GREAT theatrical drama stems from conflict between protagonists and a message delivered in the final act. This is the premise for Classical vs Jazz – The Ultimate Harp Battle, a Melbourne Fringe Festival show where Perth harpists Michelle Smith and Catherine Ashley go to musical war.
“There is battle of the banjos, there is NT Battle (Battle of the School Bands), but man there ain’t no harp battle so let’s do that,” explains Smith who initiated the idea to promote the harp’s versatility.
As the harpists size each other up at opposite sides of the stage, the Revolt Melbourne Ballroom takes on the atmosphere of a musical boxing ring. Smith plays the mischievous jazz harpist dressed in black and knee high boots that she later removes for better control of the seven harp foot pedals. Ashley plays the straight, classically trained harpist dressed in a full length white gown and no-nonsense attitude. The show begins with a little mime to set the scene when Ashley offers her jazz antagonist a music stand with sheet music to keep her on the performance straight and narrow. This gesture is duly scoffed at and the music stand discarded.Small mimes like this occur throughout the show and, at times, detract a little from the overall performance. Smith and Ashley could benefit from stage direction if they are to take the show to a national audience. Musically however, they are slick and faultless. Smith has studied jazz harp in Boston and was mentored by renowned harpist Deborah Henson-Conant. Ashley is a classical harpist and has studied and performed in Europe.
“The opening tune is my composition which is like a Latin versus Flamenco style in a duet,” Smith says. “I’m playing Blues feels and writing my own Blues licks in between. It is essentially taking jazz knowledge and jazz scales and using what I can of it to incorporate over some classical parts that Catherine is playing. But I think the main sense of jazz is Take Five (by Paul Desmond) because A – it’s an awesome tune and B – people can recognise and relate to it.”
Both harpists quote from different composers and show their versatility and mastery of harp techniques in a fusion of genres and tempo. They deftly transition between composers such as Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Mozart and Salzedo, all while communicating through regular eye contact. This confidence comes from dedicated practice and rehearsal as much as a love of the instrument itself. “I think if you know your voice and you know your instrument and if you have the determination you will be able to master it,” Smith says.
Ashley does her own take on classical harp technique and says, “I present a little bit more Mozart but this time from Mozart’s Flute and Harp Concerto, just very briefly and changed slightly to fit in with what we are doing.”
To communicate the harp’s versatility, Smith and Ashley have selected pieces they feel the audience will recognise. “We don’t want to pick pieces that people don’t know because our message is about what music is and how much it can relate so much to each other,” Smith says. “You can go to some jazz concerts and walk out and say, ‘I didn’t recognise a single thing they played,’ but as soon as you recognise something you say, ‘oh yes this song,’ and you get it. So we don’t want to be too clichéd but we want something that people understand and can identify with straight up.”
This approach works for the full house on opening night as clear acoustics emphasise the hypnotic sounds as each string is plucked, strummed, swiped or drummed. At one point, echoes of Jimi Hendrix on electric guitar can be heard in the reverberation from a tuning fork placed between the strings of Ashley’s harp. Later in the show, LED lighting fitted to each instrument flickers in time to the music. Captivated music aficionados, the simply curious and parents with primary school aged children are bursting to applaud but the unconventional mix of casual environment and concert harps cause some audience etiquette confusion.
With 47 strings and seven foot pedals, the harp requires relaxed hands and intense concentration to play. Smith says that playing the harp is like a duck on a pond that is really graceful on the top but frantic underneath. “We are knackered at the end of it. We are not going to lie,” Smith laughs.
At the end of the 50 minute show, lyrics from the Primal Screen song, Come Together, convey the message the harpists want to communicate. “Today on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music.”
The harp wins in this inventive and dynamic battle.