New student ensemble Daisy’s Harp bridges music and engineering, past and future

Posted on November 14, 2018 by Janika Carey

Daisy's Harp Daisy’s Harp with director Joshua Harris, assistant professor of music, in front of Memorial Chapel

There’s that half-hushed air of anticipation in Babcock 127 as students trickle in and take their seats — some pulling out instruments, others phones. And it’s not your everyday class. These are all members of Sweet Briar’s brand-new ensemble Daisy’s Harp, and this is band practice — pretty much.

Corin Diaz ’19 has settled in at the piano and is playing a few notes, while classmate Anne Meyer is fiddling, just a little, on her violin.

Two weeks earlier, Daisy’s Harp performed its first concert in Memorial Chapel. “This is really like being part of a rock band,” Assistant Professor of Music Joshua Harris, who directs the group, told the audience then. That first show was a colorful assembly of contemporary pieces chosen, arranged and performed by the students — from Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In an Aeroplane Over the Sea” to “Five” by John Cage.

“Being in the first song was nerve-wracking, but I had the support of everyone who was on stage with me, and I wanted to put on the best performance possible for their sake,” says first-year Rachel Davis from Van Wert, Ohio, who played electric guitar and sang on the Neutral Milk Hotel song. “I’d say we rocked it.”

Rachel Davis Rachel Davis plays “In an Aeroplane Over the Sea” during dress rehearsal.

In just three weeks of class, the students had — through improvisation, rehearsals and rearrangements — put together their first big concert, with Harris serving as more of a facilitator than a director. On board: one violin, one cello, two clarinets, one flute, three guitarists, three pianists, several vocalists and two dancers/choreographers. Even a last-minute change of plan — one student lost her voice, so another, Ellis Carroll ’20, had to make the song hers and learn it in one day — didn’t shake Daisy’s Harp. That’s what musicians do every day, Harris noted.

But there was something else that impressed listeners in Memorial Chapel: an unusual instrument that can be played by waving one’s hands over it.

“This is a light-sensitive harp,” Harris explained. “These little bumps are phototransistors that react to light. When the light is blocked, they send a message to the computer that basically says: ‘Play a MIDI note.’ From there we can really do anything. … In the case of the song you just heard [“Aeroplane Over the Sea”], we’re controlling a synthesizer that students designed last spring in a course I taught called Interactive Computer Music. The glitches you hear correspond to the light levels being registered by the phototransistors.”

That instrument and its development, Harris added, reflect exactly the kind of “Do-it-Yourself” ethos Daisy’s Harp is trying to foster: “We believe that students need to have opportunities to be makers. Eventually, we hope to design another, larger harp with similar functionality, but with several improvements, and we’re collaborating with engineering faculty on some of the design.”

light harp A prototype of the light harp before installation

One of those faculty members is Assistant Professor of Engineering Kaelyn Leake ’09, who, along with Harris and two other faculty members, team-taught Sweet Briar’s very first Design Thinking class to first-years during the College’s inaugural three-week session this fall.

Meyer, the ensemble’s violinist who is also an engineering major, was instrumental in building the light harp, Harris said. She took the prototype for the instrument and soldered the circuitry to a circuit board, then installed it in the enclosure box.

Using a modern light harp in this experimental ensemble makes perfect sense, Harris says, especially given the group’s name, which is as much a nod to Sweet Briar’s history as it is to its future.

“My music colleague Jeff Jones and I have been thinking about ‘Daisy’s Harp’ for a long time,” he explained during the concert. “If you didn’t know, Daisy Williams, the daughter of Sweet Briar founder Indiana Fletcher Williams, played the harp, and you can see her harp on display in the Sweet Briar Museum on Elijah Road. In naming this ensemble Daisy’s Harp, we are seeking to make a connection between our history and our future. Having a kind of modern harp in this ensemble was important to me as a symbol of our respect for tradition even as we press forward with more experimental approaches to music.”

LeHota Cellist Olympia LeHota ’20 and others during dress rehearsals for Daisy’s Harp’s first concert on Oct. 5

As someone who is new to Sweet Briar, Davis can name another reason the ensemble is unusual. “What really makes Daisy’s Harp different is the sort of attitude that permeates the group,” she says. “In high school, my symphonic band instructor was incredibly strict. Working in an environment where the professor is on good terms with all of his students and is actually friendly to us is a huge change, and it’s much more conducive to making the best music we can.”

Back in Babcock, the group tackles its next challenge — a very different one: excerpts of Philip Glass’s opera “Einstein on the Beach,” which they’ll perform on Nov. 28 in Pannell Gallery.

“I’ve been thinking about the space and the arrangement,” Harris starts. “A lot of [the text of the opera] was written by someone who is autistic —”

“— Christopher Knowles!” adds Davis, delving into an impromptu presentation about Knowles’s life and work, which earns her genuine gratitude from her bandmates. They start talking about patterns, and about how repetition can make words sound and look differently over time.

“Minimalism plays on this idea, and Knowles is a great example,” Harris offers.

And yet, singing Knowles’s endlessly repetitive lines, Daisy’s Harp quickly realizes that this is going to be a tough one. Harris reassures his choir that they will figure it out.

“If you trust the music, the score, that’s the experience you’ll provide to the audience,” he says.

It’s another valuable lesson — and one that fits in perfectly with a class “designed to prepare students for the realities of being a musician in the 21st century.”

Is it working? “We’ve been really pushing ourselves past what we thought were our limits,” Davis writes in an email three weeks after that first opera rehearsal. “Philip Glass is pretty demanding on performers, but we’re rising to the challenge and really making everything come together.”