Harp in the Digital Age
Even though harp is one of the oldest instruments, we play these lovely stringed wonders in an age of cut and paste music in which synthesized sounds are manipulated, melodies are “looped,” and patches are sampled beyond recognition. How does the harp fit into this new, fast-paced world of digitized reality? Are we doomed to go the way of the buggy whip?
I embrace all things digital. I am never far from my cell phone, digital pocket camera, PDA, and iPod Shuffle. I spend at least 2-3 hours each day in front of my computer. And yet I play the ancient harp. Does this make me somehow split-brained, half of my cerebral cortex running on one’s and zero’s, and the other half stuck somewhere in the middle of the 19th century? I am lucky enough to coexist in both realms, and I think that each complements the other.
In a broad sense, the digital age has allowed lovers of the harp and its music to aggregate. We find each other much more easily now than we did B.I. (Before Internet). There are professional organizations, bulletin boards, web pages, and email connecting kindred spirits. The internet has made it easier to form a tight community of harp aficionados who share the same passion, but live in disparate parts of the world.
As a composer, there are huge advantages to working with computers. My software notation program allows me to create musical compositions that are essentially digital files. Notation software is similar to word processing software, only instead of creating a letter or a report, it creates sheet music. These notation programs are brilliant, having built in the proper rules, language and symbols needed to create digital sheet music particular to various instruments, including the harp.
As I begin notating a composition, I position the harp in front of me. On my left side is a computer attached to a musical keyboard. I play a few measures of the piece on the harp, then I turn to my left and enter the notes into my software program. I go back and forth between the harp and the computer, fine-tuning the notation, experimenting with rhythms to see how best to present the music on paper, or in this case, on screen.
I can play back the “sheet music” on the computer’s sound system. If I don’t like what I see (or hear), editing is quick and painless. Transposing can be done in virtually one keystroke. Today’s notation software is so sophisticated that I can add expressive markings and the computer will play back with the incorporated dynamics I have entered. When appropriate, I enter the fingerings . By having the computer and harp close to one another, I can experiment with different fingerings to see what feels and sounds the best. Of course, when the computer plays back the piece, the sound is the same regardless of the fingerings I choose, but we know in the non-digital real world, fingerings can make a huge difference in the way harp music sounds.
When the piece is fully notated, I then email the file to several people for their review. They play through the music to see what might be inaccurate or unclear. This is an iterative process as I fine-tune the notation. Editing is quick and efficient. It would take me substantially longer to do all of this using paper and pencil. When ready, the file is sent to my publisher, where the piece is reviewed and edited again to ensure that the final product is clear and professional. When the piece is published, there is no need to recreate the sheet music in some other form. It is printed directly from the computer file because the publisher and I use the same notation software. Everything remains digital until the final printing of the music. I even use a computer to design the sheet music cover, which is also emailed to the publisher. The publisher uses the power of the internet to promote and display my music, and even gives potential buyers a chance to hear a digital audio file of the piece before they buy it.
I don’t think computer programs make anyone a better composer, but a lot of the “grunt work” involved in writing, erasing, and general tweaking has been greatly reduced. Composers do need to be careful not to depend too much on their computers, because there is no substitute for music played by a real harpist on a real harp. We have all heard music cut, pasted and looped one too many times. We need to be sure that the tools of the trade don’t start dictating what will be created, at least not when it comes to notating harp music. One harpist told me that when she tried playing a newly composed piece and had difficulty, the composer told her “Well, the computer played it perfectly.” We need to realize that humans play harps, not computers, and what works digitally may not work in our real, very analog world.
As I mentioned in my last column, no matter how carefully I notate a piece, the interpretation is ultimately in the hands of the performer. A live performance of a work is the most exciting moment for the composer, and no computer could simulate the exquisite sounds of a real harp. Besides, part of the pleasure of the harp is watching it being played. No one would want to miss the visual image of a sinuous harp leaning against its player, vertical strings intermingled with the horizontal hands of the harpist performing a piece. No digital interface needed here.
I continue, happily split-brained, wallowing in the best of the old and new worlds. The buggy whips may be gone, but there will always be a place for our elegant, ethereal instruments. I will continue carrying my digital paraphernalia, typing away at my computer, and playing my beautiful, non-digital harp whose soul will be never be captured on any desktop computer.
by Meg Robinson
Published by the Folk Harp Journal