RNIB article

This article written for inclusion in the RNIB magazine, both as an article and also by way of promoting my CD.

I created a special edition of the with a visually challenged audience in mind.

I have wanted to play the harp since I was a child. From the first time I heard the sound of a harp, and before I properly knew what it looked like (let alone how big it was!) I was hooked and have remained entranced ever since. Through a combination of good fortune and hard work my harp and I fast became good friends and have travelled many miles together. I usually drive with the harp well-wrapped and lying in the back of my estate car. Other journeys have been by sea (playing my passage on the QE2 to get my harp to New York and back) and by air (with the harp in the aircraft hold in a huge padded box).

For a number of years now I have performed annually for “The Listeners”. They describe themselves as a group of friends, some of whom are visually handicapped, who get together once a month or so to listen to live music in the setting of a private home. Such has been the popularity of these concerts that at times I have been practically sitting on the front row! The quality of their attentiveness and their positive, friendly encouragement provides an atmosphere where chat is encouraged and musical risk-taking supported. These days it is as much about catching up with old friends over and about sharing the musical explorations of the intervening year, as the moments when I am actually playing.

With ‘The Listeners’, I have learnt much of importance about how to present a recital programme. There are no programme notes so any information I want my listeners to have I must tell them before I play and I have taken this practice into all of my recital work.

This recording project grew out of a conversation I with a ‘Listener’ who was frustrated at not being able to tell easily which track he was listening to on his CD player. So when I recorded ‘Solo Harp’ I added some extra tracks with him and others in mind. It seemed such a good idea that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t already being done and contacted the RNIB expecting to be given a long list of such recordings already available. Apparently there aren’t any quite like this, so I am making ‘Solo Harp’ more widely available in this format for two reasons: Firstly, I want music to be accessible to everyone and I hope a project like this one helps that process along. Secondly, I’d like to receive some feedback on whether there is a market out there for this kind of recording and on what sort of spoken introductions people would like to hear. This is if you like a ‘pilot.’

As a student and young professional I was a member of the late Sir Yehudi Menuhin’s ‘Live Music Now!’ scheme. I found myself performing in unlikely venues – for that is the point of the scheme, sharing good music with everyone. Hospitals, libraries, homes, day care centres – I was especially in demand in all those places without a piano!

The harp is perfect for this kind of work. Universally loved – and it is, every culture has a simple form of harp at its roots – and huge! Just taking the velvet cover off to reveal its 47 strings, intricate workings, sheer elegance and gold decoration (yes, it is real!) is enough to give even the toughest crowd a moment’s pause.

I began to notice two things:

1) The pieces of music that worked best were those with integrity – quality counts even with an audience that may be completely new to music.

2) Magical things happened on a regular basis. Humbling, life-changing things. Important small things. Music has the power to transform and transport even where words can’t reach. I’ve seen a room full of frenetic autistic children transform into an oasis of serenity and calm. One man broke out of a constant repetitive behaviour for a few moments, something a tearful carer said she’d never seen happen before.

Out of these experiences and many more, my belief in the power of music and that it should belong to everyone has strengthened. I have also become acutely aware of the importance of audience feedback (even if it takes unusual forms) and of the need to share not only the music, but myself.

Having ‘retired’ from LMN! I have continued to find ways to fulfil this commitment. As artistic director of my democratic, autonomous chamber ensemble mobius, I have enjoyed exploring the area of Outreach further. I am fascinated by music’s place in the World and by how differently people respond to it. On a recent tour to India and Sri Lanka I had the privilege of introducing the harp to the majority of our audiences. In a workshop I played alongside local musicians with traditional Indian instruments – a glorious reminder that despite the many varying nuances, music is an international language.

Perhaps because of the harp’s intrinsic beauty, I have been interested by the relationship between music and visual art. I probably owe the kernel of this curiosity to a local festival adjudicator who pointed to my harp’s gracious curve to illustrate a point about elegant musical phrasing.

A project at The Lowry Gallery in Manchester had two main elements: we ran an all-age workshop looking at ways shape and sound can relate. Art critics often refer to elements such as ‘rhythm’ in paintings, so why not look for colour in music? What does a squiggly line sound like? What images does a piece of music evoke?

