdy I stood in the middle of the music room with an arm over each harp watching everything around me sway and slide.  Of course the harps are fully insured (thank you Anderson Group) but nothing would make me sadder than losing them at this stage of the game. 

Sidebar– I’ve been through a couple of temblors (Nicaragua and Costa Rica) as well as 5 fires including one where we evacuated the orthopedic floor of an Ohio hospital (all those traction beds) and another in CA (Witch Creek).  For that one we crammed a 5 foot iguana, 2 turtles, 2 cats and about 30 paintings into a Honda CRV for mandatory evacuation and ended up camping out in my clinic office for a week.  Even though I think we’re pretty good at natural disaster yesterday’s 7.2 quake in Baja was scary.

All in all a very humbling weekend.  Had to hear a recording of myself for the first time fumbling along a well-known song (yikes cubed) and, in the big picture, bumped up against yet another reminder of how fragile we really are perched above the ocean admiring nature from the (illusory) safety of a solid home.  If it’s time to tumble down the hill into the sea clutching harps so be it BUT if that’s the case I sure hope my laptop doesn’t survive.  Do not want my musical legacy to be a fledgling version of First Arabesque played against a click track.

Luddite electronics

No point in blogging my harp student experience without actually posting progress so to that end we installed a pickup on the pedal harp for recording.  This anxiety-inducing endeavor was the product of several days spacing out in front of the computer comparing prices (in other words– not practicing) because once I decided to spend too much I had to find the most discounted “too much” around.  Ended up buying a Schatten Design CH-3 Artistic Celtic and Pedal Harp pickup for 159.95 + 14.00 shipping.   

The manufacturer is located in Canada and the pickup is handmade so it’s actually kind of pretty. Looks like two whirly maple seeds connected by a brass stalk.  I recommend the vendor Blue Star Music in SoCal both for their pricing and niceness.  The fact that they’re located about 20 miles from me has nothing to do with it because they don’t have a store front.  Just really helpful people.  

Figuring out how to attach the pickup wasn’t difficult at all and that’s really saying something because as an unrepentant directional dyslexic anything involving diagrams and printed instructions can get out of hand pretty quick.  As it turns out, a clever 8 year old can managed this installation and would probably do better than my husband and I because small hands move more easily in a soundbox.

The wings of the main element need to straddle the string strip about a third of the way up which isn’t possible on the Aurora because of the bowed shape of the soundboard.   We had to go a little higher.   Supposedly the putty included with the kit is removable so we used it instead of the tape strips which are also included.

The other placement issue was where to put the preamp/battery unit so it would be reachable with an output cord.  The kit comes with a velcro anchor but I was afraid that any kind of force would tear it right off the base.  Nothing more annoying than when velcro mates so fiercely it pulls away from the item it’s meant to be attaching and clings only to itself. 

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Turns out the velcro stickum is totally reliable and there’s  no problem removing the preamp so connecting the output cord is a non-issue.  I can pull the whole thing out of the bottom sound hole, attach/detach the cord or change the battery and velcro it back inside.  No rattle– extremely secure, don’t need to find an 8 year old with tiny hands.   


So I got my first taste of electrified harpifying this afternoon while my husband fiddled with buttons and dials on his old Carvin SX-200 to strange effect.  Can’t say I’m much of a threat to Keith Richards but it was fun to play through an old rock amplifier.  Next step will be to see what an acoustic harp pickup can really do…

Recently Hugo Chavez started a radio show that is introduced by some kind of harp flourish after which he launches into variations on a theme of beneficent cuckoodom.  Accompanying the article is this photograph showing Chavez with a harp that would be an unremarkable piece of self promotion except that the harp is backward.  Which got me to thinking about how not to undermine good intentions by looking like a nutcase unusual harp techniques.  For example Harpo Marx used his 5th finger which no teacher would ever suggest and Michael Cuming from Visions of a Nomad plays his harp backward when he’s also playing harmonica.  Harp and harp, get it?   He wouldn’t be able to wear the harmonica neck brace if the soundbox were against his shoulder as well.  Josh Layne uses his foot across the pedals rocking heel to toe for quick changes which I’ve never seen before.  George Flores has completely remade his relationship to the harp after a motorcycle accident that almost killed him (but not his bad boy spirit).  Diana of Reigning Harps has created a gallery of backward harps in art which reminds me of when I was a kid and tried to draw them.  Somewhere there are lumpy crayoned mermaids holding lutelike harpish objects backwards, forward and sideways bearing my signature.  Immortalized on three-lined paper.  If you’ve seen any unusual harp techniques (self-taught, adaptive or otherwise) please leave a comment.  If you’re a harpist why don’t you post on Gliiss.com where I’ve left the same query.

One of the most fascinating intervals during a  placebo-controlled clinical trial is the days or weeks between baseline (no intervention) and treatment onset because almost everyone improves regardless of which group they’ve been assigned to.  There is something about simply committing to a protocol and believing the pill/activity/program will work that results in measurable change for the better.  And from an outcome point of view does it really matter how you get there if you like the destination?   Sometimes.

