Bach’s Pantyhose

Lately along with my books and scores, I’ve been keeping some pretty standard harpy items in my backpack. I’ve got a screwdriver for regulating the gears, felt picks for glissandos, and a tuning key for the days when I’m feeling optimistic that my instrument will actually remain in tune. There’s also a pair of pantyhose belonging to the second harpist with the Berlin Phil. I have no intention of returning them to her. I’m using them.

Among the many nicknames for the harp, there is the age old “naked piano,” implying that it’s all strings and none of the restraining forces that you see on a piano, such as a frame or a lid. It’s true in a way – after all, there are no keys, no sustaining pedals, no impediments between your fingers and the sound; the resonance goes on into infinity all on its own if you don’t spend time muffling sounds you’ve created after the fact. Imagine when you were a kid and went to your grandmother’s piano, stuck down the sustaining pedal and listened to how all the notes clashed at once. That’s the harp. All the damn time.

The wishy-washy angelic basin-of-harmony effect is pretty cool if you’re playing music that’s intentionally vague, distant. But harpists are always on the offensive to prove that their instrument can do more than evoke pictures of nymphs and naked baby angel butts. I’m one of those harpists. I am also a masochist; I’m transcribing Bach’s second keyboard partita for the harp. It’s hard enough on the harpsichord, and on the harp it feels impossible sometimes. That said, the problems are totally different; the real struggle isn’t actually playing the notes (it fits pretty well under the fingers, surprisingly), but playing it with any sense of clarity.

In order to get rid of as many overtones as possible in the harp, Professor Nancy Allen and I spent my last lesson scouring the room for items that might suitably deaden the lowest six strings of the harp. Doing so makes a huge difference to the resonance, as these strings are heard, but not often played. They vibrate and ring sympathetically with the other strings of the harp, lending that acoustical quality which only a concert harp can produce. My sock wasn’t long enough. My hanky would present a biohazard situation. Fortunately for me, the harpists at Juilliard tend to use the harp studio as a second wardrobe. Heels, skirts and various other clothing items are regularly scattered around the room and in the closets. That’s when I happened upon my friend Marion’s pantyhose. Soft and malleable, yet durable enough to deaden the bass wires of a harp, they woved and wrapped perfectly between the five bottom strings, immediately making the harp a bit drier and less boomy.

I find it interesting that when it comes to our training of musicians, there’s an image that we gain control over our instrument, when more often than not it’s the other way around. Musicians are guilty of perpetuating the myth. So often, it’s easy for us to treat our instruments as precious and inviolable, perfect as they are and in need of more time and practice to truly exploit their best assets. We spend so much time with music that’s “idiomatic” that there’s pressure to make everything sound that way, natural, easy, without any external aid or help.

But as musicians move away from the traditional concert repertoire that we spend hours and hours on in our conservatory training, the rules change. Be it a transcription of another work or a newly composed piece of music, adjustments have to be made to make sure that the instrument allows you to serve the music on the page, and not some idealization of the instrument itself. In a rehearsal last week for a newly composed work for two harps and chamber ensemble, five minutes of the rehearsal were spent trying out different items to place within the piano to make it buzz and clang. Paper wouldn’t do, nor a group of pencils. In the end, a wooden clipboard was found and placed on the strings and voila! the composer had found “the sound.” He then moved on to the violist and the clarinetist to make sure that overtones produced by spooky techniques didn’t match up – he wanted them to clash as much as possible.

Contemporary music, transcriptions and the art that’s “off the beaten track” is easy to dismiss. One can easily start to assume that it’s a game of smoke and mirror, a gimmick to evoke sounds that you walk into the street and hear for free, or perhaps on the instrument for which a piece was originally written, etc. Boring! Whence innovation if we don’t try things out? Where’s the fun? Enjoyment and exploration are key elements not just to progress, but also for keeping perspective about your instrument: it’s mutable, imperfect, and frustrating. (Just like you.) There are truly times when you encounter a problem and it needs practicing and more work on your part, doubtless. Sometimes you just need a pair of pantyhose.

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