“This early Irish harp is an instrument for which that famous phrase ‘less is more’ is quite true. So you need to take care with ornaments. They are there to give more meaning and beauty to the melody. But if you use too many, you will destroy the whole thing.”
– Javier Sáinz
Words & images: Mícheál Ó Catháin
From the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, Javier Sáinz is a pioneer in the revival of the early Irish harp. Deeply rooted in Cantabrian and Galician culture with its rich Celtic connections, Javier has long been fascinated by the early culture, poetry and music of Ireland and Scotland. As well as his own native early Spanish harp music, he plays Irish and Scottish music of the 16th to 18th centuries on his replica of the Lamont Harp, a brass and gold strung early Scottish cláirseach from c.1500.
I began this conversation with Javier in 2014, and we revisited the themes again in 2018, when I also filmed his playing of original and new compositions belonging to the old tradition. Of the many insights which Javier shares, I particularly admire his nuanced thinking on technique – here’s what he says:
“Technique is something that grows from the inside of the instrument itself. So all you need is time and patience and finally you will find an easier, more secure way of playing, and that is the technique. Ultimately, this is the shortest path to creating music.”
Follow Javier’s work online at:
We cover the following topics in this broad-ranging conversation:
1. Jointure & Jigg – Javier plays his version of this beautiful piece, recorded over 200 years ago in both the Neal Collection and Bunting manuscripts, and shares in-depth insights into his 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. Javier’s musical journey and how he arrived at the early Irish harp
3. Meeting others in the early Irish harp community
4. Insights into the design of the early Irish harp – having a harp made, string spacing, na comhluí, origins of left shoulder playing
5. Tuning – developing the ear, tuning systems – Pythagorean, mean tone, Equal Temperament
6. Manuscript and printed sources
7. Composing new pieces in the old tradition – Javier shares his thoughts on composing in the historical idiom, once the foundations of the old tradition are mastered. He plays two pieces.
8. The film clip which closes the interview – Javier’s newly composed McKenna’s Air and Variations – is a beautiful portrait of Javier, his harp – a gold-strung Lamont replica, and his music.
For a selection of links to things mentioned during the interview, scroll to the bottom of this page.
JOINTURE & JIGG
Mícheál Ó Catháin:
Javier, for this interview you have prepared an arrangement of the Jointure and Jigg, a beautiful piece recorded over 200 years ago in both the Neal Collection and Bunting manuscripts. This is a piece explored independently by each artist in the Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art interview series. I’m excited to learn your unique approach to this piece, what musical choices you make based on your insights into the old tradition, and the elements of your own style which show up.
Sure. Well here it is …[music].
So Javier, which version of the Jointure did you look at, both the Bunting and the Neal? And when you chose, why, which one did you find more appealing?
Well I had a look at both versions. I found the John and William Neal version more interesting and I just preferred the melody. I found it was somehow easier to imbue with meaning in my arrangement. This was especially true with the Jointure air – the jig is more fluent, its melody almost volunteers chord options. In the case of the Jointure air, I have to say it is not an easygoing melody. It took longer to make an arrangement because the melody is quite open and it doesn’t indicate very much which direction to go. There are many open doors.
The John and William Neal version was published as we know in 1724. According to information we have, the Jointure air at least, and probably the jig also, were composed by Thomas Connellan. He was active from the second half of the 17th century, so the Neal version is relatively close in era to Connellan’s own lifetime.
We need to consider that at the time of printing, good harpers were still active, following the tradition. There were more harpers in 1724 than at the end of the 18th century at the Belfast harp meeting with Bunting and O’Hampsey. In this first part of the 18th century there were still harpers, like Carolan for example, Lyons, etc.
So it all means to me that the Neal version, is in fact closer to the original. In any case I played both versions, and my inclination was directed to John & William Neal. As it happens, the Neal collection is one of my favorite sources. So I decided to work on that, on the Neal version.
And this being said you need to be clear when making an arrangement of these two tunes that they go together, one after the other. One being an air, a slow air, with a lot of feeling
and expression. And then the jig is more lively. It is fundamental for any arrangement to clearly separate the spirit of the two tunes. What I mean is not to play the air too fast, the jig in a normal speed because otherwise, there is no contrast. So what we need here is, whatever the arrangement, to create a contrast. So the slow air should be played slow, and then the jig in a normal speed, let’s say it will be a good contrast. Sometimes the tendency could be to play the air a little faster, but then this contrast doesn’t work.
So the air required much more time to find an arrangement. Especially the beginning of the tune where in the Neal version it is in 4/4 time. At the beginning there are several bars in which half of the bar is without notes. So you need to fill that somehow, to fill the
bar with the arrangement. Otherwise the melody doesn’t flow.
In making an arrangement, once you know which chords you are going to use, you need to develop your imagination and try to find different combinations and possibilities. You become closer to whatever idea you have in your mind. And that’s the way it works. Some other melodies are so meaningful in themselves that the arrangement goes quicker but in this case it is a difficult melody. You are not sure what the meaning of the melody itself is.
First you need to find different chords for the first three beats, landing on the G-major which as an arriving point. So this G-major which is sat in the middle of the bar, you need to develop that. The first time I played the A part, let’s say… once you find the chords, which in my opinion are B, E-minor, and then G-major. So like this, adding some ornaments …[music].
So then I give a whole chord of G going down. I have used this technique …[shows]… in the last year, to give more – because this is a slow air – to give more expression and deepness to the bass. I sometimes use the the second finger, not playing with the nail but in a vertical position playing with the flesh, that gives a more rounded, [deeper] sound. In this case it works, in my opinion, very well …[music].
The second and third bar, again, we have this empty space that you need to fill again with the same chord, G-major. An important point here is if you look to the melody at the end of the first part, which you then need to repeat again, it’s a single note covering the whole bar, four beats. So obviously there, if you [play only that single note in the melody, with no bass] there’s a lot of empty time. So you need to fill that, and in this case I decided to create a dissonant movement playing a chord of G-major, but then I introduced the C, the four-chord, to create a little tension, maintaining the interest, and then resolving finally in G.
The first ending …[music]… and ending the melody, well the bass if you like, in B, in a third.
