In November of last year, Harriet Adie of 4 Girls 4 Harps was approached about the band: "I got called by someone enquiring about my group '4 harps, 4 girls, 4 pianos'!", she laughs, "4 harps are enough!" They certainly are. Quadruplicating the harp's tone, the UK-based quartet are equally capable of dreamy lyricism and working up a racket, sporting a sound both versatile and powerful. In doing so, they have taken on a leading role in what has already been called by some 'the underground harp movement': the gradual emancipation of the harp from a negligible niche into a musical force to be reckoned with. Their success – the four piece has been featured extensively on national radio and already has bookings extending well into 2015 – is as much a result of their tight, carefully honed group sound as the individual qualities of the performers, all of which continue to enjoy fruitful solo careers. Of lately, two band members, Adie and Eleanor Turner, have also increasingly contributed original compositions to the live program of 4 Girls 4 Harps, adding exciting contributions to the still small repertoire for harp quartet. The hard work and commitment hasn't gone by unnoticed: The group's 2009 album Fireworks and Fables, collecting some of their favourite transcriptions as well as personally commissioned compositions, met with an enthusiastic response and last year's Christmas CD seemed to hold a subscription to album of the month nominations. Every step of the way, 4 Girls 4 Harps are turning your expectations about their instrument upside down. They may not be performing with 4 pianos. But they certainly could hold their own against them.
In this interview with all members of 4 Girls 4 Harps (including latest addition Elizabeth Scorah), we speak about the founding of the group, commissioning new music and the future of the harp quartet as a general format.
What is it about the harp that has kept it so interesting for so long and has made you dedicate so many years of your life to it?
A tongue in cheek answer might be that it is so large and expensive that we would be honour-bound to keep playing! But, in all seriousness, there are so many ways a harp can be played and such a variety of performance opportunities, that it remains fascinating and challenging. The modern-day harp is a relatively new invention and we have only just begun to scratch the surface in terms of what this instrument is capable of. Composers and harpists are constantly inventing new ways to play the harp: the unusual percussive and timbral effects you can create are particularly interesting, including playing with various implements and preparing the strings with crocodile clips and blu-tack! It is a playground of an instrument and we will never be bored by it!
For many performers, there tend to be a variety of performers who've inspired them. How is that for you?
Harpists like Catrin Finch have been trailblazers for the instrument in recent years. So many more people listen to harp music as a result of their performances. Jazz harpist Deborah Henson-Conant has pushed the boundaries of how the harp is perceived and taken it to places where people will have never heard the sound before. This is something we very much admire and hope to emulate with what we do as a quartet.
We are also very inspired by colleagues who are doing things differently with the instrument, particularly harpists who are commissioning and creating new repertoire such as American harpist Bridget Kibbey, and Dutch harpist Remy Van Kesteren who not only has a glittering solo career but has also established a fantastic harp festival and international competition in the Netherlands … these are people that put the harp on the map for years to come.
We have also found inspiration outside the harp world in artists who are totally dedicated to their chosen instrument and repertoire. Some of them have even drawn us to an instrument we might not have felt any special affinity for - for example, flautist Wissam Boustany or Ig Henneman with her totally unique viola playing.
How did the idea for a harp quartet come up?
The idea for the group came as a result of the harp ensemble classes Harriet and Eleanor participated in at the Junior Department of the Royal College of Music. After several concerts together as part of the JD harp ensemble, they were encouraged to take it further by Harriet’s mother (a concert promoter and founder of the Two Moors Festival), and within a few months, the quartet was born.
What were the first rehearsals and performances like?
Our first performances were very tame in comparison to how we perform now. Almost all the music was centred around pieces we could access and play, rather than having the luxury of creating our own tailor made programmes and being able to have a real vision for a concert, as we can now. The rehearsals were directed by JD harp professor Daphne Boden, so we had minimal input in to how we performed the music. As we were so young (under 20), it was probably a good idea that we didn’t make the big decisions ourselves as we didn’t have the musical experience to do so. One thing that has never changed however, is that we have always talked about the music in our performances. It is very important to us to make the music come alive for the audience, and telling them about its origins is a big part of that.
When we started out, we could never have dreamt that one day we would be able to devise an entire programme (or several) of our own creations and transcriptions. It has been a joy learning how to treat four harps as one instrument, yet bringing out the individual voices of each player. It's a total contrast to the early student days!
How would you describe the sound of four harps playing at the same time compared to just one?
Four harps are so different to a solo harp. The level of power we can get from four instruments is huge in comparison and it is one of the things we always get audience comments about. Having said that, it would still be a lot quieter than a full symphony orchestra so there would potentially be some very large venues where it might be hard to hear us in the back seats.
