This week, harpists from across the country are meeting at the University of North Texas in Denton for the American Harp Society’s Summer Institute. While there, the harpists are getting a taste of the instrument’s future.
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At a workshop for about 50 or so harpists on Tuesday afternoon, Ricky Rasura saddled up behind his harp, and then leaned over to hit a button on his iPad.
What came next wasn’t your typical harp performance.
Rasura wants to expand the harp’s sound. And he created his accompaniment as part of his experiment. And judging by the overflow attendance at his Rock and Jazz Harp Workshop, plenty of budding harpists are interested in a new way of thinking about the instrument.
Rasura’s teaching partner for the workshop was a harpist named Rizpah. Rasura considers himself a rock harpist. Rizpah’s style is closer to jazz. She doesn’t call herself a jazz harpist – she’s concerned about associating with a music form that doesn’t sell many records. Still, she demonstrated her style by playing the jazz standard “Autumn Leaves.”
Rizpah studied the harp at UNT. While in school, she determined that the harp’s role in a symphony orchestra didn’t allow her to express herself musically.
RIZPAH: “Even with a mic, I mean, it’s like, do I want to spend the rest of my life not being heard? And I said ‘no.’ I want to be heard. I want to make sure that people understand that that is what the music is about.”
That hunger express himself is also what led Rasura to rock music. In 2002, he joined the Dallas band the Polyphonic Spree. You might remember his playing on the band’s cover of the Nirvana song “Lithium.”
As you might guess, leaving the world of classical music to play in a rock band was a culture shock for Rasura. For one thing, lots of rock musicians don’t read music. And most harpists aren’t taught to improv.
RASURA: “With non-traditional classical musicians, like guitar, bass, drums, lead singing, it’s more free-form. And they go with the feel of it. If they don’t like a chord that they go to, they just go to another chord, and you’ve just got to go with the flow. But at the same time, going with the flow is something you’re not taught.”
These days, Rasura teaches harp at Odessa High School. Rizpah has a day job and performs around North Texas at night.
Both harpists are counting on their unorthodox styles to carve out a place for themselves in a music world with more harpists than jobs. As Rizpah put it, a harpist basically has to wait for another one to die in order to get a full-time symphony position.
But in expanding the harp’s range for their personal gain, the harp itself also benefits. The instrument is one of the world’s oldest. And for it to continue to thrive, it’s got to stay relevant.
To that end, Rasura has arranged music by Radiohead and Muse for his students in Odessa. And some pop artists are even giving the instrument a boost.
RIZPAH: “Florence and the Machine. Just the fact that they had a harp on there, I was just so excited. And it wasn’t like harp sound. It wasn’t electronically or digitally produced – it was an actual harp sound. And it stuck out so much, and I was so excited to hear that. That’s the kind of thing that actually gives people exposure.”
And as Rizpah and Rasura displayed in an impromptu jam session to end their workshop, nothing sells like cool.