I don’t know Mary Lattimore, but we share a number of friends in common (most notably my old friend Jeff Ziegler who she performs with). It’s kept her in my mind over the years, and I’ve been steadily following her career. Being one of the few well know harp players working today, she probably doesn’t need much introduction. Mary’s been around for years. I can’t remember where I first encountered her, but it was probably when she was a member of The Valerie Project during the middle 2000’s. Since their dissolution, she’s spent most of her career contributing to and enhancing other people’s records (Thurston Moore, Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn, and Meg Baird, among many others). It wasn’t until a few years ago that projects under her own name started to emerge. I welcomed them with open arms.
Not long after Mary’s first solo release, I heard through the grapevine that she had started working with my old friend Jeff. I kept tabs on their activities and was thrilled when their first record entered the world on Thrill Jockey. I read the reviews brimming with pride, and at some point came across a list of harp records that someone put together as “further listening” to their record. Though I can’t remember its exact contents (Dorothy Ashby, Alice Coltrane, Joanna Newsom, etc) it struck me as one of the least inspiring record lists I’d ever seen. There was nothing wrong with the chosen records, I’m pretty sure I owned them all, but they existed in such common knowledge that it seemed like the author was generating content rather than offering insight. I resolved to put my own list together as an antidote, but time got the better of me and it never happened. Mary’s got a new solo record out which is beautiful. I’ve got more time on my hands, and it feels like the moment is right.
My Great-Grandmother was a classically trained harpist. I remember being fascinated by her instrument when visiting her as child. The memory of running my hands along its strings has remained with me through the years. I envy anyone who can play it, secretly wishing that I had learned. The harp is far from fashionable, but in the right hands nothing can touch the tapestry it weaves. Though they are few and far between, over the years I’ve been collecting albums which feature it’s beautiful tones. Here are some of my favorites. I dedicate the grouping to Mary who’s done what might seem impossible, keeping this ancient instrument fresh in our minds.
Joel Andrews – The Violet Flame (1977)
The Violet Flame is Joel Andrew’s third album. Technically it’s a spiritual New Age record, but it goes a long way to defy the cliches usually associated with that genre. Andrews got his start playing 20th Century classical music, something that clearly had lasting effect on his sensibility. His tonal and rhythmic relationships are embedded with an intricate complexity that are beyond the instrument’s intuitive resting point. Of all the albums on this list, I return to The Violet Flame the most. It’s incredibly sparse, displaying deconstructed melodies which give way to the careful articulation of each note. His unaccompanied harp feels like a foil. If the work was transcribed for any other instrument it would rest within any number of avant-garde traditions. It’s absolutely brilliant and highly recommended.
Joel Andrews – The Violet Flame (1977)
Georgia Kelly – Seapeace (1978)
Gail Laughton – Harps Of The Ancient Temples (1969)
Gail Laughton was a classically trained harpist who played in the Oklahoma City Symphony, but spent most of his life working on soundtracks for Hollywood films. This is the only effort under his own name. I’m not entirely sure how to categorize it. It’s a strange one. Harps Of The Ancient Temples is Laughton’s conceptual imagining of harp music in the ancient world. Each track is dated and located within a lost civilization. Despite the conceit, the works feel totally rooted in the twentieth century. Ancient music has little presence beyond being a departure point. Laughton’s works are complex and beautiful, shifting between aggressive atonality and beautiful harmony. You’ve probably unknowingly heard it before. Ridley Scott used parts of the album in the soundtrack of Blade Runner.
Gail Laughton – Babylon 1500 B.C. (1969)
Gail Laughton – Hebrews 425 A.D (1969)
Raul Lovisoni / Francesco Messina – Hula Om (1969)