My YouTube videos playing the harpolyre continue to get a lot of attention, and I wanted to share with you a little of the backstory of this amazing three-necked harp guitar.
In an effort to bring history to the harp guitar I discovered ten works for the harpolyre written by Fernando Sor, known as the Father of the Classical Guitar. The amazing thing about these compositions is not only are they extremely tender and lyric pieces, but they had never been played since 1830 and perhaps have never actually been heard in public until my recording “The Lost Music of Fernando Sor” along with my live performances and YouTube videos. I felt like Indiana Jones uncovering this forgotten music for a forgotten instrument.
I ordered the microfilm of this music in 1977 from the La Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) and with this extremely rare and beautiful music in my hands, I could only dream of finding one of a handful of existing harpolyres upon which to really recreate these beautiful musical pieces. After thirty years of the hunt, I was blessed to find a circa 1830 harpolyre that had been restored to near pristine condition.
Following is an interview published after my visit and concert in Rigomagno – a thousand year old hilltop village in Tuscany, Italy. Used with permission.
We are curious to know how it all began: it’s such a peculiar instrument, how did you get interested in the harp-guitar?
In a world increasingly filled with machine made things that are all made the same I have found it refreshing to celebrate the unusual. I grew up in Venice, California in the United States – a place inspired by Venezia in Italy. I guess beauty and the unusual seemed to go together in my youth and while in my teens I played the 12 string guitar and a double neck electric in a rock band. Later, while studying music at a university I was introduced to classical guitar. I really enjoyed the music for the lute and was amazed at the sound of its many strings. When I later found a century old harp guitar on the back wall of a music store it called to me with its beautiful shape and unusual collection of extra strings. I was achingly curious and wanted to transform its silence and neglect into something alive and vibrant. It was and continues to be an adventure to play music on the harp guitar.
What’s the origin of the harp-guitar? And what about your instrument? Did you have it built especially for you? In this case, where did you find the model? Is it an original model you designed?
The harp guitar in America was first popular from the 1890’s through the 1920’s. People played them in mandolin orchestras, vaudeville shows, and in their parlors. In Europe the harp guitar was becoming popular as early as the 1840’s and grew in popularity up through the early 1900’s especially in Germany and in Italy. Pasquale Taraffo is one of the great Italian masters of the instrument in the early 20th century. To learn more about this amazing player from your own history check out the information on Taraffo on the Harp Guitars site.
Regarding my instrument, I commissioned it in 1986 from John Sullivan with oversight and design by Jeffrey Elliott of Portland, Oregon. Jeffrey had made guitars for Julian Bream, Ralph Towner, etc. and I was excited to see how he would approach the challenges of so many strings and meet my requirements of evenness of tone using steel strings. Although based on the Knutsen, Dyer, and Gibson harp guitars from a century earlier it was completely redesigned to be a master instrument that would sound evenly across all its range (like the piano). It is considered the “first modern harp guitar” of our times. Scores of copies have been made and it was recently on the cover of the magazine “American Lutherie.” Continue reading →
Filmed entirely on location in Ireland, this is a preview of the upcoming documentary on John Doan’s “A Celtic Pilgrimage.” It showcases the journey he took repeatedly to explore the Celtic history and spiritual places he calls the “thin places” where spirit and earth meet.