Archive for Thursday, April 8, 1999


April 8, 1999


With more than 2,000 moving parts, the concert harp is an example of timeless craftsmanship.

With its Old World craftsmanship and timeless sound, the harp is one of the most complex musical instruments.

The instrument's qualities are a focus at Lawrence's Hoffman Harp Gallery, which opened March 13. Phyllis Hoffman, an accomplished harpist and Lenexa resident, and her business partner, Randall Platt, operate the shop that sells the region's largest selection of harps.

The gallery's opening occurs at a time when interest in harps is strong. The instrument central to Celtic music, and many adults who learn a new instrument turn to the harp.

The shop is responding to this interest by offering lessons, sheet music, rental and larger harps, recording gear and music software.

The harp's beauty is largely derived from its mysterious complexity, Platt said.

"Ever since I started listening to the harp as a solo instrument, I really liked the sound of it," he said. "Its sound is so unique and it's challenging to play."

The challenge of playing the harp is matched by the effort in building it. Both the first harp built by Frenchman Sebastian Erard in 1910 and today's large concert harps can take six months to build. Only a few large harp manufacturers exist worldwide.

The lengthy building process, Hoffman said, creates the instrument's rich sound. The tone is strongly influenced by the cured wood chosen for its casing. Most harps have spruce soundboards, while the body is often crafted from maple, mahogany and other woods. Dark woods give a richer, deeper sound, while lighter woods emit a brighter sound, she added.

Wood lends the harp its serene quality.

"It's calming and soothing and people like to listen to it," Hoffman said.

Aside from the wood, the harp's tone relies on the strings that are arranged similarly to white piano keys. High strings are made from nylon, while the middle strings are fashioned from sheep gut. The low strings derive their deep tones from steel wires wound around felt.

With a hollow interior column containing more than 2,000 moving parts, a large harp is largely controlled by a pedal connected to the interior rods and a mechanism at the instrument's top. These mechanics must be completed before the final exterior decorative work is completed by artisans.

"It's the kind of instrument that you don't know how it works or can work, but it does," Hoffman said.

As with most fields, improving technology is producing harps such as the French-made Camac that is lighter in weight. The Camac, which Hoffman plans to sell in large and small versions, has lighter-weight aluminum strings and a self-tuning pedal rod device.

Hoffman's music affirms that the consuming task of building harps is worth the energy. A harpist since age 5, Hoffman plays professionally and is a Kansas Arts Commission member. She is an advocate of public education about harps and music, and presents programs in area schools.

Her debut album, "Harp Artistry," was released in 1994 and she is planning another.

As Hoffman played her German Horngacher harp in the gallery last week, the instrument's rich tone filled the room.

"People ask, 'How can it possibly survive?'" Hoffman said, and with a flourish of hands across strings, she finished her sentence with the sound of a timeless tradition.

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