This is the ending of the first A [part]. The ending of the second A [part] has to be bigger, more definitive. So that’s why I used …[music]… so I end with a big bass. Yeah I do the same C and then B …[music].
At the start of the B-part… well the melody starts on the E note …[music].
So obviously it’s not going to be the chord of G because the E is not in that chord. Right? In the chord of G the three notes are G, B, D. So we have an E here at the start. So that immediately [directs] my attention to find another chord.
E-minor didn’t work. C worked very well because there is a progression – next we go to G major so …[music]. So it’s the same pattern again, it’s repeating … and now …[music]. So it’s basically the same theme but in a different [register]. So the first is C and then it’s G-major. [Music]… and now it is the resolution, because it is looking for resolution which is this beautiful moment …[music]. And now the typical D-major into G-major …[music].
This is the most difficult point in the whole melody, to find out harmonies here, because it’s very rich. That’s why I started to really like the tune. It is quite rich from a harmonic point of view. The melody is very well constructed.
I’m really interested in the pair of three note motifs or themes you have identified, one in each half of the Jointure air, and how you relate them to each other. Could you play each, to show what you mean?
In the first part, the main theme is this here …[music]… etc., and it is repeated.
In my arrangement, by the way, the second time I play the first part I change the octave just here [at this moment] …[music]… and now I’m back to …[music]. Now …[music]… this is the C, etc. So it keeps going, and then after playing this …[music]… it is not the same melody but it’s the same rhythmical [decending pattern]. There are the same [intervals between] notes and the same pattern, but with different notes.
And not only in the chord of E as in here …[music]… the chord doesn’t change. But here there are some movements …[music]… and now we are back to the first part again, so the ending of the B-part is the same as the A-part. This is something which is quite typical in the Irish and Scottish music.
I was wondering when you said at the start of the B-part that the E-minor chord wouldn’t work. Can you elaborate?
I’ll say it in this way. Any important note you have, let’s say you have a G in the melody. Automatically this G could belong to three chords only. Which are the chords which the G note is in. So the main choice is G major obviously …[music]. It could be E-minor …[music]… or it could be C. Obviously there are no other possibilities because, for example, there is no G in the chord of D.
So that gives you a first aid whenever finding the chord. Knowing that as a note of the melody, it could belong to three chords. So you need to choose, and in choosing, the present moment of that note is important. But always you need to think in the progression …what is next? In this case to me it’s obvious that the C is a beautiful beginning of the B-part. Suddenly a C-major chord. And then it is obvious that it needs to move to G-major – that’s my approach in any case.
Why not play the E-minor, I’m curious?
Well, so …[music].
It is possible to play the E-minor chord. As I was saying it could be E-minor, it could be C-major or could be A-minor. My option was C because of this progression then from C to G. And because after the beginning of the B-part, we are going to arrive at E, and the E[-chord] is going to be there. But this beginning of the B-part, I found it more interesting to give place to a new theme – so starting with C – and then we will inevitably arrive at E. If I had played E, well it’s fine, it works, and then G-major. But then you will arrive to E, so … well, it’s an option.
You like that transition going from C-major to G-major?
No, from G-major which is the end of the first part, into the second part starting with the C-major.
Yeah, and so you consider that to be an important transition?
To me it gives interest. It clearly sustains the melody. And from an harmonic point of view it makes sense.
E-minor is another option – I will not deny that. So that’s the compromise. In doing an arrangement you need sometimes to choose. Understanding what I was going to do next I thought C-major works better, in my arrangement. In another arrangement E-minor could be beautiful. This is the open thing, especially for air melodies like this. It’s complex. And in the melody there is a little ambiguity. So you need to take decisions.
What mode do you consider the piece to be in?
Well this is another ambiguous question to reply to. Because let’s say that all the endings in the first part and in second power go to G-major ending. This is a very … not modal way, but [reflecting] modern harmony, Baroque. So at least half of the A-part and half of the B-part – the endings – are in G-major. It is like Miss Hamilton by Cornelius Lyons, which is a G-major tune clearly, but it is melancholy. That combination of major chords G, and being not “happy”, I find those tunes very interesting.
The transition from modal music to tonal music cannot be given an exact date. There are many mixtures and experiments along the way. But if I need to choose I’d say this is a G-major air, with modal things.
In this sense C-major makes sense [at the start of the B-part] because as you know in a major tune, the most important chords are the tonic, let’s say G, and then C- and D-chords. So the chord of C, if this is a G-major tune, it is important to define the tonality.
But as I am saying to you there is not an exact moment that composer left the modal system and went to the tonal.
Can we talk about your arrangement of the Jigg?
Yes. Here in this jig, the first part starts here, on this G …[music]… then it goes to D.
But it is up in the upper treble end, in this octave …[shows]. If I play the ending …[music]. So you see that at the beginning of the second part is this low low D …[shows]. Usually it is the opposite, the tendency is to give more brilliancy [in the B-part], so going up.
I found that that’s beautiful and that’s why I put the whole chord of G at that moment, at the start of the second part of the jig. In the first part I’m using this G-chord basically …[shows]. At the beginning …[music]. And ending in this G …[music]. And now I made the big chord of G while going down with a melody. These are ways, in my opinion, to sustain the interest in the melody.
So if I take just the melody the ending of the first part it is more simple …[music].
In the ending of the second part the harmony is the same, but what the composer does – in a very clever way because it gives interesting to the ending – he adds more notes. So if I play the ending of the second part …[music].
This is a very musical thing to do – just to add more notes keeping the same harmony. So the audience surely know that they are arriving at the end of the piece. A final explosion of light! It’s very common to do this in Baroque music, this is a good example of it.
Can you play that ending to the jig B-part once more, a little slower?
It would be great to learn what ornamentation you use for the jig.
Ornamentation is an essential part in an arrangement, and the way I understand ornamentation is just to give more meaning to the important notes of the melody. The ornament I use the most, I think – because sometimes you develop this instinctively – but I think that the ornament I use most is the simple… let me see, at the beginning for example …[music]… this. I use this ornament all through the tune.
Towards the ending of the B-part – which as I was saying is the same harmonically as the A-part – at the beginning of that movement I use a different ornament. This is precisely to give a signal that something new is coming, which are all these new additional notes …[music].
