We harpists love to complain about bad harp writing, but how many of us are really willing to do something about it? Enter Olivia Jageurs, who on February 1 launched the 15 Second Harp project. In her introductory video (above) Jageurs promises to record and post to Instagram by 5:00 p.m. the following day any 15 second excerpt a composer sends her. In just 3 weeks, she has already racked up over 50 posts, along with gaining nearly 700 followers on Facebook. What’s more, she provides helpful hints to composers about what does and doesn’t work with their writing.
We just love her idea and had to find out more. Read on for her thoughts…
OK, first and most obvious question: why did you start the 15 Second Harp project?
I am often sent snippets of music by composers asking if what they have written is possible for the harp. I had always wanted to create some kind of page to discuss harp writing, and the best way to learn is from musical examples so I thought why not open up the collaborative process and put the music and feedback online. I needed a time limit and as I had got a bit addicted to Instagram last year (on which the videos can only be 15 seconds long) I decided to share all the videos via that app, and on Facebook. I wanted to create a challenge for myself too so thought I would force myself to post the music and feedback the next day. There isn’t enough classical music —especially not contemporary classical music—on social media so I thought it would be fun, a bit different and get more people interested in new music. I would also love to get much younger people writing for the harp and social media is definitely the way to get them involved.
It seems like composers are taking note of you. (Pun intended.) How are they finding out about the project?
I posted it on a Facebook group called Orchestration Online that some composer friends recommended and within 12 hours I had been sent 10 pieces. My next step is to contact University departments to let them know, but amazingly I haven’t really had to plug it much at all thanks to the power of social media.
Have you encountered anything yet that was truly unplayable?
Yes… I think harpists will be able to tell which one(s).
You must enjoy working with composers or you wouldn’t be doing this project. Do you get frustrated though when composers don’t understand how to write for the instrument?
No, I genuinely do not. There are so many instruments and the harp, as we know, is so different from anything else. I think it is important that harpists don’t discourage composers to write for our instrument. It is our duty as harpists to encourage and educate composers!
What’s your definition of an ideal, well-written harp part?
The overall effect to the listener is equal to (or greater than) the effort that the performer has to put in. Composers can still stretch the limits of the performer but it should be done so with intent (as opposed to being accidentally awkward).
What’s your most favorite and least favorite harp writing from the standard repertoire?
I think my favourite would have to be the Britten Suite and Berio Sequenza II. Least favourite, because I played it quite recently so it’s on my mind, Vaughan William’s Sea Symphony harp parts.
We love that you give helpful tips about each composition from a harpist’s perspective. Is that hard for you to do or does it come pretty naturally?
I have had quite a lot of experience giving workshops to student composers so that definitely helps. If something feels really awkward you can’t just say that, you need to give the exact reason and ideally an alternative solution. I think we also need to accept though that once composers have acknowledged any awkwardness, they can then choose if it is worth it for their aesthetic goal.
What do you do when you’re not recording 15 second harp snippets?
I have just started playing in a new show in the West End: Jeff Wayne’s Musical Version of The War of the Worlds, so I currently play in that eight times a week. Otherwise I play a lot of chamber music, orchestral works, and new music of course! I’m part of a contemporary ensemble called ANIMA, which performs live music with animated film: www.anima-collective.com. I have also just started a series of concerts in my flat called House Music (N.B. no house music is played).
Anything else you want Harp Column readers to know about you?
I am part of a super fun free fitness group called Project Awesome (the American equivalent is November Project) that meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 6:30am in different locations across London. Be sure to check it out when you next visit London!