"The two instruments I disliked the most as a child were pedal harp and keyboard accordion." Ann Heymann is no longer quite so prejudiced, but fittingly, she now plays wire-strung harp and her hushand Charlie plays button accordion. They are not limited to these two instruments however. Ann also plays wooden transverse flute, concertina and harmonium, and Charlie plays concertina guitar, cittern, mandocello, bones and bodhran as well. Together they form the group "Clairseach".
Ann first became interested in the wirestrung harp after reading Bunting's descriptions of the techniques used by Irish harpers in his book "The Ancient Music of Ireland" (1840). That was in l971, while she was playing whistle with a local ceilidh hand in St. Paul, Minnesota led by Martin McHugh, an accordion player from County Roscommon, Ireland. She decided then that she wanted to learn to play the wire-strung harp, but she had no idea where to find one. At that time she had never heard of Jay Witcher or any wire-strung harp players. But in 1974 a bit of bad luck helped her out. "I should should have been working in Minnesota, but I was in Chicago instead." She had her leg in a cast (a horse fell on it, more ahout that later) and couldn't work. So she went down to Chicago to visit Charlie. Some friends of his in St. Louis had a music shop and they had just bought four harps from Jay Witcher. When Ann and Charlie heard ahout it, they went to look at them. One of these became Ann's first harp.
"From reading Bunting I knew that I wanted to play a different style from gut or nylon-strung harp. I also knew there was no one to teach me�so I went at it on my own." She had four sessions with a classical harpist, discussing problems and possibilities. That was it. Then she was on her own. Using Bunting's descriptions of hand position, fingering and ornamentation, Ann began painstakingly developing her own technique. The result is completely unique. "It wasn't easy, because Bunting is not always very clear. For example, it seems like the musical notations do not always match the fingering descriptions. Some of the descriptions seem like they should fit musical examples other than the ones with which they are paired."
We were fortunate enough to have Ann and Charlie at our last Folk Harp Meeting here in Germany, where Ann gave a demonstration of some of her techniques. At the moment she plays a beautifully carved and ornamented harp based on the l7th century Castle Otway harp and a double harp with two identically tuned parallel rows of strings. Both harps were built by Jay Witcher. Many so-called 'brass-strung' harps have wound guitar strings in the bass, steel strings at the top, and brass strings only in the middle. Ann's harps are strung entirely of brass except for two wound strings in the bass.
Ann plays the harp on her left shoulder, in the manner of the ancient Irish harpers. Her personal explanation for this position is that in many cultures the left half of the body has been traditionally associated with femininity, the right half with masculinity. The left hand would therefore play the treble strings, the normal range of the feminine voice.*
[*The pair of identically tuned G strings on the Irish harp, called "lying together" in Gaelic, could also be explained in a similar fashion, if one considers one G string as marking the end of the 'masculine' half, the other the beginning of the 'feminine' half. Where the two halves meet, they " lie together," just as a man and woman lie together. Ann stresses that this is her own personal explanation and that there may of course be others.]
Ann plays with the "long crooked nails" so often mentioned in early descriptions of Irish harpers. She points out that "crooked" probably does not mean long and curved but slanted. The nails do not need to be filed off at a slant; the playing itself wears them down to that shape. At the workshop Ann was having trouble with her nalls, because she had tried false nails, and the glue had damaged her own nails. In order to use the fingernails to their best advantage, the hand and arm position must be completely different than that taught for classical harp. Ann uses a lowered elbow (somewhat like riding a horse) and 'dropped thumb' position, with very little movement of the fingers. "If a concert harpist looked at my hands, they'd say they look like spiders!" she quips.
The problem of music on the wire-strung harp turning to mush has been discussed quite often in this journal. The early Irish harpers were not plagued with this problem however. As Bunting says of Hempson:"His fingers lay over the strings in such a manner that when he struck them with one finger, the other was instantly ready to stop the vibration, so that the Staccato passages were heard in full perfection." The first time I read that passage I thought, 'Forget it! Nobody's ever going to be able to pull that off!' But I was very wrong. Ann's damping is not simply putting the flat hand across the bass strings once in awhile to stop the ringing. The most important part of her technique involves stopping the vibration of each string just as the next is played. This requires twice as much work from the fingers as gut or nylon-strunq harp technique* and that's at lightning speed! It is impossible to see what she's actually doing until she slows down to show you. No description in words can do justice to Ann's playing, but I shall attempt to outline just a few of her innovations.