But again, this [should only be done] at important points of the melody. In this
ornament I was using a note that I’ve never used before. It’s not in the melody. It’s this C at the top, it is the most treble sound in the whole arrangement. So that also keeps the attention of the ear because it is something new.
It is very important to say, at the end of the jig I needed to choose an option between the typical ending of G-major only, or, to do something to prolong with different notes. And I decided that using different notes was a way to return to the air, by using the same device as I use all through the air.
So in this way, the two tunes are brought closer together. Otherwise, the Jigg has nothing to do musically with the Jointure air. You have some other tunes – air and jig – where both are absolutely related in the theme. One example of this is Port Patrick. Actually in this case, the jig is the air played in 6/8.
But in the case of the Jointure and Jigg there is a beautiful air, and then a jig, and there is no relationship, no pattern in the melody, shared by the two tunes. So that is why I like to do this at the end of the Jigg, as a remembering of the Jointure air. I’ll play this ending again to show this effect …[music].
You mentioned the piece Port Patrick there. Could you play this?
I’ll play an excerpt, the A-parts of both the air and the jig, to show how they are clearly related. The full piece can be found in James Oswald’s publication The Caledonian Pocket Companion from 1745.
So here I was playing [the A-parts of] the beautiful Scottish air Port Patrick. It is an air [followed by] a jig. I think it’s quite easy to hear in the music that it’s basically the same tune. What the composer did was to change the shape of the notes giving another rhythm. So the jig is in 6/8, in double time.
Different to this is our case, the Jointure, where you have an air and then, immediately afterwards, a jig. But they are not related musically. That’s why in my arrangement at the end of the jig I finished with a long chord using the same device as I did all through the air. It’s a tricky way let’s say, at least at the very end, to make a connection between the jig and the previous air.
JAVIER’S MUSICAL JOURNEY
Can you explain how you became a musician in the first place, and then also how you arrived at the early Irish harp?
Naturally as a child I was attracted just by sound. The beauty of sound, of hearing notes.
A next step was when I was 10 years old. I come from Spain where the guitar is a very common instrument. You take a guitar and you pluck the strings, and then you start to learn that its sound is beautiful in itself, but that you can’t produce the sound you want. So here starts the learning of the instrument. And that takes a whole life, because you never stop learning.
Another, more philosophical step, is when you start understanding music as a means of expression. The language of music in itself – with the consonance and dissonance, the tonic and so on – there is a perfect correspondence between music itself and the whole of Nature, which is fascinating. That’s a philosophical side of the harp and of music generally.
So I started studying classical guitar at music school. But then I was fascinated by hearing Derek Bell playing. That was when I was 20 years old, and I realised I was really attracted to the harp. So I saved some money and bought my first harp, which was a neo-Irish harp. But without any teacher I had to do the work by myself. From the very beginning, I adopted the natural position in which all the historical harps are being played, not the classical or pedal harp position. Naturally I was playing like that – it was an instinctive. I kept going on that instrument. At the same time as I was learning the technique and tunes, I was listening very much to Derek Bell and Allison Kinnaird. As I listened I was going deeper and deeper into that older tradition. And that meant I really needed a wire-strung harp.
So, when I started on the wire-strung harp in the 1990s, I already had the correct technique. As I said, with the gut-strung or Neo-Irish harp I had already been using basically the same technique, with damping, the historical position of the hand, all of that. It was not a traumatic change at all. Later I bought a renaissance harp, and again that requires basically the same technique. So happily enough from the very beginning I practiced this historical technique.
There were no teachers in those days, thirty years ago. I remember talking about this with Bill Taylor, the Scottish harper, and basically he had the same story. He started out alone with the wire strung harp, as did several others I have since met. We all arrived at similar conclusions. So at different points on planet Earth about thirty years ago, different musicians – by playing on historical instruments – were independently converging on similar practices for wire-strung harp technique.
I believe the musical technique of an instrument – any instrument – is not something you invent. It is something that grows from the inside of the instrument itself. So all you need is time and patience and finally you will find an easier, more secure way of playing, and that is the technique. Ultimately, this is the shortest path to creating music.
Then there is the whole realm of style – every musician needs technique, but after that it is their own personality that is showing through.
So Derek Bell is the first influence that led you to the wire-strung harp?
To be fair and complete, Derek Bell, and especially the long play record Chieftains 5. I remember when Derek Bell took a wire-strung harp and played Tabhar dom do lámh by Rory Dall Ó Catháin – that was magic.
And also a Spanish harper Emilio Cao who played the Celtic harp. He was from Galicia in the north west of Spain. In 1977 he produced a beautiful long play record Fonte do Araño. That sound really impressed me. I always loved that recording.
On the Scottish side, at the beginning of the 1980s, Allison Kinnaird was clearly the most interesting player in Scotland. Though then she was still playing the gut-strung harp, later she moved to the wire-strung harp also.
Those three were my inspirations at the beginning.
It sounds like you were ploughing your own furrow, creating your own path, with few enough influences. Not like we have today, where we can go to Scoil na gCláirseach for example, to listen and learn from great tutors all in one place.
The main difference is that today anyone interested in the early Irish harp, he or she has channels to harp-makers and teachers. So it’s much easier in this way than thirty years ago. But at the end of the day, it is still a personal journey. It is good to have a teacher, but even with that guide, you then need to put in the work by yourself, in solitude.
You’re from the north of Spain. Can you describe where you grew up?
I was born in a little region on the north coast of Spain, called Cantabria. To the east is the Basque country, to the west is Asturias, and further west again is Galicia. Some people don’t know this, since Spain is obviously a Mediterranean country, but the north part of Spain is quite different in climate. This is because of the mountains, the Pyrenees that separate France and Spain. The Pyrenees don’t stop on the border, they keep going west up to Galicia. So the north side of Spain, on the northern side of the Pyrenees, has Atlantic weather. The landscape is completely green. The temperature is 3 or 4 degrees higher than in Ireland, which is beautiful.
So my landscape growing up was not the beautiful Mediterranean landscape of olive trees and so on, but it was very much a landscape of leaves and green grass and wonderful woods. Happily this landscape is still intact in the north of Spain today. Immense oak and beech woods.
