Sunday, 19 December 2010

wind harps - music of the spirits

Sound sculptures, the apparently modern invention of environmentally-minded art, are just another turn in the history of the wind (or aeolian) harp. Invented in Ancient Greece, the wind harp was played, not by humans but, it was said, the god of the wind, Aeolus, who the harp was named for. A bunch of centuries later and the Romantic poets similarly fell for it. The wind harp was their mystical vision made real, of nature as the source of creativity. It made the music of the spirits, so it wasn't just magical, it was divine.

Except that the wind harp has never been some kind of harmonic lyre. The magic lies in the sounds produced without human intervention, the otherworldly nature by the inherent dissonance of the sounds. Vortex swirls of vibration produce disharmonious overtones rather than the soothing fundamental tones of most instruments. You can't tune it to make sweet music, but you can make best use of a wind harp for eerie, sinister and sometimes downright malevolent sounds (try listening to one during a storm). 

Perfect for horror, as you'd expect, as heard in Elisabeth Lutyens scores for Hammer Horror and Amicus films in the 60s and 70s, and briefly in The Exorcist, thanks to a snippet from an album recording of a hippie commune environmental project from 1972. Less expected in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where the aeolian harp creates the haunted atmosphere of the cave, and certainly less expected to be used from the 60s on than synthesized fear in the era of sound effects and the likes of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. 

Maybe it makes sense then to see wind harps back in a natural setting, but this time providing an unsettling and more complicated sculptural commentary on modern life and our relationship with nature, and maybe sound, even if it's not necessarily gentle on the ears of the unsuspecting tourist.

(For the hardy of hearing, sea music adds another layer of atonal weirdness in the modern giant tidal organs of Blackpool (the 45 foot tower part of the Great Promenade art show from 2002), San Francisco's 80s environmental sound project and Zadar in Croatia, where the wind comes into play again, seeming to blow sound from the pipe organs buried beneath concrete steps up at you through holes every few feet along an artificial border between land and sea.)


  1. Great post!

    The thing I like about aeolian harps and the phenomena in sound sculptures is the dynamics.

    I've made a few recordings of a large-scale aeolian harp, see

  2. Thanks so much, and for the link - the recordings sound great, and I really liked the bit in the post about the Victorians thinking the sounds were those of the deceased - I missed that!