Asni: harps and imagination - newsletter #6 - March 2007
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In this newsletter:
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE? * RECORDING A TRIP IN MIDDLE-EARTH * UPCOMING EVENTS
What better and more appropriate way for a musician to celebrate a significant birthday, than by spending it in the recording studio. So I thought when I finally went and booked myself some recording dates for my new cd Travels in Middle-earth. A friend had recommended STL Audio (who have taken over the premises of the old Marmalade Studios) in Wellington, and on meeting sound engineer Troy Kelly, who runs the place, he seemed suitably enthusiastic, so I did not waste time with checking out more places but went for it. And a good choice it was.
The Travels in Middle-earth programme has been ripening for several years. It grew out of my performance at the TheOneRing.net fan party preceding the "Return of the King" premiere here in Wellington in 2003. I toured it across New Zealand in 2005, and in Europe last year, so by now it is well seasoned – although to achieve a full 60 minute cd, I had to add nearly twenty minutes of music to the original shorter concert programme. Which is just as well, because it gives me the opportunity to feature all my smallerharps, as well as the large baroque harp which carries the bulk of the programme.
The final impulse to actually record the cd was provided by artist John Howe, who is mostly famous for his illustrations of Tolkien's works and for being one of the conceptual designers of the "Lord of the Rings" movies. For the last three years I've been an active member of his internet forum, which attracts a small but select group of hobby artists and would-be illustrators such as myself. When I sent him my cd 700 Years of Pop a year or so ago, he took such a liking to it that he not only advertised it all over his website, he also gently coaxed and cajoled me into getting my act together and recording a new one. To this end, he generously offered me the use of one of his paintings for my cd cover – which is really the main reason I decided to do this recording! He also organized an invitation to come to Switzerland – his chosen home country – in June, and play the opening concert for his exhibition at "Fantastical St Ursanne", a small town in the Swiss Jura, which will be holding a two month fantasy art and music festival around John's exhibition. Which seemed like the perfect opportunity to have a little cd launch of my own – hence I took some time off my money-earning activities this year, in order to concentrate on getting the recording done and produced in the short space of five months.
Unfortunately at this stage my participation is all up in the air – when I received my contract a few weeks ago it turned out that the fee the festival is offering is substantially less than what I have been led to expect, and does not nearly cover the cost of my trip. So now I need to somehow find a way to finance a 1500 NZ$ shortfall on the price of my plane ticket – not a sum I can even begin to consider paying out of my own pocket, particularly since I have just invested the remainder of my life's savings in my new cd production. My only hope at this stage is to find either a last minute gig or a last minute sponsor - otherwise it seems that I will have to pass on this truly wonderful opportunity to promote the harp to a potentially very receptive audience - and represent New Zealand at the festival - for sheer lack of resources. This is when being a freelance harpist starts to feel really, really frustrating.
If any of you who reads this have any ideas, contacts, or would like to help, please feel free to contact me. Any help is welcome – and you can also use the opportunity to pre-order your cd. Ah yes, and I do accept donations (of any amount) - they can be sent here :-)
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But back to my cd recording: the framework for the album is provided by music from Howard Shore's "Lord of the Rings soundtrack" - "Into the West" and "Gollum's song", as well as "Evenstar" a theme associated with Arwen, and the "Lament for Gandalf", adapted for gothic harp with bray pins, which gives the piece a truly exotic character.
In addition, I found some traditional music from those cultures whose languages have inspired Tolkien in the creation of his Elven tongues. Apart from the obligatory Celtic music - represented by a set of rowdy Irish dance tunes and the dreamy, lilting "The Butterfly" - there is a tune from Karelia (formerly a part of Finland), and some traditional dances from Estonia – one of the Baltic Republics, which happens to be my mother's birth country. Estonian and Finnish are closely related, and our only Estonian family heirloom is a battered old book on folk dance (in Estonian, with pictures) - containing also a large selection of tunes. These in turn combine well with some baroque German dances from a manuscript collection of harp music which is was compiled in Leipzig in 1719, so this gives me the opportunity to indulge in a piece of "back to the roots" – representing, musically, my very own Shire.
Of course there is some "early music": a set of medieval songs seems an appropriate representation of the First Age of Middle-earth. Two African-inspired baroque tunes from the Spanish collection "Luz y Norte" by Lucas Ruiz de Ribayaz frame a traditional harp piece from Gambia – this might have been music the harpers of Gondor played for Kind Elessar's wedding. "The Bells" by William Byrd rings in the parting at the Grey Havens - an impressionist study in sound that precedes Debussy by several centuries, it has been in my repertory for many years and I am glad to get the chance to finally record it. I always thought that the long resonance of the harp is particularly suitable for this piece – plus, there are very few accidentals! I also found a very lovely New Zealand action song tune, "Me he manu rere" – and the programme comes full circle with the main theme from "The Piano", which is based on a traditional Scottish tune.
