Composing for the Harp

Hello SFGC Friends, from the same place as last week... Here in my living room with piano, pencil and paper at hand. These days I'm doing something rather challenging that I nevertheless love doing, which is writing music for the harp. I was remembering our last concert in April— those of you who came to hear the Kinderkreuzzug concert heard the wonderful harpist Karen Gottlieb play with the girls in the Lili Boulanger Pie Jesu and in a solo harp piece by Hindemith. I was reminded then of what an amazing instrument the harp is, and how special and interesting it is to be up close to one when someone is playing it!

So now I feel doubly focused in my work for the celebrated harpist Bridget Kibbey, whose infectious advocacy for her instrument, and for classical music in general, has (combined with her astronomical talent, of course) made her one of the fastest rising stars these days in NYC.

The harp repertoire—unlike, say, the piano or violin repertoire - is somewhat limited, and every harpist pretty much knows all of the big harp pieces. This is only one of the many reasons that Bridget has dedicated a fair amount of her considerably energy getting composers to write work for the harp, including some unexpected ones, from jazz and world music, for example. Those of you who become harp fans, or better yet—Bridget Kibbey fans, by the end of this postcard will be able to find many many videos or her playing, and audio tracks on her site, but here are two that show how she is broadening the repertoire. The first link is of a live performance of a piece by Bach that was originally written for piano and violin, but has been transcribed for harp. This is a very common practice among concert harpists!

[embed][/embed] And, here is a video showcasing a work by the famous Cuban jazz saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, written just for Bridget!

[embed][/embed] Imagine the Bach with a piano, or the D'Rivera with a jazz combo - how does it transform these two musical worlds to have these pieces played on harp?  Bridget was a featured artist with Chamber Music at Lincoln Center last year, and I love this short video they made to introduce her to their audience: 


I love how she talks about her parents—not musicians themselves but supportive and engaged in her musical life - how they influenced her approach to her career. I also love how, towards the end, she gives some beautiful advice for young people who are thinking of going into music as a lifelong career (like how to take criticism and apply it to your craft for the long haul)! But the thing that got me thinking today was her comment towards the beginning that she wants to challenge people's "preconceptions" about the harp. What do you think she means? What are your own preconceptions about the harp? About harp music? About harpists themselves?

An obvious answer, of course, is based in actual demographical fact: many more women than men are harpists. Hmmmm... why do you think that is? When you see these videos of Bridget playing up close, it is certainly possible to see that the instrument itself is large and powerful (especially how she plays it!), so the "delicate" stereotype is not very well founded. 

Are there other instruments that you associate with either women or men? Why? What about the piano? The tuba? The bagpipes? The flute? Is there a cultural reason for these "preconceptions"? And beyond the gender of the player, what other preconceptions might Bridget be referring to? What do you think of when you imagine harp music? Do we associate it with a certain mood? A certain mental picture or scene? 

Imagine for a moment that you are my composition coach: how do you recommend I continue my own composing work for Bridget—should I take any of these preconceptions into account? Do they have value? Should I work with them, or against them? 

Looking forward to being among you all again, next week!