And so I was born in that atmosphere. I think I clearly understood early on that in Europe there are links between the land and the culture. I could see a main focus of the European cultural tradition in the Mediterranean – more precisely in Greece and in southern Italy. These places form a kind of heart for the whole Mediterranean culture, spreading from there to Spain, Southern France, etc. And then I could see on the Atlantic side – to me this was clear – that somehow Scotland and Ireland had preserved something really old. That they formed a heart of that part of Atlantic Europe.
So I was naturally attracted by Irish music and poetry, and all these kinds of things. The same as a person from the south of Spain could be attracted to old Greek music and history. It doesn’t mean that I am not interested in Greek culture, in fact I’m totally interested in Greek philosophy and such things. But I’m talking about something deeper, which is the landscape in which you are born. I think this has enormous meaning in the life of many people, on the way they look at the world.
In another interview in this Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art series, Ann Heymann suggests a fascinating link between the shape of the Trinity harp lying on its back, and the skull of a Right whale. I’m wondering if this reflects a link between this early Irish harp and the countries along the Atlantic coast of northern Europe.
No, this is poetry. I think it is obvious that when the triangular harp was created, they were not thinking about whales. They just took a functional view. Actually the innovation they invented here in Ireland or in the west of Scotland, was to add the fore-pillar to join the neck and the soundboard. Previous harps in Egypt or Mesopotamia were semi-circular or angled harps, without a fore-pillar.
So this three-sided harp is the invention that took place here in Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland. But – at least in my view – it is obvious that in creating a three-sided harp, which is a very practical and functional thing, they were not thinking about whales.
However in poetic terms, the three-sided harp may then have been considered to look like a whale skull and the strings like golden hair, etc. There are a lot of different myths, stories and symbolism associated with the harp.
For me, the functional and the poetic are two different things.
So that is a fascinating insight into the landscape you grew up in on the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, and the draw you felt towards Scotland and Ireland. So when you first heard Derek Bell’s playing, did you already have that feeling of shared cultural links?
In the north and north-west of Spain we don’t have the musical richness of Ireland, but tales and traditions are strong. For example, many tales feature mythological wee people. These stories are very similar to those in Ireland. The atmosphere of these tales is very similar – misty I would say, and close to a wild nature. Not clear cut like Mediterranean traditions which are very bright, where all shapes of objects are clear, blue skies and all that. On these Atlantic shores, the shapes of everything are more… not so clear. It is related to the rain and the mist which are commonplace in these regions. So that is the atmosphere where I was born. That’s it.
In Gallicia and Asturias, I’m aware that there is a piping tradition.
Oh yes, in Cantabria too. And in Galicia there are two kinds of pipes. There is no wire-strung harp tradition, that is unique to Ireland and Scotland. Though in Spain there is a great tradition of other historical harps – Medieval, Renaissance and the Spanish Baroque harps.
MEETING OTHERS IN THE EARLY IRISH HARPING COMMUNITY
Can you talk about the revival of the early Irish harp in recent years?
We are dealing with a very particular, a very special kind of harp. Though it was definitely played widely during Irish and Scottish history, it was never as popular an instrument as say the acoustic guitar is today. Obviously we also have what we call the Celtic or neo-Irish harp which is very much played, among other reasons because it is easier to play. At least this is my experience, having played for years on both instruments.
The work at Scoil na gCláirseach for instance is wonderful and fundamental and the number of people involved in the playing of this instrument is gradually increasing. But we can’t expect to rival the popularity of other instruments. However there are measures, and by these measures the popularity of the early Irish harp is increasing in a good direction.
I have noticed for the last few years an increase in the knowledge about the early Irish harps themselves, and that more of the various manuscripts are being explored and rigorously re-interpreted. So maybe we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of the number of harpers. Certainly we’re here today talking about the current state of the art. An art which is being practiced again in the past thirty to forty years, drawing back various curtains which go back to the 1792 Belfast harp meeting at least. We have a lot of information in manuscript form, in published arrangements based on those manuscripts, and many other related companions and reference books. These sources are now becoming more – not mainstream – but the musicians involved are becoming much more familiar with this work and starting to play it out, performing these pieces from the old tradition on accurate replica instruments. At least that’s what I’ve noticed – has that been your experience also?
Yes, well the work in the last thirty years – the recovery of this instrument, the repertoire, sources, techniques – has been immense. So the level of knowledge we have now is much bigger and substantial. Mind you thirty years ago, it was almost a desert.
In terms of sources, today most of the sources are printed in facsimiles, not only in Ireland but also in Scotland. The makers of the harps are improving. At the beginning it was difficult to find someone able to do it – to make an early Irish harp accurate in relation to the museum originals.
Now you can choose from various harp-makers of the early Irish harp, and the quality is increasing. It is the same with other historical harps, Renaissance harps, Baroque harps. We were a little late compared to the lute or the harpsichord. The recovery for these instruments started earlier, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The early Irish harp was virtually abandoned, and since the end of the 1970s, we have come a long way along the road to recovery – of recovering our knowledge of the museum instruments, the music, and the playing techniques.
So how did you then meet Siobhán Armstrong, Ann Heymann and others in the early Irish harping community?
I met them at the same time, and in the same place. In January 2002, in Glasgow, there was an informal congress in a big Victorian house. A congress on fingernail technique. There I met not only Ann Heymann and Siobhán Armstrong, but also Simon Chadwick, Barnaby Brown the Scottish piper, and Bill Taylor who I knew before. Coincidently, it was right at the beginning of the Euro currency. It’s only a curiosity, but that is why I remember the date – the very first month with the new Euro coins and paper. And the following summer, in August 2003, was the first Scoil na gCláirseach, with just Siobhán and Ann teaching. That was the very first, in the same place it is in now, Kilkenny.
Had you met anyone at that congress before?
The only one I knew from before was Bill Taylor, who lives in Strathpeffor not far from Inverness. I met him at a traditional French music festival in the middle of France, Saint-Chartier. It was a very good festival, surrounding a castle in a park, with a lot of instrument makers. That was in the 1990s. Bill Taylor was there playing an Ardival harp. Ardival Harps is a company based in Strathpeffor and Bill Taylor is involved in the production of wire strung and gut strung historical harps, as the designer in the workshops. That’s when we met.
