Mar 3, 2016
by RICKY O'BANNON

As common a sight as it is in concert halls, the harp is something of a mysterious instrument to many musicians and composers.

All instruments have their own quirks and techniques that composers should be familiar with to truly write them good parts, but the harp exists somewhat on an island outside larger families of instruments with shared technical eccentricities, and for many that makes it a particular challenge to compose for.

“We change our parts for so many well-known composers’ music,” said Olivia Jageurs. “We keep our own [sheet music] because we always have to edit our parts. We’re very unique in that way… It just felt like a really common problem.”

Jageurs is a London-based harpist who is a member of a new music ensemble called ANIMA and is currently playing in the pit orchestra for a musical adaptation of War of the Worlds in the West End. She is often sent snippets and short harp passages from composer friends asking a simple question: Is this playable?

“It’s so different from everything else,” Jageurs said. “I think there is some fear about it, so [some composers] haven’t written a harp part at all even if it might have worked well in their pieces.”

After looking online at the resources available online for composing for her instrument, Jageurs decided to launch a project called 15 Second Harp. The premise is part 21st century creative collaboration, part musical tech support. Composers can send Jageurs a short, 15-second passage by midnight, and she will post a video recording of the piece by 5 p.m. the following day with immediate feedback.

Jageurs launched the project at the beginning of February by submitting her pledge to an online composers forum.

“I woke up to about 50 friend requests and received 10 pieces in 12 hours,” she said. “I thought, ‘what have I done here?’”

A month into the project, Jageurs has completed about 70 videos, doing up to three a day, which she says can take her up to an hour each. Alongside each video that she posts on the project’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, she’ll write some brief feedback on technical issues along with some encouragement and suggestions notated in red pen on the score.

One of the main goals of the project is to help demystify the harp. In one post Jageurs said that she’s often asked by fellow professional musicians just what exactly those pedals at the base of her instrument do, so it’s understandable if one of her submitters was confused by how they work.

A little harp 101 for readers (like the author as of 24 hours ago) who might have just learned that harps have pedals. The modern concert harp has 47 strings that allow it a similar range to a piano. There are seven pedals that control whether a particular pitch (like A or C across all octaves) is tuned to be natural, flat or sharp. Harpists adjust these pedals with their feet while playing, but this makes chromatic sections much more difficult than a piano. If there is an A natural and A flat in quick succession, the passage might be virtually unplayable.

Jageurs has received submissions from across Europe, the United States and South America, and she said it has been encouraging to see the sometimes isolated harp community be able to connect and collaborate. One submission came from a Norwegian harpist who told Jageurs in her email that she didn’t know many other harp players and this project gave her a chance to talk shop. Others have come from professional composers working on orchestra commissions or even an 11-year-old harp student. Jageurs said that she mostly hears and knows British composers because they are the ones programmed locally, so the project has allowed her to meet composers from all over the world.

A thoroughly modern aspect to 15 Second Harp is that the pieces and the performance are works in progress. In some ways, bringing this process to a public space represents a generational divide in the way musicians like Jageurs think about the virtual realm in comparison to the generation of musicians that came before them.

“My teachers have always said, ‘Don’t put anything online unless it’s completely ready,” Jageurs said. “And that’s what I always thought. There isn’t much online of me playing at all.”

By it’s nature, 15 Second Harp requires both Jageurs and the composers who submit their often-unfinished work to pull back the curtain. Jageurs publishes up to three excerpts of her playing daily, where she performs works she has spent less than a day with, and that, she said, can be nerve-wracking.

“I have to get much less fussy than I normally would be and try not to think about what other harpists [critiquing my performance] might think,” Jageurs said. “We’ve been trained to only present something that’s a finished product. It’s in such contrast to Generation Vlog where people might just ramble to a camera for 10 minutes.

“I guess though that some of the most interesting chamber music can happen when a piece hasn’t totally come together and is a little bit on the edge. Hopefully people like the fact that it’s not polished. Hopefully it makes it more accessible.”

Originally, Jageurs said she only planned on running the project for the month of February as a sort of new year’s resolution. But a month in, she said she plans on doing it for the rest of 2016. However, Jageurs notes that there are some logistical hurdles to still iron out.

“I haven’t yet worked out what’s going to happen if I want to go on holiday,” she said.