ursnaidhm ceangal – The pin or jack that fastens the wire of the harp

The word ursnaidhm (and variants) appears in Bunting’s 1840 book, where it is also translated “The wooden pegs to which the strings are fastened”. Today I was restringing my Student Downhill harp with only four gauges of wire, and I thought I would experiment with the toggle windings, following the historical evidence.

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Otway harp string holes

While working on something else I came across this from last year which I had meant to write up.

Understanding the tuning and stringing of an old harp requires knowledge of string lengths and angles. This basically means measuring between the tuning pin and the little hole in the soundboard where the string goes in. But Ann Heymann pointed out to me years ago that on the Castle Otway harp, you can’t see a lot of those holes, because the metal strap down the middle does not line up with the string holes in the wood.

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Harpe bardique

I have been discussing stringing possibilities of a harp made by a French harp maker, supposedly as a copy of one of the old Gaelic harps. Analysing its string lengths I noted that its scaling was suspiciously slow.

(Scaling is the technical word used to describe the ratio of string lengths across the range of a harp or other stringed instrument; a slow scaling means the strings increase in length more gradually as you move from treble to bass.)

Then I remembered that I had come across this slow, even scaling before, on harps modelled after the “Bardic harp” of Gildas Jaffrennou.

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“Traditional Music in Ireland”

I remember Ben Bagby taking a text describing African mbira players, and using it to get an inspiring description of what medieval harp music might be like. (‘Imagining the early medieval harp’, in A Performer’s guide to medieval music, ed. Ross Duffin, Indiana University Press, 2000, p.340-3)

So today I done the same with this text from Tomás Ó Canainn, Traditional music in Ireland, Routlege and Kegan Paul, London, 1978, p.87-90

The square brackets are where I have removed all the pipe-specific words and terms. In our minds we can insert harp references, so that we can try to read this as a guide to how to play Irish harp. Continue reading “Traditional Music in Ireland”

Restoration ecology and breeding in captivity

I had an idea that the Historically Informed Performance (HIP) and Early Music movement is kind of like breeding endangered species in captivity, or even using genetic engineering to recreate extinct species of animals. In this sense, listening to a historically informed performance using scholarly reconstruction of historical repertory, style and playing techniques on replica instruments, is a bit like going to a zoo, to see the exotic animals on display.

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Examples of Irish Melody

In my book Progressive Lessons, I included a full size full colour facsimile of Edward Bunting’s loose sheet titled “Examples of Irish Melody”. These settings of the three beginners’ tunes are interestingly different from the ones we have from Denis O’Hampsey and Patrick Quin, and I have been using them more and more in my teaching.

It is very interesting to work through these settings with complete beginners in my classes, as well as discussing the implications with my established students. It really feels like a proper system for playing the Irish harp in the old Gaelic tradition is starting to emerge.

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thoughts from behind the harp