Tag Archives: organology

Trinity College harp neck decoration

I am halfway through preparing a sheet, laying out the decorative scheme of the neck of the Trinity College harp.

I thought of doing this two years ago, when I did my scheme for the pillar, but I never got round to it until now.

I will eventually put both the halves together in one sheet, and publish it on Early Gaelic Harp Info, but for now you can get a sneak preview of the left side.

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Quill shim

In Karen Loomis’s PhD thesis (volume 3, p.379-380) she prints two photographs of a shim from tuning pin hole no.23 on the Queen Mary harp. One shows the shim extracted; it is made from a split section of a feather quill.

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This photo shows how pin no.29 was going into the neck far too far, because its hole was too big.

On my replica, pins 29 and 30 have needed shimming for some years now. I had originally tried paper, and subsequently sheet brass, but I was inspired by this discovery, to pull the pins and try quill shims.

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Opening up the harp

I have been thinking for a few years now about the shape of the inside of my harp, in light of the new information we have from Karen Loomis’s PhD research at the University of Edinburgh.

When I commissioned the harp from Davy Patton in 2006-7, the thing we were most lacking was info about the inside – the shapes of the joints, and the profile and thickness of the soundbox. Basically, we had to make a lot of educated guesses.

Since then, we have the CT-scans and other technical studies of the Queen Mary harp that Karen has been working on, and many of our guesses have turned out to be pleasingly correct, such as our choice of timber – willow for the soundbox, and a bent limb for the pillar – but we were quite wrong in our decisions on how to shape the soundbox interior.

Luckily, we had erred very much on the side of leaving the wood too thick, so last week I took the harp to Natalie Surina, of Ériú Harps in Oughterard, Connemara, for her to cut a lot of wood from inside the soundbox.

Continue reading Opening up the harp

Deskford “carnyx”

I was up in Aberdeen yesterday, interviewing for an education project themed around the Deskford carnyx. As part of my preparation I was reading up on the Deskford find as well as on carnyxes generally, and some ideas crystallised in my mind about this object specifically, as well as about the whole theme of reconstructing archaeological objects more generally. And the recreation of ancient music is perhaps the most difficult strand of reconstructing ancient objects, because the musical instrument is not merely a decorative item or a functioning tool, but is the living substrate of a whole other creative art, i.e. music making.

I was chatting with Maura Uí Chróinín in Kilkenny, about the “BC/AD” music-archaeology theme of this year’s Galway Early Music Festival, and she made the point that most music archaeologists seem to work on their own, outside of both the musical and the archaeological mainstream. The reasons for this are obvious enough, since archaeologists most often don’t have music training and musicians don’t have archaeological background, and so the majority of scholars on both sides feel un-qualified to judge or participate in music-archaeology work.

The late Iron age object from Deskford (my photo shown on the right, in the NMS) was excavated in the 19th century and so is, by modern standards, poorly recorded and conserved. It is in the form of a sheet bronze hollow boar’s head, and has with it a number of associated sheet bronze items which seem to form the palate of the boar’s mouth, its lower jaw, and a circular plate which is often assumed to have closed the open back of the head. The original descriptions also mention a wooden tongue mounted on springs but these are lost.

Early suggestions of its function were perhaps as a headdress. In 1959, Stuart Piggot published a paper suggesting it may have been the bell of a distinctive type of Iron Age long trumpet, called carnyx. At that date, the carnyx was known from classical art and literature, and Piggot drew attention to a lost example excavated in Tattershall, England, in the 18th century.

Piggot’s article included a speculative reconstruction of the Deskford boar’s head mounted on a long vertical tube, and despite his reservations and cautions, this image and the idea of the only extant carnyx surviving from North-East Scotland captured the public imagination. In the 1990s, John Purser led a team to build a working reconstruction of the boars head as a long trumpet bell, following Piggot’s drawing. This modern carnyx has been played extensively by trombonist John Kenny – I remember seeing him play it at a concert in Edinburgh some years ago.

