The harp is one of the more evocative instruments out there, its sound echoing down the millennia and tapping into our deep sub-consciousness. There’s a reason that the clichéd ‘flash-back’ effect in movies and TV shows is a harp, as listening to it you can close your eyes and imagine a previous time. Think of an ancient court in Egypt or Persia, you can easily place a harpist in there; if you picture a pastoral scene in mythology amidst the frolicking there will be harp or lyre player somewhere entertaining the nymphs and cherubs. My former piano teacher had a cat called Jubal named after “the father of all such as handle the harp” back in Genesis. Even Guinness has a harp as its logo to emphasise it has been around a long time. The instrument has evolved over the centuries but the sound made by plucking tuned strings will not have changed much.
Capturing moments and memories is prevalent in Mary Lattimore’s work on the harp. A look at her Bandcamp or Soundcloud pages reveal a sequence of recordings that have a connection to a specific location or time. Some of these have been collated into the excellent Collected Pieces, available as a cassette or download – and there are plenty of stand-alone works as well if you want to explore further. But let us focus on the six tracks here. I recently DJ’d at a friend’s party, and as a warm-up track I played “Wawa By The Ocean”, the opening track here. It was a tangible moment that stopped party-goers in their tracks, and weirdly echoed the moment when Spotify put this on my Discovery playlist. I’m only a casual Spotify user but this instance the algorithms got it exactly right. “Wawa By The Ocean” is a brilliant work, a genuine track-of-the-year, the harp perfectly capturing the ebb and flow of the waves. This gentle rise-and-fall forms the basis for variations and diversions fluttering and flickering over the top, all the while the main theme acting as a kind of soothing lullaby. The fact it was inspired by a convenience store in New Jersey somehow makes the effect more magical.
What’s even more pleasing about Collected Pieces is that it doesn’t feel like a front-loaded album, as the other five tracks here complement “Wawa” beautifully. The works included here were recorded across five years or so and it’s full marks for the way it has been put together. The six tracks here reflect different approaches to the instrument – sometimes on the longer works it is sent through any number of effects pedals almost, I imagine, just to see what happens and how unlike a harp this harp can sound.
Elsewhere, on “We Just Found Out She Died”, a poignant and most emotionally direct piece here, the harp is the basis for an ethereal chorus. It’s dedicated to Margaret Lantermann, who played the Log Lady on Twin Peaks and it is almost overwhelming at times – it is clearly of a piece with the other tracks here yet somehow echoes the music of Angelo Badalamenti from the TV show to such an extent you could close your eyes and see the waterfall from the title sequence.
Aside from the allure of past centuries that a harp supplies, there is clearly a close relationship between instrument and musician, borne of its sheer size and imposing nature. You can’t just pick up a harp and pop it in an overhead locker – it requires commitment and dedication and a pretty big vehicle to transport it around. That is possibly why each piece here is virtually date stamped with a map reference; rather than taking a selfie or tweeting about it – why not record something on the harp that’s in the front room / lying across the backseat / set up for a performance? These works are clearly personal to Mary Lattimore but they aren’t exclusive anymore and will create their own moments for the listener. Grab Collected Pieces, live with it, and then go on your own journey of discovery by exploring the back catalogue. (Jeremy Bye)