The second unusual thing we did, was a pre-concert prelude in the gallery. We played carefully chosen solos in front of selected canvasses forming a ‘Double’ exhibition of works by contemporary artists exploring the idea of self. We found the process greatly enriched both the art and the music.

Other outreach projects have seen me exploring the inside of a group of 6 year-olds’ heads! I teamed up with a visual artist and we asked the children to think about what the inside of their head might look and sound like...what is imagination?

Perhaps mobius’s biggest challenge in this field was a week exploring links between music, maths, and Islamic art with a class of 9 year-olds. In collaboration with the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge we found all kinds of common ground – codes, symmetry, rules, patterns...and much more besides. It was a great way to get the children thinking differently and learning in a more holistic way than the national curriculum usually allows. It also challenged the class’s established hierarchy of ‘bright’ and ‘challenged’ pupils as some of the special needs students came up with wonderfully creative responses and some of the clever ones found themselves flummoxed by open questions. The culmination of that week was their participation in a public mobius concert where they performed a composition of their own that used skills and material gathered over the course of the project. Fabulous – exhausting and invigorating...more please!

‘Solo Harp’ is in some respects experimental. The repertoire is music that I love to play and my audiences love to hear. It does not fall neatly into an alphabetical category (which is largely what the labels are looking for these days). In shifting times, the roles of record companies and distributors seem to me to be losing definition and there is increasing scope for independent thought. For a creative artist, that must be good! I wanted to take an holistic approach, after all that is how I prepare and present live recitals, so why force all of that into an anonymous package with a house-style label? I think that today’s audience wants more. Music is fine, but in this age of multi-media and increasingly interactive entertainment it seems natural to me to want to talk and make it that much more personal.

Session report

I often chuckle during recording sessions and think to myself – little will my audience know! Perhaps it is just as well that some incidents remain private lest you all begin to listen perched on the edge of your seats, heart in mouth like I do for months afterwards!
But for those of you who are interested in knowing more about life as a recording artist, I thought I’d share some of my experiences with you here.

The ‘Solo Harp’ sessions were held in a Church in Gloucestershire. Rural, beautiful and with a gorgeous acoustic. This ‘live’ element is harder for the producer and engineer to capture than a predictable studio setting, but it is so pleasurable to be able to float the sound out and love what you are hearing (although it can take patient hours of fiddling with microphones before you reach that point) that the choice is not a difficult one to make.

Even tranquil surroundings present challenges however. Our biggest for those particular couple of days was that it coincided with the farmer needing to plough a nearby field. This dictated session order and hours (The only way to get a special enough silence for Debussy’s ‘La fille...’ was to work before breakfast – but just listen to those rests! Well worth the effort in my book). I am constantly amazed by music’s ability to soar above adversity serene and unscathed – sometimes even improved, for it has been dug from deeper inside. While playing some of the most beautiful notes in this disc I had a painful blister on my right thumb (occupational hazard exacerbated by the terms dictated by the ploughing!). I won’t tell you which notes, since one of us wincing is enough!

Humour has its place in this work too – indeed it is very often essential! One afternoon I was taking a quick nap – recharging my batteries while waiting for the tractors to move away, the rest of the team having wandered out to stretch their legs. Curled up on my padded harp covers on the stone floor (actually very comfortable!) not too far from the heaters (silent ones!) we had brought with us to keep my fingers warm enough to play well. (Good acoustics are often cold – I have a thick red sweater that I have worn for every session I’ve ever done, nothing else seems quite warm enough!) I woke to find myself being peered at closely by concerned tourists. I’m not sure if they thought I was sleeping rough or plain eccentric, but I certainly wasn’t in their guide book!

So I hope that you will be encouraged to listen to more harp music and to buy a copy of ‘Solo Harp’! It is a project that I have enjoyed hugely and I sincerely hope you will enjoy it too.

Alison Nicholls
65 minutes of music plus spoken introductions
works by: Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Pierné, Tournier, Hasselmans, Grandjany & Damase
Price £16 per CD plus £1 P&P

Send your order to: order@alisonnicholls.com



© 2003 Alison Nicholls - All rights reserved