Harp History

After some feedback on my harp twins post, I thought I’d say something about the history of the harp. It’s one of the oldest musical instruments (following the flute and the drum). Harps are known to go back to 3500 BC, in Ur. Harp design has varied considerably over the 5500 years since then.


Harpist depicted on the Standard of Ur, c. 2500 BC

Later harps were of particular importance to the Celtic people, and the harp is still a symbol of Ireland today.


The medieval Queen Mary harp, c. 1400s (photo: David Monniaux)

A limitation of harps has been that the strings correspond only to the white keys on the piano. A significant improvement was the pedal harp – initially the single-action version, and from 1810 the double-action version. The double-action pedal harp is typically tuned to C major, the key of 7 flats. There are 7 pedals, with e.g. the C pedal connecting to all the C strings. Using the pedal can effectively shorten all the strings in this group to give either C or C (and the same for other groups of notes).

Child prodigy Alisa Sadikova playing the pedal harp (at age 9)

The pedal harp is the main concert instrument today. Garrison Keillor once described the instrument as “an instrument for a saint” because “it takes fourteen hours to tune a harp, which remains in tune for about twenty minutes, or until somebody opens the door.”


A modern electric lever harp (photo:Athy)

Smaller harps (including modern electric harps, like the one above) use levers to modify individual strings (which makes key changes much more difficult than with the pedal harp). Electric harps weighing up to 8 kg are described as “wearable,” which reminds me a little of this 11 kg grand-daddy of the laptop.

Camille and Kennerly Kitt playing “wearable” electric harps

The harp is often seen as a stereotypically feminine instrument – when I look at American harpists on Wikipedia, I count 10 men and 60 women. There are, however, exceptions.

Jakez François (president of French company Camac Harps) playing jazz


The Harp Twins

Someone recently pointed me at Camille and Kennerly Kitt, the so-called “Harp Twins” (above). I admire anybody who “thinks outside the box,” and these young women have clearly left the “box” of traditional harp-playing several light-years behind.

Their rather eclectic oeuvre includes film, game, and TV tie-ins (from e.g. Lord of the Rings or The Legend of Zelda); rock, folk, and pop classics (like “Hotel California” or “House of the Rising Sun”); metal (from bands like Iron Maiden or Metallica); and other music (such as “Amazing Grace” and “Scarborough Fair”). They have just started releasing their own compositions. The chart below summarises their releases by genre (data taken from Wikipedia, so probably incomplete).


Looking back: 1980

In 1980 I began my undergraduate university studies (in Chemistry, Botany, Mathematics, and Computer Programming). That year, Iran seemed to be constantly in the news. In April, the US tried and failed to rescue the embassy staff taken hostage in Tehran. Some days later, the British SAS rescued Iranian embassy staff held hostage in London. In September, Iraq began a war with Iran that lasted until 1988 (and which essentially continues today as the Sunni–Shiite conflict in Iraq and Syria). In Australia, the death of Azaria Chamberlain caused great controversy. Natural disasters that year included the eruption of Mount St. Helens (which was to inspire the 1997 film Dante’s Peak):

On a more positive note, the World Health Assembly declared on 8 May 1980 “that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America” (Resolution WHA 33.3). The Olympics were held in Moscow (though with only 80 nations) and in Lake Placid. The space probe Voyager 1 made its closest approach to Saturn, taking spectacular photographs of the ringed planet and its moons (such as Rhea, below):

Ronald Reagan was elected President of the United States, and Tony Hoare won a well-deserved Turing Award. Usenet (a precursor to Internet discussion forums) was launched. The Rubik’s Cube was licensed to a US toy company and became a craze. The arcade game Pac-Man was released, and it became a craze as well:

