Midi Harp

Since Camac first mentioned a MIDI harp, my overactive imagination conjured up something extra special. The moment I heard the actual harp, I was blown away. My own interest in the harp is extremely wide, and in my wildest dreams I wondered if I could bring the concert MIDI harp into the contemporary music arena in a spectacular way. I have commissioned a concerto for the Camac concert MIDI harp by the English composer Graham Fitkin which I will premiere with the BBCSO and Andrew Litton in a concert at the iconic Maida Vale Studio 1 on January 26th 2011 at 7.00pm

I have no interest in gimmicks, so it was important to work with someone who has been at the forefront of the use of electronics so that the end result would be imaginative, and serious. This article cannot hope to explain the complexities surrounding all aspects of this project which at times have seemed insurmountable, but as I put these few words together, I have an almost complete concerto on my music stand. I am fearful, some say mad, since just looking at the harp part fills me with trepidation, but at the same time I am excited, energized and filled with some crazy restlessness which cannot keep me away from the beast. To perform on this incredible instrument – the result of years of technological experimentation and expertise, mainly thanks to Joel Garnier, and subsequently, Jakez Francois at Camac Harps, (and with great support also from Dominic Murcott, composer) is incredible. I am grateful that Paul Hughes, my orchestral manager, enthusiastically encouraged the idea, (if only he’d known what he was letting himself in for!) and I’m honoured to have been given the opportunity of working with my amazing colleagues in the BBCSO .

I have been asked – ‘why do it, are not you the one who always goes on about ‘sound’ on the harp’….Nothing in this world will stop me working to create the best sound possible on my beautiful Horngacher, but this is a MIDI harp – I do not produce my own distinctive sound – I am merely a vehicle for the sounds which have been programmed in. However – I am a rhythmic, pulsating, exacting performer – completely intertwined with the sound which is produced thanks still to my fingers producing it – even if that sound is not directly that of flesh on gut and wire strings. I am the most vital part of this creative process – the harp does not play itself. I am challenged, and although this music will come out of speakers, there is an emotion and a soul within it, and I will convey the meaning of the music come what may…


To quote Ruskin:

Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of the intelligent effort. …When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece


Graham Fitkin writes:

As well as sounding like an electric harp, the instrument allows each string to act as a trigger for a multitude of MIDI effects, patches and samples. Therefore this was to be a major part of the composition.

Of course when the opportunities are so unlimited there is a danger of using too many ingredients within a piece, I therefore streamlined my approach and decided to use solely vocal samples as source material for the sound world. These vocal samples are taken from political speeches concerning the existence of the so-called weapons of mass destruction in Iraq following the Iraq war that begun in 2003.

Because of the place the harp inhabits within our culture (historically allied to heavenly beings, connected to romance, the role and deportment of women etc) I wanted this piece to provide a little antidote to that received perception. The piece opens with the harp sounding very much like a harp and for the first few minutes it remains that way. Then the piece shifts and it starts to incorporate the vocal samples and the feel of the piece becomes more brutal as it progresses.


Graham Fitkin writes:

‘The ability of this new instrument to play recorded samples or trigger MIDI effects and parameters means that the archetypal Western perspective of the harp and its associated heavenly docility can be turned on its head. Unlimited soundscapes can be created, meaning that careful choices have to be made so that the end result isn’t simply a gimmicky glossary of effects.

I wanted to inject a certain brutality and rawness into the music and decided exclusively to use speech sounds, many of them untreated and bare. This brought up the notion of communication, understanding and the human voice. I want the music to hover between abstraction and narrative, to use voices we may recognise and to focus on the rhetorical posturing machismo of modern political life in contrast to that dreamy harp sound we’re accustomed to.’



Monday 10th January, Music Hall, 10.30am

Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Silk Street, Barbican, London EC2 ADMISSION FREE




SIONED WILLIAMS, Principal Harp,
BBC Symphony Orchestra


Camac Harps have made a revolutionary MIDI concert harp: every pluck can trigger any sound. But MIDI technology is nothing new. The fate of the MIDI harp depends on what is done with it. Will it reach its potential, or end up a gimmick?

“I want the music to hover between abstraction and narrative, to use voices we may recognize, and to focus on the rhetorical posturing machismo of modern political life, in contrast to that dreamy harp we’re accustomed to.” Graham Fitkin

On 26th January, at Maida Vale Studios, Sioned Williams gives the World Premiere of Graham Fitkin’s new MIDI Harp Concerto No Doubt, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton. Electric harp sounds mix with MIDI effects, patches and vocal samples taken from political speeches.

This seminar will be of great interest to Composers, Technicians and Harpists

Helen Leitner, from Camac Harps, will kindly be on hand to answer questions

The morning will cover:

Introduction to the MIDI harp

Graham Fitkin’s new concerto: artistic & technical issues

Other approaches to writing for this instrument

Q & A session, and hands-on the harp Photo courtesy of www.whitegoldimages.com