In all this excitement, people forget that Piggot’s suggestion was just that – a speculative suggestion made at a time when very little was actually known about the carnyx. Now we have a lot more information available, especially since the publication of detailed information of the set of almost complete carnyxes excavated in 2004 in Tintinac in France. Looking over the depictions, the Tintinac examples (illustration left from Wikipedia) and the River Witham drawing publiushed by Piggot, I see a number of important features that could be said to characterise the carnyx. The tube is tapering along its whole length like a horn, and flares gently but markedly towards the animal head, which is not seperate in shape but forms a smooth continuation of the bore flare. The animal mouth is wide open, not constricting the bell of the instrument. In contrast, the Deskford head tapers the other way, severly constricting the bell of the reconstructed instrument – a recent acoustical study notes that it acts like a “trombone mute”. Also, the use of the circular dished plate to close the back of the boar’s head requires a thin tube, with a sudden step in profile as the tube meets the head. Again this has an adverse effect on the harmonicity of the instrument in contrast to the smooth expansion of the other extant and depicted carnyxes.

These considerations alone make me instantly very suspicious of this idea, that the Deskford head represents the remains of a musical instrument. I can see no specific evidence to support this interpretation and I can see a number of problems, ways in which the Deskford head is markedly different in form from all of the other extant and depicted carnyxes. I would go as far as to say, the Deskford boar’s head is not a carnyx.

A number of descriptions of the reconstruction Deskford carnyx are at pains to point out that it involves a large amount of interpretative or newly-invented design, but that nonetheless it represents a fascinating working instrument that can “result in
instruments capable of playing a valuable role in the musical culture of the present day.”  (M. Campbell & J. Kenny, Acoustical and musical properties of the Deskford Carnyx reconstruction, Proceedings of the Acoustics 2012 Nantes Conference). This is the rub – you invent a new instrument, give it an ancient name and hang it on an ancient cultural icon or artefact, and so set off in a new direction. This is not music archaeology; this is modernist cultural creativity, re-imagining ancient symbols for new purposes. If the purpose was really to get the ancient carnyx up and running, then there are the Tintinac examples ready to be exactly replicated; compared to that, a new instrument using a copy of the Deskford boar’s head as its bell has virtually no archaeological or music-archaeological value. Clearly it is not intended to do music-archaeology work; instead it is designed and produced for present day national-cultural reasons, to provide a newly-invented iconic “ancient” Scottish sight and sound.

We are not so far away from the invention of the gut-strung lever harp in the 1890s, and the neglect of the historical Gaelic harp…

One final thought: many modern depictions or recreations of carnyxes emphasise its long S shape, with a vertical tube topped by a 90 degree bend to hold the animal head, and with another 90 degree bend at the bottom to hold the mouthpiece horizontal while the tube is vertical. It seems to me that all the ancient carnyxes did not have this 90 degree bend at the bottom – some may have had an oblique mouthpiece cut in the lower end of the vertical tube, but the normal arrangement seems to have been a plain mouthpiece on the end of the long tube, as seen on the Tintinac example illustrated above. So the player has to tip their head right back and blow almost vertically into the instrument. A very different playing position with all its implications for sound production!

Playing position of medieval Gaelic harp

When I was in the National Museum of Scotland earlier this month, I was looking at the Queen Mary harp, and I noticed the wear on the lower back left corner of the soundbox. The corner of the box is quite worn away, and there is a wooden patch nailed on to the back of the box at this point, an old repair.

The wear on this corner was mentioned and drawn by R.B. Armstrong in his book The Irish and the Highland harps (David Douglas, 1904), though he talks mostly about sliding the harp along the floor when it was put down, Keith Sanger and Alison Kinnaird in their book Tree of Strings (Kinmor 1999), p.57 repeat Armstrong’s observations. Karen Loomis in her MMus dissertation (University of Edinburgh, 2010), p.49, includes a photo and a mention of this wear, but she is mostly concerned with the cracks from the repair patch nails.

I realised that the shape of this worn area is not just caused by general sliding of the harp, but instead it forms a flat surface which seems to me to be where the harp was stood on this corner when it was being played. You can see in my photo how the flat worn patch lines up with the projecting block of the bottom of the soundbox:

A long time ago I realised that if you sit on the floor to play a replica of the Queen Mary harp, then the harp naturally tips to rest on its projecting block and also this corner of the soundbox.

The angle of the flat panel therefore gives us a quite precise evidence for the angle that the harp was held at.

I propped my replica up on a hard surface, and adjusted the angle until my photo of my replica matched my photo of the original in the Museum:

And then, without moving the harp at all, I photographed the orientation of the harp, from floor level, at right angles to the plane of the strings, and also in line with it:

I think this gives a fair estimation of how the Queen Mary harp was positioned when it was being played.

