2011. július 11., hétfő

Interview with Beat Wolf

...harp maker and restorer, and harp expert

Beat Wolf
swiss harp maker
(Source: Beat's website)
You have an interesting, English sounding name. It reminds me of the Beatles and the Beat Generation. Is there a connection here or is it just a coincidence?

Well, as much as I love the Beatles and their music, my forename has nothing to do with any kind of music; it simply comes from a Swiss Saint named Beatus. I think it is used as a male name only in Switzerland. And let me tell you I was surprised about your name - Ammann - as it is typically a Swiss family-name.

What nationality are you? What is your native language and culture?

I am Swiss, born in Schaffhausen, that is situated in the German speaking part of Switzerland.

You have been dealing with early instruments since 1976 and with harps since 1980. What attracted you to old-time music?

I heard the first amazing sounds of early instruments with British folk music. These sounds – rich in overtones and colours – opened a new world for me and I started to make, play and sell hurdy-gurdies. These were soon followed by many other instruments, which we used with great pleasure in our new Renaissance-Ensemble formed in 1978. To enrich our sound-range I also made a gothic harp (and played a few notes on it). I felt that the harp could generate much more clients than exotics like rebec, cittern, and regals and I loved the architecture, the shape of the harps; yes and so I became a harp maker in 1980… Later I studied many early pedal-harps and their history and accomplished a great desire of mine: to recreate a Louis XVI-type pedal harp in 1992; I guess it was the first replica worldwide. The knowledge I won made me also able to restore these beautiful original harps.

Tritonus. Beat Wolf is on the left.
(Photo: © Regina Kühne, St. Gallen)

Is there a tradition in your family?

In our family, we had no music tradition. I did not study music; I have learnt everything as an autodidact, visiting museums, reading books, listening to great musicians. Once I took harp lessons for one year but I realized that I am not a polyphone musician, so I continued playing hurdy-gurdy and woodwinds.

You are concerned with renaissance, folk and baroque music and interested in jazz and pop. What do these musical styles have in common that attracts you?

Renaissance, folk, jazz and pop as well as baroque music: generally all these styles have subtle sound colours in common – and they all make use of improvisation. Today the borders are broken down by jazz musicians from one side, but also the “early-music-scene” is more and more open for other styles. Only classical musicians are fixed to play strictly scores, so they are not much interested in crossovers (except for to win new and young audience), but much material used in classical music comes from folk sources (e.g. Telemann and many others).

What should we know about your musical activities?

I used to play in amateur groups of different styles, but no crossovers, except with Tritonus (Swiss folk) where we also had a fusion with fine Jazz-musicians. To dedicate all my time to harp making I finished up my musical career in 2002.

Who are your favorite musicians or bands?

Favorites? Hundreds… all these musicians that have a deep intensity of true feeling in their interpretations… from Janis Joplin to Glenn Gould, from Rolf Lislevand to Barbara Dennerlein – yeah, and the Beatles.

Are you interested in other kinds of art? What’s your opinion about literature and painting, for example?

I do not read much; I have more visual or auditory interests. Beside music, I am very interested in architecture, both ancient and modern, and ingenious bridges. I much love fine arts from Bosch to Dali and also “applied arts”; I can spend hours in museums. I do not separate old art from new art but I think, to create new artwork it needs to keep in mind the full history of art, not for to copy it, but to avoid mistakes. Modern art: Good artwork has its complex rules – if somebody made these rules his own very deeply, I can well accept when he is breaking the rules (e.g. Picasso).


Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516):
The Garden of Earthly Delights
(right panel)
Oil on canvas
220 × 389 cm
Madrid, Museo del Prado
(Source: Wikipedia)

One of my favorite authors is Dürrenmatt. He paints quite a different picture of Switzerland than what we learn from Milka advertisements.

I am very pleased to hear that Dürrenmatt is well known in Hungary. As in all lands, the reality is different from the prejudice people have. Wherever you take a closer look, the glamour prospectus gets some scratches. Switzerland is not an exception at all. Dürrenmatt never looked aside.

Being a craftsman yourself, what do you think about mass production and the relationship between man and the world of work?

Craftwork gets rare more and more. Craftwork needs much time and time counts expensive. On the other hand I can see that industrial products are available cheaper and cheaper and people become accustomed with this cheapness (we all use computer stuff...), so they often do not understand why the prices of handmade goods are so high. This tendency makes me fear for the future.

Do you have apprentices?

No, in my one-man studio I would not find time and orders enough to offer any apprenticeship. To young people interested in instrument making I suggest them to become an organ-maker. With such an apprenticeship, they learn the widest range of all necessary skills as are acoustics, measuring, architecture, wood craft, metal craft, etc. With such skills they will be free to switch over to most other instruments.

What’s the aim of restoration?

Here we have to differentiate between restoration for a museum and for private clients. For a museum playability is never the first choice; their focus is more on preservation of the historical substance and understanding the biography and all historical data of an instrument. No information should go lost.

For private musicians the original sound is the main interest. As a playable harp is normally under permanent pulling tension, we have to be very careful. Thus, it can easily happen that a worm-damaged harp would not resist to any tension and so I would suggest doing only conservation work. But if the main substance is healthy, it can be reanimated to a wonderful sounding piece if the stringing tension is carefully calculated and well balanced. Old wood has changed to very light and got hardened by time, so it needs much less tension to resonate than when it was new once.

What is the difference between a restored instrument and a facsimile or copy?

An original harp has a very charming sound, but requires soft treatment and cannot be tuned to a pitch higher than 415 Hz – or sometimes even 392 Hz. It might be very inspiring to play authentic music on an authentic harp. And a restored harp costs less than a facsimile…

A facsimile or copy shall work perfectly and reliable. It can carry a bit more tension than an original and it can be designed to serve on pitch 430 that is (unfortunately) often demanded today. A replica might sound close to an original which was new as well 200 years ago; so it might be as fresh as the music of the period is.

Both originals and copies are used by many professional harpists for recordings and concerts.



We speak about historical and modern harps. How old should be a harp to consider it old, historical or original?

With “Early harps” or “historical harps” we can understand both medieval harps as well as the mother of the today concert harp which was much smaller and with single-action mechanism.

Restoration and surgical work are similar in my mind. Do you feel tense or excited when you start working on an old musical instrument? Is it obvious what you have to do?

Wow, restoring is sometimes a fascinating challenge. Meeting an old harp means first of all to discover the biography, special features, sound qualities, changes, damages, statics, etc. Some interventions need intense studies. Yes, sometimes a delicate task can produce heart-beating, especially when a fast handling is required.

Are there exact descriptions? Or do you simply have to be creative? Would you tell us how you work?

There are no records except a few museum restoring reports, but every task is different from the next. Each harp has its own disease. Oh, yes, I have to be very creative, but there are also very boring tasks, e.g. cleaning processes, adjusting a poor mechanism style or an endless replacing of worm-eaten pieces of wood. In any case I make a report and photos to have it ready when a similar task comes up, thus I avoid studying difficult tasks twice over the years.

Geometry and harp construction: what common points do they have? Do the golden ratio, logarithmic spirals, and other interesting geometric shapes play a role in your work?

Beat's drawing
(Source: Beat's website)
Yes, geometry is always very important in architecture, and musical instruments are subject of the same aesthetic rules. Golden ratio is often present in musical instruments but the instrument’s design uses also simple proportions of 3:4 or 3:5 and thus forms the rule for all main parts. Even an 18th century pedal harp can be drawn in a simple geometrical figure of two main squares with a third in one part. In other words, the shape of an 18th century pedal harp finds place in a simple geometrical figure of two squares (see picture). In harps, divisions as a third or a fifth are often used. Beside geometry the static structure is another item similar with architecture, but other than in houses the pieces of a harp may get bent a little, thus giving a quick response and a brilliant timbre and allows a rather thin construction. Of course, a good balance is of immense importance.

I think the popularity of the harp has grown since the 1980s but its use is not as widespread as it once was. Why is this musical instrument so expensive?

Pedal harps are of great complexity – the comparison with grand pianos is appropriate – and so the price for a pedal harp is rather high. Historical pedal harps are not built in an industrial manner but are handmade masterpieces – and do not forget the complex mechanism hidden inside.

The modern harp is very popular here in Switzerland, each country school provides harp lessons if wished. For the historical harp there is another world: only few harpists all over Europe undertake the effort (or fun!) to dive so profoundly into that matter: playing historical stuff means also to research, to learn different playing techniques and interpretation styles and win ability to improvise.

What do you think of modern materials such as carbon-fiber? What will the harp be like in the future?

Of course, carbon and other modern materials will be used in modern harps but they could never help us for historical harps. The construction of the modern harp is far away from historical knowledge. So - for example - the string lengths did not change essentially from those on a 1810 single-action harp, but the mechanism changed to double, pitch and tuning changed much; funny, isn't it? …And would you recognize why the modern harp has these large holes in their back side? They once were filled with shutter-doors to change the sound quality, acted by an 8th pedal; later, the shutters came out of use, but the holes remained open).

We, Hungarians, are extremely proud of our musical traditions and our famous composers and musicians. Have you heard of them?

Beside Liszt and Lehár, Farkas and Ligeti are well-known here. Bartók and Kodály are also known as engaged collectors of traditional music. Personally, I am more familiar with traditional peasant’s music from Hungary and enjoyed many concerts of Téka, Délibáb, Vízöntő and Kolinda here. Actually, I have no contacts to Hungary and so this interview is a good start…

What is your advice for young harpists who want to become professionals? How can they succeed in this profession, which requires so much money?

I cannot give any advice to “classical” harpists. But for those harpists who want to go further with historical harp techniques, there are a few places I could suggest as are Milano, Basel and also some great teachers. To taste the matter, there are festivals each year where a master class or lessons can be taken on historical harp. Check the internet for that.

Thank you for the interview!

Thank you so much for your interest in my work and for these exciting questions.

(Gyöngyi Ammann)