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Topic: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips (Read 171 times) previous topic - next topic

Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Good morning

I am currently attempting to write my first piece for pedal harp and flute. I've written for piano and flute before, but I'd appreciate any tips for the idiosyncrasies of the harp, and how to notate things in NWC, and get a good playback. This will be performed by actual performers, but it's nice to have a sample recording to get an idea of how it sounds. It's a Celtic ballad sounding piece. The harp and flute take turns with the melody at times, but mostly the harp is providing arpeggiated accompaniment.

Thanks

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #1
The best thing you can do is to sit down with a harp and a harpist and get a hands-on look at the instrument's limitations - which are many. It's not at all like writing for the piano, or any other instrument for that matter. I play Celtic harp, and have recently attended a workshop on writing for pedal harp, so I can give you a bit....but there is no substitute for the direct experience.

A couple of thoughts. First, always remember that the harp is a diatonic instrument. There are always only seven pitch classes available. The pedals allow you to get any conceivable accidental, but each pedal controls ALL the strings of its pitch class, so you can't do, e.g., a G in one octave and a G# in another. Second, changing pedals requires time, so rapid passagework can't contain two different flavors of the same pitch class. Third, harpists use only four fingers on each hand - the little finger can't actually reach the strings when the hand is in playing position - so you can't write five-finger chords or arpeggios. Fourth, the low strings require a slightly different seating position due to their distance from the performer, and that makes playing the upper strings awkward, so you have to watch that the spacing between the hands doesn't get too large. Fifth, the harp does well as a melody instrument, but unless the melody is extremely simple it is likely to require both hands, so accompanying chords have to be fit in around the melody notes - it's not just one hand playing melody and the other accompanying.

You begin to get the idea. Really, sit down with a harpist.

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #2
You begin to get the idea. Really, sit down with a harpist.
Another suggestion: watch some Marx Brothers movies ;-)

(I am mostly joking here, but I've always been fascinated by Harpo's musical skill. His face is so intense when he is playing, compared to when he is doing his comedy.)

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #3
Thanks for those pointers, Bill. My pianistic ways lead me astray. It's always good advice to find someone to show you the ropes. I think there are a few harpists on this forum. It was the instrument that I wanted to play as a child, but my mother called the local university to ask about the cost of lessons and instrument. She got off the phone and said, "I think we'll get a piano." I am still interested in giving it a try one day.

I am fortunate that my master's studies have brought two eager harpists into my life this fall who have offered to workshop my piece. I was hoping to give them something mostly playable for our first time together! I've got my orchestration manuals out...they refer to pedal charts at the beginning of the piece. Is that doable in NWC?

I'm also wondering about balancing things out with the flute. I'm inclined to notate the flute's dynamics one level lower than the harp. Do you have any opinion on that?

Ha, Mike! You're allowed to be funny because you're so helpful around here!

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #4
I confirm everything Bill wrote.

I'd add a note regarding "overlapping" hands. The harpists try to keep the fingers on the strings as much as they can to dump the resonances (imagine playing piano with the sustain pedal always pressed...) and also to play louder. When the hands "mix up" the things gets easily messy. Alternate them as much as you can.
Usually an acceptable surrogate of a chromatic scale, practically impossible on the harp, is a simple glissato.
Remember that you can make two adjacent strings play the same note (e.g. C# and Db). This is often used to play fast, odd "scales" simply with a glissato.
Modern "jazzy" players use pedal bending, pedal half tone/tone portamento, soundboard clapping and clusters. (An example for all: Pearl Chertok's "Around the clock", that includes Harpicide at midnight)
Last but not least: don't forget the wonderful sound of the harp harmonics! (Normally only octave harmonics.)

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #5
One further observation, which Flurmy has reminded me of: harpists like to form a hand position and then place it on the strings. They CAN change positions on the fly, but the preference is to do a bit of work in one position, then change to another position for the next bit of work. Again, unlike pianists, who expect the hand shape to change pretty much with each new note.

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #6
I confirm everything Bill wrote.

I'd add a note regarding "overlapping" hands. The harpists try to keep the fingers on the strings as much as they can to dump the resonances (imagine playing piano with the sustain pedal always pressed...) and also to play louder. When the hands "mix up" the things gets easily messy. Alternate them as much as you can.
Usually an acceptable surrogate of a chromatic scale, practically impossible on the harp, is a simple glissato.
Remember that you can make two adjacent strings play the same note (e.g. C# and Db). This is often used to play fast, odd "scales" simply with a glissato.
Modern "jazzy" players use pedal bending, pedal half tone/tone portamento, soundboard clapping and clusters. (An example for all: Pearl Chertok's "Around the clock", that includes Harpicide at midnight)
Last but not least: don't forget the wonderful sound of the harp harmonics! (Normally only octave harmonics.)

That was great! Didn't know harps could play jazz. Thanks for sharing.

I have a first draft, and was told that it's sight readable, so clearly there's not enough going on yet!

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #7
Is there a way to insert a harp pedal diagram in the score?
They look like this:
https://www.scoringnotes.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/musescore-harp-1.png

Also, could you explain how to notate a pedal change?

Thanks

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #8
You don't have to use that diagram. Just give the letter names, in two rows. The four right-foot strings go in the upper row; the three left-foot strings go below them. Like this:

E F G A
D C B

With appropriate accidentals, of course. I've also seen it on one line, with a separator: D C# B | E F# G A

If you have access to Elaine Gould's book, the complete instructions are on pp. 355-57. Basically, her advice is to write just the letter name and accidental (e.g., C#)  for a single accidental change, at the time the new accidental is needed. She also suggests writing the complete current pedal settings at the top of each new page and at each rehearsal letter.

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #9
write just the letter name and accidental (e.g., C#)  for a single accidental change, at the time the new accidental is needed. She also suggests writing the complete current pedal settings at the top of each new page and at each rehearsal letter.
That's what I'm used to see.

F.Y.I. D C B | E F G A is the order of the harp pedals.

Re: Composing for Harp and Flute Tips
Reply #10
Why not follow the suggestion and install Harpfont.ttf?