Three of the harps in the group are made by the same makers – Salvi Harps - so they are quite similar in tone. However, even among identical models there can be big differences in how they sound, especially in terms of their individual volume. We do adjust for that in the group, so the loudest harp has to play at a comparable level to the quietest harp to keep the instruments balanced. It is also important to say that a lot of the difference in tone quality comes from the player rather than the harp, so again, we do have to adjust things depending on who is playing which part in order to come up with the perfect sound combination.
What are some of the complications in terms of performance and sound when playing with a harp quartet – compared to, say, a string quartet, where the individual voices are more sharply delineated?
As a group, it can be challenging to identify where a part is coming from, as all parts are basically the same sound. It doesn’t pose a huge problem for us now as we are so used to playing in that sound world, but for a group starting out, this could be quite challenging. One of the hardest things as a harp ensemble is playing exactly together. When we pluck a string, our fingers squeeze a little before we let go … all harpists do it in slightly different ways and this is why it is so hard to get notes exactly together.
As a general rule, we work for a sound where the most important parts musically are the ones that are heard most. The general timbre of the group should be well blended, but each harp has a massive timbral scope so we can create beautiful and genuinely unique textures by each harp simultaneously using a different tone - for example, a slightly brassy bassline, a warm glow from the middle gut register filling out harmony, an oboic sound or flutey harmonics for the tune if there is one, plus a rhythmic motif up high in the last harp, or an arrhythmic 'whisper' called a bisbigliando, or glissandi.
How has your concert repertoire developed over the years?
What a difference! At first, we were playing harp duets with two harpists playing each part. For example one of our favourite early programmes started with 'The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' and ended with a rousing Welsh Duo by Victorian harpist John Thomas. Over the years we have tried several different formulas – programmes of lighter music, programmes packed with contemporary music, programmes where we mixed four harps with harp duets and harp solos - and finally come up with something that works very well.
A typical concert today consists of well-known classical pieces arranged for the group by either Harriet or Eleanor and pieces that we have commissioned specially for the ensemble. We think that this format works best as there is something for the conservative Classical listener – something we have to battle with is the misconception that four harps are a bit ‘wacky‘ – and something that pushes the boundaries musically and really shows the scope of what four harps can create.
Since the harp quartet is not exactly a particularly wide-spread format, transcriptions quite naturally seem to play an important role. What's your approach to them and how do you select the right pieces?
When it comes to the transcriptions, we work on the basis of what would work well in a programme. After that, it is a case of what would work well on the harp (there are certain types of figurations such as rapidly repeated notes and very fast chromaticism which aren’t really playable on the harp). We love to transcribe and usually look to orchestral pieces for the repertoire - we have always been taught to view the harp as an orchestra within one instrument, in order not to be limited by its image and more stereotypical characteristics. With our transcriptions, audiences are always impressed by what we achieve and we receive lovely comments about the transcriptions surpassing the orchestral version sometimes! We have great fun mimicking the instruments that the harp can sound a little like, but more often than mimicking we're using the orchestral original as inspiration for the dialogue, the structure, the timbre and the personality of the work - therefore, we choose pieces that are rich in those qualities. We are also lucky in that we have more flexibility on repertoire than a solo harpist would have, as we are able to split what would be too difficult for one harp between four harps, so this opens up a lot more possibilities for the group.
You also have two active composers in the line-up. Can you tell me a bit about your different compositional approaches?
Eleanor and Harriet write in very different ways. Eleanor is more experimental both technically and harmonically than Harriet and her pieces for the group have been quite contrasting in compositional style. Harriet has more of a distinct style of composing and is very keen on toccata-type rhythms and a mixture of jazz and french impressionist harmonies, and this is apparent in all her compositions for the group so far. Both girls agree that they have learnt a huge amount about how to write for the group over the years, and are not afraid to let their music have ‘space‘ now, whereas, earlier compositions were much more dense musically speaking, with all four harps playing together the majority of the time.
Other harpists are really interested in our new compositions and are starting to ask for copies. We are both working on publications, as once the works are more accessible it could really take off. Eleanor has been delighted that her "Aquarium" arrangement (Saint-Saens) has been performed by the American Youth Harp Ensemble and we think that our popular transcriptions should pave the way for harp ensembles to try our original works.
We also love the idea of leaving a musical legacy for the future, and over the past ten years, we have amassed a substantial number of new pieces for harp quartet which we hope will be enjoyed by the next generation of harpists.
Next to transcriptions and original pieces, 4 Girls 4 Harps has also made a name for itself by commissioning new music. What has the response by composers been like so far?
