Martha Gallagher has adopted an orphan. While it is not delicate to give a woman's age, safe to say that Martha has been a professional musician for more than a couple of decades, and that she and her husband Dennis have a full-grown, college-educated daughter.
The one-time rocker, now Celtic harpist is known internationally for her musical range, experimentation, and spirit. As Todd Moe of NCPR said, "Martha Gallagher is Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and Jean Redpath all rolled into one! She's a treasure: her music lifts up the spirit and reminds us why we're here." Thus, those who know Martha won't be surprised to learn that she's up to another bold move. In this situation though, she and Dennis have not adopted a child; but rather, a harp - not just any harp, but one crafted from "orphaned" harp parts.
"Orphaned harp parts?" You might well ask. "What are they?"
Martha Gallagher playing the harp
Along with percussion and voice, the harp is one of the earliest musical instruments. Many believe the sound of a plucked hunter's bow lead to the creation of a harp eons ago. Harps are made from different materials. "The timbre of the harp - its voice - comes from its being purposely out of balance," said Martha Gallagher. "It's build to be unstable."
"A harp is not built like a piece of furniture, perfectly stable," said Dennis Gallagher; "after all, the various elements of the harp are held together by strings."
"Its flexibility, its ability to carry a sound wave through it, lends it its voice," said Martha. "A harp has three basic parts, the sound box, the pillar, and the harmonic curve. Usually everything except the soundboard is made from the same variety of wood and, more than that, from the same board or tree. Generally, the soundboard is made of spruce, while the frame is made from a hardwood. You are putting so many thousands of pounds of pressure on the wood; you need a really solid frame. What is unique about my new harp is that it's not made from a single variety of wood, but from three different woods: maple, bubinga a non-endangered spice hardwood - and black walnut."
"I was in Seattle on tour and decided to visit Dusty Strings, a workshop with a world-wide reputation for harps that look beautiful and sound gorgeous," said Martha. "They are very meticulous. The owner and I are friends so I was offered a tour of the workshop. I had never seen the behind-the-scenes of a harp manufacturer: the kilns, drying racks, gluing, and how they cut and join wood. At one point, we came across a place where they store all the parts of a harp. I asked the owner, Ray, what this section was about."
"Martha was out here in April of 2011," said Ray Mooers the owner of Dusty Springs when I called him up on the phone. "When I got to that rack, I said these were orphaned parts for harps. The other parts had flaws and we simply couldn't make a complete harp out of the board. We always cut pieces of a harp out of a single board so everything matches, such as the grain and color. Our staff was inclined to just burn them, but I just couldn't do it, so there they were. When Martha saw them, she looked as if a light bulb had just gone off."
"The orphaned harp parts were just waiting for Martha," said Dennis.
"She asked if we would be willing to make a harp for her out of the orphaned parts," said Ray. "It just never occurred to us to do that, as each variety of wood has its own tone. Even two harps from boards of the same tree don't sound quite the same. We had a meeting: several of our craftsmen were pretty skeptical."
"There was a great debate in the factory about doing it," said Dennis.
"Many did not want to do this. They did not want a harp to sound different, perhaps not reflect their level of quality," said Martha.
"But by then, I had warmed up to the idea," said Ray. "I said, 'We just need to try this.' We laid out several groupings on the floor to get an idea of what it would look like and sent Martha two images to consider. It came out looking more like a fine gallery piece. As for its sound, it has its own tone. If you think of wine, we make more of a varietal harp, while this came out more as a blend. It was very pleasing nonetheless."
"It has a different tonal character," said Martha. "It has the depth and power of the bubinga wood, warmth of the black walnut, and the focus of maple."
"It's wonderful," said Martha, "and also every different. The string spacing is different. The strings are a little tighter than those I'm used to playing on, but it's a joy. It's fun to experience this harp. It's really neat. Even if it doesn't come out to be the best sounding harp I have ever played, it doesn't matter. For me, it's a very personal harp.
Martha unveiled the harp first at a Keene Valley Congregational Church service and then at a church benefit concert later in the week. While talking with Martha about the harp and its debut, I noted that while she has always been generous with her talent, that with the advent of Hurricane Irene which nearly destroyed her and Dennis's home, and did destroy many neighboring homes, that she seems to have made an extra effort to use her talents to help others such as the creation of a special CD to benefit the Keene Flood Recovery Fund.
"Experiencing an event like Irene changes your point of view. For many people, such an experience is so isolating," said Martha. "The flood recovery concerts and CD were partially for my own mental health, but when that was over there was almost ... an inability to know where to turn. Then I saw the harp parts and developed the concept of the orphan harp. I decided its purpose will be to help others - to help people heal. Building the harp and my first concert with it are only the beginning of the journey. I'm excited to think where it will lead."