Wagner’s Fire Music

A while ago, I shared my version of Jacques Ibert’s Entr’acte, which reduces the entire harp part to just two pages, eliminating all page turns. It seems to have been even more appreciated than I expected, because it’s by far the most popular post on my site, and people are still sharing it around. So, it must have been worth putting it out there! Just recently, I was inspired by a harpist on in the user forums over at the Harp Column (where I now work) to share another of my editions: Wagner’s Fire Music.

First, a quick note about “Fire Music”. The term actually refers to the final scene of the last act from the opera “Die Walküre,” which is part of Wagner’s famous Ring Cycle. It is the scene in which Wotan curses Brünnhilde for disobeying him, dooming her to sleep on a rock surrounded by fire, until whenever a hero may chance to come by and rescue her. (Basically Sleeping Beauty, but with dense, German fire and lots of notes.) The orchestral score is available on IMSLP, and you can see that it’s scored for six harps, playing three harps to a part. It’s an intimidating stream of continuous sixteenth notes that need to be played extremely loud and evenly, and so the part can benefit from having clear pedal markings and few page turns. Here’s my rewrite of the first harp part.

Fire Music – Harp 1 [PDF]

Where it gets really tricky is when an orchestra asks only one harpist to cover the entire thing, and then you need this:

Fire Music – Combined Harp Parts [PDF]
*(The pedal markings are in French in this one.)

Harpe Diem

I was recently invited to give a masterclass in Belgium at the annual harp festival and conference known as the Harpe Diem harpdag. Harpists from all across the country gathered in Leuven, at the magnificent Lemmensinstituut, for a day full of workshops and concerts. I had the pleasure of meeting and working with eight talented young harp students for the entire morning and well into the afternoon.

Even though it was a long and intense day, I still felt that the time I had with each student went by far too quickly. It was tempting to try to squeeze too much into the 20 or 30 minutes I had with each one, but instead I challenged myself to emphasize one main theme for each lesson. Each one was so different, because everyone is on their own path toward understanding this instrument. A sample of the day’s themes: the importance of reading the musical markings in the score, how to sit at the harp with a balanced and relaxed posture, rhythm, and finding the core of the piece you’re playing.

And as usual, I ended up learning just as much as the students. This masterclass marked the first time I have dared to teach a lesson in Dutch, and I was pleasantly surprised with how well it went. Though I did discover some unfortunate holes in my music vocabulary, it all worked out because I would just ask the audience, “How do you say phrase mark?” and they were happy to shout back suggestions. We settled on “verbindingsboog” – who would have guessed?!

Say it in 3 minutes

This afternoon, I’m faced with the exciting challenge of pitching an idea in just three minutes. The panel of judges I’ll be trying to persuade has been put together by the Buma Classical Convention – a networking event organized at Utrecht’s main music venue, Tivoli Vredenburg. Also pitching ideas in the same session will be nine other musicians, so in addition to being extremely concise we must also make our ideas stand out. The stakes: €1.000, to be invested in the idea the panel finds most innovative.

I’ll be talking about The Mozart Effect – the project Merel Vercammen and I have been developing this year. Yesterday, to prepare, I wrote down a list of bullet points I thought were the most important to cover. Then I set my timer to three minutes and started working my way through them. What felt like just a few seconds later, I found myself abruptly running up against the end of my time limit. While the timer on my phone jingled away, I looked down at my list of bullet points and realized I had barely made it halfway through. Shit! Three minutes is short!

Once I got over the shock, I felt liberated. No question about it – there will not be not enough time to go into detail. And that’s perfectly fine, because the merit of our ideas, now and in any other context, will not be judged by how much detail we can expound on the subject but by whether or not the idea is compelling enough to spark people’s interest. The best ideas should be able to excite the listener in just one sentence (e.g. “I propose to land the first man on the moon within the next ten years”). If people want more detail after that, they will ask for it.

Wish me luck! I’m not planning any record-breaking space expeditions, but hopefully I will be able to connect with people who are also curious about exploring the influence of music on the brain.

A few hours later…

Before we started, as I was meeting the other pitchers, the three-minute limit was on everybody’s mind. It was the primary nugget of break-the-ice small talk: “Can you believe we only have three minutes?” The jury even had an hourglass and a bell!

Everyone managed the challenge quite well, though, and the result was an invigorating succession of creative ideas. Unfortunately, the Mozart Effect didn’t win the grand prize, but it had a glorious three minutes. Though winning €1.000 is a great victory for any project, the consolation is that these projects are all happening anyway. In the case of the Mozart Effect, we’re very thankful to already have grants from the Amsterdams Fonds voor de Kunst and the MAOC Gravin van Bylandt fund, so it’s moving forward, and we’ll keep you updated.

Tips for Sibelius and Finale

I have another gift for harpists coming up soon. For those of you who subscribe to the Harp Column, keep your eyes open for my next feature article about the two major musical notation programs: Sibelius and Finale. Slated to appear in the upcoming Nov/Dec issue, this article is written specifically for harpists who would like to know more about notating their own music and arrangements on the computer. There is something in there for everyone. Readers get to walk through each step of the process—from setting up a harp score to notating pedal/lever changes, rolled chords, harmonics, and much more.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to do another feature article for the Harp Column—and thus a platform to share this useful knowledge with other harpists—but this time it doesn’t stop there. Appearing alongside this article, as a special bonus for the more visual learners, I have also provided a series of accompanying tutorial videos showing exactly how to perform each step. (The videos will be available exclusively to Harp Column subscribers.)

It is a huge amount of value packed all together, and I hope readers find it useful. If you read it and find something unclear or want help with something I didn’t cover in the videos, contact me here!

