Harping On About Music

The harp is an otherworldly instrument, rooted in the deepest depths of our civilisational soil, branched out from the Andes to Ireland to India. In the same way that we have the original language of Proto-Indo-European, the ‘lost’ language in which all our diverse languages take root, the harp is the proto-instrument in which all our diverse instruments take root; the first medium through which we learned a more beautiful, instrumental language.

The harp stretches back to the earliest known civilisation, Sumer

I remember reading old stories with pictures of the harp and the lute. I’ve seen a harp played on the television. I see it on Guinness cans. Only recently did I see one played in person for the first time, by an Asian lady busking here in Brighton. Though it seemed out of place at first glance, the arrangement is timeless (hence why we have harpists play at weddings and the like); the instrument itself was beautiful, the tune tranquil, the player peaceful. It’s an almightily welcome change from Sheeran’s superficial shite (“I’m in love with the shape of you/I’m in love with your body”), which is the beginning busker’s go-to material. It’s also preferable to the potty hippie who busks in Brighton with assorted pots and pans scattered about his person, playing them as if they were drums. That novelty soon wears off, along with your eardrums.

The harp might be a timeless instrument at the deepest root of our musical tradition, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be novel; the oldest root of the musical tree might seem distant or distinct from its youngest branch, but they are still connected, they are still the same tree. The root and branch replenish one another: the root anchored within the soil of our musical tradition, the branch feeding from the fresh rays of today’s talent. One cannot do too long without the other.

I’m going to present three examples where we can behold the root, the harp, and its chordophonic descendants, the piano and guitar, revivified by modern music played by modern-day musicians. Enjoy.

 

1.

Our first example is a rendition of a relatively young rock song, Plug In Baby by Muse, played on a harp. Plug In Baby is an intense piece of music in its own right, featuring a ringing falsetto and an iconic, award-winning riff that only Muse could combine. Transposing several of its elements—the riff, the jumpy bass-line, the vocals, and a drumbeat—into a harp arrangement is difficult to comprehend, but easy to enjoy. The following is by British harpist Amy Turk, have a listen.

 

2.

If you were to push a harp over onto its side, put legs underneath it, a lid on top of it, and append a keyboard to its strings: you have a piano! Like root and branch they seem, at first glance, distinctly different. The piano is one of the musical tree’s most productive and beautiful branches. But even the most modern pianist—to my knowledge—cannot provide a drumbeat whilst playing; but then again they don’t need to drum to stir the soul, the piano works just fine. It works fine especially if the arrangement is a rendition of one of Pink Floyd’s masterpieces, Wish You Were Here. The following is by Vika Yermolyeva, a kickass Ukrainian pianist with a knack for making piano arrangements out of popular rock and metal songs, which to her credit turn out to be as head-banging as the originals. Or, in this instance, as tear-jerking.

 

3.

The guitar branch is also thick and productive; it generated much of the musical tree’s growth in the twentieth century, although it would be a mistake to assume that it had stopped growing. Musicians will innovate or invent with what they are given; like the potty Brightonian with his sundry crocks, pots and pans. Or, more tolerably and quite terrifically, this Italian guitarist with his three-headed hydra of an instrument. It comprises two guitars, for which he uses his left hand mostly, and an upside-down bass guitar and several miniature ‘snares’ for hand drumming, for both of which he uses his right hand. Luca Stricagnoli transposes the vocals of Feel Good Inc by Gorillaz ft. De La Soul; still more, he effectively instrumentalises the hip-hop trio’s rap whilst keeping a consistent beat for much of the piece. As with the harpist, it’s incredible stuff, and enormously enjoyable to watch and listen to.

 

Honourable Mentions

Pianist rocking Guns ‘n’ Roses

Twin harpists rocking Metallica 

Harp guitarist rocking Pink Floyd 

Kids These Days

May I be permitted to say, at just twenty-five years of age: “Kids these days”? I can think of no better three words to sum up three years of university.

Allow me to explain. Do you recall the children who forever complained of boredom? You might have a group of colleagues (or it may be all of them) who are incapable of conversing without complaining. And we all know a person for whom life is one big, protracted complaint. You may find yourself cajoled subconsciously into complaining along with them, especially if it’s a group of complainers.

The ‘kids these days’ at university studying humanities courses (philosophy, politics, literature, art, etcetera) I have generally found to be stupendous and unrelenting complainers. When I still suffered myself to study alongside them, my ears would ring with students bleating and repeating complaints about the readings, the essays, the lecturers, their supposed friends, their political enemies, Trump, Brexit, blah, blah, blah. It’s like trying to revise whilst blasting the Teletubbies full belt; an almighty avalanche of meaningless debris derails your train of thought, and you come to resent the Teletubbies, who seem not to know any better, the poor sods.

