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Summer 2016

Cheryl Ann Fulton

The Music of the Angels


A discovery ... for me, anyway! A very great lady of the harp. Cheryl Ann is well known in the field of baroque and medieval music. In the US, a real star ... but in France ...?


She plays all kinds of harps, but above all, a rare specialty, the famous Welsh chromatic harp with three rows of strings.

I was immediately seduced, amazed by the purity and perfection of her playing and the beauty of the pieces she interprets: a repertoire of ancient -- but also original -- compositions, revealed to us on her CDs. I look forward to seeing her perform live.

I wanted to ask her some questions, to which she was kind enough to give superb answers .

Didier Saimpaul


-I suppose you studied Classical Harp first ?


I studied pedal harp with Jane Weidensaul in my home state of New Jersey.  She had been the assistant to Marcel Grandjany at Juilliard and I got a wonderful foundation in French School technique from her.  Jane was also a PhD in musicology so she and I shared a passion for research and music history as well.  I also worked for two summers with Nancy Allen at the Aspen Summer School. I did my undergraduate degree in pedal harp at Indiana University where I studied with Peter Eagle.  I am very grateful to have worked with him as I got a thorough education in Italian school technique.  He was a disciplined and very organized teacher and every week we had clear goals to accomplish with both technique and repertoire.  Much training now seems to be repertoire driven but in my own work I have followed Professor Eagle’s model of always having my students working on technique as well as repertoire. During our undergraduate years we went through all the Nadermann Etudes and Preludes and played at least 4 of the Sonatas as well as all the Bochsa Etudes.  He also started the basics with the Frojo exercises which is not well known and we also did the exercises and etudes by Larviere.  For repertoire we played works by Hasselmans,  Tournier, Zabel, Pescetti, etc.  I also played in the early music ensembles and orchestras at IU during my undergraduate studies.


-The welsh triple harp is not a very common instrument; how did you discover it ?


I began my studies with Thomas Binkley at Stanford University in 1978.  By the fall of 1979 he was at Indiana University and I returned to IU as his first assistant to help create the Early Music Institute.  In January of 1980 at the beginning of our second semester he asked me a question: “What do you think about Lawe’s harp consorts?”  I had no idea what he was talking about but said, “I will tell you in a few days.”  I immediately headed for the library (this was pre-internet and personal computers!) to begin researching and started with the book by Murray Lefkowitz on William Lawes as well as his editions of some of The Consorts for Harpe, Bass Viol, Violin and Theorbo in Musica Britannica.  In 1980 there was still speculation by musicologists that the word “Harpe” referred to harpsichord.  The baroque harp, triple harp, was virtually unknown.  I also read the articles available at that time by Joan Rimmer.  I discovered that the French harpist John LeFlelle was associated with the court of Charles I along with William Lawes.  I then found LeFlelle mentioned in Mersenne’s work Harmonie Universelle in the section on triple harp.  There it was!  Triple harp!  I took this information back to Prof. Binkley and he said, “Well, you need to find and get a triple harp.”  I then called Jane Weidensaul to see if she had ever heard of a triple harp.  She said she thought her friend and colleague Ann Griffiths in Wales had a triple harp.  So Jane put me in touch with Ann and in June of 1980 I went to Wales.  Ann sold me the Bassett Jones harp that I subsequently recorded many CDs on and toured the world with through the 1990s.  The first project was a recording of the Harpe Concerts in 1983 on the Early Music Institute Focus Label with Stanley Ritchie on violin.  


-Where did you learn it ? By yourself ?


I had a very unique and very privileged opportunity to work closely with a  true musical genius - Tom Binkley.  He was a lutenist, musicologist and leader of the Studio der frühen Musik. In my course of study with him I read and explored many 16th, 17th and 18th century treatises on techniques for baroque flute, lute, viola da gamba, baroque violin, harpsichord, voice, continuo, etc.  By learning about the articulation requirements for these instruments I then had to discover how to produce them on the triple harp.  I did the physical, technical work and discovery based on the guidance and feedback from Prof. Binkley.  I was also surrounded by other professors and colleagues performing at a very high standard that were a great influence on me and my development of a detailed technique for historical harps. My Bassett Jones triple harp also taught me so much.  Working on an original instrument forces you to meet that instrument on its terms and not impose any 20th or 21st century notions on it or the music  


-With all these strings (how many ?) I suppose it's pretty difficult to tune...and to play ?


There can be about 80 plus to a bit over 100 strings on a triple harp depending on the type and size.  I learned to tune temperaments by ear from the beginning.  I avoid tuning any of my harps in equal temperament!  The tuning and temperament depends on the repertoire and if you are playing with any ensemble on what the group chooses for a particular project.  Some temperaments I have frequently used are Vallotti, Young, 1/6 comma mean tone and 1/4 comma mean tone for example.  These days with apps like Clear Tune it is easier to have my students tuning in temperaments other than equal.  Previously most of my students purchased Korg Multi- Temperament tuners and used the variety of temperaments available on that machine.  For medieval music we tune in Pythagorean.  On the triples I usually end up for my solo work and for the Welsh Airs using my own temperament.  What is so wonderful about triple harps is how many pure intervals you can use.  I always insist that my more advanced triple harp students work on tuning by ear but I do also have them use Clear Tune.  For lever harps there is no reason to tune in equal temperament and a number of the temperaments available on Clear Tune or on a multi- temperament Korg tuner are far better.


