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Classical 101

All The Buzz About The Bray Harp

Pegasus Early Music rehearses in Columbus' First Unitarian Universalist Church
Jennifer M. Hambrick
/
WOSU
Pegasus Early Music rehearses in Columbus' First Unitarian Universalist Church. From left to right: Christa Patton, Deborah Fox, Dongmyung Ahn, Andrew Rader, and Jonas Budris.

For Christa Patton, the medieval bray harp may look old, but it’s hardly old-fashioned.

“I like to describe it as the electric guitar of the 14th century,” said Patton, a historical harpist and wind instrumentalist.

The bray harp doesn’t need an amp, and it doesn’t have pedals or knobs to manipulate the sound. Instead, small wooden slats, or brays, on the harp’s sound board touch the strings and produce an ethereal buzzing when the strings are plucked. And like the electric guitar in a rock band, the bray harp creates a foundational sound in an early instrument ensemble.

“The harp buzzes and creates blankets of sonority within the ensemble and blends with everyone,” Patton said. “It’s a grounding element, it ties everything together.”

Christa Patton playing the bray harp
Jennifer M. Hambrick
/
WOSU
Christa Patton playing the bray harp

Performing on the bray harp is a rare specialty, and Patton came to it by way of an unusual route. Originally an oboist, Patton became interested in early wind instruments, in particular the recorder, the bagpipes, the crumhorn and the shawm, a precursor to the modern oboe.

The lightbulb went on for her when she heard a harpist play a bray harp in a workshop at an early music festival.

“That was the crystalizing moment. That really planted a concept in my head about bray harps. They sound like a little orchestra of crumhorns or shawms.”

The reeds of the crumhorn and shawm, the drone of the bagpipes and the buzzing of the bray harp together add up to a sound world vastly different from that of our own times.

“The soundscape of that time had a lot of buzzing going on,” Patton said. “A lot of the instruments were built in a way that they weren’t loud, but they had complex overtones. And so the richness of the sound is what captivated the ear.”

You can experience that sound world in this video of the ensemble Pegasus Early Music’s rehearsal for their recent Columbus concert. The unique sounds of the bray harp, early bagpipes, shawm and recorder in Patton’s hands, along with the medieval lute, the violin-like vielle and tenor and countertenor soloists bring to life works by Johannes Ciconia, Francesco Landini, Matteo da Perugia and others.

As fascinating as these instruments and voices sound, perhaps an even more interesting thing about performing 14th-century repertoire is deciding which combinations of instruments and voices on which to perform it in the first place. The sources of this repertoire are often vague about instrumentation. And that means both challenges and creative freedom for performers.

“The crux of what’s difficult but also really fun about playing medieval music is, how are we going to do this? How do we do this at all?” Patton said. “Well, there are notes with words, so there are texts that are meant to be sung. Beyond that, it’s really kind of a puzzle. So it’s fun that way, but the more time you spend really considering it, the more you see there really is to it.”