Last weekend while I was visiting the Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin, I attended a performance of the harp ensemble. The ensemble was made up of four harpists, three students and one professor. As there was no printed program, the professor gave a verbal introduction to the three pieces that they were going to play. All three pieces were written by Rolando Alfredo Ortiz, who immigrated from Paraguay to California about thirty years ago. The professor described the performance as a “trip to South America”.
The first piece was dedicated to the composer’s daughter. The opening measures of this first song destroyed my presupposition of what “harp music” sounds like. I have usually associated harps only with the twinkly, magic sound effect they are often used for, and expected something angelic or shiny-sounding. This song, as well as the rest of the performance, was much less twinkly than I initially expected.
The second song was a Uruguay dance form-it was whimsical, conjuring up images of rainforests and South American natives. At times the harps almost sounded like guitars, and at other times they emitted sounds that reminded me of an electric keyboard. I was surprised by the versatility and range of different sounds of the harp.
The last song was a Colombian dance form, and in addition to playing the strings, the ensemble added percussion to the piece by one of the harpists knocking on the wood of her harp. Of all the pieces, this one sounded the most distinctly like a Latin American dance.
This harp ensemble performance effectively destroyed all my assumptions of what a harp should sound like.