This is something I’m starting to understand – going back to the 1990’s and earlier, if you wanted to play the early Irish or wire-strung harp, you either had to be harp maker yourself, or you had to work very closely with a harp maker. What was your experience?
It is always risky to order a harp – you never know what will arrive. Naturally there are some better harp-makers than others, but even with the best maker possible, there are many factors influencing the final quality.
At the beginning of the 1990s I was on a trip to Brittany. I met a man who made wire-strung harps. And I ordered one. It took two years – a long time. I can’t remember his name. It looked wonderful, but I didn’t like the sound.
Then through Bill Taylor and Alison Kinnaird, I met Robert Evans from Wales. To my knowledge he was the first to start making near-exact replicas. He made Alison Kinnaird a harp. Robert Evans had an apprentice at the time, Guy Flockhart, and Guy made my first Lamont replica. The Lamont harp is a 15th century Scottish harp. Guy also made the reproduction, at the Collins Barracks museum, of the Cloyne Harp. He decorated this harp colourfully. Anyway, that was my first Lamont.
So you arrived at this congress in 2002 in Glasgow with your Guy Flockhart Lamont replica. And the following summer, in 2003, you went to Scoil with that harp?
No, I first went to Scoil na gCláirseach in 2005.
Ah that’s when we first met I think.
Yes, that was in 2005. But back to the 2002 congress in Glasgow – one of the aims was to produce a CD-ROM of early Irish and Scottish harp technique. It was published in 2012 by Siubhal, the label directed by Barnaby Brown. The idea was to feature three players – Ann Heymann, Bill Taylor and myself – filming the hands working on the strings, and playing pieces of different levels of difficulty. The associated book includes all the music played, with the fingering and a lot of information.
For someone who lives remote from any teacher, that CD-ROM could be a help as a starting point, providing a look at some advanced players. The footage of the hands is very clear, to the extent that you can see all my mistakes (laughing)! As I said, you are alway learning. That was in 2002, and my learning process still continues.
Right now we are trying to get a snapshot of the early Irish harp – the current state of the art. That congress sounds like it would have given a snapshot in 2002, ten years before the first conversations in this Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art series of interviews. It’s a good placeholder for anyone tracking back the development of the most recent revival.
For anyone looking back in 80 years time, lets say, that congress will be an important date, a milestone in what will hopefully be a full recovery of this instrument.
Scoil then, in 2005. Were you playing your current Lamont harp at this stage?
At Scoil in 2005 I had my Flockhart Lamont. But this harp on front of me here is my second Lamont.
INSIGHTS INTO THE DESIGN OF THE EARLY IRISH HARP
Is this a David Kortier instrument?
Can you explain how you collaborated with David Kortier on the making of this harp?
He is a wonderful professional, based in Minnesota in the U.S. He has all the plans and templates of the early Irish harp museum instruments and produces exact replicas from these templates. So basically I didn’t have to do anything – except to wait and pay at the end.
Of course I insisted that the spacing of the strings should be exact, as with the original. Other than that, I left it all up to him, trusting his professional judgement. That said, I was praying, because it is alway risky when you order a harp. In this case I was quite happy with the result.
I think it is a beautiful sweet sounding harp
Also I like the aesthetic of the Lamont harp. It is very austere and it is my preference not to have many carvings – that’s a personal thing.
It would be very interesting to know more about this. Because this is one of the early instruments that Kortier made, alongside the two Trinity harps that he made, which Siobhán Armstrong and Ann Heymann play. Can you tell us the story of how this Kortier Lamont was made?
This harp was made in 2008, so isn’t really one of Kortier’s first early Irish harp replicas. Siobhán Armstrong and Ann Heymann’s harps were made earlier. So this harp came a little later and it is a fair and exact replica – particularly in the spacing of the strings. With all these museum harps, the spacing between the bass strings is narrower than the rest of the harp and this is what I wanted, an instrument absolutely faithful to the original. In the 1990s Kortier was not yet using this varying spacing between bass strings.
Does the Lamont have the full joint at the base of the fore-pillar, that we can tell exactly where the lowest note was?
That’s a little different to the Trinity, for which we don’t actually know what that angle was, or how the lowest note was strung.
For the bass strings below the G’s of na comhluí the spacing is quite a bit narrower than for the treble strings above na comhluí. Is that related to being able to do more intricate techniques up in the treble end?
In my opinion, this difference in spacing is clearly related to how makers produced the holes for the tuning-pins in the neck of the harp. A consequence of this, as I will explain, is the need to have na comhluí – the two adjacent strings tuned to the same pitch.
There is no ‘magic’ or esoteric philosophy needed to explain na comhluí, in my opinion. The simple magic of reality is enough. There has to be a practical reason as we are dealing with a musical instrument created to make music.
Once I began playing an accurate replica, the reason becomes quite clear to me. Accurate replicas have narrower spacing between strings in the bass. Evidence suggests that when making holes in the neck for the tuning-pins, makers in the old days kept the same distance between them. Consequently, due to the higher elevation of the neck where the bass strings go, the spacing between the bass strings was different – narrower – than the rest of the strings. This makes playing more difficult – especially if you are blind as was commonplace for the old harpers – as it destroys the uniform distance of intervals like the octave, a fundamental interval to have in the memory of the fingers. To correct this anomaly they – most probably the musicians – added an extra string precisely where it was most effective – right above the highest bass string which had a narrower spacing, and closer to the normal spacing area. In this way for a harp starting in GG all the bass octaves were then equal to the rest of the harp.
This is my opinion, an opinion based on my own experience with the instrument. When in the 1990s I received my first Lamont by Guy Flockhart, it was also exactly a replica in the spacing of the strings. That difference in the spacing of the strings was something I wasn’t aware of. And most makers those days were using equal spacing between the strings. Then I looked at good photos of the original and I could see that, yes, the spacing is narrower there.
As a beginner I decided “I don’t want two Gs, I’m going to remove one”. So I took off one of na comhluí strings. And it was impossible – I mean very difficult to play – because I was dealing with two different octave distances. So after a week or two I decided to go back to na comhluí, and immediately I realized it was much easier in this way, that this was a pragmatic reason for na comhluí strings.
