Still harping on


Recorded Dec '07


Recorded Feb '08

Aeolian harp


"In Zen they say, 'If something is boring after two minutes, try it after four. If still boring, try it for eight, 16, 32 and so on. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all, but very interesting."

After reading this quote (attributed to John Cage) in Craig Schuftan's book The Culture Club, I had a whole new appreciation for the aeolian harp Alan Lamb and Scott Baker built in the backyard. So I set about recording it more often and have put the results online at soundclick.com/aeolianharp. Hear free mp3s here.

And after sleeping with it for a couple of nights, I'm feeling what the romantic poets talk about. Like Eduard Mörike in one of the most famous, 'To an Aeolian Harp'

Leaning against the ivy-covered wall
Of this old terrace,
You, an air-borne muse's
String-melody full of mystery,
Begin,
Begin again
Your melodious lament!


You come here, winds, from far away,
Alas! from the boy's,
I loved so much,
Freshly green turning hill.
And touching spring blossoms while passing,
Oversaturated with sweet fragrances,
How sweet you're tempting this heart!
And whispering here into the strings,
Attracted by harmonious melancholy,
Increasing with the draught of my desire,
And dying down again.


But suddenly,
As the wind swoops here harder,
A charming scream of the harp,
Echoes, me to sweet fright,
my soul's sudden excitement;


And here - the full rose strews, shaken,
All its petals in front of my feet!

Another thing in Schuftan's book that's given me a fresh perspective on the wires was introducing me to some of the philosophy behind the Theatre of Eternal Music. This group believed modern music was unsatisfying at a very fundamental level:
The problem lay in the Western system of tuning itself. The intervals between the notes on a piano keyboard are not mathematically correct, but represent a compromise, a fudge designed to help keyboard musicians jump from one key to another without having to re-tune their instruments. So technically, all Western classical music since Bach (who consolidated the new tuning system with his The Well Tempered Klavier) has been out of tune. Of course, we've got so used to it now that we don't even notice it, but for Young's group with its endless dronefests there was no getting around it. As Terry Riley, a later member of the group, explained it years afterwards in an interview: "If you threw up a bunch of slides on a wall that were out of focus, you'd tend to through them quickly."
The Culture Club ends with a really pointed question that is the logical conclusion of this idea that popular music is melodic novelty disguising repetition; but, the main thing I got from here was the Theatre of Eternal Music's idea of droning on one sustained note. The following chapter on John Cage, Stockhausen and the aleatoric technique, which puts an element of chance into a composition, reminded me of the idea of the wires as divine inspiration.

I really enjoy hearing the low pulse build into a furious drone before a new pulse builds again or occasionally another will collide into it. Or the wind will still.

The wires of the aeolian harp seem to be a bit sharper than G, which is usually a nice melancholy sort of key. At least, that's where I end up when I play along with them on my fretless bass. From a sharp G they go sublime, as explained elsewhere:
The aeolian harp's very special tones/ tone combinations, resembling to the flageolet-tones of other string-instruments, cannot be created by man by any "conventional" action on the strings whatever (like bowing, plucking rubbing etc.).
(And, to digress, it's something that reminds me of Percy Grainger's idea that the future of music lies in droning, shifting tones - although he had much more complicated - and, for the time, freakingly awesome - methods of generating tones through transistors and photo-voltaic cells.)

I'm still grappling with identifying the harmonics on the wires but this description covers it nicely:

The harmonics always appear in a pattern. The first harmonic is an octave above the fundamental; the second is an octave and a fifth above; the third harmonic is two octaves above. Then two octaves and a third, a fifth, a seventh. Then three octaves and a second, third and on and on. If the string is tuned to c, the harmonics are c,c,g,c,e,g,bflat,c,d,e, etc.


When wind blows across strings it is not the fundamental that is heard, but one of the harmonics.

Here's another description of how an aeolian harp works from an academic who has spent time researching the effect on power lines.
I particularly like these lines he quotes from Coleridge, in his poem The Aeolian Harp:


Methinks, it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a World like this,
Where e'en the Breezes of the simple Air
Possess the power and Spirit of Melody

Reminds me of another quote from John Cage, “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.”

The other night I slept in a tent next to the wires and as they pulsed pre-dawn I heard their harmonics oscillating with the Doppler effect on a passing car in the distance and then a plane. It'd be good to be able to record that, maybe an omni-directional mic could do it. It's a shame that the deep rumble of a passing train would be too deep to reproduce though I'm starting to recognise how they effect the wires and shape the sound.

Anyway, I'm beginning to see how Alan Lamb has spent years sitting under humming wires. And I'm grateful I live in an age where superstition doesn't see the sounds of the harp as ethereal voices or sorcery, like poor Dunstan in the following:

The principle of the natural vibration of strings by the pressure of the wind was recognized in ancient times; King David, we hear from the Rabbinic records, used to hang his kinnor (kithara) over his bed at night, when it sounded in the midnight breeze. The same is related of St Dunstan of Canterbury, who was in consequence charged with sorcery. The Chinese at the present day fly kites of various sizes, having strings stretched across apertures in the paper, which produces the effect of an aerial chorus.

That last bit reminds me of this French bloke, who demonstrates an amazing number of ideas for things that can be powered by the wind.

Post script: there's a video with a bit about the aeolian harp here