Two much-loved films, The Empire Strikes Back and The Blues Brothers, also appeared. An obscure Italian book called Il nome della rosa had yet to make an impact, although The Clan of the Cave Bear was undeservedly trendy. Music of the time was on vinyl or the now-forgotten cassette tapes. During the year, Stevie Wonder released his album Hotter than July, Supertramp released their live album Paris, Flowers released Icehouse, the Alan Parsons Project released their superb The Turn of a Friendly Card, and Kate Bush released this very strange single:


The job’s not over yet, guys

The Bible (Genesis 2:19–20) describes the first man as beginning an inventory of the world’s animal species. Bob Dylan famously set the story to music in Man Gave Names to All the Animals (1979):

Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, in the beginning
Man gave names to all the animals
In the beginning, long time ago

He saw an animal that liked to growl
Big furry paws and he liked to howl
Great big furry back and furry hair
‘Ah, think I’ll call it a bear’ …

In spite of all the millenia that humanity has lived on our planet, this inventory has only just begun. An estimated 8.7 million eukaryotic species exist, with about 86% still awaiting description. At the current rate of progress, finishing the job will take centuries – and during that time, many species will become extinct without ever having been inventoried. Many species have already been lost forever.

Some of the older species descriptions will also need to be re-examined. There are specimens on museum shelves which represent unrecognised species. The job’s far from over yet, guys. We obviously need substantially more resources for the task.


World Solar Challenge: Bright Sun Rising


Sunrise at Alice Springs (photo: Eason Liu, May 2015)

Every race needs a theme song, and this one is to the tune of the old classic in the video below. It’s dedicated to the WSC 13 Michigan team (who crashed their vehicle but – refusing to give up – did a rush repair job and still finished in the top ten), to the WSC 09 Twente team (who had a similar experience), and especially to this year’s team from Singapore, who bounced back after a fire destroyed their car. Needless to say, I hope that nobody this year experiences any of the problems in this song.

I’ve seen the storm clouds a-building.
I’ve seen the rain come pelting down.
I’ve seen the car get four flat tires.
I’ve wished we’d bought more food in town.

Well, I cried in bed last night,
But we woke to morning light,
There’s a bright sun on the rise.

I’ve seen the pack come driving past us.
I’ve seen the Challenge lose its gloss.
I’ve feared our race was really over.
I’ve heard the voice of rage and loss.

Well, I cried in bed last night,
But we woke to morning light,
There’s a bright sun on the rise.

I see the city lights approaching.
I smell the southern, fresh salt air.
Looks like the car is running smoothly.
I see no troubles anywhere.

I cried in bed last night,
But we woke to morning light,
There’s a bright sun on the rise.

Yeah, we started not quite right,
But we fixed it overnight,
There’s a bright sun on the rise.


Culture




Folk culture (left), popular culture (centre), and “high” culture (right). The photo of the blue handmade pottery cup at top left is by “Wildfeuer,” and the photo at bottom right is by Jessica Spengler.

I recently read a book discussing the now-traditional distinction between folk culture, popular culture, and “high” culture (see pictures above). Folk culture includes traditional arts and crafts, hand-made objects, and fairy tales or recipes passed down from generation to generation. Popular culture is characterised by mass-produced objects made from cheap materials or ingredients, aimed at immediate gratification and at the lowest common denominator of taste. “High” culture consists of things that only the well-educated cognoscenti can appreciate. “High” culture should be distinguished from what is simply the more expensive end of folk culture – craftspeople have always been able to produce more sophisticated items, made with more expensive materials and more elaborate decoration, if they were paid for the extra time and cost (“for you, my lord, I can fletch the arrows with eagle’s feathers instead of hen’s feathers”).


Bristol Cathedral

Now, I think this classification is missing a few things. For a start, there’s the important category of religious culture, which includes things like the great cathedrals (or, elsewhere in the world, temples and mosques) and the religious music of, for example, J. S. Bach. Such cultural artefacts were aimed at ordinary people (not the cognoscenti), but they were dedicated to God. They were meant to inspire devotion, and quite literally to point to heaven.

