The harp: it’s big. It’s temperamental. It’s pretty much associated with an established set of music. And when you hear “MIDI harp,” you’re typically in store for something kind of cheesy involving laser beams.

Not this time, though: this is an actual harp, augmented with MIDI into a pretty wacky one-off one-person instrument.

Time for Throwback Thursday, because I hadn’t seen this before even though it’s rather old. But, maybe unearthing it in this fashion will inspire Arnaud Roy to make something new (or share what he’s been up to lately).

The project is the “HarpJamX” – a conventional acoustic harp with MIDI augmentation. What are we seeing?

This video shows one of the greatest feature of the CAMAC MIDI Harp. When bending on a string, for example with a tuning key, the harp sends a “pitch bend” message. This is because the Midi conversion uses frequency analysis.

Ah, interesting. So you aren’t just using MIDI as a trigger – you’re actually triggering control information via continuous pitch. One common misunderstanding of MIDI is the assumption that it can only handle note relationships found on a keyboard. This simply isn’t true; it’s actually that keyboards assume 12-tone-equal tempered pitch relations, and us being Western musicians and keyboards being easy things to play, they make for good demonstration. But this should indicate that you can treat pitch continuously, both using pitch bend and (if you were to choose to do so) by remapping the tuning of MIDI’s integer note representations, as well.

Got all that? MIDI is more than just white- and black-note keys, to say it more directly.

Here’s another take on musical harps, this time featured in the fall by Motherboard and making use of magnets and a piano. Watch:


In our final episode of season two of Sound Builders, presented by Harman, we head over to downtown Brooklyn, to spend the day with Andy Cavatorta. He’s an inventor, sculptor, and instrument designer whose latest quest to program robots to make music has led him to the creation of his magnetized piano harp.

Cavatorta is no stranger to building his own instruments. His most recent claim to fame was his role in developing a homespun instrument for experimental musician Björk. In preparation for her 2013 Biophiliia tour, Björk commissioned Cavatorta to build harps that swung like multi-string pendulums and triggered musical patterns from Earth’s gravitational pull.

For his latest musical creation, Andy has mounted a caboodle of magnets onto a piano’s frame. Once the magnets are activated, electromagnetic vibrations pull and release the piano’s steel strings in a bloom of various pitches in harmonic succession. By doing this, Andy has managed to feather dust an instrument that was created many centuries ago and offer it a new sonic vocabulary by tapping into the piano’s uncharted harmonics. Indeed, our exchange between sound and instrument is an ever-evolving one that reminds us that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks.

While excavating new sounds from an old instrument is enough to make an audiophile tinkle his pants, it’s the instrument’s new interfaces and unique dialogue between the tactile and the magnetic player that’s the real kicker. While one player is able to stimulate electromagnets by playing the keyboard, another tactile player can pluck, hammer, and touch the steel strings of the piano harp in order to shape their harmonic nodes and further manipulate the sound.

Here we see how Andy’s multi-player magnetic piano harp can be a standalone instrument, but its inception was originally planned to be a cog in a larger wheel of organized sound. On November 16th at Littlefield in Brooklyn, composer Molly Herron will debut her ​New Music for New Instruments concert in which Andy and his electromagnetic harp will play alongside other instrument builders to create a symphony of sonic delight.

Curious how that concert went…

Other harpy ideas? Harp on.