[*I realize that Carlos Salzedo requires similar techniques, but not constantly.]
Ann has developed many different techniques for damping the strings and playing simultaneously. Some of them do look rather like a spider crawling up the harp, for example, playing an ascending scale alternating 2 (index) and 1 (thumb) and damping the string played by 2 with 4 (ring), the string played by 1 with 3 (middle). Others involve what she calls the "forked finger" position, a term borrowed from Bunting, which she uses for parallel descending octaves. She spreads the fingers wide, plays an octave, for example G, with 2 & 4, and slides immediately to the A strings above with one motion, somewhat like the rest stroke on a guitar. Then she goes down a third, plays the F octave and lands immediately on the G strings just played, damping them in the process. Next she goes down a third to E, landing on F and so forth. The "forked finger" position can also be used for ascending parallel fifths, playing with 2 & 4 and trailing 3 a third behind to dampen the bottom string. Ascending parallel octaves can be played with 1 & 3, damping simultaneously with 2 & 4. Ann plays arpeggios with one finger and trails another finger a third behind, just brushing the strlng to dampen it. Ornaments include such techniques as plucking one string with the four fingers of one hand, one after the other, or using one fingernail like a plectrum on one string, mandolin fashion. Not every string is dampened. Ann also uses what she calls a "continued ringing technique," leaving one or more fingers on the strings as anchors and letting other strings ring until just before played, without the benefit of placing the fingers first. So Ann Heymann's technique involves a conscious choice: which notes are important enough to be left ringing, which should be dampened. The result is precise, clean, crystal clear. No mush.
"Actually I'm a better horse trainer than I am a musician. If it hadn't been for Charlie, I'd still be training horses." Of course after hearing her play I thought she was kidding! But during the two weeks Ann and Charlie had our guest room (a converted swimming pool) turned into a recording studio, I learned the truth behind this modest statement. While we were watching the world horse jumping championships on television, she would always make the same remarks as the commentator before I could translate his for her. Ann is a top notch rider who had Olympic goals until she met Charlie. Shortly before their marriage she was leading rider for the entire upper Midwest. "I used to ride 7 hours in the morning, go home for lunch (and play your harp?) yes, play the harp, and then go hack and give 4 hours of lessons." It was during one of those lessons that the horse fell on her leg and broke it. In 1976, when she married Charlie, she had to make a decision: either she would continue riding, and Charlie, who belonged to the Dayhills Irish Band, would have to quit and get a "decent job." Or else Ann would quit riding and go on the road with Charlie. Luckily for harp enthusiasts, Charlie won, and as the old adage goes�the riding world lost a good rider, but the harp world has gained a very creative, imaginative and original talent. The two of them have been 'on the road' ever since and have no four walls to call their own except those of their van. Ann did not begin performing with the Dayhills until one year after their marriage, when she could play 10 hours of music with them. In 1979 Ann and Charlie broke away on their own and began performing under the name 'Clairseach.' In the beginning they did the Irish Pub circuit (the ones with holes in the walls left by misdirected flying fists!), and they can tell many stories ahout Ann hiding behind the harp as glass from broken beer bottles showered around her.
Ann gained international recognition when she won the Bun-Fhleadh Harp Competition at Granard in Ireland in 1981. "I played so terribly that I stopped in the middle of a piece and asked to he excused. But they said no!" Apparently even at her worst Ann's proficiency had the judges captivated. The next year the competition committee formed a special category for wire-strung harp. Disappointingly, there were no competitors, so they convinced Ann to compete again and then again gave her the overall Grand Prize for the entire competition.
Clairseach's first alhum, "Let Erin Remember," features tunes for the wirestrung harp and traditional Irish dance music and song played on the various other instruments. Their second album, "Ann's Harp," reflects the increasing virtuosity, mastery of harp skills, growth and maturity that Ann and Charlie's music has undergone since their first album. It features several haunting pieces for the double harp, and many less familiar harp tunes, as well as traditional Irish dance music and song. At the moment Ann is working on an album of music for gut-strung and wire-strung harps together with Alison Kinnaird of Scotland.
One senses the native feel for Irish traditional music in Clairseach's playing. This is due in part to Charlie's Chicago Irish heritage. His maternal randfather played button accordion.
Ann and Charlie also spend a good part of each year in Connemara, Ireland listening especially to the traditional singers. "It's the oldest music Ireland has to offer, and an understanding of it helps to get a feel for the ancient music of the harp as well as a feeling for Ireland."