Ibert – Entr’acte

I have a little gift to offer to my fellow harpists.

Just this past weekend, I played a concert with violinist Merel Vercammen at a delightful little church up in Limmen, north of Amsterdam. Included on our program was the extremely popular Entr’acte by Jacques Ibert. It is so popular that any harpist who has ever played with either flute or violin has most likely heard of this piece. Moreover, anyone who has ever played it has most likely been working from the Alphonse Leduc publication with the bright yellow cover. At least, this was the case for me.

I have been playing this fiery little piece on and off since I was in high school, the whole time fighting to get the page turns by either memorizing sections or turning as quickly as I could. It was only this time that I was suddenly hit with a new stroke of inspiration. Why not rewrite the harp part so that all the repeated sections are condensed?

Sure enough, when I did this, it fit easily onto just two pages! Now I can see the whole piece at a glance, and there are no more page turns at all. It turned out to be so useful, that I decided to share it here:

Ibert-Entr’acte PDF

Disclaimer: to save space, I left out the flute/violin part, so make sure you already have it in your ear if you’re going to use this reduced edition.

Harp in a castle

Sometimes I have to step back and really appreciate my job. Just this past weekend I found myself performing in the Kasteel De Hooge Vuursche – a gorgeous castle just half an hour out of Utrecht. The castle was built in 1912, so it has the rich, worn feeling of an old building, but it’s been beautifully renovated so that it’s now a luxurious venue for events. We had beautiful weather that day, and a gentle breeze waft through the building. When the doors were all open, you could see all the way from the concert hall, through the reception area to the magnificent fountain in the gardens out front. At moments like these, the practice hours are all worth it.

Talking to Composers

I just had an incredibly interesting last couple of weeks. The Harp Column asked me to write a feature article for their magazine, and the topic I agreed to tackle is about composers who write for harp. I was drawn to the subject in part because it gives me the excuse to talk directly with some of these composers whom I most admire – people like Robert Paterson and Caroline Lizotte, to name a couple. I had great success in getting everybody I contacted to agree to take some time to chat with me, and six interviews later, I’m coming away from last week feeling like I just had six free lessons with great masters!

I asked them questions about everything I could think of: their composing process, what drives them to create, publishing music scores, and so on. I gathered so much great material from them that in the end the hardest part about writing the article was deciding what NOT to include. It was particularly interesting when several of them ended up giving the same answers to a question. Would you have guessed that one of the main mistakes composers encounter in performances of their music is harpists taking the wrong tempo? Did you know that composers describe difficult aspects of the harp (such as the pedals) not as discouraging limitations but as a key to inspiration?

The finished article focuses in on two main topics: the composers’ thoughts about writing music for the harp and about collaborating with harpists. But there’s also a bonus section with advice for harpists who may be interested in composing themselves.

Update: This article was published as “Composer Connection”. It came out in the May/June 2015 issue of the Harp Column, which was Vol. 23, Issue 6, and it appeared on pg. 26.

The Mozart Effect

A few weeks ago, I got a message from Merel Vercammen, a good friend of mine here in Holland who not only is an excellent violinist but is just back from completing a master’s of science degree in Music, Mind, and Brain in London. She wanted to know if I would be interested in developing a concert idea with her which would incorporate some the latest research about how music affects the brain.

Several brainstorm sessions and rehearsals later, we have now come up with a fun and interactive concert format which invites the audience to participate in an experiment demonstrating how music combines with mood to enhance cognitive performance. With the help of a smart-phone app designed by software developer Gert Wijnalda, we’re going to be able to project data and results live during the show. We’re also incorporating a beautiful program of music for violin and harp by composers such as Mozart, Fauré, and Arvo Pärt.

Just this weekend, we pitched the idea to the Grachtenfestival (a summer music festival in Amsterdam), and they loved it! They decided to book the show, and we’re starting to even get interest from other festivals too.

Netherlands Camerata

I am delighted to be able to announce that I have just been offered the position of First Sub-Principal Harp in the Netherlands Camerata—a new orchestra that is currently forming in Amsterdam. It was a busy time of year during the month of December while I was preparing and video-taping the audition material, but the effort was entirely worth it. I had never dared to hope that a harp position would open up in the Netherlands so soon after I moved here—it’s an amazing coincidence! Several people have asked me for more details about what kind of music I’ll be playing, where the concerts will be, etc. But the first concerts start only in September 2015, so I don’t know too much yet. I’ll post updates as I find out more, and in the meantime, you can check out their website: netherlandscamerata.nl.

Butterflies, by Gabriel Verdalle

Here’s another little gem that I had never heard of before, also available free on IMSLP.

Gabriel Verdalle (1847-1918)

Verdalle was harpist with the Paris Opera in his time, and he was actually quite a prolific composer for the harp, even though his works are not so well known. Butterflies has been a particularly delightful discovery for me. It’s a great alternative to either of the La Source pieces that are so commonly given to students to introduce them to the idea of a right-hand thumb melody over a cascade of notes. It is deceptive in its simplicity, though, because it requires a lot of control to bring out the melody and the phrasing. It’s best for intermediate or even upper-intermediate players.

I have a new microphone set-up now, so the recording quality should be much cleaner than last time. (I’m still tweaking the mic placement and line-levels, though, so bear with me.)

There weren’t any pedal markings in the score that I downloaded, so I’m also offering a version with them written in. Since Verdalle was a harpist himself, his writing is very clear for the instrument and the only other markings I felt the need for were reminders about which left-hand fingering I wanted to use. Enjoy!

[PDF – low resolution] Butterflies (markings) – Gabrielle Verdalle

[PDF – high resolution] Butterflies (markings) – Gabrielle Verdalle