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Aeolian harps in my work

Who would have thought that a nice tinkering-project during the Christmas holidays wouldbe the start of many new projects and collaborations. Here you can read the full story.


© Peter Teunissen

 As a child I was an altar boy for many years. On Sundays a small male schola sang the Latin mass, which I found enchantingly beautiful. The floating melodies without a clear fundamental that filled the acoustics in the small church were like from another world.

Somewhere around 2010, while walking past the Obrecht Church in Amsterdam, I heard a strange kind of orientalist Gregorian chant coming from the adjacent sacristy. It turned out to be the Schola Gregoriana led by Geert Maessen. However, unlike what I knew from the church of my youth, they sang from a self-developed notation called fluxus notation, in which the neumes from the St. Gallen manuscript were, just like the common notation of Gregorian chant, were noted on 4 lines. This ensured that on the one hand the vocal movements that are implicated in the original neumes were displayed, and at the same time, thanks to the 'staff', the pitches to be sung became clear at a glance.

In 2013 I took part in two courses on chant with Iégor Reznikoff. In his work, two interesting threads come together: on the one hand, the conscious use of spatial acoustics when singing (Gregorian) chant, and as a result, adjusting the intonation to the acoustics of a specific room. This ensures that the sound of the voice resonates optimally with the acoustic properties of that room.
During the same period I heard him sing several times in different churches. Before a concert, he would explore the acoustics by singing on different pitches at specific places in the space, in order to find the most resonant spots. Adjusting his intonation to the resonance of the church, he could single-handedly make an entire church ring as if there were a full choir singing. As a listener, you felt the sound vibrating all over your body at such a moment.


© Peter Teunissen

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© Miranda Driessen

Gradually I developed an image to build a chapel of sound: a space in which you could immerse yourself in sound as a kind of reversal of a theory that Reznikoff developed based on his research of the relationship between acoustically rich prehistoric caves. and the amount of images present. According to Reznikoff this proved that prehistoric man made music at such places in these caves  in order to connect with the invisible world through sound.

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From autumn of 2011, for many years I cycled weekly through the Flevopolder to Zonnehoeve, a biodynamic farm where I gave music lessons for many years. The vastness of the landscape and the ever-present wind captured my imagination: one day I would like to do something with this phenomenon. The two works I composed in 2012: Wind and Unwind had little to do with that. They were not about the meteorological phenomenon, but had to do with the English verbs ‘to wind’ and ‘to unwind’. Yet in both works (which are essentially each other's literal mirror images in terms of form) another fascination, namely that with the perception and experience of time, played a role.

In January 2014 I built my PVC wind harp and was immediately caught by the magic of the overtone spectrum that sounded as soon as the wind blew past the strings. I immediately knew that this had to be the basis for the chapel of sound: several man-sized wind harps that would be set up in an open field: a kind of Stonehenge, a place for sound rituals.


© Peter Teunissen

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© Miranda Driessen

I made many recordings of it, and gradually compositions emerged that moved within the spectra of the sounds on these recordings. These formed the series Gejaagd I to IV, in which Gejaagd I (2014) consisted of a montage of recordings that I made with the PVC wind harp and from which I filtered specific overtone frequencies using SPEAR application.
Based on Gejaagd I, I transcribed the harmonic movement of these frequencies over time and based on this I created a work for flute: Gejaagd II (2014). In this work, the overtone frequencies from the tape are played around as a kind of baroque Gigue.
Gejaagd III (2015) for piano elaborates on this flute part. By adding a bass part for the left hand, a harmonic context is added through which the music receives another musical development.
For Gejaagd IV (2016), which would ultimately become the intermezzo in Koerikoeloem (2016 - 2018), I used the rhythmic polyphony of the Offertorium from the Missa Sancti Jacobi by Guillaume Dufay as a basis for a three-part variantion for recorders, again based on the overtone spectrum of the soundtrack of Gejaagd I.

And finally: Gone (for Katerina Konstantourou) in 2017.



