Ann Heymann :: part 2

“I spend a long time tuning, because I believe in really spot-on tuning. It just isn’t satisfying unless I do”
– Ann  Heymann

Words & images: Mícheál Ó Catháin

The Minnesota-based harper Ann Heymann has beautifully re-imagined the sound and techniques of the early Irish harp over the past four decades, informed by a deep body of work she has developed with her husband and musical partner Charlie Heymann.  In part 1 of her Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art interview, Ann shared her playing and arrangement of the Jointure & Jigg, delved into manuscripts and printed sources for the ancient music she plays, and talked about what we know – and don’t know – about the instrument itself.

Here in part 2 of this richly layered interview, Ann goes deeper into the cornerstones of the old tradition, continuing research and experiments she would love to see done (if she doesn’t get there first!), and her insights into the mythology and symbolism of the early Irish harp.

Follow Ann’s work online at:


Ann and I cover the following topics in this broad-ranging conversation:

  1. Jointure & Jigg – Ann plays her version of this beautiful piece, recorded over 200 years ago in both the Neal Collection and Bunting manuscripts, and shares in-depth insights into her arrangement. This is a piece explored independently by each artist in the Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art interview series. By comparing arrangements we can understand which aspects of their interpretations are shared in common and which are unique to the individual artists.
  2. Manuscripts and Early Printed Sources
  3. Instruments
  4. Cornerstones of the old tradition
  5. Continuing research and experimentation
  6. Mythology and symbolism

Part 2 of this interview spans topics 4 to 6. For a selection of links to things mentioned during part 2, scroll to the bottom of this page.

Part 1 of the interview, in which we discuss topics 1 – 3, is here.

Cornerstones of the old tradition

Mícheál Ó Catháin:
Ann, in part 1 of this interview you explained how important it is to have playable copies of museum instruments for recovering the music. What other features of the old tradition are the most important “cornerstones”, solid foundations we can reliably build upon when re-imagining or reverse engineering arrangements from manuscript or printed sources?

Ann Heymann:
It’s fun making music out of tea-leaves! It’s not like that, I’m joking – we have the harp, and as I often say we have hands not claws, and honey still tastes sweet. What I mean by that is that people like to emphasise the differences with times past and our modern times, but for me the early Irish harp can still speak to us with a relevance similar to that which it had for our ancestors.  Our hands are still relevant, as are all our senses, and we can rely on these when connecting with the instrument and the music.  For me, the voice of the early Irish harp is always current, we just need to listen and find the soundscapes that it offers. So first off, a fundamental cornerstone is our response to the voice of the harp, the long ring on the instrument …[music].

When you mention this long ring of the instrument, I associate it with the technique lánchrobh, one of a range of techniques we touched on earlier. Can you share your insights into this lánchrobh technique and how it has become important for you as a way of sensing into, and perhaps even surrendering into, this long ringing aspect of the old music?
This is a technique that I think was collected from Denis O’Hampsey. It is the biggest chord that is shown for the bass hand. Lánchrobh translates really as full hand.

It uses the thumb and fingers two, three and four, and yet I’m spanning na comhlaí. I can reach these notes like this …[shows]. But I really prefer putting my hand like thus …[shows]… and if you know the harp you can feel it in your palm – you can feel the fingering in your palm of the hand. So I play it …[music]… so it’s the tenth, the octave or the eighth, the fifth and the low note one. Here it would be on A-minor …[music]. I like to use a similar fingering – Bunting doesn’t show this chord and yet it shows up in the manuscripts – trying to show what O’Hampsey plays, such as in Féach an gléas, the early tuning prelude that is really in medieval form. So I like to finger it …[music]. I’m not really into show-off techniques and yet I think this is nice for the audience to see. But what I like about it is how it makes me feel doing this with my hand. It relaxes me. Instead of playing …[music]… like that, I’m able to play …[music]. It’s very relaxing for the hand to play and it makes me feel something in here (tapping chest) just physically.