Obviously there is some margin for error; the bottom of the projecting block would wear away and the corner of the box would wear away, so the angle in the front view would change over time. Also the flat worn surface is not entirely flat, but curves up towards the replacement piece. My positioning of the harp matches the most upright position. I would estimate that there could be 5 degrees either way since I was just doing this all by eye. The curving probably represents the harp being slid down to rest on its back as Armstrong suggests.

You’ll see that the strings are pretty much upright in the side-view photo.

The harp rests back quite a way behind its balance point. My replica won’t balance on that line between the box corner and the projecting block – if you tip it far forward enough to balance, it falls over sideways.

I looked again at Paul Mullarkey’s photos of the Trinity College harp. The soundbox is much more eaten away than the Queen Mary’s, especially at the bottom. However, the back bottom right corner of both the soundbox and the back panel are preserved, whereas the back bottom left corner is completely gone and is replaced now with extensive resin filler.

Silver strings on the Trinity College harp

I was browsing idly through a first edition of Grattan Flood’s The Story of the Harp in the Wighton Centre in Dundee the other week, when I came across the description of the Trinity College or Brian Boru harp on pages 41-42. An 18th century letter is quoted, giving some description of the harp:


It says “When given to Counsellor MacNamara, it had silver strings…”

The letter is said to have been written by Ralph Ouseley, who owned the harp in the early 1780s. Macnamara acquired the harp in about 1756. If this is true then it is an exciting and important piece of information both about the Trinity College harp itself, and also about the use of precious metal strings on the old Gaelic harps.

Now Grattan Flood is a notoriously unreliable author, and many of his statements can be proved false by laboriously tracking down the source documents to see what he says. Often he gives no citation or only a vage reference to “an old manuscript”. This section is given a citation though: “Bibl. Egerton, Brit. Mus., No. 74, p.351”

I contacted the British Library, and put in a request for a copy of this manuscript page. After some confusion and digging on the part of the librarians, (and a rather eye-watering fee on my credit card for their troubles) I was sent a high-res page scan of British Library, ms Egerton 74 f184. This page contains a transcription made by J. Hardiman in 1820, of the Ouseley letter, and Grattan Flood is vindicated – it really does say that the harp had silver strings on it. I was delighted that my expensive gamble in ordering the manuscript page had paid off – worth its weight in silver you could say!

So I wonder, what is the story here? Was the harp strung entirely with silver? Or did it only have a certain section of the strings left? I have seen a photo of an 18th century Irish harp (one of the Malahide / Kearney ones) which had all of its steel trebles on but none of its brass basses; brass being more valuable to remove and recycle I suppose. When were these silver strings installed on the Trinity College harp? There is no suggestion that the harp was played in the early 18th century; Arthur O’Neill in about 1760 implies that the instrument was not played for 200 years before then. Were these silver strings the remains of a 16th century setup?

The genuineness and authority of this statement from an 18th century owner of the harp makes me want to start experimenting again. How does it work to fit silver strings to the entire range? Can it be taken up to the high treble? What alloys work best for this? Ann Heymann tells me she has had a low-headed medieval Irish harp strung entirely in silver, but more experiments are needed!

Trinity College harp decoration

A sneak preview for readers of my blog!

I have made a drawing of the forepillar decoration on the Trinity College harp. This has never been done before; when R.B. Armstrong studied the harp for his 1904 book, he did not draw the pillar decoration, saying it was probably later work. And no-one has done a good published study of the harp since then.

I have been admiring the pillar decoration on my vists to Dublin for a few years now, and I managed to get enough closeup photos to be able to work out almost all of the decoration. I have drawn it all out schematically, following the general principle of Armstrong’s superb diagram of the decoration of the Queen Mary harp forepillar.

I very much enjoyed doing this work; the decoration is really complex and busy and it was a real challenge to trace the twists and turns of each vine stalk and interlace strap.

I’m publishing the drawing officially on 1st October, both as a free PDF download that you can get from the Trinity pillar decoration webpage and also as a 2-colour A3 sized digital print on good art paper that you can order from the Emporium prints page.

Be sure to read the rest of the Trinity pages as I have added some other interesting information and illustrations.