Golden strings, a historical reality?
Dimitri Boekhoorn: Whereas silver strings have been documented historically, it is unclear if strings made of solid gold have really been used in the past. No names of harpists playing on golden strings have reached us and only a small number of poems and Irish mythological texts mention harps strung with this metal. For some specialists, these indices, in addition to technical arguments, would validate the hypothesis that gold could have actually been used to make strings. What is certain is that the Celts were amazing metallurgists. The numerous metal art objects found shows their skills in that matter and they had no technical obstacles in making golden strings.
The so-called "Gaelic" harps, known in Ireland and Scotland, were probably brass strung, but other metals and various alloys are also mentioned (some Irish words are still obscure to us in that matter). In the 20th century, some of the more or less successful attempts to reconstruct small Gaelic harps with "low-headed form" such as the Queen Mary or the Trinity College harp (Dublin) ones, have encountered technical and sound issues: the bass strings were so short that they didn't have enough weight to obtain a good sound quality, or did so with much difficulty. Some people suggested to use two strings braided together, others to put strings of a larger diameter or to use wound strings. These solutions are neither convincing nor always historical.
Then, the American and specialist in ancient harps Ann Heymann had the idea to take the Irish texts literally and experiment with gold and silver strings in the bass of these harps. Due to its high density (twice heavier than brass), gold gives a very convincing result – at least, to our modern ears - and could face a historical reality. According to Ann, it is the cost and scarcity of gold strings, but also the changing musical tastes that would have led the Irish of the 17th and 18th century to stop playing these kind of harps in favour of the larger ones called "high-headed", fully strung with brass.
Caravelle, the harp with golden strings
In 2006, the Swiss harp maker Claude Bioley, a specialist in Gaelic harps, received a strange order: a passionate client asked him to make an Irish harp inspired by the Otway harp, probably dating from the 17th century. Called "Caravelle", the harp has, like the original, many decorations, but in another fashion, with sculptures (by Garam), metal ornaments and jewelery (by Barbara Rytz). The client brought Ann Heymann from the United States to Switzerland to try the harp. On Ann's suggestion, 16 golden strings (14 and 18 carat) were set in the bass and 6 silver strings were set in the mid range (the strings in the treble made with brass and iron). After a few attempts, it was finally decided to mount the harp with only golden strings. What was not a technical or sound necessity had as a result an interesting experience with great satisfaction.
When a Gaelic harp is well built, the strings resonate sympathetically more than in other harps: that is to say, by touching a string, the others also resonate. By using only golden strings, the quality of the whole instrument was improved. The sound of the instrument is exceptional by the strength of its bright and long resonance. The sound of Caravelle surprises, including the leading experts of the Gaelic harp. It is not a very loud instrument, but the sound spreads very evenly: ten feet away you'd swear to be next to the instrument, with the feeling of being enveloped in a sweet atmosphere.
This harp is even more demanding because of the density of a gold which releases more harmonics than a harp with brass or bronze strings which, in turn, is more resonant than a harp with wound or steel strings. Even for a wire string harp expert, Caravelle is difficult to master. One must mute the strings all the time which requires a high technical skill. At the time, I was in the middle of writing my PhD, and I didn't have much time to devote to it. This harp forced me to rethink my opinions on wire strings and to adopt a very humble position towards it.
Making golden strings
When Ann Heymann began looking for goldsmiths with the idea to make strings made of gold, people simply laughed at her! Few jewelers in Europe and the United States are able to craft this kind of strings, and they are not always marketed. Their making requires a technique called wire drawing. Known for centuries and easily manageable, this technique is not yet known to all goldsmiths: it involves compressing the molecules to make the strings stronger. If you pull the string one too many times, it becomes too hard and breaks. This is the secret garden of goldsmiths initiated in the matter.
The price of these strings is linked to the price of gold. However, even broken, a string is always worth its weight of gold! So, somehow, it's like a life investment, which becomes cheaper after a few years whereas the professional guitarist needs to change his steel strings regularly, and throwing them away even!
In theory, you can use gold or silver strings on any kind of harp but the result is not always interesting. In the case of harps with a molded sound box - like most of the modern industrially made Celtic harps for example - the sound would "turn" too much within the body and the resonance would turn quickly into a muddy sound. Too long and too thin strings would break regularly; the soundboard must resist the tension, in short, it is not for nothing that the so-called Gaelic harps are very differently made and with a very different shape than most of the common harps because they are made to be strung with metal and only "low headed" harps would be made to be strung in gold. Ireland and Scotland have had a tradition of harp making for centuries and we're just trying to find some snippets in our time. In fact, we are inventing nothing - well, almost!
Golden strings for what kind of music?
Although it is possible to play fast dance tunes on this harp, it may not be in this kind of repertoire that it really shows its potential. Ancient and pre-modern Gaelic repertoire, music with drones and eventually meditative music work very well with it. One could also think of contemporary compositions on this kind of instrument, why not? It's still a diatonic harp but no repertoire should be excluded because of that. We need to adapt ourselves to it and use a good technique, which is quite true for a harp with wire strings in general.
Dimitri Boekhoorn plays on Caravelle (extract from Marbhna Luimni):
Dimitri Boekhoorn with Gérald Ryckeboer on the flute (extract from Kathren Oggie):
I gave lessons on the technique of the wire strung harp to Caravelle's owner who in return allowed me to borrow her harp to perform with it live on several occasions and even to record it, like for the CD "Clàrsach" realised during the Rencontres Internationales de Harpe Celtique of Dinan in 2010, and for my coming solo CD. Without falling into the veneration of the material, of its characteristics or symbols, playing on golden strings is a real pleasure. The sound and touch are very close to my musical sensibilities. I never wanted to show off with such an instrument, and I forbid myself to play only that. For some people, I'm "Dimitri with the golden harp" but I play a lot of other instruments: ancient and traditional harps and modern harps, with different types of strings. Sometimes, I could exclaim "yes, I also play a "normal" harp, I also teach and compose in personal and modern way". It's a shame to see how people put you quickly into a category.
A few years ago, I did some recording tests with Gérald Ryckeboer, a friend and a specialist in bagpipes. He used to play in a group called Hempson with the harpist Katrien Delavier and also Jean-Michel Alhaits and the late John Wright. The sound of the golden strings mixed with the flute or Gérald's uilleann pipes was very successful but because of the volume of the sound, I now prefer to play on a "high headed" Gaelic harp, more powerful and specially made for a group like Hempson.