Judgement Call

Judgement Call

Maybe some of you remember an article that appeared in Harp Column some nine years ago that addresses composers considering writing for the harp (I’m afraid the copy I received doesn’t include the author’s name). The article includes the following remarkable passage under the subtitle “Detuning the harp”:

Once upon a time, I played a piece for nine harps. Three were at normal tuning, three were tuned a third tone low, and three were tuned a third tone high. It was kind of an interesting sound, but I am not sure those harps ever recovered. If your art insists on unusual tunings, please keep the following in mind: After the harp is retuned, it will not hold for several days. If there is anything else on the program requiring harp, the pitch will not hold for that piece. If there is anything else on the same half of the program requiring harp, the harp will have to be retuned while the audience waits (it has happened to me). It causes all kinds of weird strains on the instrument to be at a different pitch. It ruins the strings. However, having said all of that, I am an artist at heart. Do what you have to do!

In an unrelated story, I recently found myself for the first time in some years walking down a music school hallway in the shadow of a looming performance, clutching a part and hoping to find someone to play it. Having written many semesters’ worth of unwarrantedly difficult music, I’ve lived many times over the student composer’s plight when it comes to locking down players in the absence of a carrot or a stick. But this time—a matter of weeks away from my Ph.D. defense—something in me put its earnest little foot down: I am never doing this again.

According to The Internet, you can drop over ten thousand dollars on a harp. Even a set of strings can run you fifty or more. Consider an economy that can accommodate both the harpist’s double admonition—”keep the following in mind,” but “do what you have to do”—and the misery of begging musicians with no investment in your music to play it with no hope of compensation. Consider an economy that can accommodate both the close, career-long relationships that blossom between ensembles and composers and the hundreds of hopeful submissions sent to the 2012 Parma Student Composers Competition.

The field of production has a lush end and a barren end. In the same way that I exhorted composers several weeks ago to be critical about concerts, I exhort you now to be critical (and I know that many of you already are) about the way what composers do is transformed into music. Don’t let someone let you destroy their harp. Don’t debase yourself just to get an ass in a black stage chair. “Do what you have to do,” but remember that you get to decide what you have to do.

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6 thoughts on “Judgement Call

  1. Frank J. Oteri


    I couldn’t help feeling that “I resemble that remark” as I was reading this post. While I share your sentiment that the goal is to write pieces that are playable and hopefully get performed many times (rather than just once poorly or not performed at all), as luck would have it one of my most frequently performed compositions is scored for multiple electric guitars detuned to each other similarly to the way those harps are detuned in the passage you’ve cited.

    Admittedly, electric guitars are way more malleable than harps and to this day I have never composed anything for harp either in alternate tunings or even in good ole 12tET. Though I don’t rule it out. (I never rule out anything.) I love Carter’s Bariolage and Cage’s Postcard from Heaven and a couple of days ago I just discovered and have since become completely intrigued by a Scottish born Italian composer named Sophia Giustina Corri (1775-1831) who wrote extensively for the harp, an instrument she played. I’ve only just begun to pour over her opus 2 collection of solo harp sonatas from c1800 but they seem really worthwhile. On a side note, at the time of this score’s publication, Corri was married to the unfairly overlooked Czech composer Jan Ladislav Dussek, whose piano sonatas rival those of Beethoven. Dussek’s championing of his wife’s compositions provides yet another important reason to remember him, since he had a much healthier attitude about women composers than Felix Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, or Gustav Mahler did. Who knows, had Dussek not died in 1812, apparently of alcoholism (nobody’s perfect), history might not have only better acknowledged him but her as well. She seems to have been less compositionally active after her subsequent marriage to the violist John Alvis Moralt, but alas I digress…

    Anyway, despite my personal lack of harp experience I was already thinking quite a bit about the instrument, and ironically, reading your description of a piece that was supposed to be a compositional no-no has whetted my appetite even further. I’ve been obsessing about it on and off all morning (a semi-unhealthy distraction considering all the other things I need to do today). It’s not just because it sounds so cool to me and I have a bratty kid attraction to things that people tell me I shouldn’t do, but also because something doesn’t quite seem right with the description of it that you quoted. Shouldn’t those harps have been tuned a sixth of a tone apart from each other rather than a third? I know the resultant scale would turn out exactly the same, but tuning the harps apart from each other in sixths rather than thirds seems much cleaner somehow. (Although my own method for getting the Sibelius music notation software to play back sixth tones involves MIDI detunes of precisely a third of a tone; for some weird reason you can’t get it to detune at precisely a sixth of a tone! But tuning a sixth away rather than a third should be an easier way to do it for actual human beings, no?)