Ann and Charlie's humour and rapport on stage are a delightful experience. At the concert marking the end of the German Folk Harp Meeting, Ann looked over at Charlie several times in the middle of a piece and finally said, "Come on Charlie. I got into the wrong piece. That's your cue. Start singing!" Charlie jumped off his chair, switched instruments, jumped back up and started singing. During several pieces Ann reaches over with her right foot and hand and starts pumping and playing the harmonium while continuing to play the harp with her left hand. The look on her face during this is not, "Look what I can do!" but more like "Oh dear, now I have to play both these instruments at the same time again." "It's really kind of embarrassing!" she adds. And even German audiences go to pieces when Charlie sings "The Farmer's Boy," a song about his one attempt to get a "decent job." Charlie has a beautifully gentle and expresslve voice, and his Gaelic and English-language songs are full of feeling. The union of his voice with the bell-like quality of the harp's brass strings is spellbinding.
Charlie really deserves more mention, because he is also extremely talented. "The thing about Charlie is that even though he doesn't play the harp, he's a good enough musician to understand the instrument and help me when I get stuck." It is Charlie who notates the music to their pieces and spends hours comparing the notes on Bunting's manuscripts in O'Sullivan's works with the music as printed in Bunting's books. Ann and Charlie also spend much time at the libraries in Dublin and Belfast going through Bunting's manuscripts. "The musical notations in the manuscripts are skeletal�just the bare melody, no ornamentations. He knew the style more or less though, so it could be that he went back and filled in the ornaments later. Some of it seems 'harpy,' some doesn't. There are lots of things in the music that a diatonic harp simply couldn't do. But they had different standards then. He wanted to save the harp music, not necessarily as originally played, but so that it would be performed. For him that may have meant arranglng the pieces in a way that would make them acceptable to classical musicians who played instruments other than the harp."
The two harp players Ann admires the most are Grainne Yeats and Maire ni Chathasaigh. "Quite early on I got a copy of a copy of a tape of a radio show with Grainne Yeats. She is the only other person I know who is seriously looking at the old manuscripts and trying out the techniques. [Of course Ann would be thrilled to hear from any of you out there who are working on similar techniques.] She is very knowledgeable about traditional music, is a fluent Irish speaker, and knows the traditional singing style. Maire ni Chathasaigh encourages the use of the gutstrung harp for traditional Irish dance music, even though it wasn't used that way earlier."
Although Ann is one of the few performers on the wire-strung harp who has done systematic research into the history of the instrument and has truly attempted to reconstruct the style of the Irish harpers based on Buntings descriptions, she is not the least bit pretentious about being perhaps the only person performing these techniques today. On the contrary, she expresses regret at the scarcity of people working seriously on wire-strung harp as opposed to gut or nylon-strung harp: "It would be nice if others were working on techniques for the wire-strung harp. Some of the techniques I use are maybe the same as those used by early Irish harpers, some are certainly not the same. The Irish harpers probably had a lot more than I've thought up, so it would he good if other people were working on it too. Also, if classical harp teachers were aware of wirestrung harp techniques, they could help direct others." Currently Ann is preparing a much needed instruction manual for the wire-strung harp [later to be published as "Secrets of the Gaelic Harp"]. She would like to see wire-strung harp technique become a serious study and expresses concern over misuse of the instrument. Many of the so-called leading proponents of the wire-strung harp play it as if they were playing a gut or nylon-strung harp. "I worry about people who don't treat the wire-strung harp seriously. Too many use it as a stage prop, as a toy, as an addition to their act. I use the concertina that way, but it doesn't hurt the concertina, because there are enough qood players." [Since I'm not a concertina expert, I can't judge her on that statement, but I'm sure it's one of her typical understatements!]
Ann does not limit herself to the pieces in Bunting's collections. "I'm not only interested in the old music, but also the use of the harp in traditional Irish dance music, as well as the music of tomorrow." Besides being a very original harp player, Ann is also an excellent vegetarian cook. She never uses a recipe [who can cart recipe books around when they're on tour?] and usually starts preparing the evening meal that morning. During the two weeks she stayed with us, when she wasn't playing she was cooking, and most of our conversations took place in the kitchen. After producing the best-tasting lasagne I'd ever had, she said, "I never made lasagne before, but I never use a recipe either. I just try and figure out how it ought to be on my own. You can see why I was the right person to play wire-strung harp. I hate having someone telling me what to do!"
I have now started diligently cooking without a recipe (well mayhe a little peek now and then). Maybe my harp playing will get better!