Anne-Marie O'Farrell, Harpist Extraordinaire
an in-depth interview with Mairéid Sullivan

Anne-Marie O'Farrell was born in Dublin where she began her musical education at the College of Music. An honors graduate of University College Dublin, she has received numerous awards, including a DAAD academic scholarship to study at Bonn University. She holds professional diplomas in three instruments along with many recent national awards for original composition. O'Farrell graduated with a first class honours Masters degree in composition from the National University of Ireland in Maynooth. She has performed at the World Harp Congress in Prague. She will be performing in a concert in Los Angeles on Sunday June 3 at 8 p. m. at the University of Southern California, as part of the 2001 Lyon & Healy Harpfest.

Her creative arrangements of traditional Irish airs for harp and her commitment to the expansion of its repertoire have led to recordings for TV and radio in Ireland, France, German, the USA and Japan. She latest recording is My Lagan Love, released in 2001. Her earlier albums include, "The Jigs Up", "Heads & Harps" and "Harping Bach to Carolina". In addition to her interpretation of Irish music, Anne-Marie is especially noted for her transcriptions of keyboard, lute, and pedal harp repertoire for the lever harp.

She is also noted for her unique levering techniques, which she continues to develop on this instrument. Both as soloist and accompanist she has toured extensively in Europe and the United States, and more recently, performed at the Lyon & Healy Harpfest, following her appearance at the Edinburgh Harp Festival and the European Harp Symposium in Amsterdam.

At home in Ireland, Anne-Marie has been a regular performer with the National Symphony Orchestra and the R.T.E. Concert orchestra. In addition to being in frequent demand as a recording artist for albuM.S. with internationally renowned musicians. She is also committed to the promotion of new music, and in the summer of 1998 premiered and recorded twelve new Irish compositions for flute and harp with flautist Philipp Davies. She is noted for her serene and joyful poise in making even the most difficult techniques seem effortless.


Mairéid Sullivan: I’ve heard that you have introduced spectacular new techniques for playing the Irish gut-strung harp. Where does your inspiration for your innovations come from?

Anne-Marie O'Farrell: Yes. I do a lot of music that has never before been played on the Irish gut-strung harp. My inspiration comes from the fact that what I’m doing is unique. I have developed techniques for playing music that people have never before considered possible on the instrument: Such as J. S Bach, J.P. Sweelinck, Handel, Naderman. These composers wrote for other instruments. Naderman wrote for the pedal harp.

But the Irish harp doesn’t have pedals. Instead, it has a lever at the top of each string. So, what pedal harpers do with their feet, I am doing with my hands. Up until recently, people have played either renaissance music or folk music or original compositions on the Irish harp.

I am the first harper to go rummaging in the classical repertoire to find pieces which are good music, are really interesting to play and, also, possible to play on the instrument. My hope is that people who learn the instrument will have greater challenges facing them. That’s what fires me up.

M.S. How in the world did you think to develop these techniques?

A.O’F. Well, I first learned the Irish harp with very good teachers. At the moment I am playing a Camac harp, Ex Caliber is the model. I have found it very good for my purposes. However, I will shortly be playing a new model of Irish harp, a Salvi, Livia. Salvi is the world’s leading harp maker, based in Italy. The model is Livia. I have helped Salvi design a new mechanism for blades, or levers, to accommodate the techniques that I am using.

The idea is that my techniques would ultimately become standard. Just like today, people have a very clear idea of what constitutes good pedal technique and what constitutes bad technique. At the moment, I am one of the few people who believe in good blading technique. Whereas, up to now, people haven’t really thought about the blading techniques, because they haven’t done much blading.

M.S. Can you give us some more detail on that?

A.O’F. Yes. Up to now, people have simply changed the blades, the levers, between pieces, because each individual composition is in one key. But what I have done is rummage around for repertoire which, when transcribed to the Irish harp, has a more interesting sequence of keys, and will involve key changes and modulations during the piece.

That means you have to change blades as you play. In order to do that, your right hand has to play more notes, to leave your left hand free to change the blades. Alternatively, your right hand has to develop techniques in order to come up over the far side of the harmonic curve, or the neck of the harp, to reach over to the opposite side to where the levers are. This is quite unorthodox.

Other things I do involve multiple changes in a single movement. Changing several blades with different fingers at the same time. My latest one is changing blades using a knuckle instead of a finger pad, so that with the finger pad, of say for example, my fourth finger, I could play a string and, with the knuckle of my second finger I could move the blade up. It’s great fun! Really great fun!

M.S. Do you ever find yourself sometimes wanting to laugh with delight while you are playing in this complex way?

A.O’F. I do get a great kick out of doing something that nobody has ever done before. I get a great excitement out of the thought that, someday, this may become standard. I get a kick out of thinking that I might have started something new and exciting for harpers.

M.S. Like Maire Ni Chathasaigh did for dance music on the harp?