The Agnus Dei from Bach’s Mass in B minor, sung by Kathleen Ferrier

In Bach’s case, this intent was genuine – he was a deeply religious man, who ended his musical manuscripts with the phrase Soli Deo gloria (Glory to God alone), or with the initials S.D.G. In religious culture, it is neither the artist nor the listener/viewer to whom honour is intended to accrue. In a weaker form, this attitude can be found in, for example, movie soundtracks, whose primary purpose is not to be appreciated on their own, but to help the audience enter into the story.

In many cases, what we call “high” culture is actually folk culture or religious culture that has lost its original context. Folk-culture artefacts from the past (like the Greek vase at top) first enter the antique store and then, as they become even older, move to the museum, where they become objects of “high” culture. Folk-culture artefacts from other countries appear to become objects of “high” culture as soon as they are transported from their place of origin. Religious music becomes “high” culture when it shifts from the cathedral to the concert hall. When a degree of context is restored, some objects of “high” culture can actually become extremely popular, as in movie adaptations of Shakespeare or of classic novels. Other objects of modern “high” culture bemuse even well-educated individuals outside the cognoscenti.


Traditional slit drums from Vanuatu in the Australian Museum, Sydney (my photo)

Movies are a key part of popular culture. The chart below relates the “percentage of professional critic reviews that are positive for a given film” from rottentomatoes.com to total revenues (as at a few years ago – data is from here). It is not clear, however, exactly what the “professional critic reviews” are measuring. The relationship between revenues and quality is hazy as well, although some really terrible movies do seem to make a great deal of money.

For several decades now, a growing rebellion against popular culture has been emerging. There was the Arts and Crafts movement around 1900, and since then a steadily increasing interest in traditional forms of music, hand-crafted objects, and home cooking. There have also been a number of other interesting movements. The slow food movement attempts to resurrect a comprehensive folk culture of food, and offers a superior alternative to “fast food.” The maker movement (as defined by e.g. Make magazine) merges modern technology with traditional crafts. It seeks to ally modern technology with folk culture, rather than with mass-produced popular culture. At the simple end, maker culture includes minor customisations of high-tech devices, like this Macbook sticker:


Macbook sticker (photo by Denis Dervisevic, slightly modified)

At the more sophisticated end, there is this classic steampunk computer monitor and keyboard by Jake von Slatt:


Steampunk computer monitor and keyboard (photographer & maker: Jake von Slatt)

Steampunk culture also rebels against the cheap plastics used in so many popular-culture artefacts (although Robert M. Pirsig notes that “Mass-produced plastics and synthetics aren’t in themselves bad. They’ve just acquired bad associations. A person who’s lived inside stone walls of a prison most of his life is likely to see stone as an inherently ugly material, even though it’s also the prime material of sculpture, and a person who’s lived in a prison of ugly plastic technology that started with his childhood toys and continues through a lifetime of junky consumer products is likely to see this material as inherently ugly”). Steampunk culture prefers older materials like brass and copper, as in this 1994 Jules-Verne-inspired steampunk makeover of the Arts et Métiers Métro station in Paris:


The Arts et Métiers Métro station (photo: Stephen Butterworth)

Aspects of the emerging maker movement can also be seen in the solar cars developed for the World Solar Challenge, where high-tech electronics and solar panels are combined with carefully engineered and hand-crafted car bodies made of quality materials like carbon-fibre composites, resulting in vehicles of aesthetic beauty as well as practicality and speed.


Solar Team Twente’s solar car Red One (photo: Jérôme Wassenaar)

Eurovision 2015: Australia votes

It was Eurovision again on the weekend. This time, Australia competed. And voted – twice. Officially, during the contest; and in the Australian evening, unofficially, at sbs.com.au.

I have no time for the kind of analyses I did last year but, as the graph below shows, the unofficial Australian percentage ratings tracked the official Eurovision scores reasonably well (with substantial random variation), except for the huge vote for home: