2015. szeptember 12., szombat

Interview with Carl Swanson

(Interview by Dorottya Nizalowski and Fanni Nizalowski)

Why did you start learning music?

Both my parents were amateur musicians. So there was music in the family when I was growing up. I started piano lessons when I was 8 or 9. That was the only instrument I studied before starting the harp.

Where did you study playing the harp and when? Who were your teachers?

Lois Bonnermann
I began studying the harp when I was 16, the summer between my Junior and Senior years of high school. My first teacher, Lois Bannerman, was a Salzedo player, but a very good teacher. After one year of study I went to Hartt College in Hartford Connecticut. When I graduated from Hartt, I moved to Paris and studied with Pierre Jamet for three years. My last teacher was Bernard Zighera, principal harpist at the Boston Symphony.

Do you give concerts?

I don’t give concerts now. I have made my career repairing and restoring pedal harps. I have gone through periods in the past where I performed, but I don't have time now to practice. I’m too busy with other things.

What do you think about Würtzler, the teacher?

Würtzler strongest point as a teacher was inspiring his students to do more and work hard. He was very good at working out the interpretation of a piece of music. The masterclasses he gave at the end of each academic year, where he invited important European harp teachers to participate, were very important to my development. I met Pierre Jamet several times at those masterclasses. But I also met and had a few lessons with Vera Dulova. I met Hans Zingle there as well.

Have you ever heard about Zoltán Kodály, who was Würtzler’s teacher and whom we, Hungarians, love very much? Do you have any connection with Hungary?

Kodály is well known here as well. I don’t have any connections to Hungary. Würtzler was of course my connection.

You wrote an article about the New York Harp Ensemble. In your opinion, what is the significance of the group, what did they give to the harp world, why should we remember them?

Swanson Harps
The New York Harp Ensemble gave a lot of concerts all over the world. It’s really remarkable how many concerts they gave, and in so many countries. Aristid arranged many pieces for the ensemble, and I hope that some day other harp ensembles will start playing some of those arrangements.

The Carl Swanson Harp Company bears your name. Why did you start making harps? Who were your masters?

I started a company to build harps after I had spent 15 years or so repairing all makes of harps. I thought long and hard about starting a company, because I knew how difficult a job that is. In the end, I decided that I did not want to find myself at the end of my life wishing I had done that when I had the chance. I’m completely self taught, both in repairing harps, and in building new ones. My business partner in Swanson Harp Company was Patrick Dougal, who had worked for Lyon & Healy for many years before starting up with me.

What does it mean that your harps are not made by mass production, and are very similar to the early 1900s harps?

I wanted to start a small company where the instruments were made by hand, one at a time. I felt that that was the best way to establish quality and consistency.

Is there a unique technic or solution that makes your harps special?

Because I had been repairing harps for so many years before I started the company, I had a list of things that I knew didn’t work, or could be done better. My instruments used the best ideas I had seen in a variety of companies. For example, the front action plate on my harps extends into the kneeblock and makes the neck much stronger and more stable. This was an idea I got from the Erard Company.

Your concert harp’s style is very special, that is the French empire from the 1810-ies. As I understand it, there is no other like it in the world today. Why did you choose this style?

Swanson Harps
There are various companies that use the Empire design in one form or another. I find it to be an elegant form.

Besides making harps, you deal with harp repair and restoration, too. What should we have to know about Wurlitzer harps? Are you an expert on these?

I’m not sure that I an expert on Wurlitzer harps. Most of my career has been spent repairing Lyon & Healy and Wurlitzer harps. They are both very good makes of instruments. There are some things that Wurlitzer did that was better than Lyon & Healy, and other things that Lyon & Healy did better.

Tell me about your Debussy research, please. How did it come about and what was the result? Why was it important to you?

Marie-Claire Jamet, the daughter of my teacher Pierre Jamet, had given me a photocopy of the manuscript of the Sonate pour flûte, alto, et harpe that is in the National Library of France. She told me that she had found 8 or 9 discrepancies between the Durand edition and the manuscript. I was planning on writing a small article, maybe 2 pages, about this, to be published in the Journal of the American Harp Society, which is a wonderful and scholarly journal. As I was about to start writing the article, I suddenly decided that maybe I should proof read the Manuscript myself, just to see if she had missed anything, and so that I could write the article with some authority on what the manuscript. The result of this, and it’s a very long story, is that I found about 300 discrepancies, in 126 measures, out of a total of 319 measures in the whole Sonate. So slightly more than one third of the Sonate had discrepancies where the manuscript differed from the Durand publication.

The whole point of this research originally was to publish an article in the Harp Journal. But as the project grew and grew and grew, the editor of the Journal and I decided that there would have to be three articles, one for each movement. It was only after I had submitted the material for the first of these articles that I decided to try to get my version published. I was very happy when Carl Fischer Music, one of the biggest and oldest music publishers in the United States, decided to publish it.

The publication of the three articles and the new version of the Sonate, which really should be called an Urtext edition, give me a great sense of accomplishment, and the feeling of having contributed something really important to the harp world. By the way, you can see all three articles on line, with all the musical examples showing the discrepancies. Just google The American Harp Society. When you get to their page, click on ‘publications,’ then American Harp Journal, then ‘extras.’ All three articles are on that ‘ extras’ page.

What is the harpist activity like in your town? Approx. how many harpists live there and where do they perform?

Swanson Harps
I’m assuming that you are talking about Boston. I don’t know how many harpists live in Boston, but I would guess maybe 30 to 40. I think that many of them have ‘day’ jobs, meaning something that they do to earn a living. Some of them are full time harpists and do a combination of things like teaching harp, playing weddings and functions, playing local classical jobs, etc.

What kind of work do you do nowadays? Are there buyers from Europe?

I’m no longer building new harps. All my time is now spent repairing and restoring harps. I own a lot of harps, many of which I rent out locally. I rebuild harps for clients from all over the country. I have put some of my own instruments, mostly Lyon & Healy and Wurlitzer harps up for sale, and you can see those on the used harps page on my web site, www.swansonharp.com/. I have sold a number of instruments to European harpists.

Does the US government support music education, or parents have to pay for their children’s studies?

Music is not really subsidized by the U.S. government. It’s all done privately. Music studies are most often paid for by the parents, or at private music schools where some children are taught for free.

What are your plans? What do you like to do these days?

I’ve been repairing harps for a very long time now. For the moment I plan to continue, so long as my health is good and so long as I want to do it. I enjoy very much the work that I did on the Sonate, and I’m finishing a second project for Carl Fischer right now. It’s a new edition of the Bochsa 40 easy etudes, with an additional Etude Variation for each of the original etudes. I love the Bochsa 40 easy etudes and had used them for teaching. But there are shortcomings. They tend to be very right handed, with no equivalent workout for the left hand. They also tend to use a small part of the instrument, mostly the 3rd, 4th, and 5th octaves. The etude variation expands on the technical lesson of the original etude, giving the left hand much more to do, and using much more of the instrument than the original etudes. I think they are going to be a wonderful teaching tool. After that, I have more projects to publish. My editor at Carl Fischer has told me that they will publish anything I want to publish, at a rate of about one publication per year, which frankly is a lot. I couldn’t do more than that.

Thank you for the interview!