celtic harp

ROBERT HART 
TRAD AND NOW INTERVIEW JAN 2003

ROBERT HART 
TRAD AND NOW INTERVIEW JAN 2003

T&N:

What was the first instrument you made?

It was a small 30 string Paraguayan harp made at an Andy Rigby harp-making workshop. The year was about 1991. A friend of my wife friend rang me telling me about Andys Paraguayan harp making workshop being held in Canberra. So I made arrangements and went to the workshop, which lasted nearly 2 weeks. I went as an observer and made notes etc.

T&N:

How did you gain expertise in instrument making?

ROBERT:

After returning to Byron I started on my first harp using my notes and Andy's 30 string plans as a guide. It was made with marine hoop pine plywood with a straight Oregon pillar. It worked ok and I started to play music on it. I had played the classical guitar for many years prior to this so I started to play the harp in a similar way, adapting guitar technique to the Paraguayan harp.

I made a few more of the 30 string harps using various woods. After about a year I obtained plans for a 36 string Paraguayan harp from Robinson's harp shop in the U.S.A and proceeded to build it. It had an Oregon sound board and blackwood body. It was ok to play and sounded reasonable. I took it to the International harp festival at Albury.

Also I applied the principles embodied in some of the Paraguayan harps I had seen to the 30 string models. That is a curved back and convex base plate adjusting the thickness of the soundboard etc. The sound quality was a big improvement the original 30 string model. It had a lovely light brilliant sound with a good resonance in the lower range

A lot of work and research went into the 36 string models, The basic concept with the Paraguayan harp is to keep the weight down and at the same time keeping enough strength in it to stop it collapsing. It owes its design philosophy more to guitar construction than conventional harp making. After all, Paraguayans are also great guitar players too.

T&N:

What's the most unusual instrument you've made/repaired?

ROBERT:

Probably the Colombian/Venezuelan harp. They are rare in this country. Their construction is unusual.  It is very large, about five feet tall, and has low tension strings. It is very light and mostly made of cedar( see my article on repairing this harp on Arpa Llanera   )

The Colombian makers often have to make do with less than perfect hardware and materials. Despite this and their unusual construction they are capable of a really beautiful sound. You should hear what they play on these harps!

T&N:

Do you play one of your own instrument(s) when you perform/jam/session - if not tell me about the instrument(s) you play?

ROBERT:

I have nearly always played my own harps. Because I play the harp I know what makes a good harp, sound quality, even string tension string-spacing, balance, weight etc.

T&N:

Do you closely follow traditional designs and materials or have you incorporated new innovations, materials and technologies?

ROBERT:

I have tried to emulate the traditional Paraguayan design ethic, although there are many different styles of Paraguayan Harp but the main thing is all of the ones made in Paraguay are made of the local cedar for the body and neck. It is very light, of medium hardness and quite strong. It smells like pencils. Above everything else it seems to be the key factor in producing the unique brilliance in the sound.

The traditional Paraguayan harp has a short sustain and high volume and brilliance. There is a relationship between harp mass and sustain and response, It is difficult to embrace all in one instrument.

T&N:

Do you use Australian timbers/materials in your instruments? How do they compare with the traditional timbers/materials?

ROBERT:

My harps have used spruce soundboards and black wood, PNG rosewood for the soundboxes and hoop pine ply for the necks. But the best one was made of camphor laurel. It is the one I play professionally. It is heavier than the Paraguayan cedar and has more sustain and less sweetness but is better suited to all round music making. Recently on a visit to Tasmania I visited the old family farm. The apple packing shed had been converted to a craft shop. In one corner was a dirty old twisted log standing on its end on the floor. It was about five feet high and 1 foot wide. I wondered what it was, so I tapped the top. It rang like a bell! a log that big!  I asked what kind of wood it was. The lady said Huon pine! That made me wonder if a harp body made from Huon pine  would sound similar to the Paraguayan cedar ones.

T&N:

Do your customers generally know what they want, or do you guide them in making decisions on the instrument you will make for them?

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ROBERT:

Both, some people want a harp and it is their first harp others know what they want

T&N:

What are you working on at present?

ROBERT:

I am developing my music and extending the harp playing technique, Incorporating Paraguayan techniques with guitar and piano music styles. I want to be able to express as much as possible on the harp It is amazing what can be done on the harp, whole melodies played as tremolos of four notes over a complex bass pattern amazing cross rhythmic patterns, and performing with other musicians etc.

T&N:

And the future?

ROBERT:

I don't think much about the future these days, when I was young I did, I am doing what comes day by day. Life is easier this way. If plans need to be made they are made. The passion in the music of life is what is important.

 

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