I’m trying to give a practical answer, a real one that resolves a problem. What I’m saying is difficult to understand unless you have an accurate replica regarding the strings spacing. A conclusion of what I’m saying is, if I’m right in my opinion about na comhluí – that if you have an early Irish harp with equal spacing throughout – it would be incorrect or illogical to have na comhluí strings. This is because you are going to create problems where there are no problems – you are going to destroy the octave equality by adding a comhluí string in among strings which already have an equal spacing. You will get two octave distances when previously you had only one. And that’s no good.
Is there anywhere where your hand spacing has to change as you go down, playing octaves. In other words, if you’re playing octaves up in the treble end, your fingers are set a certain distance apart. As you down is there any point where you have to adjust the distance?
Yes, in the last three strings at the bottom, EE, DD and CC, the distance is reduced. But down as far as na comhluí G, it is equal. Which is good enough. On a harp with the first bass in GG -and not in CC as the Lamont- all octave distances are equal.
Have you thoughts about playing on the left shoulder?
For me there have always been two mysteries with this instrument. I’ve been thinking about it often, as many other people have. One of those is na comhluí – why?! So you have heard my theory. And the other mystery is that from the very beginning the early Irish harp was played on the left shoulder. This is quite original in the sense that all the harps in the world are played on the right shoulder, as usually 95% of the people are right handed. So why was this harp played on the left shoulder, using the left hand to play the melody, and with the right playing the bass? I have my own theory for this also, and if you like I can explain.
OK. I do not make any publications or articles, and so this could be a good chance to explain myself. I always say to new people coming to me to study, that playing with the harp on the left-shoulder was the way it was played, that it was the tradition in the old days. So if you play on the left shoulder, wonderful. My explanation for this particular way of playing – resting the harp on the left shoulder – is not a technique that is demanded by the instrument in itself. It can equally well be played on the right side also. Instead, I believe that playing on the left shoulder started with musicians from the lyre tradition. I’ll try to explain this. As we can see on stone crosses for instance, we know that before the triangular harp was created, say a thousand years ago, the stringed instrument in Ireland and in Scotland was the lyre. For centuries, in a hereditary way within a family, that was the stringed instrument that professional musicians were playing. How? As in Greece and everywhere. As you know a lyre is an instrument with a U-shape. It has more or less seven strings. So it is natural for a right handed person to hold one arm of the lyre with the left hand and to pluck the strings with the right hand. This means that in a natural way, the lyre is resting on the left side of the body as you play.
So now, you need to imagine a lyre player. Let’s say in the south of Ireland, around Cork. During many previous generations in the family, actually for centuries, they were playing the lyre the way I was saying. But now imagine one day a person suddenly arrived to the south of Ireland with a new instrument, the harp. This new instrument was probably smaller than this 15th century Lamont instrument, and probably with less strings. So the natural answer to the new triangular instrument was to hold the instrument by the pillar with the left hand and rest it on the left side of the body while using the right hand to play perhaps sixteen strings or so. Over the years the harps were increasing in size and number of strings, but they kept playing in that position, and naturally if you are holding the harp on the left the next thing to do if you use two hands is to use the left hand for the treble, and the right hand for the bass. In playing the harp on the left shoulder it would be impractical or illogical to use the right hand for the treble and the left for the bass. Likewise, on the right shoulder would be unnatural to use the left for the treble and the right for the bass. So the position of the hands is determined by the shoulder you’re playing on, and that shoulder, in this case the left, is determined by a tradition of centuries of lyre players who used the left side of their bodies to rest the lyre on.
Most probably the first harp players in Ireland also played the lyre. Or if not, they abandoned the lyre just as they adopted the new instrument. So they were musicians changing their instrument but not their profession. It was only natural for them to keep playing the new instrument resting on the same shoulder. And as you know Irish traditional culture is very conservative in the good sense of the word. So if something was working they kept it that way – in this case playing on the left.
Regarding recovering the old technique, the point I made earlier is worth repeating. Any technique has to be demanded by the instrument. For example, the early Irish harp has metal strings, and that means we need fingernails to play. The spacing between the strings is such that we are not going to play as we would the classical harp. Instead we adopt this more natural hand shape with the fingers pointing directly to the strings. Metal strings mean the sound will sustain for a long time, so we also need the technique of selective damping. So the answer to many technical questions comes directly from the instrument.
All that said, the instrument in itself does not insist, does not demand of any player “you have to play me on the left or on the right”. This is a secondary question. It is a cultural approach to the instrument. The fact that you are playing on the left doesn’t mean that you are playing better. You’ll be a good player if you follow the technical demands of the instrument and if you keep yourself close to the musical style – ornaments, arrangements, etc. – of the repertoire.
The instrument is created to produce music, and what I want to hear is the music. If it is beautiful music. I don’t mind if it is played on the left or right shoulder. At least that is my approach. So I explain all this to all my new students – the tradition is to play on the left. If you play on the left, wonderful – I will admire this – though obviously it is more difficult for a right handed person. But it doesn’t mean you are going to play better. It means that your approach to the instrument is following that cultural tradition. So that is my way to look at this second mystery.
One of the big questions I have relates to tuning. Playing fiddle music you tune the four strings on your fiddle as best you can, and you can adjust the intonation of the notes as you go through the piece so that you are in tune. But on the early Irish harp, you set the tuning at the beginning of the tune.
It is different, based on the nature of the instrument.
Lets say you are playing a piece, how do you decide from the start, how do you set up, how do ensure your harp is in tune?
Well, first of all there are many strings, so it is always work to tune the harp. It is certainly more complicated than the fiddle, with its four strings. Funnily enough, at the beginning of the 17th century in England, the time of King James I of England (also known as King James VI of Scotland), the British flag was first created with four quarters, four different objects representing each nation. The harp was selected as the symbol of Ireland. That was met with a lot of opposition from some parts of the aristocracy, because they didn’t like to have a harp on the flag. Apparently one of the more light-hearted reasons given – to provide comic relief – was that it took longer to tune the harp than to conquer the land!
