Not Just An ‘atas’ Instrument – Viva Rave present The Duality of Harps

VIVA RAVE – The Duality of Harp

Mon, 30 Aug 2021

5pm, 8pm

Esplanade Recital Studio

J.S. Bach: Sheep May Safely Graze
M. Ravel: Jeux d’eau
C. Debussy: Suite bergamasque
J. Rodrigo: Concierto de Aranjuez 
Bernard Andres: Elegie pour la mort d’un berger
Sharon Calcraft: Sevenfold Amen
Charmaine Teo: Disarry
Jonathan Shin: Rionnach Maoim

There is a certain mystique about the harp, with the image of angelic beings holding lyres appearing in folklore and art. This month, musicians from Viva Rave present a multi-media live concert to explore and then shatter some of the stereotypes surrounding one of the oldest instruments in the world.

Aileen Tang talks to harpists Charity Kiew and Nicolette Chin to find out more about the Duality of light and darkness – the conventional and the unexpected – in music for the harp.

The Flying Inkpot: First of all, tell us a little about what or who VIVA RAVE is!

Nicolette Chin

Nicolette Chin: VIVA RAVE is a professional harp ensemble made up of a mix of conservatory-trained harpists and experienced players. We harpists grew up playing together as our teacher, Katryna Tan, really encouraged music-making as a group. This really instilled in us a love for collaboration. Over the past 10 years, we have traveled to many countries, including Australia, France, and Hong Kong, to play as an ensemble. We have shared so many amazing life experiences and that synergy is what we hope comes across in our playing!

A lot of us have just returned to Singapore from training overseas, so VIVAR AVE was started to bring us back together to play! We love a challenge and we arrange most of our own ensemble music, as well as commission new pieces.

TFI: The harp is perceived to be an instrument for the rich. Is that true?

Charity Kiew: I think this perception has its roots in the pre-French revolution days when Queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of the then-reigning monarch King Louis XVI, was a harpist! She owned many gold harps that had ornate carvings and designs that would make our modern harps look really dull.

NC: That is often seen as the case because of two reasons: popular media where harps are seen in ‘atas’ (high class) situations in movies and the fact that buying a beginner harp is slightly more expensive than other beginner instruments like, let’s say, a violin. It is true that a concert grand harp can be expensive – especially the gold-plated ones – but there are affordable models around that exist. Many harp brands now have student models and buying a celtic (smaller) harp is also one way to make a smaller investment.

CK: I admit the harp DOES somehow look naturally poised and elegant, and perhaps this has also led many to think “oh wow this is an ‘atas’ instrument”. But as with any instrument out there, there are expensive and less expensive ones. So there is a harp for every budget!

TFI: We often think of a harpist being female and this concert features an all-female ensemble. In reality, what is the ratio of male to female harpists like?

CK: The ratio is definitely lopsided, with a lot more harpists being female. The general sentiment, in addition to the harp looking ‘atas’, is that the harp also looks feminine – there’s something about the curvature and the designs on the harp that does make it look more “ladylike”. Talk about instrumental baggage! Already from the 1800s, women were taught to play the harp to show their marriage eligibility. The piano (or fortepiano) was sometimes deemed too difficult – or masculine – for girls to play, and so the harp was the more feminine option.

Charity Kiew

Of course in our modern world, I like to think that we have moved past or are trying hard to move past these gender stereotypes. There are many male harpists out there who are amazing players and musicians, such as Emmanuel Ceysson and Xavier de Maistre, who have won for themselves many accolades and are principals of some of the best orchestras in the world.

NC: Generally, there are more females than males in the harp world; but at a professional level, the gender gap is surprisingly equal. Some of the most famous and influential harpists in history were male, and in today’s world, male harpists occupy many of the coveted top positions – the Metropolitan Opera, London Symphony Orchestra and Paris Opera, for example, all have male principal harpists. On a personal level, some of my closest friends in the harp profession are male. If you are a guy that wants to learn the harp and the stereotype that you’ll be the only male around is making you second guess the idea, please don’t let that stop you!

TFI: You’ll be performing works by Singaporean musicians Charmaine Teo and Jonathan Shin. Tell us a little about these works!

NC: Both works were written especially for us and this concert will be their world premieres!

Charmaine Teo is one of our own harpists who is also playing for this concert. Her work, titled Disarray, was inspired by a friend’s struggle with anxiety and the piece is structured to feel like a panic attack – the calm of life, working up into an anxious state, panicking, and then calming back down again.

CK: Awareness of and knowledge surrounding the topic of panic attacks has not been discussed openly in Singapore. The piece is divided into 4 continuous segments – Living Life, The Attack, Recovery, and Coexist. As a group, we are hoping to bring such experiences to life for the masses, so that we can all better understand the struggles of others and empathise with them on a deeper level.

NC: In the piece, you can hear the sound of heartbeats, as well as a familiar ringtone you might recognise!

Jonathan Shin’s piece, Rionnach Maoim, was specially commissioned by us. The title is Gaelic for “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day”.

 CK: Jon’s piece is meant to be an amalgamation of both the ‘light’ and ‘dark’ segments of the concerts. After taking audiences to both extremes, the concert culminates in this whimsical piece which shows that the harp can embody both natures. It starts off with dark rumbling sounds from the harp, almost as if the harps are behind a veil. And slowly, the veil is lifted and the music becomes playful and bold!

We are really excited to showcase these two brand-new works to our audiences and broaden the scope of harp ensemble repertoire.

TFI: What’s the most far-from-reality stereotype or myth about harps and harpists you’ve heard?

CK: Probably the idea that the harp is an old-fashioned or “traditional” instrument, and therefore limiting to compose for. Some might think so because the harp’s pedal mechanism does not always allow for quick or an abundance of chromaticism. Furthermore, the manner in which one plays the harp – plucking with our bare fingertips – can be limiting to the harp’s dynamic range. So it is often assumed that the harp only plays “soothing”, “quiet” or “slow” pieces effectively, and thus composers would rather compose for the piano because of the supposed greater “flexibility” of writing.  But the harp has a lot of unique, and perhaps unexplored, timbres too! In fact, for this very reason, the harp should be seen as less traditional or old-fashioned than other instruments – because there is even more untapped potential to what the harp can do!

NC: I remember being told once that all harpists are tall, slim, dainty and elegant. I was really amused – people of all ages and sizes play the harp! Also, people see us playing and think it looks graceful and assume we must be the same in real life. In reality, moving a concert grand harp is in itself an incredible feat of work and is not a graceful task in any capacity!

TFI: Give us 3 words to describe what the audience can look forward to on 30 Aug!

NC: Joy, intrigue, and wonder!

CK: Expect-the-unexpected!

Tickets for VIVA RAVE: The Duality of Harp are available at SISTIC

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