In 2016 I received a research grant from the Performing Arts Fund (FPK) for developing a music-theatrical work based on the prose poem Koerikoeloem by Tjitske Jansen for the instrumentation of sho, recorder-trio vocal ensemble and... an installation of wind harps yet to be built. Within the context of the poem, the installation would serve, as it were, as a metaphor for the intangible factors of life that influence the development of a human life. The wind being a metaphor for (other wordly) inspiration. Just as in real life, the sounds of the installation could come to a standstill at some moments, while at others it could be a powerful impetus for (self-)expression.
In the following year, these ideas developed further, and led to the awarding of a production subsidy, again from the FPK, for the development of a full-hour music-theatre piece and production of 36 performances of Koerikoeloem.


© Hans Binghan Thé

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© Peter Teunissen

Now it was a matter of finding someone who would be able to build wind harps robust enough to withstand a large number of performances. I came in contact with Jan Heinke from Dresden through sound artist Hans van Koolwijk. In the summer of 2017 he came to Almere with a previously built prototype. This turned out to be perfectly suitable for the project. He was then commissioned to build a total of 8 similar objects for the performance.

For Koerikoeloem the wind harps were tuned to C#, (a minor second higher than the lowest string of the cello) F# and c# respectively. This choice arose from the tuning of the sho, which consists of a limited number of bamboo pipes with a fixed tuning. The entire composition then was based on the resulting spectrum. Both recorders and singers would intone to the sound of the wind harps.
The continuum of overtones that sounded before, during and after the performance served as a metaphor for the infinite flow of time within which the passing of a human life takes place.

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© Cor Pot


© André Sietsma

Koerikoeloem was eventually performed15 times at festivals throughout the Netherlands between May 2018 and September 2020. Due to the pandemic threw 18 performances scheduled for the annual Oerol festival on Terschelling were canceled. The final 2 performances took place on September 5. 2020 in the monumental landscape artwork De Aardzee by Piet Slegers in Zeewolde.

Performances with Jan Heinke

Jan Heinke said that the realization of an installation with multiple wind harps had always been a dream for him. As a child, a scene from the TV series Der Seewolf, in which the characters end up on an island where they are surrounded by a certain sound, had fascinated him for years. This sound later turned out to correspond to that of wind harps.

In September 2019, an opportunity arose to invite him to give a concert with the wind harps during the LOF festival in Nieuw Land National Park. At this concert he combined the sound of the windharps with vocal improvisations and Stahlcello. The event took place on a small lookout hill on the edge of the Oostvaardersplassen. The sound of the wind harps aroused the curiosity of a herd of konik horses that during the performance tried to swim from the other side of the lake.

In 2020 I invited him to participate in my ‘Stemmingen’ (moods/modes) project. The title of the work I composed for this project for Stahlcello, overtone singing and wind harps spoke for itself: “Almost full moon, no wind”. Even though we dragged the entire installation as far as possible to the most optimal spot on Almeerderstrand just before the concert, the wind refused to cooperate that evening.


© Peter Teunissen


Project 'Stemmingen'

Fortunately, the pandemic also offered alternative options: subsidies for outdoor concerts were made available in a short time. For this purpose I developed the Stemmingen project and received funding for it from the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds and Cultuurfonds Almere. During a residency at StrandLAB Almere I composed a number of short, new works for Jan Heinke's wind harps in combination with various solo instruments.
During this week I tuned the wind harps every day to different combinations of pitches and, based on the resulting sounds, composed a new piece, each day for a different musician who also would play the premiere of it on the same day.

During the mornings I gave a daily workshop in which I used the ideas of the American composer Pauline Oliveiros in the field of Deep listening and voice improvisations.

Unfortunately, the weather did not always cooperate: On 2 of the 7 days it rained, and on the other days there was hardly any wind. Ultimately, 3 works have stood the test of time: Svelto, con abbndono for cello, Reel for (baroque) violin and NN for viola.