When I talked over my ideas with Troy Kelly, the very enthusiastic, supportive and talented sound engineer who runs STL Audio, he mentioned a friend, Alistair Fraser, who plays traditional Maori instruments, and happily offered to put me in touch. I've been keen to try the combination of taonga puoro and harp for quite a while, so this was a great opportunity. One piece on the new recording, Giovanni Maria Trabaci's Toccata seconda e ligature per l'arpa (Naples, c 1600), I had already recorded on my previous cd – I kept it in the programme because with its dark and twisted harmonies, it provides the perfect prelude for "Gollum's song", but it seemed to make little sense to just record another straight version. Originally, I had planned to use a double bass on this piece, to emphasize the dark mood, but the bass player I found at short notice then pulled out at even shorter notice. In the end we came up with a version for harp and various traditional Maori instruments, which put a wide happy grin not only on this harpist's face, but also on those of the sound engineer and his assistant, when we listened back to our takes. I've dubbed it "Aotearoa remix" … nuff said. Alistair also appears on a few other tracks on the recording, and I am very happy that he offered to come in to my sessions at very short notice and did such a great job.
Finally, I need to introduce the newest member of my family of harps: a small metal-strung medieval clarsach, built by my long-time friend Bill Taylor of Ardival Harps, Scotland. When I was at the Edinburgh Harp Festival last year, I was so enchanted by the unearthly sounds Alison Kinnaird coaxed out of her clarsach, that I decided to buy one for myself – it arrived safely on my doorstep just two weeks before my recording sessions, so I had to re-acquaint myself with the peculiarities of a metal strung harp in a hurry - the most important thing is to dampen the strings regularly, because they ring on forever. But I am very glad that I could add this unique colour to my new recording – I've always been missing a Dwarven harp in my repertory.
As a first, the recording will also feature some of my own tunes – an Elvish Hymn, and a Dwarven Blues which I wrote on the spur of the moment for my new clarsach. The third piece I adapted for clarsach and Maori flute, it's a planxty dedicated to my dear cousin Kerstin, who died a few years ago at far too young an age.
The recording sessions were, of course, exhausting – there was a lot of material to record in the space of four days – but otherwise they went without a hitch, and we are now in the process of finishing the editing and post-production. Staying true to the spirit of Tolkien's work, I decided to incorporate some of the sounds of nature which he so lovingly describes. So in the last few weeks, I could have been seen at the Putangirua Pinnacles, Rimutaka Forest Park or Kaitoke Regional Park (aka Rivendell), with my trusty DAT recorder, poking my microphone in the air and grabbing the sound of crickets and sunshine, wind on leaves, water under starlight or the great voice of Ulmo as the South Pacific Ocean meets the Wairarapa shore. Next week I will even get a chance to get some more from several significant locations on the South Island – rain at Edoras perhaps, or birdsong from Fangorn Forest.
There might be a danger to end up sounding like one of those cheap relaxation tapes one can buy in the supermarket, but we think we managed to integrate the sounds in such a way that they underscore the structure of the music, and become a part of it - crickets turn into an additional percussion track, and the sound of running water provides a harmonious accompaniment to a more lyrical piece. If people will hear it that way, rather than just random sounds added on, then I think I will have managed to capture the spirit of Tolkien well.
Just a reminder that my new classes in "Music Appreciation" (aka "I play you some records and then we talk about them") will be starting at Wellington High School Adult Community Education (WHS ACE) on 2 May, running on four consecutive Wednesday evenings from 7.30 to 9.30 pm. The cost is a mere $ 57 – even less if you hold a Community Service Card – and the course can be booked at the WHS ACE office, ph: (04) 385 89 19 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Later in the year, there will be another course "Learn to Read and Write Music" (the first one proved an unmitigated success despite its potentially dry and confusing topic) – which will be starting on 8 August (six Wednesday evenings from 7.30 to 9.30 pm, cost $ 72) – as well as my as yet untested course "Music History in Six Easy Steps", which starts on 9 August (six Thursday evenings from 7.30 to 9.30 pm, cost $ 72).
There are also some as yet vague plans to put together a programme with Alistair Fraser (taonga puoro), if we get ourselves organized we might have something ready for you in time for New Zealand Music Month in May. I will keep you posted!
That's that for now, wish me luck with the Switzerland thing!
arohanui, from Asni
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last updated: 28 March, 2007