With the freedom available to my culture, I thought of the harp as an equal to the piano, saxophone or guitar. I was fortunate to run into a couple of folkharp players who played with other folk musicians. They introduced me to a hidden world of folk harps and harpists.
I discovered that there were many different categories of harps beyond the large orchestral pedal harp now common in formal music. Each type of harp had its own music that it played well. As dominating cultures reward those who forsake their own cultural achievements and assimilate those of the majority, knowledge of the different harps and their special music faded from memory. All harps except the big orchestral pedal harp came to be regarded as quaint second-rate or impractical instruments.
During convalescence from environmental poisoning, I encountered information about a harp described as a "cross strung chromatic." Pedal harp authorities claimed it was a failed attempt to match a pedal harp. The condemnation was more a matter of culture and control than it was of the cross strung's ability to meet musical demands.
During Spain's Moorish era, cross strung harps had played the uniquely beautiful Spanish baroque music. Later, with the extremes of Wagnerian chromaticism taking place in the Romantic era, the large orchestral version of the cross strung skillfully met composers' desire for chromaticism.
What was the advantage of this harp? Each of the chromatic tones were associated with a predictable unchanging place in space based on a keyboard concept. All 12 tones were simultaneously and equally accessible to either hand of the player. This created the opportunity for tonal combinations and spontaneous improvisation of which other harps were incapable.
When first started investigating this harp, useful information was difficult to obtain. 15th century Spanish manuscripts or analyses done in the 1920's by French payers of the chromatic was all that was available. Only one or two libraries in the nation would allow me access to the material. Nevertheless, I was drawn to this instruments. My harp contacts believed there were one or two of these instruments left in the world and only rough plans available to build the instrument.
I received a letter from an 80 year-old retired Swiss engineer, Emil Geering, living in Canada. He had encountered rough plans for the cross strung, heard of my interest in this harp and had just completed several prototypes. He wondered if I would be interested in proving the harp's playability. At the same time I was contacted by Penny Cupp, a harpist who had discovered in Belgium the one place left in the world which taught on the few remaining orchestral chromatic harps. She had acquired a book describing its playing technique and offered it to me.
I taught myself enough French to work out a rough translation of Spanish and Belgian manuscripts. I developed enough introductory knowledge of music theory to play the exercises and slowly mastered the basics of this harp. Using my background with folk, jazz, blues and improvisation I began to create and compose arrangements and original pieces to demonstrate the abilities of my harp.
Relying on critiques of the cross strung written in the past 100 years by those promoting the pedal harp, harpists were astounded to encounter someone playing the instrument. With what skill I had, I attempted to play a variety of music- blues, Celtic, movie themes, international music ... the harp worked and the harp was FUN!
The Chairperson of the International Society of Folkharpers and Craftsmen commissioned me to write a contemporary suite of music demonstrating the ability of this harp. "Rumors of Hope" launched a several year solo career promoting and demonstrating the instrument and produced several other commissions for theater and civic groups.
As wonderful were the opportunities to play with the "big boys" in rock bands, including a contemporary dance theater with a huge rock orchestra. Three bands down the way, I formed my own band with local musicians, the "At Strings Crossing" band. ASC played folk, swing and world music with Rick Neevel (drums), Dustin Byrd (hand percussion), Jim Beneke (keyboard), Loretta Can and Joan Penley (The Do-Wop Sisters) and Sharon Gordon (American Sign Language).
The cross strung harp went from no players (or makers) in North America and only a very few in Europe to a couple hundred American players and growing. Folk and formally trained musicians have taken the groundwork I helped lay and have taken it myriad directions. Family concerns and a second farm accident eventually removed me from the scene, but I am finally getting around to playing for enjoyment and an occasional gig. It is satisfying to see how a lost way of meeting musical needs is finally being embraced.
Right now, I am "dinking around" with a stranger harp configuration, the whole tone cross strung. If the regular cross strung was a paradigm shift, this one is a paradigm leap. Again, each harp has its own strength. This one transposes for you without any machinery. I forgot to mention each harp has its unique costs. You can see that as an impossible barrier, or you can see it as an opportunity to grow. I truly hope to keep growing.