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.
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.
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.
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.
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.