Arts / Harpist pulls some strings for new performance

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Harp virtuoso Alice Giles… “The mood is very magical and there’s something haunting about it.”
HARP virtuoso Alice Giles is about to inject the Four Winds Festival with a new breath of life – literally.

For at the Easter music festival at Barragga Bay, always so popular with Canberrans, Giles will be installing four small “wind-harps” to help catch the breezes from the north, south, east and west in a unique musical experiment and collaboration.

Giles is one of the many brilliant musicians who left the ANU School of Music years ago and lives with her family in Yass while keeping up her teaching practice on weekdays at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

Now, in collaboration with American composer and old friend Tim Geller, she’ll be performing a “soulful” new composition that he has developed specifically for the annual beachside music event.

But on wind-harps?

“When I went to Antarctica in 2011 I took a small Tasmanian harp with me and the wind played it,” she says.

“It’s all about strings and resonance – you put the strings outside and winds pass through – that’s a beautiful sound, wind going through strings.”

When Four Winds director James Crabb invited Giles to perform, she reports: “I thought to myself: ‘I’ve done this with one, I could do it with four’.”

Moreover, the idea of installing wind-harps outdoors fitted Crabb’s concept of relating to nature perfectly. It was also in line with the aim to create “something soulful, something kind of connected to land”.

And to composer Geller, Giles’ experimenting with wind-harps was a case of “pulling pitch from the wind, lending a sounding board to the life force itself.”

The result is to be “Breath Dance”, a 12-to-15-minute composition to be premiered in the festival’s big sound shell by Giles, with Geller on hand, too.

“It’s been 35 years since I wrote a piece for Alice – we’re long overdue,” Geller says,.

“We’ll be inviting that life force on to the stage… with the help of four wind-harps representing the four corners of the earth.”

Giles has no fears of a still day, as she believes that down there, by the ocean, it’s pretty well guaranteed that there’ll be wind from some direction.

“I will be playing on my concert harp, but there will also be four, small, four-lever harps, loosely strung with nylon strings that will pick up the winds,” she says.

The concept arose years ago in the US when she and Geller were studying in Cleveland, Ohio, and he wrote a composition for a sound sculpture involving bass and harp.

Geller got her singing – “More like shouting,” she says – into the back of the harp, something she’ll perform over Easter.

Geller, educated in the US and NZ, went on to enjoy a brilliant career in music as composer, conductor, music producer, chorister and lifestyle activist.

When Giles was on tour to Massachusetts, they caught up and she asked when was he going to write something for her again.

“Tim said he was more interested in theatre pieces, but I was tied up, so I said no; but then when James invited me to Four Winds and told me he was looking for some theatre-style pieces I suggested a work by Tim… it was all rather serendipitous,” she says.

Giles describes the new composition as “moody, the mood is very magical and there’s something haunting about it.”

But neither of them will know what “Breath Dance” is like until he gets here to rehearse for the premiere.

The international connection that Geller typifies is part of the push by Crabb and his team at Four Winds to engage fine musicians from  Australia and around the globe.

British violinist Jack Liebeck and Israeli flautist Ariel Zuckermann, Australian soprano Emma Pearson, pianists Tamara-Anna Cislowska and Ian Munro, Canberra-trained guitarist Aleksandr Tsiboulski, the Goldner String Quartet, The Song Company, Speak Percussion and the Australian Brass Quintet, are just a few of the artists.

Four Winds 2018 Easter Festival, Wednesday, March 28 to Sunday, April 1. Free festival concert, 7pm-9pm Friday, March 30, all welcome. “Breath Dance”, Sound Shell, Saturday, March 31. Bookings to

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Helen Musa
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