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1408Re:: Who uses sister strings (na comhluighe) in tuning their harp and...

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  • clarsa1r
    Feb 4, 2015
      Bunting gives the tuning of the "Hempson Harp 1702" (now known as the Downhill) in his field notes now known as MS 29, and also in the introduction to his 1840 volume of The Ancient Music of Ireland. They are specified as the G pitches below middle C, and the vibrating pitches of those Gs is probably approximately the same as they are now. 

      Most (maybe almost all) of the players in my acquaintance who are using copies of the early extant instruments use the na comhluighe tuning, as I do myself. So far, nobody has come up with a single reason that convinces a majority of contemporary players why the early harpers would have done so, though many theories have been floated as to why this would be a desirable tuning. (Unfortunately, Bunting did not enlighten us on musical usage of the unison bass strings.) Bunting suggests that tuning begins with the Sisters, and some have posited that blind players might have found them to be a useful aurally-driven guide to navigation and/or hand position. G is an important pitch on the clairseach, being the fifth scale degree of one of the common tunings (what is now often called C tuning) and the tonic pitch of the other (G tuning.)  

      If you go to the effort of acquiring a copy of a historical instrument, you are probably interested in exploring historical playing techniques to the extent possible, and if that's your goal, you should tune the sisters, since I don't think it's widely disputed that this is how wire-strung harps were tuned up till the end of the 18th century, at least. Playing what we have of early repertoire, using what we know of appropriate performance practice, on a copy of an early harp will hopefully yield discoveries that may not be available to players without those tools and knowledge. However, if you do not have a historical copy, I'd say the sisters tuning is entirely optional, especially if historical playing techniques are not of major interest to you. 

      My own experience with the sisters on my 29-string Queen Mary copy is that they do set up a definite boundary between the treble and bass realms of the harp. I played modern harps before acquiring the QM, and the Sisters were much easier to accustom myself to than I would have predicted, but it's still pretty awkward to try to play a step-wise bass passage with one hand crossing that boundary; especially since it interferes with damping. I tend to use bass hand exclusively starting with the lower Sister G, and treble above and including the higher Sister. (I often use bass hand higher, but I don't use the treble hand lower than the Sisters.) Also, I still play harps without Sisters, and it's not a problem for me to transition between harps with and without Sisters (playing different repertoire on the various harps, however.) As a sighted person in 2015, I don't feel I play much differently with the Sisters than I likely would without them, though.

      Info from Simon Chadwick about the Sisters, evidence for them, and references to them: http://earlygaelicharp.info/tradition/sisters.htm

      Astrid Adler (Ireland) has a new book out called Play the Companions that contains some of her discoveries and ideas on incorporating the Companions (Sisters/na comhluighe) in playing. Here's her blog; you can order the book from her online shop there: http://blog.astridadler.com/

      Side note for Joe: I think you're probably right that earlier harpers used a just tuning system; the question is when that practice stopped (or if it did, before the harp tradition itself became extinct.) Most of the harp repertoire we have now is from no earlier than the 17th century, and by Bunting's time, so many of the harpers were playing Baroque-style music (as did Carolan, of course.) Surely they were tending towards equal temperament tuning by that time, like their fellow players of other instruments? Since we mostly have only the tunes, and scarce evidence of basses, it's really hard to come to a conclusion one way or another. 

      Cindy S in Austin, TX



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