The 'Stemmingen' project ultimately made me realize that the installation offered many more possibilities because all strings can be tuned. The wind harps can therefore really be regarded as instruments and for which you can also compose music. Variations in string diameter,  combinations of different pitches and thus different overtone spectra have been options only limitedly explored so far.


© Jacob Haagsma

Sanctuary of sound

In 2023 I received an assignment from the Oranjewoud Festival to initiate a new project with the wind harps. This offered new opportunities to further investigate these instruments.
During the Pentecost weekend of that year, the premiere of a 72-hour composition that resulted from this took place: Sanctuary of sound.

Another fascination that I shared with Jan Heinke is the phenomenon of time. In his workspace there was an old clock face without hands. This image inspired me in 2019 to write Die Entdeckung der Langsamkeit for Stahlcello and overtone singing. Listening to the continuum of overtones, whether these come from wind harps or a voice, affects the experience of time. Many people who had listened to the installation in previous projects reported sitting or lying in it for a long time and experienced a feeling of timelessness/eternity.

The Oranjewoud festival wanted the installation to be accessible on all 4 days of the festival. The place that was eventually chosen together with the intendant offered this feeling of infinite space due to its vastness. This brought me the idea of composing an extremely slow chorale, or, as it were, a 'short' version of the work that John Cage composed for the organ in Halberstadt. The festival would start on Friday evening at 5 p.m. and end at the same time on Whit Monday. That gave me exactly 72 hours.

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© André Sietsma


© Miranda Driessen

But how to shape a work of such length, knowing that it will be impossible to listen to it in full, let alone experience a sense of structure during such a long period of time? Ultimately, a concept taken from ideas in architecture offered an approach for this: the Plastic Number and the resulting Orders of Magnitude, developed by the Benedictine monk Dom Hans van der Laan. (1904 - 1991) v/d Laan's architectural principles are cumulative; all elements of a building, from large to small, arise from the same proportions:

1 - 4/3 - 7/4 - 7/3 - 3 - 4 - 16/3 - 7

I applied this principle composing Sanctuary of Sound to structure the duration of 72 hours. This resulted in a series of points in time at which the harmonies of the wind harps would be changed. As time progressed, the intervals between these moments of changing the harmonies would become shorter and shorter.

To calculate the frequencies to which I would tune the wind harps, I used the same principle, which resulted in a certain series of frequencies to which the harps would be tuned. This specific series was chosen because the combinations of pitches would always lead to the largest possible amount of corresponding overtone frequencies. Another curious characteristic of this series was that the sum of the digits turned out all to have the number 9 as a result.


© Miranda Driessen

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© Miranda Driessen

Within the 'architecture' of Sanctuary of sound, I ultimately decided to add some more reliëf by introducing a kind of stretto chorals and certain moments in the piece. During these parts, the entire piece, which is in fact an extremely slow chorale, was performed at a (relatively) faster pace. And finally, I planned moments within the piece in which members of the Maat Saxophone Quartet, who were invited as ensemble-in-residence during the festival, could improvise in interaction with the sound of the wind harps.

The final chorale ultimately turned out to be the most dramatic moment in the composition: one by one I tuned the entire installation, string by string, into a complete unison. For half an hour, slow, dissonant glissandi gradually dissolved into a harmonious whole. And once this unison was reached, I would slowly release the tension of each string until the wind no longer could enhance it. At exactly 16.30h the wind dropped and the installation fell completely silent.

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© André Sietsma


© Ellen Ji An Neve


However rudimentary these beautiful sound objects may seem, I believe there are still countless possibilities to be explored for new projects. This includes further research into the stringing of these instruments, the consequences of this for more harmonic possibilities, the range of wind conditions necessary for the strings to sound optimally, the relationship between wind force and the range of overtone frequencies, but especially different setups for the installation. Until now, they have always been arranged in a circle with a diameter of 12 meters, but other setups are of course also conceivable, each with its own effect on the sound experience.
  I therefore sincerely hope for new opportunities to further develop all of this into new compositions and collaborations with other disciplines.

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