Aeolian harps: first flight
This is a longer-than-usual post. But stick with it: there's treasure at the end...
A few months ago, before lockdown, I was walking down a mountainside just outside Athens. The path- narrow, ancient, shaded by Aleppo pines and holm oaks- was marked by red squares and blobs, signs intermittently nailed to trees and spray-painted onto rocks, a way for walkers to stay on track. The ravine to my left was steep and peaceful; all I could hear was the wind and my own footsteps. As I walked, I wondered, instead of visual signs, how would it be to have sonic ones, outdoor sculptures activated by the environment.
Some time later, my sister and I were discussing a project of hers which harnessed the wind to make images on paper. What remained on the page after the weather had passed was an evocation of something invisible, the shape of the moving air. I reflected on sound’s ability to generate an alternative sense of that shaping, something three-dimensional and of the atmosphere. I remembered the ideas I’d had on my walk and knew I had some exploring to do.
Being in Greece and being interested in all things stringed, the Aeolian harp, named for Aeolus, the Greek god of the wind, became my starting point. As a musician, I hadn’t often felt able to make something I could afterwards hold in my hands. Music in itself is not visible as such, instead is located in what we hear, how we make something come together sonically in a room with others, how we perform in the moment. But the thrill of opening up a box of soon-to-be-released records fresh from the press, or enjoying the realisation of hours of aural imagining when receiving a newly-printed physical score, speaks I think to a yearning in music-makers. Here it is. I’ve made something. I can hold it in my hands. It exists. I exist.
I’d come to Greece to retreat for a while. I felt the need to climb out of old creative patterns and networks and to understand where I was at this moment in my life and career. I wanted to re-connect with that side of music-making that disregarded the commercial imperative, that represented, as David Toop describes, “a strategy for confronting limits, a deeply private meditation capable of generating self-knowledge along with insights into the nature of materials, time and the senses”. This, for me, was where true creative ventures necessarily began- with something interior, connected to my guts, but also to my sense of place in the world. When I left the UK last summer, the country was aflame with political division and Brexit approached. The world buckled under the weight of accelerating climate breakdown and violent reactive thinking. The need for system change rang like old desperate news, even before Covid-19 struck. The world is breaking, many cried. We can’t go on like this. I read, attended demos and talks, tried to educate myself, to find hope in the dark, to be among the people trying to make good stuff happen. But always I had questions. How should an artist respond? A human being? Me- how should I respond? In a world full of stuff, full of the voice of white, class and generational privilege- of voices like mine- full of so much music already, full of taking- of space, of resources, of other irreplaceable things- it felt right to question what was meaningful. This moment was asking of me not to be casual about my making. And if I couldn’t make anything meaningful, I questioned whether I should make anything at all.
During the summer months, a strong wind known as the ‘Meltemi’ blows from the north across the Aegean Basin. It is a wind you can lean into without falling over. It blows off your hat (easily) and makes telegraph wires sing. On the south-eastern tip of Euboea, an island connected to the mainland by an imposing suspension bridge, is Greece’s largest wind farm, a site which harvests the fullest energies of the Meltemi. As I began to consider and research the making of Aeolian harps, I began also to keep an eye on the weather forecast. And this taught me something. I can make an instrument, but unless I work with the weather, unless I adapt and learn and fail and learn again, it will simply not play. I cannot force the wind to blow. In this way, I saw the making of the harps as an expression of something political. Rather than forcing, extracting, controlling, disregarding natural environments and consequences, I had to be patient, collaborative, I had to bear failure and be perseverant, I had to learn deeply about my materials, about the wind, I had to wait for the weather I needed, I had to do the work. The limits imposed by this instrument I couldn’t make play by touching, that wouldn’t give me anything unless nature was part of the collaboration, obliged me to be creative in an entirely different way. And this felt meaningful. I resolved to make some harps by the end of the summer to take to the wind-farm on Euboea, to work with the Meltemi wind.
At first I made harps from stuff I found in skips and bins- old drawers, tins, shelves and bits of furniture- mixed with things I had around the house- pencils, cardboard. They were all experiments- and it was hard to tell what worked just by blasting them with a fan. I'd been to a local fishing shop to source fishing wire for the strings, and had had a long and very Greek conversation with the proprietor about my project. He entered into the venture enthusiastically and after some lengthy discussions as to size and type (I ended up buying 0.5m for the smaller harps and 0.9m for
larger- both with circular cross-sections) he made me promise I'd let him know whether these materials he sold for fishing could also be used to create such an ethereal musical instrument.
One of my early harps turned out looking like a guillotine which somehow felt of the political moment...
After these early attempts, I bought two large sheets of plywood and made a
design based roughly on a window harp, but longer. I was lucky enough to have the summertime use of the workshop of instrument-maker, Halldór Úlfarsson, creator of the halldorophone, and hoped some of his musical magic might rub off.
Lots of the making processes were new to me, including the use of Halldór's circular saw in the creation of some fantastic straight edges!
Making the tuning pegs was (and still is) a head-scratcher. The strings sing best when at their tensile strength so the ability to tighten them adequately was key. As well as researching string type, I had to experiment with other elements of the design- bridge height, how close the strings were to one another and to the body of the harp, overall string length, and so on.
The final element was a stand, to make sure the harps didn't fall over or get blow down in the wind. I made a scissor-action design that I could un-screw from the base of the harp to make it easier to transport. I'd read that harps sing better vertically rather than horizontally so a stand would enable me to test that theory.
And so it was that last weekend, I found myself on a mountain-top on the island of Euboea, amongst a forest of giant wind turbines, listening and laughing as some of the strongest winds in Greece brought my newly-made harps to life. The more powerful the wind, the higher the harmonics that are activated, and let's just say these winds had the harps pretty much screaming!
Overnight, I camped on the beach, and here, with a gentler wind, the full-range of the harps' sound was realised. And it's hard to express quite how magical it was! Their sound isn't easy to capture- and not only because recording in windy conditions is notoriously difficult. The experience of the natural environment becomes part of hearing the sound- the stars, the sea, the mountains, the trees.
And the sound is almost uncanny, hard to locate. Sometimes it's just a hint, an otherworldly hush of sound. You blink and hold your breath- did I hear it? It's like seeing a shooting star or spotting rare wildlife. You burst into silent rapt grins and it feels like treasure. Sometimes, only one long low note speaks. Other times, the breeze takes hold and brings a kaleidoscope of sound. Every time it feels like magic!
Though this first outing was really just to see how best and even whether the harps would sing, I did make some recordings. There's nothing quite like being in the presence of an Aeolian harp when it's singing (and there's nothing quite like trying to record in 30-40 mph winds- I aim to get better at this!), but I made a little film to give the idea. The first sound you hear incidentally is the wind 'playing' a water pipe I came upon on a walk. The harps come in a few seconds later...
Deepest thanks to James for being an extremely generous and inspired wingman on this project and to the PRSF Composers' Fund for supporting the work. Next steps soon...