Whenever we have approached a composer about writing a piece for the group they have always been incredibly enthusiastic. In the early years we didn’t give them much direction so the finished piece was always a wonderful surprise. If we were to commission anything in the future we would be a bit more specific about what we were looking for, partly to complement the pieces we already have, but also because we have learnt through our own writing experience what works and what doesn’t work for four harps. It is very gratifying that we now have composers approaching us with pieces they have written for harp quartet to ask if we would be interested in performing them.
Our favourite piece written for the group so far has to be Edward Longstaff’s "Saraswati". Based on the Indian Goddess Saraswati (who has four arms) it is one of the most exciting pieces we have ever played. It is technically incredibly demanding and by the end of it we all feel like we have had a good workout, but musically it is also extremely beautiful and dynamic and really conjures up the colours and sounds of an Indian landscape. We recorded this piece on our last CD, Fireworks and Fables, with Tabla player Sanju Sahai. The addition of authentic Indian drums made it even more inspiring to play and listen to.
We are also looking forward to performing Harriet’s 2012 piece "Elemental" at the World Harp Congress in Australia next year, and hope to record this in the not too distant future.
What have been some of the landmarks for the ensemble over the years? When did it start to become clear that this was a concept which might last quite a long time?
One of our earliest landmarks was playing for St George’s, Bristol in 2004. The group was very new still and it was an honour to play somewhere with such an eminent history. Another early highlight was being selected to perform at the 9th World Harp Congress in 2005 – playing for an audience of ‘experts‘ was very daunting! We were also privileged to be invited to perform as part of the opening celebrations of London concert hall King’s Place in 2009. A more personal landmarks in terms of the quartet’s development have been the chance to collaborate with other musicians, such as tabla player Sanju Sahai, and (on our Christmas CD released at the end of last year), soprano Helen Winter. We have learnt a huge amount from working with other musicians in terms of ensemble playing, creativity and interpretation.
We don’t think we ever had a long term ‘plan‘ for the group. We knew that we loved performing together and playing harp quartet music, and it never occurred to us that we wouldn’t be doing it years down the line! However, now we are over thirteen years into performing together, we do think more about the direction we want to go in and making sure the group continues to be successful. Perhaps with the confidence that longevity has brought, we are able to think in a more long-term way. We think we are fairly unique in the harp world to have been performing successfully as a group for such a long time!
Do you see the harp quartet as a viable model for the future in some form or will 4 Girls 4 Harps remain a unique proposition, do you reckon?
Since we started the group almost 15 years ago, we have seen an increase in the number of harp ensembles, both professional level and student groups. We are delighted that we are not the only harp quartet in the world and also that some other groups are playing some of our commissions and transcriptions. It would be fantastic to see harp quartets become a more recognised chamber group in years to come and we would like to think that we've paved the way for this to happen.
Does this show through in your audiences as well?
We are certainly seeing more diverse audiences - obviously this goes hand in hand with playing in a wide range of venues and at different times of the year, the day and whether it's a music society with quite a fixed audience or a festival that brings in a wider crowd. We're also getting a bit of a following with the young harpists - they definitely admire how we approach the quartet and the repertoire.
One of the most satisfying parts of our concerts are some of the comments afterwards from audience members who were blown away by the variety of the sound and repertoire. Some people might see the the harp quartet as a bit gimmicky but after actually coming to the concert, their preconceptions are completely disproved. We always programme such a wide range of styles and periods that there is something for every taste from Baroque to recent commissions to Jazz … we love surprising our audiences (well except those who have seen us many times!). Interestingly, the biggest prejudice we have to overcome is from concert promoters who are concerned that the harp quartet won’t sell well. They are always amazed when the ticket sales pour in, and most of our concerts now are sold out! This wouldn’t happen if the local audience were suspicious of the group – the harp is a very popular instrument to listen to now, and we think audiences are attracted to the idea of the spectacle of harps magnified by four!
You've recently commented on the hardships of life as a performer, which is more than understandable. Can you now tell me a bit about what makes playing in this group so satisfying?
TokafiOur friendships, the amazing opportunity to be so creative, and using the four harps as a unique colour palette for our own compositions and creativity! Being a harpist can be quite lonely (much of our career is spent either performing solo concerts or in a corner of the orchestra), so being able to play with three other people who can completely understand the ups and downs of the instrument is a lovely feeling. We have also met some wonderfully generous people in the places we have performed in – our hosts and the concert organisers are all so friendly and helpful, and the audiences we play to are always incredibly receptive and enthusiastic about what we are doing. It is also amazing to be part of something that is trailblazing and unique – it always feels as though we are a part of something very special and we are excited for all that the future has to offer!
Interview with 4 Girls 4 Harps by Tobias Fischer