Tuning an early Irish harp is much more complicated to tune than say a gut strung Renaissance harp. This is because of the metallic nature of the strings. If you have a Renaissance harp out of tune, you tune it, and that’s it. But with an early irish harp, if all strings are a little low, you tune it and you will have to tune it again! It will still come down in pitch, so you will likely need to tune again!
The first step in learning to tune is to develop the ear and to know when something is out of tune. This means the level of perfection in the tuning develops with the ears of the musician.
Then it is good to concentrate on the central octave, tuning the notes one by one, and with intervals. From there working in octaves toward the bass or the treble. And then checking also the octaves of the bass strings related to the treble. Then checking by playing chords all through the range of strings because sometimes these chords are in tune here in one register, but not in another.
In any case, it is important to know that the stability of the tuning depends a lot on temperature and humidity. That is why for a concert it is highly recommended for the harp to be in place well in advance to settle, and tuning there.
All that said, there is no perfect system of tuning on a harmonic instruments like the harp or the piano. On a melodic instrument this problem doesn’t exist but on a harp or a piano you play at the same time different notes on different intervals so a compromise or adjustment has to be made. Modern Equal Temperament started systematically with Bach and Couperin during the first half of 18th century. However there are other, earlier systems of tuning. Personally, I use the mean tone system, the most used in the 16th/17th centuries.
Can you explain more about this mean tone system? When you mention the historical context of the music being important, I think the historical context of tuning is something that is also worth understanding when you are learning or arranging these pieces.
The mean tone system was created in the Renaissance, because the new thing then was the massive use of the third to create what we understand today as a chord. By chord, I mean the combination of a note along with the third and fifth above that note. That third of the chord was not used in the middle ages where they prefer to play fifths and fourths and in fact that third sounds quite dissonant in the Pythagorean tuning system employed in that period. Instead this Pythagorean system gives you perfect fifths and fourths. However for the modern harmony that was starting to develop in the Renaissance, the third was fundamental. The mean tone system was taking great care with the third, in giving a pure third, and sixth. So it all depends. Then Bach and Couperin arrived at the beginning of the 18th century with the conclusion that Equal Temperament was the best – all semitones exactly the same. In this way nothing is pure except the octave.
What you’re saying about developing your ear, that is the main point, isn’t it?
It is. It is, absolutely.
And listening to the instrument itself
Yes, the tuning by octaves is the best. Sometimes when tuning in the bass if I play the note not with the nail but with the flesh, it gives a more rounded sound. So it is a question that develops with your ear, with your capacity. Of course there are people who have this gift, they have this pure ear to detect the tone of a mosquito flying – they can say “that’s F sharp”!
I think it is important that you have touched on Equal Temperament, and then talking about mean tone systems, and Pythagorean systems. Because we have grown up with Equal Temperament. Pianos in Equal Temperament are considered “in tune”, but they’re not – instead all notes are equally out of tune. So it may be helpful to understand that our ears have been trained to a different system, probably less appropriate to the early Irish harp.
I started playing with the Equal Temperament tuning but I was not happy for I was listening other early music players, though not particularly on the harp, and I could here there beautiful chords, very pure compared to the normal system. Happily some years ago, Siobhán Armstrong helped me to definitively move over to the mean tone system. Of course the piano sounds good – it’s a compromise and I don’t want to sound snobbish – it’s wonderful. But the only thing that is pure on modern instruments with Equal Temperament are the octaves, everything else is moved a little as you were saying.
MANUSCRIPT & PRINTED SOURCES
Another area which would be interesting to touch upon is the sources of the early Gaelic, or early Irish and Scottish harp music. Could you talk about the Neal collection – how you first discovered it?
John and William Neal’s publication in 1724 in Dublin was the first printed collection of Irish music. And still to me it is the best printed source because it was made at a time when harpers were still around. This is very important. We have a similar case with the Scottish lute manuscripts from the first half of the 17th century. Those manuscripts were written while the harp was being played in Scotland. So this means the harp tunes that are contained in the Scottish lute manuscripts were heard directly from the harp players just like Bunting at the Belfast harp meeting in 1792 and his sessions with Denis O’Hampsey. But yeah, the John and William Neal publication of Irish music is a little collection, but there are many harp tunes there. Just the melodies though, with no bass.
And then the other fundamental source in early Irish harp music is Bunting – not the printed books, but the manuscripts which have no piano arrangements imposed yet, and are more faithful to the original music heard from the living harpers.
Those are the main sources though we have sources in Scotland and Ireland from lets say the end of the 16th to the end of the 18th century – that is 2 centuries. What I want to make clear here is that during these two centuries, the style of the music was changing. If we take the lute tradition, for example the very famous English lute player John Dowland at the beginning of the 17th century, we could see that the music he was playing has nothing to do in style with let’s say Sylvius Leopold Weiss and others lute players in Germany during the first half of the 18th century. The style is completely different, but it is the same tradition and basically the same instrument modified in size and number of strings.
What I mean is that if you take music from Rory Dall Ó Catháin – the Irish harper at the beginning of the 17th century – the three or four tunes we know were composed by him have nothing to do in style with Carolan music. But it does not mean that Carolan music is inferior – no, it is the same tradition, but in a different moment – the style is changing, but there remain things in common too. Some people think that Rory Dall Ó Catháin music is the real thing and that Carolan has baroque influences and so is inferior somehow – no, it is all cláirseach music, but the style is changing, it is not always the same. So if we are working with 18th century sources, it is very good to have knowledge of the Baroque music language because it was an influence on the music of Carolan and others like Cornelius Lyons. So it helps if you have an ear and a knowledge of the Baroque style played on the continent and also in Ireland because here purely Baroque music was played too.
What period of music influences your minimal approach to accompaniment the most?
In general I always like to say that the music of the early Irish harp – and it’s the same in Scotland – is very melodic, and the bass could be understood as a kind of ornament to the melody, an effective way to sustain and give more meaning to the melody.
If you take Carolan tunes from the wonderful Dónal O’Sullivan collection published in the 1950s, you’ll find there a lot of melodies that need to be arranged and for that you would need to have a sense of harmony. If you play just the melody it is very easy, I think, to find the chords. Especially for O’Carolan tunes which are more Baroque in style, or using major and minor scales, which are the basis for our modern musical language, not different from the Beatles or John Lennon.
