On Tuning: A Brief Playlist

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HarpingOn

It’s a strange sensation to be in New York while technically being on tour. My pedal harp sits in Cleveland, my clothes remain in suitcases in Washington Heights (as I’ll be heading back to Ohio in 48 hours) and I think my organ shoes are in my office(?) so I can play for church on Sunday. For now, I’ve an enforced Sabbath of sorts, in which I finally have time to sit down and write, this time “from the road.”

Without being trite, the sensation of touring – that is, the necessitation of consistent performance combined with absence of routine or normative expectations – is not terribly dissimilar to the processes of getting out of one’s comfort zone with an instrument. Sure it can be tough, but you get to travel, meet musicians you wouldn’t otherwise meet, and get out the grind of the day-to-day music making at home.

I’ll cease being vague.

The last week with Apollo’s Fire has been a somewhat Sisyphean journey with tuning, a I’ve a small harp equipped with a single row of strings, no levers or pedals, and a task of playing everything from Sephardic songs to Monteverdi continuo, from Armenian love songs to Arabic longas, all in the same concert. Of course, there are occasional breaks to retune, but at certain points, the harp is required to play in g minor and e minor in the same set, back to back. On stage, lutenists Billy Simms and Brian Kay are seamlessly switching between ouds, theorbos, guitars and lutes at will, soprano Amanda Powell sings in Hebrew, Arabic and Ladinio from scores written in IPA, and Zafer Tawil seems wields a microtonal qanun, kaleidoscopically spinning song to song, flipping gears with his left hand to add other-worldly colors to the ensemble.

At improvisational junctures, recorder player Daphna Mor picks up a ney and starts discussing how she will move from point A to point B using modes in the Arabic maqam, the system which divides the octave into 24 notes, while adhering to a scheme of septatonic modality.

I would be lying if I didn’t say that I didn’t feel rather sheltered and out of my depth. Surrounded by musicians with truly incredible fluency and flexibility, I realized I’d been placing my harp in a box – that is, a box of Western tuning schemes. Harmonic minor scales, duly memorized as a child for ABRSM exams, only seemed to go so far, didn’t match the level of flexibility or expression achieved by my colleagues. In listening to Zafer and Daphna sing and play, I got a rudimentary sense of the overlap between different modes, but I really needed to learn more. Asking Zafer what I should do, he told me to use my ears and go listen to some Umm Kulthum. “If you listen to one of her songs, you’ll hear all the modes you’ll need.”

Sitting at home after the first rehearsal at 11pm, I felt at my most peak hipster, putting on my headphones and turning finding an 1950s Arabic music playlist on iTunes. Pen and paper in hand, I tried charting the tetrachords used in Kulthum’s 45 minute meta-songs, seeing how they related using nothing but intuition. The next morning, sat back with the harp, tuning key in hand, I started to divide minor thirds in half, so as to give me an “inbetween” note for F and F-sharp, as well as for B and B-flat. Later, with some experimentation with tetrachords, I was able to tune one part of the rehearsal in Saba (صبا) and another in Rast (راست) so to having something consistent and plausible.

The result was not only functional, but colorful and expressive. My instrument now blended with others on stage, and no longer stuck out. Of course, I should not have been surprised. Alternate tunings are part and parcel of what many baroque musicians do, day in and day out. Biber’s Rosary Sonatas require retuning of the open strings of the violin, so as to access harmonies and voicings that would otherwise be impossible.

Of course this is nothing new or outlandish for guitarists, as seen in Joni Mitchell’s famous open tunings (of which she devised somewhere between 60 and 80!).

I’ll spare the readers an essay on the history of temperament and tuning in Western Music, as plenty of musicians have written relatively digestibly on the matter. What I will say is that again and again, in confronting baroque music and non-Western music, I realize how engrained my sensibilities are to accept a Steinway’s tuning as patient zero for the harmonic expression in Western Music. This is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, if one is sticking to the canon of Romantic and Twentieth Century music, but I wonder to what extent harpists are hindered by accepting their instruments for what they appear to be at first, and not what they could be with a little insight and curiosity. Especially here in the United States, hashtags like #practicalharpist seem to flood the social media profiles of my colleagues, who endlessly promote harp hacks and means of making the profession easier or more approachable for the player, rather than more meaningful for listeners or the musicians playing alongside them.

I understand the impulse, truly. No harpist needs me to remind them that the harp is an awkward and misunderstood instrument. But what if we’re thinking about practicality the wrong way, simply finding shortcuts so we can efficiently adhere to a narrow vision of the harp which fulfills some normative or conservative expectations, but which has not fundamentally progressed in 40 or 50 years. This is an aesthetic hindrance, for sure, but also an economic one: we supposedly relish our nation as one of immigrants, and yet much of the music we make and seek out fails to embrace those elements (such as tuning) which distinguish musical traditions and disciplines from each other, and which are on the rise as non-Western commercial music industries continue to grow in the USA.

Harpists across the USA continue to struggle to make ends meet as the symphonic orchestra as an institution continually faces an identity crisis, but the act of taking on popular musical genres, historical performance and non-Western music – that is, music which by necessity lacks elements of strict prescription – somehow relegate a harpist to the rank of sell-out, untalented, or “insincere.” How much more employment opportunities might there be if conservatories expanded the scope of musical skills at the harp bench, if harp dealers took affirmative stances with a wider variety of harps, and if promoters embraced the sea of change in urban centers. While changes are on the horizon, I fear a landscape in which the harp will once again be left behind, continually relegated to a role as a pretty but impractical instrument. But what could be more practical than getting our instrument to test some boundaries and expand its utility and beauty at the same time?

 

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