Aeolian Harps

Posted on Apr 29, 2012 | No Comments

The History

I first had direct experience with the phenomenon of Aeolian string vibration during my frequent walks to work in my youth along an abandoned rail line in Delaware.  This particular line still had the old telegraph poles along it, strung with a great number of copper plated steel wires attached to green glass insulators mounted to the wooden cross bars.  Often, if the wind was just right, I could hear the gentle humming of the wires, a sound that was considerably louder and more complex in tone if I stopped and put my ear right against the pole.  I was fascinated and mesmerized by these sounds, knowing only that they were created by some interaction between the wind, the wires, and the wooden pole.

Years later in 1974 while living in Yellow Springs Ohio I heard mention of a fellow that had constructed an “Aeolian Harp” somewhere in New England.  Although I didn’t know his name, and never heard a recording until at least twenty years later, I at once knew that it must involve the phenomenon I experienced along those tracks in Delaware.  Right away I set out to building an instrument of my own, using the material I was most familiar with: steel.  This first harp consisted of a mast that was twelve feet in height, a disc of steel that served both as bridge and soundboard, and strings made from tying old piano strings together.  Crude as it sounds, the thing actually worked quite well.  Installed on a little knoll outside of town a few miles, it was a bit of a sensation for those inclined to experimental music at the time, and many people visited it.  I myself spent endless hours listening to, sleeping under, and generally contemplating the shifting harmonic sounds it made.  Somehow this simple instrument translated the apparently random action of the wind into sounds that were at once sublime and orderly; sounds that seemed to parallel spiritual meditation.  In fact, I found that patient, open minded and active listening was very much a form of meditation in itself.

After settling in Bigfork in 1976, and setting up a shop to produce sculpture and architectural metalwork, I decided to pursue the construction of Aeolian Harps more in earnest.  In 1979 I built the first of what would be an ongoing series of instruments that has led to the simple, yet fairly sophisticated instruments that I continue to build today.

Of course, upon researching the matter I quickly found that Aeolian Harps have a very long and multifaceted history.  Legend points to the early Greeks discovering the ethereal sounds that result from the wind blowing over animal gut stretched over the shell of a tortoise, said to be the ancient predecessor to the lute or lyre.  Other more recent stories propose that the first Aeolian Harps were born from the wind blowing over the strings of an actual lute or harp of some kind.  In any case, people have known of and been fascinated by Aeolian string sounds from very early times, and probably in many distinct cultures.  It was not  until the mid seventeenth century that instruments were built specifically to play in the wind, and from the mid eighteenth century until nearly the beginning of the twentieth century, these instruments enjoyed some real popularity among the aristocrats of Europe.  Most of these involved small instruments made of wood with a series of gut or steel strings stretched over a soundbox, much like the modern mountain dulcimer.  Typically they were designed to be placed on a windowsill where the wind would be naturally concentrated.  In the latter part of this period, both Lord Rayleigh in England and Vincenc Strouhal in Czechoslovakia did research into the physics of Aeolian string vibrations that ushered the phenomenon from the realm of musical curiosity into that of modern science.

The Sound

The experience of lying on one’s back, watching the clouds moving across the sky overhead while it is playing is fundamentally different than listening to a recording.  Every change in sound is not only heard, but is felt directly.  Subtle changes in the breeze register as sensations on the skin.  The sun dodging behind clouds and returning to warm the listener as well as the instrument causes changes in pattern, tone, and rhythm.  Sound, weather, landscape and listener combine to create an experience that goes beyond witnessing and into the realm of participation.

While the sounds of an Aeolian harp are perceived by most people to have a musical quality, they do not fit very neatly or securely into the realm of music as such.  There is, however, much about these sounds in common with music composed and performed by humans. Aeolian harps produce a wide array of harmonic sounds, beats, dynamic patterns, and tonal shifts.  Although the texture and tone may be unfamiliar at first, patient listening begins to establish a sort of repertoire of harmony and rhythm.  As patterns are recognized through repetition, the sounds become more familiar, and the feeling of anticipation on the part of the listener rises and falls with the dynamics of the sound flow.  This experience especially is enhanced in the “live” listening, for the environmental changes that actually cause the changes in sound response are felt slightly before the instrument shifts into a different sound mode, accentuating the experience of anticipation that is fundamental to any experience of music.

Wind harps have a role somewhere between that of a musical instrument and a scientific apparatus.  They act as translators of a natural phenomenon, the wind, into form and pattern of sound.  That we may find these patterns of sound expressive, even pleasing, probably relates to the inherent human predisposition to find pattern and beauty in everything around us.  We seem instinctively to seek repeating relationships (which are therefore, predictable to some degree) and assign meaning to them.  In essentially all cultures, the wind is highly symbolic of the flow of spirit in the universe.  It is the medium for both mystery and revelation. These wind harps simply help to reveal the subtle character of the wind for us to hear, appreciate, and ultimately resonate with.  They are intended to encourage not only resonance, but reverence.

The Future

My own explorations with Aeolian harps is founded not only on attempting to apply acoustic physics effectively, but also to consciously emphasize the inherent mystery associated with Aeolian vibration that transcends the quantitative considerations that go into their design.  As well, I have found that the study of both the physics and the experience of Aeolian harps raises fundamental questions in the realm of music and harmonic theory: questions that quickly lead into probing the nature of consciousness and our basic relation to the universe in which we are immersed.