Alongside the long ringing of the metal strings, do you consider accurate and precise tuning to be a cornerstone of the old tradition?
I spend a long time tuning, because I believe in really spot-on tuning. It just isn’t satisfying unless I do. There are some questions in tuning, several viable directions or approaches, but it’s not insurmountable to make some solid well-informed decisions. To show why tuning was so important in the old tradition, a most interesting technique is barrluth fosgailte.

Most of these techniques that were collected by Edward Bunting are from Denis O’Hampsey. This one catches my attention – it’s called barrluth fosgailte – and what is fascinating about this is that I play three notes but by damping, there’s a note left ringing and it sounds like I’m playing four notes. The uppermost note is left ringing. This shows a degree of sophistication that would really only be useful if you have a listening and appreciative, knowledgeable audience …[music]. I mean, to think! That ring at the end, you don’t play it. That’s sophisticated!

Can you show the method of tuning given by O’Hampsey to Bunting, which is the basis for how you yourself tune the strings on your harp? 
By the 1972 Belfast harp meeting, we know Denis O’Hampsey largely tuned having F-sharp on his harp. So by his time, really they would go straight to F-sharp in their tuning. In the key of G, this is the normal scale we use today, known as ionian mode. In other words, a G-major scale …[music].

Bunting reports that Denis O’Hampsey began tuning with two strings that are at the same pitch called na comhluí, which means lying together. The bottom one first …[music]… and then the upper one – the one closer to the player. And from there a fifth above to D, known as téad na feitheolach (translated as string of the leading sinews, or the string of melody) …[music]. And then an octave above …[music]. Then the octave below to cronán G – that would be like a drone G …[music]. From there we go to the string of the leading sinews, the D, and tune a fifth above, the A …[music]. And the octave below A/A, then A/E …[music]… then E/B …[music]… and the octave below …[music]. From there the fifth above to get the F-sharp. And there’s one string that we haven’t tuned yet – that’s the C and that is obtained by from the G – up a fourth …[music]. And then the octave above …[music]. And then the whole harp is tuned from these central strings by octaves, both up and down.

Can you talk about the string serving for both F and E in the bass range, known both as téad leagaidh and téad leagtha?

I like to point out that because of its name, meaning the string that falls (téad leagaidh) and the string fallen (téad leagtha), its primary position would be at F, not at E. So it would sound like this …[music]… C, D, F, and then C, D, F, G, so this one string serves for either E or F. In fallen position, when you have sharps elsewhere on the harp …[music]. That F is its primary position makes sense, thinking that F-sharp is a more modern feature, and this bears true in
that the medieval Welsh harp tradition, in its music tablature, they never used the bass E here. It has C, D, F. So if they did have the separate string it isn’t included in the music and so I assume they’re doing the same thing. So this is an old feature.

Can you follow through on how these bass E and F notes are interchanged when moving between G major and C major tuning?

So for all natural tuning, or C major, the F-natural is gotten from tuning a fourth above from C. So in this case, F-sharp …[music]… down to F-natural, and the octave below …[music]… and the octave below …[music]… where the E had been lowered for the F-sharp or G major tuning. So we raise it back to its more primary position …[music]… that’s téad leagaidh, and it’s now in a more primary position. I think this is what it would have been in O’Hampsey’s youth for a C major scale.

You have mentioned several times na comhluí, the neighbouring strings tuned to the same G pitch. Can you talk about how you see this set up on the early Irish harp to be a “ruling function“?

These two strings tuned to the same pitch, those were the first two strings tuned on the harp and they’re called na comhluí, which means lying together, with a strong implication of male and female lying together.  In fact the earlier form of the word, na coblataigh, means fornication. So to me these are like the godparent strings or the Adam and Eve kind of strings, and then the harp – the whole gamut of the instrument – is tuned from those two strings.

We know harpers in the old tradition used na comhluí. It was standard. I dont know if everyone did, but it was standard. Also it is mentioned in Leabhar Cholm Cille, in old Irish, trying to explain an enigmatic word cash or cesh, as being “like a church without an abbott, or a cruit without na cablataigh”, and it is thought that’s a reference to na comhluí in old irish with consenants added. And so these two strings were tuned first, lying in unison, and I think it unites the two parts of the harp – the male and female voice.

