Alison Vardy,
harping on
(SOCAN, 1990)

I don't typically find recordings of solo harp, without any additional instruments, to be particularly fulfilling. The harp is a lovely instrument and can hold its own live, but on a recording the sound tends to need a few additions and extra voices to keep the listener's ear. However, Alison Vardy's solo harp album harping on serves to show that a great deal of diversity can be had even when playing the harp alone. Vardy accomplishes this by dramatic variation in the repertoire, which maintains interest and contrast in the recording. Vardy's repertoire includes Celtic and Paraguayan influences, American spirituals, contemporary tunes and her own originals. The result is a variety show on the harp.

Alison Vardy clearly knows her way around the harp. This shouldn't be surprising, considering that she built her primary harp at a workshop. Her life has spanned much of the globe, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada. This internationalism shows in her sense of music and rhythm.

Vardy's playing is clear, crisp and precise. The recording captures the bright tone and clarity of her "Australian-Paraguayan" hybrid harp beautifully. The lightly-strung Paraguayan harp allows for the flexibility needed for her to perform the variety of styles she does. The overall sound of the recording is shiny and mellifluous. My only regret with the sound is that it was recorded directly to digital format. Although many instruments can be well-captured in this manner, I find the sound of the harp tends to be less vibrant, less alive if recorded in this manner.

Vardy's forte is clearly her original compositions. Her opening track, "Sunday Syncopations," shines with a luminescent pulse. The rhythm is complex and interesting, and the textures she creates with chordal progression, rhythm and glissandos add up to a fun and exciting composition. On another track, she pairs two of her compositions, which show the depth of her range. The first, "Autumn," blows a gentle breeze of notes across the listener's mind, bringing to mind the leaves blowing and whirling through the Autumn air. The second tune, "Wind-up Toy," meanders across the spectrum of notes, capturing a sprightly dance of a child's plaything.

Another of Vardy's tunes "Dunedin Habanera," combines a Caribbean beat with a very simple melody in an effective and seemingly familiar sound. Her "Variations on a Mode," is distinctly modern, yet somehow ancient at the same time. Perhaps the basis in Dorian and Mixolydian modes gives the piece this unusual, roving feel.

On the Paraguayan arrangements, Vardy performs with finesse. Her sense of contrasting rhythmic accompaniment and Paraguayan-styled ornamentation are excellent, and she captures passion for the music seldom heard by those not native to the South American continent. The pairing of Galopas from Paraguay, "10 de Ocubre/Che Valle mi Yaguaron," is particularly nice, with its syncopated rhythms and strong sense of melody. Vardy also performs an interesting version of "El Rio," an Alfredo Rolando Ortiz harp tune.

Vardy's Celtic pieces are neat and familiar. The arrangements work well with the pieces, capturing the mood of the tunes. Celtic selections include "Carolan's Welcome," "She Walked Through the Fair," "Darby Air" and "Princess Royale."

One of the most interesting and unusual arrangements on the recording is the pair of spirituals, "Swing Low Sweet Chariot/Rich Man." Again, Vardy's sense of rhythms make this set shine, while her sense of variation brings a totally new sound to a couple of familiar tunes.

This exotic collection would make a good addition to anyone who enjoys solo harp or good harping. Although I think the overall sound could be improved with some instrumental variety, there is no denying that each individual track stands well on its own, without additions.

[ by Jo Morrison ]

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