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Vulcan Harp & Theremin

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Published on Jan 18, 2011

This is called THE KATRIC ARK and it is one of a series of 12 compositions for Vulcan harp and theremin. Since the Vulcan harp was introduced by artist and visionary Wah Ming Chang more than 40 years ago, it has evolved considerably, along with the technology involved with its manufacture. It is acoustic, electroacoustic and electronic (it is the electronic component that permits such things as the playing of complex harmonies, glide pitch shifts, etc.).

As a sculptor, Chang molded the instrument to fit the human body, and it is great to hold because it is so wonderfully ergonomic. This particular harp has 26 strings (copper, brass and silver) and is played with finger picks. There are no steel strings and the instrument does not use magnetic pickups like electric guitars. It also does not need to be plugged into anything so there are no annoying cables to get in the way. It transmits directly to its amplifier and speakers by means of an antenna integrated into the pin column (the extended curved vertical arm that holds the tuning pins). The two speakers you see in the video are JBL JRX-125 monitors.

As a concept, the characteristics of "Vulcan music" are determined by the remarkable capabilities of the Vulcan harp which include many of the possibilities of the classical instruments of India. The sound of the Vulcan harp has been described as a combination of harp, lute, violin and sitar. If you add to this everything that is possible with the use of the shift disc and the harmonic valves (the seven button controls - one for each note of the diatonic scale - riding above the brass plate) you have an extraordinary number of combinations that can be explored. The harmonic valves are all level-sensitive (each responds to three degrees of left hand finger pressure applied to them: touch, half, and full) and this determines the harmony applied to the vibrating strings. Octave displacement is played by multiple valve configurations depending on the register in which the harpist wants to play.

There is also a "tapper control" incorporated into the Vulcan harp for generating complex polyrhythms but it is not used in this particular composition. The "tapper" is the knob that sits just behind the lowest bass strings on the upper edge of the instrument facing the harpist. It can be silently programmed just before a piece is played by drumming the fingers of the left hand on the knob in the exact rhythm combination you want to hear applied to your sound once you begin to play. The instrument will loop the rhythm continuously throughout the piece (or until you squelch it).

The theremin in this video is the 1929 RCA that once belonged to Hollywood thereminist Dr. Samuel Hoffman. It was used by Dr. Hoffman on the soundtracks of many classic science fiction films of the 1950's, so I thought it would be appropriate to use it here. If you are curious about this 1929 theremin, I am featured in the 20TH CENTURY FOX 2-disc DVD "special edition" of the re-issue of the original 1951 science fiction masterpiece, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. There are already several videos on YouTube of me playing this instrument (and some from the 1950's of Dr. Hoffman as well) so after the solo theremin section at the beginning of the composition, I concentrated entirely on showing the Vulcan harp. There are very few Vulcan harps in the world and even fewer musicians who can actually play them, so I thought people might might like to see it.

PLEASE NOTE: the recording of this composition was done directly to a Roland VS-2400CD. There were no FX added to the instruments other than the usual EQ and a small amount of reverb. No peripherals, no MIDI modules, overdubs or computers were used at any time in the recording process.

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