A.O’F. Yes. Exactly! I use lots of her ornamentation. The ornamentation which she brought, from fiddle and pipe music, to harp music is now quite standard amongst Irish harpists. It was from her that Ilearnt what I have about ornamentation.

M.S. Did you learn from her directly?

A.O’F. I have attended workshops that she gave.

M.S. Its nice to know about the community aspect of the music.

A.O’F. Well, the idea is that things get shared around. If you introduce something new, obviously, it has to be used by other people if it is to become a trend. Interestingly, she now plays an Ex Caliber harp now, also.

M.S. What was the reaction when you first started to develop these techniques amongst audiences and amongst harpists?

A.O’F. Some audience members like to close their eyes to listen to me, because there is so much arm movement going on, with all the blade changing. But harpists love watching it. That is one of the reasons I like playing for harpists, because they understand how much work goes into transcribing a Bach Fugue for Irish harp, for example.

Statistics only serve a very limited purpose, but just for the sheer heck of it, sometimes I count the blade changes. There is a Welsh folk tune, called “Watching the Wheat”, arranged by John Tomas, which I transcribed for the harp. It has somewhere in the region of sixty-three blade changes.

M.S. How many minutes long is the piece?

A.O’F. Three minutes. Then I transcribed one of the Bach Fugues, from the Forty-eight Preludes and Fugues, Book One, and I discovered there were eighty blade changes in two and a half minutes. So far, that’s my record.

M.S. It must keep your very fit.

A.O’F. Well, actually, I’ve started doing shoulder exercises, basic Yoga stretches. I was moving my arm so much; that I was concerned about the possibility of getting tense, so, I decided it would be a good idea to do some exercises as a preventative measure.

M.S. What is your next project going to be?

A.O’F. I am about to look through the Shostakovich preludes and fugues, because, at the moment, with the classical repertoire, its winding up a little bit top heavy with Baroque. I don’t want to categorize myself as a Baroque person.

What I do is not about being historically authentic. What I’m really trying to do is make things interesting for people who play the Irish harp. So, I’m eager to get the balance by going toward other centuries of musical style as well.

I certainly do some post-Baroque music, like early classical Naderman, for example. I also perform contemporary music on the Irish harp. I want to look into some other areas of piano repertoire, to see what else I can rob. The idea of transcription is to remain completely faithful to the original text. What I am doing is definitely not arranging.

M.S. The music community wouldn’t appreciate that either.

A.O’F. Exactly. That is not to say that there aren’t very good arrangements knocking around, for one harp or two harps, of various works like, “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, and so on. I’m just saying that if I am going to look at Shostakovich, then I am only going to transcribe exactly what he wrote, note for note, for the Irish harp.

M.S. Why Shostokovich?

A.O’F. I heard the preludes and fugues recently and just by listening to the texture some of the preludes and fugues sounded like they might work.

M.S. How confident do you feel when you hear music like that, before you even attempt to transcribe it, it will work on the harp?

A.O’F. I know by listening to the texture. If I can tell that there is a reasonable chance of it working, then, after that, it’s just a case of demanding more of my hands to make it work. But the bottom line is the sound. You’ll know immediately by the sound, if you can or if you can’t do justice to the music. If there is any question mark over the sound, then you just forget it, you know.

M.S. What else attracts you?

A.O’F. I’d like to do more contemporary music. I’d like to commission more music from living composers for the Irish harp. It needs more concert pieces. It needs more virtuoso pieces written for it. There is almost no virtuoso music written for the Irish harp.

M.S. That’s interesting, considering reports from the twelfth century about the tremendous dexterity required to play the wire-strung harp of old.

A.O’F. That music didn’t survive. I am talking about virtuosic in terms of a very complete harmonic language. Virtuosic, in terms of taking the instrument to the edge.

M.S. Do you imagine that there would ever have been repertoire for the Irish wire-strung harp that would have pushed those limits.

A.O’F. No. Because at that time harmonic language was very limited. Sure, they had great dexterity and it was virtuosic for what they had. But we don’t have literature from the twelfth century.

M.S. I am curious about your own imaginations about that. What you imagine about past possibilities for the harp would be interesting to hear.

A.O’F. The only thing we really know is that they had elaborate ornamentation.

M.S. What does it take, in technique, to create such elaborate ornamentation, that could have been so highly revered by a very sophisticated Norman observer in the twelfth century.

A.O’F. I’d say we have all of that now in the dance music that is played on the Irish harp.

M.S. In terms of the intellectual search into history, do you think modern players have captured the essence of what might have been the cutting edge in the old techniques and musical structures?

A.O’F. I don’t think you can put it that simply. I mean, we are playing on totally different kinds of harps now. Those harps were wire-strung harps.

M.S. So, what about the reinstatement of the wire-strung harp that is happening now?

A.O’F. There are specialists in that area, who specialize in playing in the old style, but it is not my area.

