Martha Gallagher: making the pieces fit

LAKE PLACID – It began with a tour of the Dusty Strings Harps workshop in Seattle, Washington.

It was there that Adirondack harpist Martha Gallagher saw the harp creation process firsthand, and it was there that she first saw the unused pieces of wood scattered across the floor.

The orphaned scraps of bubinga, maple and black walnut had been cast aside in the name of tradition, and they spoke to Gallagher. They said, “Take us, and make us whole again.” So that’s what she did.

“There were these pieces of harp that just didn’t seem to belong anywhere,” Gallagher said. “I think personally, myself, there have been times when I felt that I didn’t belong anywhere, or wasn’t quite right. Like there’s a part of me missing. I just saw these gorgeous pieces of wood, all ready to go, and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how beautiful to take these different pieces that just don’t fit.'”

Harps are usually hewn from a single piece of wood rather than various pieces. What Gallagher didn’t realize at the time was that the physics of sound is the reason for that.

“They build each harp from one piece of wood so that, not only does the color and the grain match, but the way the wood reacts to the sound waves is going to match,” Gallagher said. “It’s so it doesn’t create strange overtones or strange dead stops.”

But the wood had spoken. Gallagher convinced the owner of the company to build the harp, so he selected the pieces and went to work.

The result – something Gallagher calls a “blended harp” – arrived in February 2012. The instrument had such a profound impact on Gallagher that she felt compelled to name it Hope before she even saw it. It was the first and only time she’s named an instrument.

“In August 2011, and we had all of that flooding,” Gallagher said, referring to spring floods and Tropical Storm Irene. “I live along the (East Branch of the) AuSable (River), and I had kind of been slammed by life. To me this harp was this wonderful hope for all of the good things, that I could keep going and keep thinking positively. I really felt like she named herself.”

Gallagher describes Hope with the veneration and love of a parent talking about her child. She describes the nuances of color and the flourish of grain that the different cuts of wood bring to the harp. The different woods also bring different sounds to the instrument.

“It has some of the brightness that an all-maple harp would have, but there’s also a richness that both the bubinga and the black walnut would bring,” Gallagher said. “The harp builder himself felt that he could hear those different elements because he’s spent years listening to what the different woods do.”

Gallagher began to play Hope, and over time a song sprang forth that tells the story of the unlikely instrument. She will premiere the four-movement suite, “The Orphan’s Odyssey,” as a guest soloist with the Lake Placid Sinfonietta at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts on Sunday.

Just like Hope, the song is a jigsaw puzzle of various elements that include jazz, a Latin dance rhythm, a slow romantic movement and a jig. The suite begins with a spark, the idea from which Hope came to be, before proceeding through the design, construction and delivery of the harp.

Gallagher will also join the Sinfonietta for a performance of another of her original works, “Ebb and Flow.”

“I cant’ wait to perform this,” Gallagher said. “I’m already talking with other symphonies about the possibility of doing this, and they’re very interested. I see this as the beginning of a whole new adventure, and after 35 years in the business it’s fun to have something new and exciting out there waiting for you.”