I didn’t complain about it—well, until now, I guess—and I erected a complaint-barrier in space and time: by the end of the first-year, I rarely entered complaint spaces, like the library and common area, and I avoided student times, like the afternoons. Arriving at a common area before 7am in the morning was fantastic, and I learned a few things. Not only was it depopulated of students; and not only did the reeking cloud of complaint dissipate (bar the stickers declaring, “ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS”, “UKIP MEMBERS ARE OFTEN VILE, HOMOPHOBIC AND RACIST”, “ALL BORDERS ARE RACIST!” etcetera¹).

It was repopulated. I’m going to talk a little about one of the people who repopulated the common area—caretaker Clive. A man with a wealth of knowledge that ‘kids these days’ clearly lack, who can compute conversations without complaint, who cleans up after students without ever complaining, in fact, who throughout two years of morning conversations I have never heard utter so much as a word of complaint.

Thinking about it, all of the people I respect and look up to are doggedly opposed to cultures of complaint. Thinking about these people, they have virtues in common, some of which I will now talk a bit about in respect of caretaker Clive.

Admittedly, once upon a time, I would complain if my commute in Guernsey took anything over fifteen minutes. More than a decade past retirement age, this proud caretaker takes an hour-long commute into Brighton every morning, Monday to Friday, to start at 6am. Many in Guernsey wouldn’t bother to get out of bed for some of the weather this man commuted through last winter.

But Clive isn’t looking for an excuse to stay in bed. After a near-fatal traffic accident some years ago, he’s grateful just for being able to get out of bed at all. Despite being old, achy and ill throughout last winter, he never misses a shift, he never complains, and he never fails to make me smile. He’s just so darn grateful for being alive, for being capable of working at all.

Students complain that they cannot get a job. Sure as hell they complain about their jobs when they do get them. What I respect about Clive is his attitude toward his job. He knows that he doesn’t need this job, nor the employer need him in particular for the job, yet he takes enormous pride in his work. He’s attentive and never complains about having to go the extra mile. And he could complain. He could complain about the wrappers and crumbs students leave littered on the floor and strewn upon the desktops, like ill-educated children would. He could complain about being obliged, in his mid-seventies, to learn how to use a computer so that he can take the online health and safety course required of him by his employer. He could complain that I distract him by chatting.

When Clive asks me how my work’s going, I tell him, and ask how his work is going. He’s always got something to say, about what he’s done today, what he’s got to do, what he would like to do. He’s proactive and he’s positive with regard to his role, whereas for many students, they are passive and negative about what they have to do. Clive looks to do his work to the best of his ability, taking pride in the work he has done, and looks for something else to do. Students procrastinate with their work, often doing the bare minimum required for a good or passing grade and only at the last minute, complaining whilst they do it, and often opting out by pulling sickies or requesting extensions.

What I like about Clive, too, is that he’s humble. From the few stories he’s imparted to me I think, Christ, surely you should be setting the world to rights with me, telling this young whippersnapper what’s what. But he’d never tell me how it is or what I should think, still less would he give me his opinion unless I asked for it. That kind of humility you can expect from a man who was born during World War II, one who voluntarily subjects himself to modern health and safety examinations.

Students? They have nought but regurgitated opinions, without substantive experience or unique insight to back them up; yet regurgitate them they will, until that reeking cloud of complaint forms above it. Trump (ad infinitum)! We have way too much work, patriarchy, Brexit, homophobia, institutional sexism, structural racism, so-and-so sets too much reading, cultural appropriation, blah de blah de trans de phobia de blah. Ungrateful, overbearing, uninspiring, Teletubby bullshit.

Well, well, well! Is it not somewhat… hypocritical that I’m complaining about complainers? I apologise sincerely for creating a complaint-cloud of my own. I thought it might be worth it, to give you glance from my vantage point; from which I see kids who think they know everything and the caretakers cleaning up after them, who could teach them a lesson or two. Best to clear off my own complaint-cloud and wrap up this wordy rant.

It’s been four months since I’ve written and posted anything on this website. I was absorbed in my final project for university, guilt-tripping myself whenever I wrote words that weren’t to do with it. I’ve just handed in my dissertation—hurrah, huzzah and hooray. Leaving the building, I bumped into my pal Clive the caretaker. He was surprised the time’s gone so fast, since I first met him in first-year sporting denim dungarees and a turquoise topknot. He was chuffed I’d finished the project, asking whether I’m still staying on to become a teacher.

“Still teaching, still at Brighton, but up at Falmer Campus. I’ll still be able to access this building though, so I’ll see you around in the mornings.”

“Well,” Clive started, “I’ve finally decided to pack it in. August I finish.”

A retirement well deserved, and about time too. I asked him what his wife thought, which was, “‘What on earth am I going to do with you at home all day?!’” He chuckled and I laughed. Clive will still be odd-jobbing for the oldies in his residences as he does presently, and no doubt keeping himself busy otherwise. As we shook hands and parted ways, I thought to myself: the one thing he won’t be doing in retirement is complaining.

 


¹ I’ve a couple of pictures of these pathetic stickers in another piece, in which I give some tips for hacking university life.

As I’m not on social media, my writing is only read as much as it is circulated by readers like you. So if you liked this piece, or would like to publicly complain about it, please share and share alike, it would be greatly appreciated. Liam.