Behold The Harp-Guitar

DAVID SEPULVEDA PHOTOShe came to shop and to sell. But mostly, she came to play.

Talented Muriel Anderson of Nashville, recognized as one of the world’s best finger-style guitarists and only woman to win the prestigious National Fingerstyle Guitar Championship, brought her vast repertoire of musical styles and song to Fair Haven’s River Street Gallery on Friday, her second appearance at the venue.

The gallery, embedded in the sprawling Fairhaven Furniture store owned by Kerry Triffin and Elizabeth Orsini, houses a sumptuous collection of hand-crafted furniture and accessories.

Under the direction of founder Kate Paranteau, the space has evolved into a first rate, fine art gallery; an elegant synthesis of visual art by area artists, and furnishings that arguably, transcend craft on their way to becoming works of art in their own right.

So it was that on this past rainy Friday night, a towering, glass-doored bookcase became the backdrop for Anderson and her quizzical instrument—called a “harp-guitar.” Authorities differ on the exact definition of this instrument. Claiming that there are over a dozen definitions of the term, historian Gregg Miner challenges the very notion of what qualifies as a harp-guitar: “Harp guitars are never consistent in features, and are found under a wide variety of historical and contemporary names. Conversely, many unrelated historical instruments called ‘harp-guitars’ were and are not what we now define as a harp guitar.”

On hand at Friday’s “house concert,” with an accessible explanation of the instrument, was the evening’s concert host and producer, John Thomas. A musician and a Quinnipiac University law professor, Thomas is largely responsible for introducing and programing the concert series at River Street Gallery, adding yet another dynamic art form to the multi-platform venue.

Thomas, also the author of a new book, Kalamazoo Gals, the story of the women who made Gibson Banner Guitars during WW II,  explained that the harp-guitar, with its array of unfretted open strings, has a greater base range than that of a grand piano. “Its body, larger than a conventional guitar, creates a more resonant sound and the additional strings create sympathetic tonalities and vibrations that enrich the sound overall,” he said. The instrument’s popularity has ebbed and flowed for well over a century, having survived the strictures of purists like Spanish classical guitarist, Andrés Segovia according to Thomas. In the 1980s, interest in the harp-guitar was rekindled by (the late) influential guitarist and pivotal harp-guitar composer Michael Hedges. 

Today the legacy of the harp-guitar continues to be promulgated by one of world’s foremost harp-guitarists in Milford resident Stephen Bennett , founder of the Harp Guitar Gathering, an annual gathering of harp-guitar enthusiasts with a national draw.

Anderson’s performance, like the soft din of rain that occasionally filtered through the gallery’s roof, was at times soothing and subtle, with robust counterpoints characterizing many songs, all underscored by her undeniable virtuosity and joy of playing.

From butt-kickin’ bluegrass to rock and funk, a library of musical genres unfolded before the appreciative audience. Tunes on both harp-guitar and acoustic guitar included a rousing cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” anthems like John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Don McLean’s ode to painter Vincent Van Gogh, “Starry Starry Night.”

Making full use of the harp-guitar’s expansive range, Anderson played a traditional Japanese piece, sang a tune in French, and talked about the inspiration for original pieces and the influences that helped shape her craft. Mention legends like Chet Atkins and Les Paul—Anderson has recorded, performed, and enjoyed close associations with these musical giants and many others.

Closing in on her first set of the evening, Anderson paused to give the audience a heads-up: “I’ll do a couple more in this set, then it’s time for a shopping break.” At the end of the set, Anderson engaged in a little show-and-tell, holding some of the items she had already culled from the shop: A cutting board, some finely crafted wood utensils and other goodies. She also had plenty to sell. Anderson proudly displayed her latest of 13 CD,s Nightlight Daylight, a double album whose cover features a celestial fiber optic light show designed by artist Bryan Allen. Read a review of the CD set by John Thomas here.

Anderson was asked what she thinks about as her fingers skillfully pluck, pick, strum and tap the strings of the guitar. Her broad smile betraying no sign of the complexity involved, Anderson said that like the listener, she is simply enjoying the sounds that emanate from the instrument.

Click on the video to watch Anderson’s rendition of “Superstition” on acoustic guitar.

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posted by: Nathan on January 13, 2014  3:42pm

What a great musician!  Might want to update the description of the second video, she is playing a regular 6-string instrument in it - perhaps making her rendition of Superstition even more amazing.

posted by: Charl on January 13, 2014  6:12pm

Wow!  Awesome write up.

New Haven Independent, it is features such as this, and like the series of Believe in People, that I believe set the NHI apart from any other local media outlet.

Especially the ability to embed videos within articles, THANKS for being so cutting edge!

That is why the Advocate died.  No innovation, nothing cutting edge.  Therefore, people stopped caring about reading and picking one up each Tuesday or Wednesday.

More articles like this, please!

posted by: smq on January 13, 2014  9:26pm

Spectacular article! I thoroughly enjoyed reading it…it is well researched and well written article, as well as very educational!