As for playing the triple harp- like other kinds of harp it is easy to play the triple in a mediocre and unskilled way and still get a relatively pleasing result.  Playing any harp with mastery and a high level of skill especially with tone production, articulation and true legato phrasing is not so simple and takes excellent technique and many hours of dedicated practice.  The triple harp can be a very subtle and expressive instrument.  One of the reasons I have dedicated my life to historical harps is because I find it much more artistically satisfying to be able to achieve a more nuanced and sophisticated articulation that is not as accessible (although not impossible) on much higher tension instruments.  


-You play Celtic, Welsh and medieval music, and you compose also. Do you think this harp is an instrument for today composers ? Is it suitable to more actual musics ?


Yes!  A project I hope to complete within the next decade is a CD of compositions composed for me and triple harp.   So far I have three pieces as well as some of my own.  The contemporary composer Roy Whelden has written parts for triple harp in many of his compositions which are really beautiful as well as intellectually fascinating.  I have composed many pieces for the contemporary lever harp in my own style which have been performed in world music, Celtic , “new age” and other contemporary venues.  My compositions like Native Spirit and Arizona I consider to be direct gifts from Nature.  Native Spirit came through in Haines, Alaska and Arizona on a drive through the desert from California to Phoenix, Arizona.  Both of these pieces came alive in my imagination and then out through my fingers on the harps strings in a very pure and direct way with very little mental calculation or “composing” on my part.  I have also composed pieces which are the result of starting with a basic idea and then working it so I know the difference.  As for medieval music if you delve into it seriously you become a modern day jongleur and improvisation and composition are part of what you do.  I have created many “medieval” pieces and recently in several workshops have been asked by harpists focusing on therapeutic harping to please publish them.  I have been reluctant to put my music in print because for me it is always evolving but I might consider working on publishing a book of my “medieval” inspired pieces.

-Very few luthiers are building this kind of harps. Who made yours ?


My original Bassett Jones harp (built in 1850) has been retired for several years but I am considering trying to have that harp worked on to be made playable again.  Now I mostly play my wonderful triple harp by Rainer Thurau of Germany.  It is a copy of an 18th century Welsh triple harp by John Richards.  I also have a beautiful harp made for me by the English harp maker Tim Hampson. The proportions are based on a harp from the collection at the St. Fagan’s museum in Cardiff and Tim did an exquisite work on the decorations copying the ones on a David Evans harp in the Victoria Albert museum in London.   For 17th century music I have a magnificent triple harp based on the Barberini harp in Rome built by David Brown.  David made only two copies of this instrument: one for me and one for my good friend and marvelous harpist Mara Galassi.  I also have a smaller triple harp which I call my “Mersenne” triple which was also made by Rainer (his Cellini model) and a sort of hybrid triple built by Catherine Campbell.  And I have a double harp built by Tim Hobrough of Scotland.


-Are you teaching the triple harp ? Who are your students ?


Yes I am teaching triple harp and love it!  I have a group called The Red Dragon Harp Ensemble and my students Catherine Stiles, Betty Nelson, Bill McJohn and Margaret Cohen have performed in this group. My student Katina Mitchell just completed her DMA in Early Music with a minor in historical harps from the University of Southern California.  She has been studying triple harp with me for about three years and gave a wonderful recital last month.  I am also teaching Claire Happel at the University of Illinois.  Claire is doing a graduate degree in pedal harp but fell in love with early music and triple harp so is adding that to her curriculum.  Laura Sherman, the harpist for the Broadway play Wicked has also fallen in love with triple harp and baroque music and is working with me occasionally via Skype.  I have been teaching very successfully by Skype for over fours years now which makes it possible for students outside the Bay Area to work with me.  Most of my students play lever or other single row harps but I would like to have more triple harp students.  I think triple harp/historical harp should be offered in all universities, colleges and conservatories where there is a serious harp department.  


-And what about your public ? Are many people interested in this kind of music in the states ?


Here in the Bay Area I always have wonderful audiences and full house whenever I perform which is a blessing.  I doubt this kind of genuine enthusiasm for harp music is as popular across the United States. The situation of music other than Pop music in the United States is a big and rather difficult topic.  I am encouraged greatly however by many of the Millennial Generation as they seem to value a less materialistically driven culture and life style and music that aspires to higher vibrations.  


-Are you sometimes touring in Europe, in France...? Would you like to ?


In the 1990s I spent at least 1/3 of every year performing and recording in Europe, mostly in France.  I am honestly happy that most of my intensive touring happened before 9/11.  It is much more difficult to travel now - especially with a large harp.  I would, however, like to do more performing occasionally in Europe and the United Kingdom especially at festivals like the Edinburgh Harp Festival or the World Harp Congress.

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