Harpist Olivia Jageurs introduces her ingenious project to help everyone understand the harp
As a harpist, one of the questions I am most frequently asked by composers is: 'Is this possible?' I realised a long time ago that there is a fear around writing for my instrument. Thanks to the harp’s unique mechanism (involving seven pedals) it is a truly different instrument compared to all others. Composers’ biggest fear is normally that the notes written will prove unplayable if they cannot be created in time by pedal changes. Often the only way you can really know is to ask a harpist to try out the passage.
My absolute favourite thing to do is sight-reading new music, and sort out any of these perceived problems. Call me strange but I treat it like a puzzle and if I could spend every day deciphering new music and ideas for the harp, I would. I enjoy doing workshops on new pieces and am regularly sent snippets of music from composers asking if they work. Another, far less intellectual, pastime is scrolling through Instagram, the popular photography app, on which you can upload short 15 second videos. I wanted to see more posts related to contemporary music and the harp so I thought I would create some myself. In January of this year I publicly declared to record any original notated music anybody sent me and upload it onto Instagram and Facebook by 5pm the next day. I created a website and posted a video setting out my intentions on the Facebook group 'Orchestration Online'; within 12 hours I had been sent 10 pieces.
I started the project on February 1 and to date have posted nearly 150 submissions. For anybody worried something won’t work, I encourage them to send it to me and I will find the closest possible solution. I give feedback on every 15 seconds and edit them with red pen, presenting the videos in a split-screen so viewers can follow the score. The music has come from all around the world: including Mexico, Sydney, Venezuela and Jakarta. For several people it has encouraged them to write for the harp for the first time, and for others (professional composers and orchestrators) it has enabled them to try out ideas, in anonymity if they prefer. Several of the videos have had over 1000 views each, with a cumulative number of 73,318 views so far on Facebook alone. When I include the number of people watching on Instagram I think it is close to 100,000!
The most interesting part so far has been finding out about each composer. I was sent music by a Norwegian harpist who makes her own harps (traditional Norwegian kravik lyres) using the birch from her own farm and the gut of her own rabbit and sheep. I was sent music by an 81-year-old 'Harp Grandma' who took up the instrument when she retired and now makes Youtube videos under the name '1harpgrandma'. Several music teachers picked up on the project: one teacher assigned his class to write Roald Dahl inspired 15 seconds, another teacher for the Birmingham Young Composers Group set it as a break-time challenge! The youngest 15 second composer is currently a 10-year-old who wrote an excellent piece inspired by the 'flowing sense of still water'. Social media is definitely the best way to connect with young people and I hope I will continue to receive lots of new music from young talent.
I have also met several video game composers who have asked whether I do online sessions, which has opened up a whole new avenue of work for me. Once a month I am now recording submissions for harp plus one other instrument. In April, I recorded five brand new 15 second pieces for trumpet and harp. This month, I have just posted five miniatures for cello and harp. The hope is to remind people of the versatility of the instrument and to encourage people to include the harp in more unusual chamber music combinations.
Before starting this project there was very little of my playing online. I was always worried about presenting a finished product. It occurred to me that classical music is the only culture where this applies. In the age of the vlog, where people enjoy watching others rambling into a camera, maybe we should let people in to our rehearsal practice and the mechanics of what we do. We are also rightly or wrongly living in an 'on-demand' world, so if and when we, as classical musicians, can do it, why not give people what they want. It has been very liberating in fact, and has made me fully realise the power of social media in classical music.
I hope my project helps remove some of the fear around writing for the harp and encourages people of all ages and musical backgrounds to have a go at writing for my fantastic instrument. Please send your 15 second scores to firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about the 15 second harp, visit: 15secondharp.com