M.S. I’m curious to learn what you think about comparing the modern complexity of playing, against imagining the achievements of another era, which we’ve lost touch with. Do you find any thrill from turning your imagination toward the past?

A.O’F. I certainly have an interest, but my real interest is in going forward. I don’t think I have heard enough good players truly attempt to recreate what might have been there. I find when I hear the old music, while it sounds lovely, the music only goes ‘skin deep’ for me. I know that several people have gone to great lengths to research the musical heritage before they play. For me, that music does not fire me up to forge new directions and be inspired by the past. I am just not that inspired by the music for the wire-strung harp.

M.S. I am really interested to find out what it is that does enthrall you in the music you are playing.

A.O’F. For me, it’s the harmonic language. The facility to change key is almost a bottom line you know.

M.S. It must be a very complex experience for you. How do you feel while you are playing the music?

A.O’F. What I would be concentrating on when I am playing the music is communicating the music as clearly as possible to everyone listening. So that they are, hopefully, quite unaware of the extent to which what I am doing may be difficult. The bottom line is that I am a messenger for the composer. That may sound a bit wet and dramatic, to put it like that, but that really is the bottom line. The composer has written something and it is your job to put that across. I am simply concentrating on clarity of message.

M.S. It is certainly an amazing feat to do all of that comples blade changing, and, at the same time, keep your ear to the music, to be sure that the music is conveyed as the composer wanted to convey it.

A.O’F. Well, that’s my job, you know. Coming back to Bach, I adore Bach. He is second best to God. His music can work through a great many different voices. I am fascinated by the different interpreters who can have such different and such valid interpretations of his music.

M.S. Who are some your favorite interpreters?

A.O’F. Some of the players I love are Andras Schiff, from Prague, Alfred Brendel, who is nearly in his seventies now, and Glen Gould, the Canadian pianist. These are pianists whose interpretations I admire and whose interpretations are utterly different from one another.
Some of the Bach I play was written for lute, so, by playing on a plucked string instrument, I am not so far removed from the original source. But again, I stress that I am not setting out to be historically correct. I am setting out to find music that is interesting for Irish harp players, without being unfaithful. I mean some people could turn around and say, “heck, if you are playing on an instrument that wasn’t around in Bach’s time, so you are being unfaithful”, but you could say the same about pianists who play Bach.

M.S. Do you have a family?

A.O’F. Yes, I do. I have one child. My four year old daughter, Carmel.

M.S. I suppose you don’t want to tour so much now that you have a little family to care for.

A.O’F. Long before she was born I noticed that it was really useful, as a musician, to be based in one place. I could make something grow from being in the one place, by taking shorter trips abroad to events where there is a concentration of harpists. I do anywhere from three and six festivals a year. Most of these events would be harp festivals. In a way, I am getting directly to the audience that I want to communicate with. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy playing for non-harpists, I do, and it’s great. But my particular fascination, at the moment, is the development of the repertoire, which is of particular interest to harpists who want to learn the techniques. It is particularly rewarding for me to take part in festivals and give workshops to show the developments that I am getting involved in.

M.S. Where is your home base?

A.O’F. I live in Dublin.

M.S. What do you think about what is happening in Dublin, with all of the development going on; the growth, the population expansion, the new buildings going up?

A.O’F. I think they need to give more attention to the problems of urban sprawl, before the countryside is gone. Ireland, of all the European countries, has a population small enough to get its act together on the environmental front. I don’t think we are doing that quickly enough.

M.S. What do you think about this new fascination with Celtic music, ancient history, philosophy, etc.?

A.O’F. I think it is a very useful marketing ploy.

M.S. Do you really think there is no more depth than that?

A.O’F. I haven’t seen very much depth. What I’ve seen is the whole Celtic-misty atmosphere, the ‘foggy dew’, as I’ve heard some call it, typically heard in the New Age music.

Granted, there is an openness to spirituality in Ireland. For example, people will feel comfortable saying, “Yes, please God” or “I’ll see you next week, please God”. My sister, Rosemary lives in England now, and it was she who pointed out to me that she would never hear sacred music on the radio there. No one, there, refers to their spirituality in the same casual way as they do in Ireland. In ordinary, everyday life, in Ireland, things religious are not separate. She said that she noticed the Irish would glide from one into the other, with no dividing line between the sacred and secular. It's particularly noticeable on radio, where you will hear sacred music being played with secular music. Irish musicians will frequently include a sacred piece or two on an album.

The Irish people seem to feel very comfortable with that balance between the secular and the sacred.

M.S. Ireland has been very good at that, all through its history. It makes sense then, that people would be attracted to that, especially in a world where spirituality is becoming a much more important issue in personal life. It also makes sense that the Irish don’t know what all the fuss is about because they take their own circumstances for granted. That is a nice, practical and down-to-earth observation, Anne Marie.

A.O’F. Well, it’s an observation I was glad to make myself.

My Lagan Love 2001
The Jigs Up 1997
Harping Bach to Carolan 1993
Heads & Harps 1992

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