Why have two G’s – why not one? What difference does it make?
Why? Well, first of all we know they did.  So why do you need these two G’s at na comhluí, at such a cost? I mean it takes a string! It is difficult to say, and yet we know it was done.  So using na comhluí is a very important ruling function of the instrument.

And I think it is part of the magic of the instrument.  I think there could well be something to na comhluí strings being tuned to the same pitch, yet having different lengths, which may link with the instrument’s reputation for healing.

Can you talk about playing on your left shoulder
We know from wear-marks on museum instruments that in the old tradition these instruments were played on the left shoulder, not with the harp on the right shoulder as it’s done today. This left hand high, I think really, is to tune. There is a lot of tension, as the strings pull heavily on the frame, more so than on other harps. You need this robust frame to support the tension. These are just taper pins, just friction holds them in, so you have to keep them tight. When tuning using strings of other materials – whether its gut or nylon, carbon fiber modern materials, or horse hair if you’re talking old strings – they stretch a lot. So you can give a good turn and bring up the string a little bit. With metal strings the opposite is true, so you need to turn the pins only a little bit at a time. You need strength for this kind of tuning, so using the typically stronger right hand is good. But also, if you’re right handed the nails on your right hand are thicker, they’re lighter on your left. You want a thicker plectrum for the heavier strings and a thinner plectrum for the treble. So it fits that way too!

And yet there’s plenty of places in the Bunting manuscript, and plenty of other evidence,  that although the harp was played on the left shoulder, they didn’t just play with the left hand high and the right hand low.

Continuing research and experimentation

Earlier you talked about further research you would like to see done on the instrument itself. Can you talk about a few other fertile areas you see for research and experimentation more generally?
Sure. One area is the relationship between the early Irish harp and the Munster poets. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston – it’s a long story which doesn’t fit here, an amazing story – they got money for a project, and decided to build a really good museum quality playing replica of the Bunworth harp. It was originally made by a John Kelly in 1734 for the Reverend Charles Bunworth of Baltdaniel. And I was honoured to play it – the replica – in a performance on stage with the real Bunworth harp. And I got to hold and be with the real Bunworth harp as well. I worked with Dave Kortier in measuring it. It is all of willow. So it was really well studied. They did X-ray but they didn’t do CT scans, and there is MRI work which I think could be done.

Anyway, the Reverand Charles Bunworth befriended the harpers, and when harpers were old and couldn’t travel and were dying, they left their harps with him. After Bunworth died and the family were off in Cork, it is reported some stupid servant burned the harps for firewood. They were kept in the granary and it is possible they were very worm-eaten. But think of the Munster poets, and their heavy heavy duty Jacobite poetry. And here is the Reverend Bunworth, and his harp at the MFA is a total Jacobite symbol. We don’t have the repertoire he played but we know his position. He presided over the Bardic conferences  every three years, and it went on for thirty years. He would have had Latin and Irish, even though he was a Church of England, an Anglican minister.

So I think Munster poetry is great to fit to this music. Bunworth was right there, with Ó Bruadair and poets like that – he was their neighbour and friend. The Munster poets are really interesting, because syllabic poetry survived quite late there, and they were trying to continue on even though they had to work as farm labourers as they carried on their art form. Then you had mixes of syllabic poetry and amhrán in one piece, and that’s really interesting – like in the last line or verse. And trying to connect those forms. Coming afresh to this I think is really valuable to target areas that are really different from each other and also areas when things cross. And you have to see what you come up with. It’s really fertile ground!

Are there any manuscripts or printed sources you feel deserve wider attention?
People pay attention to the John & William Neal Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes, published in 1724. But what most people don’t pay attention to are Neal’s collection of Scottish pieces which came out around the same period. It is very interesting because of the difference in the scales – the keys that pieces are being played in. And the time signatures are very interesting to see, as well as the types of pieces collected. It’s something that someone could have a lot of fun working with.

