Making the ancient modern

Photo by Linda Robertson.
Photo by Linda Robertson.
The harp may be an ancient instrument, but in its various forms it has kept up with the play. Charmian Smith talks to Helen Webby about "New Music for Ancient Harps."

A year-long project for harpist Helen Webby culminates in her concert, "New Music for Ancient Harps" and the launch of her CD Pluck during the Otago Festival of the Arts.

Principal harp with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, she commissioned nine New Zealand composers to write short pieces for her. The pieces have been recorded at the University of Otago's Albany St Studio and the CD will be launched at the premiere of the works in her concert on October 9 in the "St Paul's at One" series.

The idea came to her after the Christchurch earthquake when she was staying in Dunedin with her partner, she says.

"I knew I had the possibility of recording something at the Albany studio and the recording engineer John Egenes suggested we apply to Creative New Zealand for funding to commission some composers."

She asked nine composers to compose something short for one of her harps, which range from large concert pedal harps to Celtic harps and small medieval harps. She was delighted with the spectrum of styles and moods in the resulting works.

Most were written for the pedal harp,which is what most people are familiar with, but one piece is for her wire-strung harp, a replica of a medieval harp.

Ross Carey, a former Mozart Fellow who now teaches in Kuala Lumpur, phoned her from Malaysia to hear what her harps sounded like, she says.

"It was a really surreal moment, because in Kuala Lumpur there was a really big rainstorm and I could hear this rainstorm while I was playing my harp down the phone - it was a funny moment, sitting on my sofa in sunny Christchurch listening to a rainstorm in Kuala Lumpur."

The wire-strung harp has to be tuned to the key in which it is to be played, as there is no way of changing the pitch of notes while playing because it does not have levers or pedals. Carey chose a seven-note asymmetric scale to which she has to tune the instrument to play his composition Valse Oubliée (forgotten waltz).

"It's quite a surreal little piece, like snippets of something you are trying to remember - parts of a famous waltz - but can't quite remember properly. I think it's got quite a deja vu quality to it. It's interesting on the wire-strung harp because the strings ring on for a long time."

Moto Mojo by Mark Smythe has a beautiful, uplifting chord sequence but is made quirky by being played through a digital delay that repeats each note several times like an echo, Webby says.

"It makes a kind of counter-rhythm, a syncopated backing to what I'm doing. I practised and recorded it but I'd never heard it with the digital delay until a couple of weeks ago when I went to the Albany studio to hear the final mixed version. It was really fantastic to hear with the full effect. I really like it. It's quite beautiful and and quite funky at the same time."

Lyell Cresswell, who lives in Edinburgh, wanted to write something with a text and asked his friend Fiona Farrell, last year's Burns Fellow, to write the words.

"We were having coffee in Nova and she said 'what kind of text would you like?' and I said 'the CD's all about harps, so something about harps is good, and the earthquake's just happened so something about the earthquake too'," Webby says.

Farrell, who learned harp at Webby's classes in Christchurch, brings the two topics together in The harp sang.

Soprano and composer Pepe Becker, with whom Webby collaborates on many projects, will sing Cresswell's piece, as well as Gillian Whitehead's Cicadas, which is a setting of two stanzas of Rachel Bush's poem of the same name.

"The sound of the cicada is an iconic sound of Northland, where both Gillian and I grew up - we are both former students of Whangarei Girls' High School. The setting of Cicadas is very romantic, using a lot of characteristic harp writing that reminds me of Debussy," Webby says.

Becker has also composed a piece, Capricorn 1: Pluto in terra.

"The big harp has a lot of notes and sometimes composers make the mistake of doing too much, but what I really like about Pepe's piece is the line of it is really clear and it's really rhythmic. She took the dates around the earthquake and took the musical intervals to do with those numbers and based her piece around those intervals."

Two University of Otago lecturers have also written pieces for her: Anthony Ritchie's Angels Flow is very beautiful and probably what people might expect a harp to play; Graeme Downes' Introduction and scherzo is guitar-like with little ragtime and bluesy moments and is quirky, changing the slant on what the harp can do, she says.

See it, hear it
Helen Webby will perform "New Music for Ancient Harps," with guest soprano Pepe Becker, at St Paul's Cathedral at 1pm on October 9. Her CD Pluck will also be available.


Add a Comment