So from the melody it is very easy to find the chords and many players often arrive at the same chord – I mean “that’s the chord!”. For purely modal music it is a different language. So the first thing to ask is “what are the bones of this melody?”. It may be a major / minor tune, or it could be a modal tune in Dorian or Mixalydian, etc. In the first case it helps a lot to have Baroque or classical harmony teaching. I always teach my students to know this difference, to be able know how it is the inner scale that sustains the melody and from there it is easier to start to work on the arrangements.
So if you have a modal piece, how do approach the arrangement?
This early Irish harp is an instrument for which that famous phrase “less is more” is quite true. So you need to take care with ornaments. They are there to give more meaning and beauty to the melody. But if you use too many, you will destroy the whole thing!
So I have been reducing my use of ornaments, being more austere. That said I still use ornaments, because it is part of the tradition of the harp. But it is important not to become obsessed with the instrument in itself, forgetting that, beautiful as it is, it is just a medium. To remember that it is just a means to create music, which should always be the main aim.
If I take my own playing evolution – at the very beginning, in the 1990s, I was very enthusiastically following something we knew at that time and that we still know, that ornamentation was very important with this music. And that is ok. But with time and experience I have reduced my focus on ornaments – not using them systematically throughout a piece, but only on the very important points of the melody.
Sometimes as musicians, we have a tendency to add many things, and in doing that we are concealing the melody. Of course you can take one tune and make many arrangements with different levels of difficulty – some easy, some more complicated. Sometimes the easier arrangements are the best, just like with ornamentation – being overly complex can destroy the expression of the melody.
Very often – and this is the same with Scottish music – the bass it is just a duplication of the important points or notes in the melody, playing an octave or two below. Or perhaps a fifth or a tenth below. That is all you need, basically. Then you can play with some ornaments on the accented points of the melody as we do when we speak. It is a work of spirit. When you arrive at something that works, you know it. Sometimes an arrangement can take years, other times you can make an arrangement in two days, and that’s just how it is.
For example, I have been playing Molly McAlpin by Connellan for two decades, and it has kept changing.
Now I think I have arrived at the final arrangement, with which I am completely happy, but you never know! Because you keep finding new things in the technique, new ways of damping, new fingerings. So the arrangements keep moving.
You mentioned a few core sources – Neal and Bunting. Are there any others that you look at , that you would recommend for early Irish wire-strung harp music?
There are other sources but the most fundamental, without which nothing else would be possible, are Bunting manuscripts and John & William Neal. A piece I often play is the second one listed in the Neal Collection, called Clergy’s Lamentation.
But apart from sources, for a musician who wants to recover an instrument, it is essential in my opinion to be aware and to enjoy not only the music, but everything related to that period. To get involved in poetry, history – all that helps because you become really immersed in that period, in that sensibility. To bring alive the melody you have in front of you on paper. It is an essential background, to me. The same applies to Scotland – to listen to other instruments and traditions. In Scotland for instance the pipes have many things in common in the language.
Composing new pieces in the old tradition
Javier, I know you have thoughts on composing new pieces to add to the body of old music in the manuscripts. Can you elaborate on this?
I think perhaps we are over-focussing exclusively on the original sources. But I also believe that if you get a deep understanding of this tradition and if you feel like composing something new – being sure that you are following the style – why not work in that direction to create such new music? In this emerging revival of the old tradition, I think that could be a step for the next generations. Not only to recover – the whole work we have been doing in last 30 years, the technique, the sources and all that – but also, with all that knowledge, to create new tunes that follow the tradition of the instrument. That would be a very interesting thing to do! And that would make the instrument more alive.
In this the early Irish harp is different from the lute. We have lute music from the beginning of the 16th century to the end of the 18th but the lute was an instrument not related to any particular country or tradition. Its music was purely court-like music. So when the social context was over in the 18th century, that was it.
Then in the 20th century some musicians wanted to recover the lute, and they played old historical lute music, but they stopped short of creating new music because it wouldn’t make sense, it would be a mere exercise. However with the early Irish harp it is different because the instrument is inside a musical tradition that has never been completely cut and the proof for this is that the original early Irish harp music doesn’t sound ‘old’ to modern ears in the sense it does lute music. So it makes sense to start creating new music for the early Irish harp. To me it would not be something artificial – as long as you have all the knowledge and background.
Have you composed new pieces in the old tradition yourself?
Yes I have, several. I’ll give you an example to demonstrate what I mean by composing within the old tradition.
This is an easy-going tune called Dunvegan’s Air. Dunvegan is a castle on the north-west of the Isle of Skye. It was the seat of the MacLeod clan. Supposedly the last harper in the 18th century was the harper of that castle, Rory Dall Morrison.
So this tune is inspired by that landscape, seascape also. It also has a little Irish taste, but is is more inspired by the Scottish landscape. It is a tune that comes directly from the heart. What else can I say? That’s it …[music].
Thanks for sharing all your insights and music Javier! Can you play us out with another one of your own compositions?
OK. This is a piece call McKenna’s Air and Variations. It is named after a student of mine, and it is in the Scottish píobrach style, with a ground or theme, and variations. The full piece is almost ten minutes long, so I will play a sample from the beginning …[music]…
and from the last variation and ground …[music].
Early Irish Harp: the State of the Art Interview Series is funded through the Arts Council Deis Recording and Publication Award
Selected links from the interview
- A collection of the most celebrated Irish tunes : proper for the violin, German flute or hautboy / John & William Neal [eds.] ; facsimile edition by Nicholas Carolan
- Bunting MS 4.29 version of Miss Hamilton, from an incredible online resource made publically available by Queens University Belfast Digital Special Collections & Archives
- Javier playing Port Patrick (air & jig) at Scoil na gCláirseach in 2014
- The Caledonian Pocket Companion, by James Oswald
- The Chieftains 5, on which Derek Bell plays Tabhair dom do lámh
- Emilio Cao on facebook
- Alison Kinnaird
- Website of duo Bragod, of which Bill Taylor, mentioned by Javier in the interview, is a member
- An Introduction to Playing Wire-Strung Harp (Book + DVD) by Ann Heymann, Javier Sáinz & Bill Taylor. Siubhal (2012)
- David Kortier