Music is a universal language—it goes beyond words. It is unambiguous in all ways. I can listen to Arabic music, for instance. I cannot speak Arabic, but I can feel the emotion that the music has in it. It bypasses words. Oftentimes, I think, it expresses things that we cannot even put into words—immediately and directly. That is one of the things that I have always loved about music—how honest it is.
My mother plays piano and she played it since the time when I was born, so I would hear that around the house. When she was a child she was really into Irish dancing and even though I did not see her dance I knew she really appreciated it. Then, my dad was really into singing and acting. They both loved literature and poetry. And my grandmother was very into opera. There was always a sense of the arts being really essential. Actually, Irish culture—at least in the past—has always admired musicians and poets. My parents actually never questioned my desire to be a musician. As soon as I started playing piano myself when I was eight I really wanted to do music for the rest of my life. They never suggested anything otherwise even though they had not grown up with wealthy backgrounds. I did not realize at the time how lucky it was to have such support from my parents.
In terms of the inspiration of what music really means to me, it is a very direct form of expression. Music is a universal language—it goes beyond words. It is unambiguous in all ways. I can listen to Arabic music, for instance. I cannot speak Arabic, but I can feel the emotion that the music has in it. It bypasses words. Oftentimes, I think, it expresses things that we cannot even put into words—immediately and directly. That is one of the things that I have always loved about music—how honest it is.
When did you come to play the harp and how did you come to focus on playing it?
I did start with classical piano and I thought that I would become a classical pianist, so that was the direction that I was going in. During my teenage years, I grew up in Cyprus and spent a lot of time in Iraq because my parents were living in Baghdad at the time. So, I heard a lot of Balkan, Greek, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern music and I loved it, absolutely loved it . . . But there was not really a way for me to play that kind of music on the piano.
I moved to Berkeley when I was 18 to go to college with a great childhood friend of mine, Anna Kallis, who I met in Cyprus and who I am still very good friends with. She does all of my graphics—she is an artist . . . She still lives in Cyprus . . . We talk every day online and I try to go to Cyprus every year. She actually was crucial in my taking up the harp because she took me to a concert by Kitka, which is a Bulgarian women’s vocal ensemble. They were playing with Ensemble Alcatraz, which is a medieval ensemble, and they had a harpist. It was probably 16 or 17 years ago when I went to that concert and hearing Eastern European music with that kind of harp, a renaissance harp, absolutely mesmerized me. It changed my life. I could not believe the sound that I was hearing. It was so absolutely gorgeous and could express all of the things that I had inside of me but could not say. Around that same time, one of my piano students, Breda—she is actually from Ireland as well—had bought a little harp. She said, “You know, I am not really using this harp . . . why don’t you borrow it?” I began playing on it and found it to be similar to the piano. They call the harp the “naked piano” because everything has been stripped off of it and you are playing directly on the strings. They are actually similar in the way that they are laid out.
I realized that I would be able to play all of that music that I had heard during my teenage years. During those years you are so affected by music; a lot of it becomes imprinted on you. I started playing Balkan and Middle Eastern music on the harp and keeping piano up at the same time . . . Gradually the harp took over because I really love collaborating with world and early music artists and the harp just has a little bit more of a flexible sound. I love the piano, but it is much more modern sounding and much more dominating. The piano did influence me a great deal and there are crossover artists like Bartok. His piano music incorporates Eastern European melodies. Ernest Bloch had a lot of Hebrew musical influences. Philip Glass was influenced by Indian music. Even though with the piano there is a lot of crossover, the harp eventually did take over in terms of my performing. I do perform piano tango music and I teach both instruments.
The first thing that one notices when listening to your harp music is the beautiful richness of its tones. When did you begin playing your Cithara Nova harp and what distinguishes it from other types of harps? Does its size of almost six feet pose any challenges in terms of caring for and transporting it?
”Cithara” is the original word for “harp”. . . and “nova” means, “new,” so you have the “ancient” and “new.” This particular kind of harp is a new creation, but it takes a lot of cues from historical and classical harps, which were very deep and dark and have a very bright treble. So, they are very much a solo instrument with a big sound, but they can really carry the melody of an accompaniment on their own as well. They have a lot of texture that comes out of them and a lot of different colors. This particular harp was created by John Westling, in collaboration with my old harp teacher Cheryl Ann Fulton, who is a historical harp specialist. It has a number of new features, like the strings are strung right through the bottom of the harp—through the part that rests on the floor—so that takes a lot of tension off the soundboard. It allows the soundboard to be much thinner and resonate like crazy. The type of strings that it uses is called “imitation gut;” they are made of fluorocarbon. The technique that I use to play it is massively influenced by my teacher Alice Giles of Australia. She has a super dynamic way of playing that gets a lot of expression out of the harp in terms of the color and the articulation. The combination of using the technique that she showed me and having the Cithara Nova gets that rich sound . . .
The harp is about 5’4” or 5’5” tall. The hardest thing about transporting it is actually on the ground with cars because cars usually have difficulty with the length . . . Getting it into a car is tricky, but getting it on an airplane is actually very easy. I have a fiberglass case made by the Colorado Case Company and I just stick it in there. It goes into cargo and everything is fine. Actually, flying is easier than getting around the Bay Area.
There are some harp technicians in the Bay Area. The Bay Area actually has the highest number of harps per capita in the world, so it is a good place to take up the harp. A lot of the harp technicians are actually working on pedal harps, which are the harps that you see in the orchestra. They are much more complex instruments mechanically; they have seven pedals that you use with your feet to change the string tension to make it go sharp or flat. They play in all keys . . . Those harps have a very complicated mechanism to make that happen. All that I do on my harp is to once in a while regulate the levers and I can do that myself with a screwdriver.
