I am trying to compose my own music for the harp and am looking for advice.
I would highly recommend that you take a few moments to read and fine article written by Joyce Rice on composing for the harp. You can find the article here:
Joyce is a wonderful composer and would be a great resource for your endeavor.
Mark Andersen, president AHS Greater Seattle
I think you need to listen closely to a lot of music and songs to hear how the sections relate to each other. Mainly, you have to wait until you get a contrasting but complimentary idea to go with the first. The rest is a matter of cadences. There is a useful little book on musical form by Percy Goetschius, published by Kalmus, cheap, that will help you along. Or, you might try jazz books.
G.G., The two sources I have found most helpful advising those who would compose or arrange music for harp, are: (1.)”Harp Scoring” by the late Stanley Chaloupka, who was Principal Harp for 40+ years with Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra in California. Published by himself in 1979 and now widely available from some major harp music dealers. (2.) “The ABC of Harp Playing” by the late Lucille Lawrence, respected harpist and teacher, published by G. Schirmer Inc. New York, 1962 and perhaps updated since then. It is the second half of this book. beginning on page 40, that is mostly valuable for your purposes. You would avoid many, many harp composing errors by becoming well acquainted with the information in these published books. Not to be overlooked is “Writing for the Pedal Harp”, by Inglefield and Neill, that includes a CD of the sounds of various effects unique to harps. Published by U. of California Press, ISBN 0-520 04832-6 in 1985 and surely reprinted since then.
More simply, if you build it, it will come. Build the right first section and the second will come, maybe not right away, or when you want it, but keep starting pieces and eventually you’ll add on to them.
Some methods of development: variation, manipulating the ideas in the first, addition and extension. Contrast can be arrived at by simply changing key or mode from major to minor, or another related area.
1. First of all, listen to everything. All kinds of music and genres. You never know where your ideas are going to come from. Take note of what you like from all genres and noodle around with them on the harp. That way, when you compose you end up with your own style.
2. When noodling, pay attention to mistakes. There is no such thing as a mistake. When composing, “mistakes” are often doorways into another world. You might not be able to use what you came up with at the moment, but tape it for future use. A library of personal snippets can segue into a lovely intro or bridge section somewhere.
3. You don’t say whether you are composing for lever or pedal harp. If on lever harp, try going into another mode. If your piece is in a major key, go briefly into Dorian. If your piece is in a minor key, go briefly into Lydian. It sounds like you are modulating, but you are not. How do I know this works? By studying the sheet music for Kim Robertson’s arrangements. Her “Greensleeves” goes temporarily into Dorian and her “Come All Ye Shepherds” goes temporarily into Lydian. I’ve taken lots of workshops from Kim and she has never mentioned this. This is HUGE for a lever harp composer and arranger to have this in their toolbox, and the mode deviation adds an unexpected color too.
4. Be aware of what sounds good on the harp. SIFT like crazy. That means to take out notes so that the harp vibrates more fully and lusciously than if you kept more notes in. I learned this from Stella Castelluci. Her article about sifting is still online:
She talks about jazz harp but the principle is the same when composing or arranging for all harp genres.
5. This sort of relates to Item 1. Don’t be afraid to take snippets you love from all genres and mix them up. I will give an example. I was putting a lot of original composition into my arrangement of “The Blooming Bright Star of Belle Isle” and knew I wanted to create an atmosphere (I learned how important this was from one of Isabelle Moretti’s master classes).
I needed water, like traveling over the ocean, so I took one of the jazz chord patterns I’d learned from Paul Baker and made an arpeggio out of it running up and down the harp.
I needed moonlight and starlight, so I took the rhythm pattern from the intro of Hasselmans’ “Fileuse” and changed the notes to sound more new agey. Played mid-range they are water. Played in higher octaves they are starlight.
Knowing the lyrics, I needed male angst for a real good original bridge between the second and third verse. One of the most angsty harp players I’ve ever listened to is Aryeh Frankfurter so I listened to him like crazy. One day I got up, went to the harp and played my mid-section bridge. Male angst, Aryeh style, only it was me and my interpretation of what he was doing. The whole midsection ended up as a “one take.” Thank my lucky stars I had my tape recorder on!!
I needed evening birdsong, so I added grace notes here and there.
I could go on and on about this process. I know this is sort of rambling, but this is what happens when you compose or arrange. You have to get your emotions involved and develop a little toolbox of goodies you can noodle around with. Know the story you are trying to tell helps immensely. Going back to Isabelle Moretti’s advice that stuck with me, she was talking more about performing, how before you start to play you quiet yourself and go into the music. When the piece was first played, what were people doing? Dancing? Eating? What was the weather like? Was the music played outside during the day or inside at night? In short, involve all your senses when interpreting a piece you are playing. Go to that place before you even touch the harp. I took that one step further and it governs everything I now arrange or compose for the harp. My arrangements end up more original than anything as a result.
Uh oh, maybe I have just written a short article for Harp Column and didn’t even know it. But this is what the experience of composing and arranging for harp has been like for me. And I’m just starting out! What an adventure!
Oh, oh, another important thing I did in my arrangement of “The Blooming Bright Star of Belle Isle” was at the end of the piece. The lyrics contain a denouement of marriage and I wondered how in the world I was going to put that in. So I remembered what I felt like on my wedding day, how final and wonderful it was — and the chords just came out of me onto the harp. Strong binding chords. Chords of fulfillment and clarity. I still cannot play them without almost crying inside. If you compose and arrange for the harp you have to be willing to go there.
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