Musicians and actors have been using propranolol (beta blocker with a good safety record) to manage performance anxiety for years with reported success.  Although data may be inconclusive (off-label use makes clinical trials an unnecessary expense for big pharma) why not go ahead and take it if you feel better when you do?  For a success story read Carl Swanson’s 2001 Harp Column article about his experience managing stage fright under the supervision of a physician.  We know it works well enough that two Korean shooters were banned from Olympic competition for using propranolol to reduce hand tremors and kill butterflies.

However, Steve Silberman wrote a fun piece for Wired (24-Aug-2009) that offers another way to look how at drugs work.   It’s not that easy for pharmaceutical companies to prove statistical significance in drug studies because of positive placebo response.  So on the one hand you could say a drug is effective because it works 10% more often in people taking the active compound.  However you could equally well argue that only 10% fewer people respond to placebo than the drug.  Hmmmmm.   Makes the risk benefit calculation much trickier than marketing will ever let on.  How much are you willing to spend for a 10% chance over placebo?  And what side effects are you willing to put up with based on those odds?

In the balance it seems as though professional musicians who are debilitated by physical symptoms like shaky cold hands, rapid heartbeat, breathlessness and sweating (but feel confident of their command of the repertoire) do well with beta blockers.  When performance anxiety arises from self-consciousness, shyness or lack of preparation they will be less effective.   Believing that beta blockers work increases the likelihood that they will.   So before you give propranolol a try consider that beta blockers are associated with nuisance issues such as gastro-intestinal problems (try that onstage), diminished or absent sexual performance with regular use and rare deadly events such as bronchospasm and anaphylactic shock.  Someone’s got to be the outlier, right?  Best to take propranolol on a test run when you’re not alone and nothing is at stake before assuming it will provide poise and calm during a performance.


I  played piano for years like a good technician—proficient sure—but lacking soul and texture.  Notes made it onto the keyboard but I couldn’t do anything without printed music to map the way.  Harp has been something of an improvement because, since I don’t have the skill to shift my eyes from strings to page and back at anything other than glacial pace, I’ve had to memorize.  Who’d a thought…  It would be nice to believe that I’m at least doing some of that brain training for an aging mind stuff.  However, this month my new (most excellent) harp teacher says it’s time to detach from the printed page.  I’ve got a dandy book by Susan Raimond called Making Music for Folk Harp that comes with a CD option for play along.  In the first few pages she shows you a number of standard left hand patterns and then follows that with super simple melodies to work with.  The only downside to super simple is that I’ve already played a number of the pieces with complete sheet music so it’s a little odd to try and un-remember what I know.  The CD ensures that you get it sound wise and provides something to play with so you don’t go nuts running melodies through your head because you can’t (would rather be caught dead than) sing aloud.  Even though it’s wierd to be playing from beginner books again  it’s clearly a necessity because without all those (comforting) extra notes I’m forced to come up with something, anything, to fill in the empty spaces.  (And yes I know that it’s the space between the notes that makes music etc etc.)  What’s craziest of all is that there’s no one listening to me– no cackling audience shaming me into submission– nothing that should be as inhibiting as it feels.

Photograph by Jesse Chehak


 The first time I heard Joanna Newsom was a real double take moment.  As in WTF?  That lasted about 3 minutes ( which would be the length of a more conventional song but hers go on and on giving you plenty of time to change your first impression).  Before the full 12 minutes had passed I was enchanted.  Completely seduced  by a singer-songwriter who doesn’t sound anything like what you expect to hear from a harpist.  Unless you’ve also been listening to Deborah Henson-ConantPark Stickney,  Edmar Castenada, and any number of other innovators who defy stereotype and happen to send me soaring.   Of course I don’t know where we all got the idea that harpists only belong in churches, weddings and orchestras but it sticks.  All you have to do is hear someone’s story about the bride who only wants a fancy gold harp (or a pretty female harpist with wavy butt length hair) to get a feel for the look and matching sound.  In a NYTimes article called The Changling, Jody Rosen (music critic for Slate) writes that Joanna Newsom has  “virilized the harp, bringing a funky pulse to a dowdy drawing-room instrument” which seems like a bit of a stretch.  However I’ve totally caved to the Joanna Newsom neo Pre-Raphaelite  thing and can’t get her songs out of my head.  And that’s what it’s all about right?

Strings Attached

When my almost husband asked me whether I wanted a ring or a harp there was only one answer… both!  With heavy emphasis on the harp part.  After all, everyone knows that a harp is just a naked piano, right?  Nope.  After playing the same measure eleventy times I can say with certainty that keyboarding is easier for this wannabe tunesmith.  So yes, we’re married now and the ring is elegant… and no the harpifying is not.  He forgives me for endless (aimless) practice and I forgive him for being such a splendid guitarist.  I imagine it must be a little like teaching someone you know how to drive only it’s music theory and my learners permit expired long ago. Fortunately for my husband I may not be able to parallel park  but I can read music and I ‘m a willing student.  Clearly we’re in for it! A lifetime of dueling strings… For better or worse.