The beauty of the harp shines through

Lissa-Käthe shares the beautiful cascading sounds of the harp. Pictures: SCOTT RAWSTORNE

By Jenel Hunt

It’s funny how even the darkest times in your life can have a silver lining … or in Lissa Rummery’s case, the silvery cascading music of the harp.

It was 2013 and she was in the midst of a slow recovery after major surgery, having recently returned from a four-year muso’s stint in the United Kingdom. It was a difficult time and Lissa spent most of her days in bed. She couldn’t sit upright to play her piano, which she describes as her ‘birth instrument’.

Then a woman in her home town of Armidale said to Lissa, “I have a little harp under the bed. You could play it lying down.”

She started, in her words, doodling. Then became addicted.

“It got me up and going again. The harp has been life changing,” Lissa said.

And although these instruments are not exactly like guitars that seem to be available at every street corner, another harp almost magically appeared just when it was needed.

“Someone just came out of the woodwork and loaned me a bigger harp.”

Already a seasoned recording artist, Lissa has found that her love of the harp and of celtic music has led her on a composing journey where she creates haunting, almost meditative pieces. Her work is multi-facetted, usually layering a variety of instruments and vocals … and the sounds of nature too, sometimes.

Listening to her music, it’s hard to believe she taught herself to play the harp through laborious self training filled with trial, error and YouTube research, particularly working on her left hand technique. Her theoretical studies came in very handy from her days at the Lismore Conservatorium which she said had been jazz based and ‘a whole different way of learning music’.

While she was a presenter for the One World Music Radio global station, she had the chance to interview an Australian harpist/composer for her show.

She flew to Victoria for her interview with Michael Johnson OAM, the resident musician at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne.

“He had this beautiful harp made by Andrew Thom from Tasmania, a carbon fibre one with a particular resonance. The sound brought me to tears. And I thought, that’s the harp I’ve got to get.

“It wasn’t for studying the harp classically, but rather to get the harp in my hands and start writing music for myself.

“Michael had a blue harp but as I was on the plane on the way home, I was thinking that I loved his blue harp, but if I got one it would be white.”

She’d been sad to discover that Andrew Thom didn’t make harps any more and thought her search for an instrument would take her overseas. (Harp makers aren’t around every corner, either.)

She sent an email anyway and received a rambling reply from Andrew Thoms including the golden nugget that although he wasn’t making the moulds for harps any more he had a prototype he had been working on but had put aside … maybe she was interested in that? It was worth about $7000 but she could have it for $4700.

She didn’t have the funds at the time and the bank said no, but someone else came forward and said she would loan Lissa the harp money.

“So it was ‘our’ instrument until I paid her back.”

And that’s how the one-of-a-kind harp found its way into Lissa’s hands. The ivory-coloured carbon-fibre instrument featuring western red cedar timber painted blue is a Comet brand and she named it Catalina after the blue-tailed comet that appeared in the night skies the week she took possession of her harp.

There are celtic harps and orchestral harps (the ones with pedals and can play chromatically), but this one is a lever harp, which is essentially a diatonic instrument and has carbon fibre strings.

It was actually her second chance at playing the harp. In her 20s she was faced with a choice between the celtic harp and the cello, and she went with the cello. But now she couldn’t imagine life without the gracious instrument of strings, curves and harmonics.

Having moved a number of times, Lissa and her partner are now settled in a village lifestyle near Warwick, which gives them the best of all worlds. Their recent move was hastened by the floods in Lismore, but the intention had always been to move up the hill towards country life.

“Our five-year plan just came a little early,” she said.

Music permeates Lissa’s whole life. She has played solo and in groups, in Australia and overseas … from the Leith Folk Club and a longstanding job as a restaurant pianist in Edinburgh to singing in the finals at the Tipperary Peace Convention’s International Song of Peace competition in Ireland.

Lissa still performs and her music seamlessly crosses genres like new age, celtic and folk. She is a regular performer with her harp at the Australian Celtic Festival in Glen Innes and now closer to home at CelticFest in Warwick where she also co-ordinated the music program last year. She sells through the online record store Bandcamp under her professional name Lissa-Käthe (which is also her full given name).

In her teaching work, she travels to people’s homes in Warwick and nearby three or four afternoons a week to tutor children on the piano … or introduce them to other instruments including the guitar, ukulele, cello, harp or accordian to ‘help people find their instrument’. She also teaches adults. Even at the aged care centre in Killarney where she is part of the lifestyle team, instruments have a starring role (along with the singers in the little choir that she started there).

Lissa believes that her love of opening the world of music to her students will one day lead her to write a teaching book that embraces her gentle and open philosophy.

“The loveliest way to learn theory is to relax and invent and create,” she said.

“I don’t want kids put off by music programs that are stilted and daunting. I was fortunate in the ’90s at the Conservatorium that it was jazz based. But the freedom that people have with jazz can be had with any music – a way to improvise, to compose, to join in.”

She already writes practice pieces for her students and the music often has celtic overtones that probably resonate with her own DNA.

But that’s a story for another time.