5 Questions to Yolanda Kondonassis (harpist)

Yolanda Kondonassis is on a mission to help bring the harp front and center in new music. During her 30+ year career, she has established herself as a formidable soloist, orchestral harpist, professor, author, and new music champion, and her recent recording of Jennifer Higdon’s Harp Concerto has earned her a GRAMMY nomination in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category. Her latest book is a comprehensive guide for writing for the harp, appropriately titled The Composer’s Guide to Writing Well for the Modern Harp. Yolanda’s guide is meant to help demystify the instrument and provide a trove of information for composers to reference when writing for this wonderful and idiosyncratic instrument. We sat down with Yolanda to talk about her book and how composers can get better acquainted with writing for the harp.

This book has been in the works for some time. What originally inspired you to start writing it?

I’ve often said that this book has been writing itself in my head for at least twenty years. I’ve reworked and re-imagined more new music than I care to admit, but the objective is always to try and make things idiomatic while coming as close as possible to a composer’s vision. At some point along the way, I just said to myself that I really don’t want to go through that painstaking ritual anymore without being able to offer composers some thorough, practical guidance before they even begin the process of writing for the harp. It’s demoralizing for a composer to create something they like and become attached to it before realizing that some of it just doesn’t work. I won’t lie–writing for the harp is complex, but it’s possible to get a lot right the first time if you understand the instrument.

Yolanda Kondonassis--Photo by Michael Cavotta

Yolanda Kondonassis–Photo by Michael Cavotta

What do you think your book addresses that others might have overlooked?

A couple of books do exist that address some of the technical matters of the harp, along with various issues on writing for the contemporary harp, but my experience has taught me that even with those resources, composers were still confused about numerous things and needed considerably more practical, comprehensive information. My book aims to provide an organized, conversational toolbox that addresses as many concepts as possible, with feasible and unfeasible examples, detailed explanations, cheat sheets, diagrams, layouts, and an extensive index of special effects with descriptions and symbols. One big goal with the book was to standardize the printed symbols for effects, since there are quite a few different symbols that indicate the same effect; conversely, there are several different effects that are indicated with the same symbol. This often causes confusion and the need for decoding with every new piece, which wastes a lot of time. In a general sense, I have kept a running list of composer’s questions and areas of confusion for years, and I tried to address as much of it as I could. That said, I’m sure the second edition will include lots of new material since every new piece I tackle teaches me more about what composers need to know.

What do you think are some of the most common mistakes composers make when writing for the harp?

There are several rather universal mistakes, all of which are the result of not fully understanding the instrument. The most common mistake would probably be that of writing for the harp as if it were a piano. This causes untold technical and logistical problems due to the mechanical/chromatic nature of the harp and the fact that harpists use only four fingers on each hand and have specific range and register requirements for each hand. I find the second most common mistake to be oversimplifying harp writing as a way of playing it safe. This is a lost opportunity to exploit the colors and vast capability of the harp. The third most common mistake would probably be that of treating the harp as an accompanimental element only, with rippling arpeggios or musical “wallpaper” that provides only background or texture. It is quite possible (and effective!) to trust the harp with an important line or motive if a composer understands the idiom.

Yolanda Kondonassis--Photo by Mark Battrell

Yolanda Kondonassis–Photo by Mark Battrell

Is there something the harp can do that you think composers (and audiences) might not be aware of?

I think that most composers are acutely aware of taking instruments out of their stereotypes and “comfort zones” these days. It’s one of the things I love about playing new music, and I have massive faith in the creativity of today’s composers. Audiences, however, are a little slower to come on board. I consider it an ongoing mission to expand the idea of what a harp can be. In fact, with my most recent commission, a harp concerto by Jennifer Higdon, I told Jennifer before she started writing that I’d like for the harp to be presented in an almost heroic way for a change–fewer visions of angels and a lot more fire. She fulfilled this request in spades. I love that one critic asked the following question in response to hearing the work: “Will the harp ever be the same?” Every new work for the harp can beg this question if composers understand the instrument well enough to push the idiom forward without disregarding it–and if conductors, audiences, and venues can take a chance on seeing a beloved, stereotype-laden instrument in a new light.

What’s something you’d like to see in a new piece that you might not have seen before, or have always wanted to do?

I would love a composition that gives me the chance to improvise a cadenza or an interlude in the tonality or style of the work. I sometimes have actual dreams where I riff within a paradigm or express freely what I feel inside a piece of music on any given concert night. While not really that new an idea anymore, pedals and looping are techniques that I also want to explore more fully. It’s such a fantastic way to amplify the texture of any instrument. When it comes to the harp, I would say that most pieces explore about 20% of the color, sound, and technical capability that’s possible. I’d like to see composers use the whole canvas and be willing to experiment with a live harpist more of the time. I think that kind of open, creative space will be where our next-generation harp idiom will be born.