Friday, 12 February 2010

2010 and beyond

It has been a busy few weeks for 4 Girls 4 Harps. At the end of 2009 we bid farewell to Keziah who has moved to live in New York for a few years. However, amazingly, she will still be playing in the quartet as she will be commuting between America and the UK for work. We are really glad as it would have been very sad to have had to say good bye to her as a member of the group.

2010 is shaping up to be another busy year for us with our first TV appearance of the year scheduled for Saturday 13 February and a performance of Paul Patterson's 'Avian Arabesques' for the Newbury Festival in May. We are also looking forward to the finished version of our new DVD which we recorded last summer.

We were recently featured by the French harp-makers Camac on their industry blog: Harpblog. Camac Harps are one of the big harp companies which supply harps to professionals and amateurs across the world. It is great to be featured on their website as loads of harpists read it and we get the chance to introduce more people to the world of multiple harps. You can read the full article with pictures and sound clips on the website by clicking here but we have also reproduced the words below for those who don't want to venture off our site:

Music for 188 strings: Four Girls Four Harps
Written by Helen Radice for Camac Harps

Many of you will have survived enjoyed a constructive learning experience doing harp ensemble during your studies. This doesn't always turn out to be chamber music on quite the same level as your fellow students' string quartets, but a real harp ensemble can be impressive, commercially appealing and musically enchanting - as British harp quartet Four Girls Four Harps prove.

Four Girls Four Harps began life as a student ensemble, but are now a professional quartet with two CDs under their belt, a busy concert schedule and a DVD in the offing. They perform a slick show from memory, use electric as well as concert harps, and have developed a repertoire now consisting almost entirely of original commissions and their own arrangements.

"We arrived at our current repertoire through trial and error" quartet member Harriet Adie explains. "When we began we often played harp duets with two on a part, or even piano duets. Obviously, that‘s not a satisfactory professional solution, but when you are eighteen you‘re in less of a position to do anything about this yourself. To improve our repertoire, we commissioned some pieces, such as Edward Longstaff‘s Saraswati, and at the same time, Eleanor Turner and I (the group‘s composers) got more experienced in writing and arranging. Now we do all our arrangements and this allows us to be far more imaginative when programming.

Experience also helped us arrive at an identity for the quartet. We decided to play classical music rather than crossover, but on the easy listening side of classical – what the popular classical radio station Classic FM plays, for example. This is because it seems to be the most obvious market for a harp quartet. There is no way we can play Beethoven string quartets, so there is no point in pretending we‘re in that sort of market. Equally, it was important to all of us to keep our classical integrity: crossover might work for a short while, but it usually fizzles out. You also need to enjoy what you do, and audiences would be able to tell that our hearts aren‘t in crossover.

In fact, I had an argument with the editor of Gramophone magazine who told me our latest CD was crossover. I said, how is this crossover? Every single piece on here is a classical piece, and what do you expect a harp quartet to play anyway, Death and the Maiden? He didn‘t reply…he assumed, like many people, that a harp quartet must be a crossover gimmick, but we aren‘t.

When you are in a more unusual ensemble, you need to strike a balance in your repertoire that fits your market well, without patronising them. You need a few famous names on your concert bill to get people to come, but if you were only playing arrangements of popular classics, people would feel it was just a gimmick. We also play contemporary music (at least six original harp quartet works of professional-level difficult now exist because of us) but this sort of music requires a certain level of aural training; it can be hard to listen to at first. An audience might enjoy a contemporary piece once they‘ve heard it several times, but you don‘t have that chance in a concert. So if we programme a contemporary piece in a concert, we make sure it will inspire the audience‘s imagination so they can think about what is happening musically, without hitting them with too much, too fast. The pieces Ellie and I have written are essentially still very tonal, and interestingly they are the works people come and ask us about instead of the most famous music.

We‘ve also had very effective collaborations with other instruments. We added tabla to Edward Longstaff‘s Saraswati because the piece is all about an Indian goddess; we did some Christmas arrangements with flute and oboe last year which worked very well; and in the summer we began working with strings and choir. This is something we‘re going to take further in our planned DVD. We‘d been talking with some people in the record industry, who said that if the combination was to work commercially, we would have to add something to the sound, hence the string and choir backings for three new pieces. Such collaborations are also useful for concerts – for example, we‘re doing a concert with a Welsh choir this month, with a mixture of quartet and joint slots.

We‘re inspired by the Pav√£o Quartet, who play classical music properly, but do lots of other fun stuff as well.

The fact that the quartet is professional and established rather than student also affects the repertoire. For example, most published harp quartet arrangements have parts that scale down in terms of difficulty, so fourth harp is much easier than first – they‘re aimed at students. It‘s a different sound when you can have four parts of equal strength. And when we arrange our own music, because we know who is going to play what part, we often write the parts to suit the players‘ individual strengths! Still, that is a bonus. We hope other harp ensembles could benefit from our music – the Birmingham Conservatoire harp ensemble did my piece Sun, Moon and Stars in a concert last month."

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