An interview with: 4 Girls 4 Harps

Harp quartet 4 Girls 4 Harps is playing at the Two Moors Festival’s main two-week event in October and celebrating ten years of playing together in 2012. We catch up with the quartet’s Eleanor Trotter, who tells all about how they first got together, the challenges of travelling with massive instruments and what they plan to play at the festival this year.

Two Moors Festival (2MF): How did you four all come together? Is this still the original quartet?

Eleanor Trotter (ET):The original quartet was actually called the Barkham Harp Quartet after John and Penny Adie’s home, where one year we were all taking part in a harp course with Dutch harpist Erika Waardenburg. We ended the course with a concert and decided to carry on as a quartet, now with a new ‘fourth harp’, AngharadWyn Jones, who has been with us for about six years. The other three are all original members and Harriet and I have been playing in ensembles together since our Royal College of Music Junior Department days!

2MF: How do you all know each other?

ET:Keziah used to do the same music festivals as me when we were kids. She always looked incredibly cool in her short skirts with tights and Doc Marten boots, which would have given MY teacher a heart attack! Later on, Keziah ended up studying with Daphne Boden like Harriet and I, when she was at the Royal College of Music senior department…then she had to follow the same dress code as all of Ms Boden’s students! Angharad wasknown to us as a great harpist with a penchant and talent for jazz. She was an instant hit!

2MF: Are you all quite similar or are there any dominant personalities in the group?

ET:Good question! We’re all very different but basically I’m the bossy annoying one who’ll be doing the pre-concert pep talk, Harriet is hyper-organised and reliable, Keziah is bubbly and easygoing, sometimes quite blunt and very funny, and Angharad is really patriotic about Wales and a real party girl!

2MF:Have you ever had any serious arguments or are you all like sisters?

ET: We’re like sisters in that no matter how little or much we see each other (when Keziah was dividing her time between London and New York for a couple of years we had some quite long spells apart) we always feel like we only saw each other yesterday and of course enjoy a good catch up and a gossip! The only disagreements we ever have are to do with tempo – that usually means i want to go faster in order to show off or if someone hasn’t warmed up: “Did we definitely take that tempo last time? It’s too fast!!”

2MF: Being four blonde, beautiful ladies, what sort of reactions do you get from male fans?

ET:That’s very flattering! All I will say is that one of our fans says that we’re so nice his wife doesn’t mind him having a soft spot for us!

2MF: Ever had any fan mail?

ET: We do get loads of lovely comments and encouragement from young harp students – we inspire them to keep going and they inspire US to keep going and to try new things!

2MF: Harps aren’t exactly small. Is it a bit of a logistical nightmare trying to organise four of them when doing concerts?

ET:Our carbon footprint is not the smallest, sadly. As we come from different places and don’t have a 4G4H tour bus, it’s four different estate cars. We don’t mind the travelling though.

2MF: What’s been the highlight of the last ten years?

ET:A great occasion was playing for BBC radio 2’s Friday Night is Music Night a few years back and we also really enjoyed recording our last CD, Fireworks and Fables, with SanjuSahai the tabla player on one track – it was such a great moment hearing the music coming together in such a satisfying way!

2MF: And the lowest point?

ET:The lowest point would probably be a few ideas we have had that we tried to pull off but simply couldn’t without more funding. However, that’s just life and if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! After all, we’ve been going strong now for well over ten years!

2MF:What’s the weirdest request you’ve had as a quartet?

ET: The weirdest request isn’t that weird considering we’re four harpists… we had to dress all in white at the British Museum to appear as four angels with our harps. Cue several comments about us having our places secured in heaven and people checking their pulses to make sure they hadn’t already arrived!

2MF: What do you think of the festival programme this year? What are you most looking forward to seeing?

ET: I have seen Anna Tillbrook in concert AND had a lesson with her, so I’d definitely go to any of the concerts she’s accompanying in as she’s just amazing and has such a profound understanding of all the music she plays. She’s a real inspiration to me! I would also go to support Keziah Thomas’s solo Bach on the harp but it’s already sold out! I think the whole programme looks really fine quality and I’d also love to hear any of the ancient music on offer as I know that will be mesmerising!

2MF: Have you played at the festival before? What did you perform?

ET: We performed at the festival in 2002. I should remember this as it was only the second Two Moors Festival and I had recently had a little boy – he was just a month old when we performed! Funnily enough, ten years on, I have only recently had my second child – a little girl. Harriet has also had a little baby boy recently and as you can imagine, we’re enjoying jokingly planning their wedding for when they’re older! We also performed in the 2009 festival with Sanju Sahai on tabla. I clearly remember how he effortlessly adapted to playing a Scott Joplin rag with us, as opposed to an Indian raga, for the encore!

2MF: What are you playing this time around?

ET: This time we’re performing our characteristic selection of popular classics (although this year we have a new programme, all of the arrangements being done by myself and Harriet) by Faure, Handel and Manuel de Falla. We’re also very lucky as we’ve been given free rein to try out some new pieces on the audience, including Harriet’s original composition, Elemental.

In my opinion, this wonderful four-movement work showcases the ensemble better than anything we had before and is brilliant music – it feels like string quartet writing as we have so much interaction and so many opportunities to enjoy subtle textures and hugely contrasting dynamics. Harriet is also at her best when writing jaunty cross-rhythms and amazingly vibrant tunes in her favourite time signatures – 7/8 and 5/8! I absolutely love it and this will be our fifth performance of the work.

2MF: How do you go about deciding what you’re going to play?

ET: We always choose repertoire that shows off our ensemble – four harps can create a really powerful sound together so we try to show that off, while including some beautiful classics (such as Faure’s Sicilienne) that hopefully send the listener into a dreamy, harpy world for at least a few minutes. We really love to surprise people though, so it’s always fun performing our jazz medley and the new pieces that show a different, spicy side to the harp that many people haven’t seen.

2MF: Tell us about the two pieces yourself and Harriet have composed especially to mark your 10th birthday.

ET: Harriet’s composition, Elemental, is much more sophisticated than my Rambla, which was written a few years ago actually. Rambla was inspired by a brief holiday in Spain and using some of my favourite effects on the harp – harmonics, xylophonic effect, bisbigliando (meaning ‘whispering’, it’s basically a harp tremolo), pres de la table (also called alla guitarra), which is playing in the very lowest inch or so of the strings so that the harp sounds like a guitar. All great fun!

It’s not a joke piece though, as it tells the dramatic story of how the dry river bed, the Rambla, sometimes floods without warning, scooping up cars and people sometimes as the rains come down from the mountains. It’s the ideal subject for harps – we think we do water rather well! – and I love a drama, so it’s a great subject for me to compose on!

We can’t wait to be at the 11th Two Moors Festival. See you there!

4Girls4Harps will be playing on October 20th at All Saints Church in North Molton, Devon.

Call (01643) 831006 to book tickets.

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