The other things are the pipe sets in Ireland and the battle pieces.  Also the Irish “cries” (caoineadh) are really interesting.

What are the potential comparisons that could be made with parallel traditions?
There is a really interesting experiment I did , working with the Welsh horse-hair harp with some Cambro-Latin texts. The Latin language really asked for a different kind of music than what the Brittonic asked for. And the Brittonic was more like what we were doing with a piece of rosc poetry in what was essentially old Irish. But the Latin, instead of stressing certain syllables, it is more about “longs and shorts”. And yet the scribes – the people who were trained in writing the poetry – they weren’t just Gaelic scholars, they were Latin scholars too. They could also compose in English, and quite possibly in Greek and Hebrew.  I have to think that there is some rubbing of elbows in the meeting of these cultures and how to handle the associated music.

A lot of comparison has been done between early Irish harp traditions and parallel traditions in Scotland and Wales. I don’t think enough comparisons have been made with Scandinavia. Starting with rhythm, harmonies, types of melodies, answering those things. And learning the difference between the instruments.

You mentioned earlier the instrument had a reputation for healing. What modern settings do you think would be appropriate for the early Irish harp in a healing setting – in hospitals, or in any kind of healing environment?
Well music on any instrument which is harmonic works well. You find a lot of people with harps playing in healing settings, though they are usually playing nylon strung harps.  But what I’m trying to say is that playing na comhluí on early Irish harps with metal strings has real potential. It reminds me of binaural beats, where they de-phase the music.

I would love to do experiments.  I don’t know exactly what pitch – should you have na comhluí tuned out with each other? I mean they’re already a little different because they’re different lengths.  Should you have the gauges the same or should they be different?  Should you try to match them so the longer string is thinner than the shorter one? Should one be of silver, one of gold? Should they both be brass – should the brass be from Ireland? What effect does the difference in string lengths have?  Lots to be done, but it should be done in a setting where participants in the study could be monitored, to check respiration and heart, to check brain activity. Things like that. I think the use of na comhluí strings on the early Irish harp in healing environments is highly appropriate.

Mythology & Symbolism

In a text recounting the mythical second Cath Maighe Tuireadh (second battle of Maighe Tuireadh), there is a reference to the Dagda’s incantation, summoning his harp from a wall. Can you share your thoughts on why you believe it is a three-sided early Irish harp that is being described?
The Dagda gave the crot on the wall two names. Elizabeth Gray translates Daur Dá Bláo as “Oak of Two Meadows” and Cóir Cetharchair as meaning “Four-Angled/-Sided/-Peaked Thing.”

Many understand this four-peaked thing to describe the quadrangular stringed instruments seen on the high crosses and played by Kind David, and that this crot in the story appears to be a lyre and not a three-sided harp.

I look the at the two names for the crot and I see Daur Dá Bláo or “Oak of Two Meadows” as referring to two parts of a triangular harp like “oak of two planes”—the neck and forepillar. And Cóir Cetharchair—literally four-angled or -peaked thing—would be the soundbox. Organology (the study of musical instruments) scholar Joan Rimmer referred to this name as a quadrangular soundbox. I think (though I can’t prove it) that the crot in the story might not be the quadrangular instrument on the high crosses.  I argue instead that wisdom in Ireland knew that the instrument from the biblical lands was not their indigenous triangular frame harp (I’m not trying to argue that it is or it isn’t, just that that’s how they thought about it).

You have looked into the meaning and symbolism of three parts to the harp in Irish mythology – can you tell us about this?

