q&a with harpist charles OVerton

We sat down with Charles Overton in anticipation of his performance on December 9th. Check out how he got started with the harp and his thoughts on this special instrument.

Where are you from originally? What brought you to Boston area?


I grew up in Glen Allen, VA, a suburb of Richmond and started playing the harp when I was about 10 years old.  After attending the Boston University Tanglewood Institute in the summer of 2008, I began to take music more seriously and started to think of it as a legitimate career option. In the fall of 2009 I enrolled at the Interlochen Arts Academy, an arts boarding school near Traverse City, MI where I spent three years of high school.  While there I applied to a few different colleges and conservatories to further my education, and ultimately came to the decision to head to Boston in the fall of 2012 to attend the Berklee College of Music.

How did you get started playing the harp? 


I actually started playing music on the violin when I was 2 or 3 years old, but I wasn't too great at it and honestly the shrill quality of sound I produced on the instrument was enough to make me dread practicing daily.  Luckily in the 4th grade, my new elementary school music teacher, Lynelle Ediger-Kordzaia, introduced me to the harp.  An Oberlin trained harpist herself, she ran a substantial harp program outside of school and one day after school just walked up to me and told me "Go home and tell your mom that you want to play the harp."  At the time of course I barely knew what a harp was let alone had any desire to learn how to play it, but regardless I went home anyway and told my mom that Ms. Ediger thought that I should try out some harp lessons.  After my first trial lesson I was hooked, the sound of the instrument was just so much more pleasing to the ear to me than the violin - it seemed that no matter what I did the instrument was just unable of producing a sound that sounded "bad".  I guess with that, and the unique performance opportunities that Ms. Ediger's program had to offer I had a new passion and appreciation for music thanks to the harp.  


You play a variety of musical genres; is the harp a more versatile instrument than one would think?


I'd say the harp is a very versatile instrument.  In the world of classical music, the kind of harp we see most often is a double-action pedal harp which is an instrument which evolved from the harps being developed throughout European history; but this is just one kind of harp.  Historically, the harp has played a prominent role in the music of many countries around the world.  As music was developing, there were three things that all cultures had in common: the voice, some kind of drum or percussive instrument, and some form of stringed instrument most often constructed by stretching long cord across a curved piece of material played by plucking that cord or cords either directly with the fingers or with implements attached to the fingers - in other words, a harp.  Almost everywhere in the world had some variation on what we consider to be the modern harp.  From West Africa came the Kora, from Korea the Gayageum, and from China the Guzheng.  So if you look at the instrument not just through the lens of its Euro-centric development but from a more broad perspective as an instrument which at its core has had a role in many types of music across the globe, your world really opens up in terms of what the harp can and is capable of.  For instance, I play a lot of jazz on the harp, and to achieve the kind of sounds I hear from jazz pianists and guitarists which I try to emulate requires me to rethink the traditional techniques I've been taught to employ while playing the instrument in more classical contexts.


You'll be performing Debussy's Danse Sacree et Profane in December. Is his approach to writing for the harp different than other composers?


I think Paul Schiavo, a Seattle-based music critic puts it best: "No composer before Debussy, and few since, conceived rhythm, melody and, especially, harmony in a manner so independent of the past."  This rings true especially in his writing for the harp.  Debussy's Danses sacree et profane was written for the cross-strung harp - an instrument developed by the Pleyel firm of instrument builders which had two sets of strings, enabling the player to have access for the first time in history to all 12 notes of the scale at once.  In the past the harp was an instrument bound to one key center, and this was improved upon over time with the implementation of pedal and lever systems. No system before this (and basically none after save for the triple harp) allowed the player to have all 12 musical notes laid out in front of them without needing pedals or levers to change between different pitches and keys. This allowed Debussy full reign to explore his new, colorful and very chromatic harmonic language on this new instrument without any boundaries of the past.  


Join Charles and the CCCO in concert on December 9th, 3 PM at Pilgrim Congregational Church, Harwich Port.

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Matthew Scinto, Music Director