    This whole thing has been bugging me so much I had to figure out what that piece for nine retuned harps is. From the magical powers of Google (our seemingly infallible 21st century Sherlock Holmes), I’m deducing that it has to be John Eaton’s 1971 In the Cave of the Sibyl: Sonority Movement. If that’s true, it turns out that it is a composition he actually described to me in some detail during our conversation for NewMusicBox nearly 12 years ago. So I’ll let him speak for himself about it:

    [T]hat came from a piece of mine called From the Cave of the Sybil, which was for flute and 9 harps, tuned in sixth-tones, three on each, three normal, three a sixth-tone higher, three a sixth-tone lower, and flute, which again was playing quartertones… When I lived in Rome, there was a sound I heard when I crawled in by the back entrance to the cave of the Sybil. I was with the archaeologist Frank Brown, who is a wonderful human being and a great friend of mine. We suddenly came into a huge chamber, and one could almost see the Sybil there, in this case holding a flute. One heard this incredible sound in this cave, and of course, it was the lapping of the Meditteranean on the cliffs. And it was a sound that I tried to capture for years after that, and finally, I think that I got it in this particular combination of instruments with this particular tuning. Most of the way through the piece the harps are playing with eraser brushes…Nevertheless, you hear it in this movement of slowly changing intervals.

    Needless to say, it seems pretty clear that he intended for the harps to be tuned a sixth of a tone apart rather than a third. But now I really have to hear this piece; it was apparently recorded at some point. Stay tuned…

  2. Colin Holter

    Thank you, Frank, for flexing your formidable memory and archival acumen – I was curious about that mystery piece too.

    As a non-harpist, I don’t really know the extent to which retuning a harp will damage it or its strings. It’s possible that the author of the article was being a bit precious (or maybe not – we non-harpists have to take her word for it!). But the idea that someone would let you, on the basis of a hundreds-of-years-old social hierarchy founded on myth, cause damage – possibly thousands of dollars worth of damage – to the instrument with which they earn their livelihood is sort of horrifying, I think.

    (Electric guitars, on the other hand, are a great platform for strange tunings – a favorite of mine is Tenney’s Water on the Mountain… Fire in Heaven, a piece I’m sure you know well.)

    1. Frank J. Oteri

      Again perhaps it’s necessary to take what I’m typing here with a grain of salt due to my own lack of personal experience with the instrument, but it’s hard for me to imagine that retuning a harp is all that different from retuning a piano. While it’s probably not the best idea (in fact it seems like a pretty bad one) to retune a harp (or a piano) to perform different pieces during a concert, I don’t think it would be unreasonable or harmful for the instrument, to retune for an entire program of music in a given alternate tuning and then simply tune it back. And we all want folks to do a whole program of brand new music in alternate tunings, right? ;)

      Considering the upward shifts in absolute pitch in many parts of Europe, one would imagine that harp players in orchestras need to adjust their instrument accordingly. I have yet to read of harps becoming unplayable in the process, but maybe I missed something somewhere. My own 36tET piece merely tunes the 3 electric guitars at A = 432, 440, and 448 Hz respectively, which are relatively small deviations in the ultimate scheme of things. After a while pianos tend to go approximately a sixth-tone flat, especially when exposed to certain changes in temperature, something people with pianos in their homes can test for themselves. In fact, A=432 was the commonly agreed on standard for absolute pitch in Beethoven’s time, and has been championed in recent years by the Schiller Institute who claim that the move up to A=440 is part of a giant nefarious conspiracy. Seems a stretch to me (pun intended), but who knows?

  3. Alvaro Gallegos

    Interesting exchange, Frank and Colin. You won’t believe me guys, but three days ago I was thinking about harps. I dreamed of a piece for solo harps, let’s say around 6 of them.

    That curiosity was aroused by an unlikely source. There’s an amazing concept album by prog-rock band The Moody Blues, entitled “To Our Children’s Children’s Children”. After the overture, there’s a passage for several harps, enhanced by stereo sound, it sounds like heaven to me. I’d be glad to be able to write something like that!

  4. Stephen Taylor

    Great essay Colin! I’ve been lucky to write for lots of excellent harpists, and I’ve usually been able to get away with some retunings – e.g. the F and A strings above middle C, or every D string. R. Murray Schafer does this in one of his pieces. Anyway, if you retune only *some* of the strings, it’s not nearly as bad for the harp.

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