Eolian Harps, Sublime Instruments of Inspiration
These instruments respond to the wind’s relentless pursuit to translate its power into sound.
How by the desultory breeze caressed,
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover…
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Ode to The Eolian Harp”
It is generally believed that the first eolian harp was created by prodigious explorer of the 17th century, Athanasius Kircher. However, it was the English Romanticism who fell in love with the instrument and immortalized it. Coleridge and Shelley, for example, dedicated entire poems to these eolian instruments, yet they never imagined that their verses would continue to make music almost one hundred years later.
The eolian harp, named after the Greek God Aeolus, is an acoustic box with strings (usually in even numbers) that is left in a breezy location, and the wind does the rest. It can be small and placed outside a window, or it can be a huge sculpture in the middle of a field. But, wherever the wind runs free, the harp will play.
Still air is dormant music.
There is not a single person who has not witnessed the wind when it seeks a murmur among the trees, in half opened windows; or when it searches through copper pipes or buildings’ antennae which slice it and make it whistle. The eolian harp is the product of that understanding, and it is a perfect gift: the wind wants to speak through what it finds in its way.
The wind harp does not just give a voice to wind currents, it also gives them harmony, and in turn it allows us to listen to the improvised symphony of winds and strings. This is why the modern world has been unable to get over its infatuation with this instrument, and that the planet is brimming with different varieties of the same concept.
In San Francisco, close to the Sea Organ, stands a 9 meter wind harp designed by artist Doug Hollis. The harp is placed so that the fingers of the wind, which pass through the tunnel, can strum its strings and create a constant, ghostly murmur. In turn, in Forks, Canada, we find one of the most extraordinary specimens of this species. Forks is a meeting place for the Winnipeg community, and the impressive eolian structure marks the autumn equinox and the summer and winter solstices. Some believe that the location has been used as a meeting place for the past six thousand years.
England and Ireland —where the first romance with the music of the wind was born— have dozens of eolian harps spread across their coasts’ remotest corners, and several of these are played by strong sea winds. The Singing, Ringing Tree, in Burnley, is a modern version of the eolian harp, it has the shape of a tree that has grown following the wind’s whimsical gusts. Here, the air doesn’t play the harp, but rather the metal tubes that give it more than one hundred possible murmurs and mutterings. Each harp has a different sound, and, of course, the song, which is constantly changing, will never be the same. The wind, in this sense, is like the Heraclean River.
We should not be surprised, then, that 19th century poets, obsessed with inducing moments in which the epistemological distance that separates us from nature is dissolved, found a sublime presence in the eolian harp. They let themselves –to say it somehow– become lyres of wind.
And what if we all were, as Coleridge suggested, organic harps with different shapes that tremble in thought when an intellectual breeze passes through them? Perhaps the eolian harp is the perfect metaphor for inspiration: that boreal wind, as Nabokov used to call it.
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