What do you think accounts for the Bay Area’s having the highest number of harps per capita? Are there are other people playing the type of harp that you do or are a lot of classical harpists?
There was a renaissance almost 40 years ago of the kind of harp that I play, which is more traditional. The pedal harp is doing pretty well because it can be in the orchestra and play jazz. There are a lot of harp makers who are based on the West Coast. My harp was made in Oregon and a lot of harps are made in Washington because of the wood. Diana Stork was a very big figure in the renaissance of this type of harp. She started the Multicultural Music Fellowship. She is a harpist herself and she brought together the traditions of a lot of different kinds of music, such as the Celtic, Latin, Venezuelan, and Paraguayan harp. There are wire-strung harp players in this area who focus on the very ancient Irish style of music and storytelling, a sort of bardic style. It is mostly a combination of the harp makers and a few key figures like Diana Stork and Patrick Ball in terms of the wire-strung harp and storytelling. I think it is part of the culture here. People with strange instruments just end up here.
Your music interweaves the sounds of the Balkans, the Middle East, and other regions of the world. What is your vision for presenting such globally inspired music and what approach do you take when collaborating with artists from different musical traditions?
I gravitate towards the sounds that really speak to me, that instinctively feel real . . . I keep coming back again and again to these types of music. It speaks to me the most and I do not know exactly why that is.
Growing up as I did living in a number of different countries, I felt like I was moving in between so many different cultures. With music it seemed possible to easily move between worlds and genres. At the same time, it is exciting to have boundaries, to say, “That sounds different from what I am used to.” The intent is to go over boundaries and also to enjoy that they are there. When I am looking at different genres and hearing them, it is like they are all looking at the same thing, which is our human experience, but from different angles. When I get the chance to hear how they see it, I think, “There is another color that I can use or another perspective that I can take.”
With the Western classical music that I grew up with the harmonies are fabulous and there is a huge dynamic range of textures. When I hear Eastern European music with all of the scales, harmonies, and time signatures that are different from classical music, it is as if a whole other exciting world opens up to me . . . It is very, very exciting for me to discover these new possibilities to expand what I can express on the harp. Lately I have been learning Indian classical music with its fabulous sense of space and form.
In terms of working with different musicians, the first thing that I try to do is to figure out what it is that we have in common and what is new. For whatever is new, I study and find out what it is. I try to figure out what inspires the other musician and what excites them about music so that together we can find an intersection and create something that is meaningful to both of us. Because we are not doing ethnomusicology we are not recreating a musical tradition. This is really important and I am glad that people do it, but we are not and have a lot of latitude so that is very exciting for me.
Are you currently working with any local musicians or are you working with anyone on an international level?
I have a number of projects that I am working on right now that I am excited about. These range from projects with people right here in the Bay Area to projects with Deepak Ram, who lives in Washington, D.C. and oud player Yuval Ron, who I am doing a concert in L.A. with in March.
San Francisco’s East Bay area is known for the vibrancy and diversity of its arts community. How has living in the East Bay or the Bay Area in general influenced your own music—both in terms of the arts community and the geographical location?
I really do not think that I could have done what I do anywhere else. It has just had such a massive influence on me. I think first of all that there is a very open attitude. People are not very territorial about their knowledge. They are experimental and they are willing to share with you. I think that attitude lets so many things happen. In combination with that, there are experts in so many genres here that the standard is really, really high and it pushes you to excel. There are people like Bon Singer, who started Kitka. She has had a big influence on me and is one of my major collaborators. Actually, she sang at the very concert that inspired me to play the harp. My piano teacher Roy Bogas is an incredible, phenomenal musician right here in Berkeley. I could just go on and on. We have an amazing pool of talent here and they are all sort of rebels who do not fit into one sort of genre or the other. They are very independent and they are very accessible. I think that we have a large population that supports a lot of different kinds of genres and artists. It is easy to hear great music and unusual music any night of the week . . .
Geographically, there are so many people passing through. I met Alice, my harp teacher, at a harpists’ conference that was held here. She came all the way from Australia . . . I would not have met her otherwise . . . I met Deepak and Yuval here too. I even get to meet my musical heroes . . . It is also easy to travel here with the airport, so I have lots of friends who will go abroad and study, for example, the kora in West Africa or the tango in Buenas Aires. Then they come back and bring all of that knowledge here. That really encourages you to grow.
There is also the overall attitude of continuous learning that people have. I have a lot of music students who are adults—they inspire me. They come in the first time for instruction and believe that they should be good so they are constantly expanding. It is so exciting.
I think that all of these things were set up a long time ago with the San Francisco Bay Area being a port. It is a crossroads—kind of like Istanbul—that brings together different cultures on the artistic stage . . . Even Silicon Valley, with its attitude of innovation and creation, in terms of speed and distance has influenced all of the arts.
What would you most like people to know about your music and your artistic vision?
It is my music, but I also feel like it is not my music. All of the people who came before me created things that set the stage. There are the people who created the harp for example—I did not invent it. There are all of the forms of expression that happened before me, the people who are around me right now, and the Muse—that kind of fourth dimension that comes through as inspiration. It kind of feels like it is my music, but it is not. It is kind of everybody’s creation. I think that kind of connection is what is real for me and is honest about music. Music is a massive intersection of reality . . . For me it is about honoring the past and then evolving further with what I have been given—which is a lot . . . What I hope is that my music brings inspiration to people, that it encourages people to heal and find their own voice and meaning in life . . . When I hear music that moves me that is what it does—it inspires me to be kinder or to see things in a more expansive way.
To hear samples of Diana’s music and to see her upcoming events, please visit her website.
Interview Details: February 22, 2010. Phone interview: Sarah Lin Bhatia.
Images courtesy Diana Rowan.