I think there’s enough evidence in the the mythology and how the instrument was talked about that this (the soundbox) is equated with a female part in that it’s gendered female equating with the belly, the womb. This is the masculine forepillar, and this (the neck) is androgynous or neuter and in a way it’s like the yin-yang symbol but tripartite rather than two. And this tripartite plays into the three mystical musics that were played on the instrument: goltraí, geantraí, suantraí – crying music, laughing music and sleeping music.  And I think crying music is with both labour pains for women and also playing music to calm people, nurturing music. The forepillar represents music of activity – so music of love and war and the music of vitality. And then this part (the neck) would be other – maybe you could say spiritual or the otherworld. It’s very much like our Indo-European languages – she, he, and it or they. And it sort of goes on from there. These two strings (na comhluí) …[music]… that’s a feature that all the harps have and it goes back into old Irish which is pre-900.  There is commentary that this is a feature associated with the crot. I think it’s important because the Shrine of St Mogue is the earliest depiction we have of this instrument.  However the language for crot / cruit goes much earlier and I think it’s reasonable to translate – unless there’s a reason not to translate it this way – crot / cruit as a three-sided harp. Many scholars and musicologists don’t understand the implications of the form of the instrument, they don’t know enough about it to do so.

Can you tell the story of the first harp in Ireland?

The Irish origin story for the harp is that a woman detests her husband and she’s running from him and he’s following her, chasing her through Ireland. She goes up north to the mouth of the river Bann, the river Woman. That’s at the strand along the ocean there. There’s the carcass of a beached sea monster there and the wind blows through its bones or sinews, and the sound of it puts the woman to sleep and the husband is over looking on the cliff. It’s cool they say this because at that very strand, Benone Strand, there are these high cliffs – I mean it really is cool. He thinks “oh if I could please my wife like that”, and so he makes the first crot or cruit from parts of the whale. There’s one other version where he goes into the woods for appropriate material. And that’s the origin story.

So you can see, I think that the beached sea monster was a whale and that strand is in Ireland is known for whales beaching. A whale, an early whale of the area is the bow headed right whale. The skeleton of the bow headed right whale, if it were on the strand, you’d largely see the spine would be like this …[shows]… and what would show is the skull structure. The profile – my mouth just dropped when I saw it in a book on whales, written by an Irishman – the harp is in this shape …[shows]… so the eye would be here, and this would be the bottom and coming up here …[shows]… and this is where the mouth would open. The baleen, these are large strands – sort of like fingernails but it’s compressed hair, like horse hair often. On an adult right whale they might be twelve to fourteen feet tall, and – I have to look it up – three or four hundred of these in the mouth. Do you see? I’m thinking that it’s the origin story because it has this shape. So anyhow that’s one of the symbol animals.

Then this zoomorphic figure I think is a two-headed eel. The Book of Kells might have fish in it but they’ve got big carpet pages – these are elaborate illuminated manuscripts of twisted serpents – and if you follow their bodies along they have fins and so must be water serpents. We know Ireland didn’t have snakes. Then the Irish word for this (harmonic curve on the harp) is cór, which is really the same word for crane, the bird. Then when the crane becomes extinct in Ireland, the name cór is given other long necked water birds like heron and egret.

But back to Benone Strand – I never finished my story! That’s the strand near where Denis O’Hampsey, the last of the early Irish harpers, was born and lived. I consider him the last because he was the last playing in the old style with long nails. You know it sort of peters and dribbles on, but I have Denis O’Hampsey as the last. People played Irish harps but they they were later ones and they played with their finger pads and not nails, and it changed lots. So for me the end of the old tradition is with 97 year old Denis O’Hampsey. He was 97 in in 1792 when they collected his music. He died at 114 years of age. He was born near the end of the 1600s and lived into the 1800s. He lived in three centuries.

Anyway Benone Strand is next to where Denis O’Hampsey  lived, and his patron was in also this area. So you’ve got the whale as the symbol animal of the harp, the skull structure of the whale looks like the harp lying on its back. Well, the right whale was nearly fished out when Denis O’Hampsey died. So the symbol animal of the instrument went down just like the instrument. And now the right whale has a slight come back, but it’s still really endangered. So you know, I see a relationship with this instrument and the right whale. Isn’t there a beauty to that?

That is beautiful. I think it’s a nice place to wrap up our conversation. Thanks so much! How about one more piece to play us out?
Sure. I’ll play a favourite of mine, called called Virgo Sancta Brigida.


Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art Interview Series was funded through the Arts Council Deis Recording and Publication Award

Selected links from the interview