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We Talked To Joanna Newsom About The Future Of Harp Making

Computer-aided innovations in harpmaking practices reveal a legacy of magic and mechanics.
26 September 2014, 5:30pm

Master harpist and singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom's first harp, a handcrafted Dusty Strings FH36H, has a pretty voice and a melancholy nature. Even though it “has a tendency to get swallowed by larger rooms,” Newsom will vouch that it has the purest and sweetest sound out of all the harps she’s ever played. For a skilled artist like Newsom, the quality of her harp matters tremendously.

Since the reign of Ancient Egypt, the art of crafting these imposing yet elegant instruments—from their wood frames to the brass-and-steel mechanics that support their 47 fine-tuned, high-tension strings—has remained a decidedly analog and handmade process. That is, until now:

To give themselves an advantage over the age-old difficulties inherent in working with wood, Salvi Harps of Italy has begun optimizing the acoustic properties of their products using cutting edge digital technology. Today, the company employs two MSC Software programs for the evaluation and calibration of light yet stable harp designs. The first, MSC Nastran, analyzes stress/strain behavior and measures dynamic and vibration response. The second, SimXpert,uses Nastran’s data to simulate the performance of the projected end product. Both are heavy-duty computer-aided design (CAD) technologies normally used in aerospace and auto engineering. Companies including Taylor Guitars have been known to use CAD and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) for their string instruments, but in the realm of harpmaking, Salvi is a pioneer.

While Salvi’s harps can be heard in everything from film scores to philharmonic orchestra performances, leading harpists including Joanna Newsom, and Nancy Allen, principal harpist of the New York Philharmonic, are still not completely sold on the merits of the CAD harp tech. While Newsom believes that simulation engineering can reveal hidden structural weakness, she trusts “the ears and the hands of the team of people” that make harps by hand. Allen, on the other hand, thinks the entire harp design could use an overhaul, stating, “I would like the future to bring a harp with equidistant string placement—much better for the hand in general, and a perfection of the mechanism which makes regulation of the discs for tuning more accurate.”

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With scholarly precision, Newsom identified the qualities to look for when choosing a new harp -- whether it is computer-designed or handmade:

Integrity of construction: Warping of the sound board or tiny gaps in the joined parts of the body of the harp can dilute the sound, causing buzzing and rattling noise, she says.

Quality of the wood: “I don't mean just basic 'goodness' or 'badness' of quality; I also mean the wide range of characteristics that various types of woods possess and the sonic and structural characteristics those different woods might impart a harp with,” says Newsom. For example, high quality spruce wood will allow a harp's sound board to be light and thin, allowing beautiful resonance, while remaining rigid enough to withstand years of tension from the harp's strings without warping.

Age of the harp: According to Newsom, this is the most complicated variable. The tension of the harp strings pulling against the many delicate joined parts of a harp can combine to cause all sorts of sonic problems as the harp itself ages. She explains, “For that reason, there's a market for old harps, rebuilt with new sound boards.”

Pedal function and action: Newsom stresses the importance of properly regulated pedal rods. Periodic maintenance ensures that the half-step increments between each pedal position remains perfectly in tune.

Quality of the strings: Newsom prefers gut because it has a better grip when she’s playing in a hot venue. “I also think gut sounds much better than nylon, especially through the middle octaves of the harp,” she adds. As with the harp itself, the age of strings also greatly affect the sound. Old strings will sound dull, and gut strings will develop tiny ‘whiskers,’ or fibrous filaments, that cause a buzzing sound when you pluck the string.

Newsom also believes that the personalities and sound colorations of a harp can't necessarily be attributed directly to any single mechanical or structural component. “Two harps of the same maker and style number, manufactured in the same year, out of the same materials, will probably still exhibit minute variations in responsiveness, resonance, timbre, and what I'd have to (unfortunately) refer to as ‘hand feel.’ Most harpists could pick their own harps out of a lineup of seemingly identical instruments, just by playing them.” The individual technique and style of the harp player are as important as many of these physical/structural components in bringing out the full excellence of the harp, she adds.

Unsurprised that technology has crept into the craft, or that the house of Salvi has led the change, Nancy Allen states, “Victor Salvi has always been thelevel of innovative harp technology. He has literally given his heart soul and life to the production and improvement of harps, and remains an ambassador to good will among the competing harp brands, looking after both Lyon Healy and Salvi for many years.” More evidence of his general good will is the Fundacion Salvi, a philanthropic organization dedicated to supporting young Colombian musicians, and spreading the sound of the harp around the world.

Harps aren’t all analog, either. Popularized by French New Age master Jean Michel André Jarre as early as 1981 and still played today, laser harps include playable "strings" of light. Artist Di Mainstone has created the Human Harp, a sculptural instrument she’s employed on the Brooklyn Bridge. Albums have been recorded using house-sized harps. Björk even employs robo-harpists. These fascinations, however, constitute a whole different kind of instrument, and evade the structural and mechanical finessing that goes into the construction of traditional harps.

The limitless room for improvement and innovation should comfort harp engineers, designers, and constructors worried about losing their time-honored jobs to computers. Perhaps the harp’s greatest beauty of all lies in the fact that it can accommodate technological advancements while still requiring the human touch.

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