This is the right way to play the Celtic harp….
Occasionally, we are blessed with someone who has an eye for beauty and a hand for musical expression. Chris Caswell embodies the nature of a true bard. Apart from being a versatile musician (playing flute, penny-whistle, harp, bodhran, and bagpipes), he is also the builder of Caswell harps. He started making harps in 1972 while also serving as a session player for other bands. His designs are unique and breathtaking- like his own music. He is also a music teacher around the San Francisco Bay area.
I got the time to sit down and really listen to his tunes this evening. He gives multiple expressions to the harp in a way that it sounds like different instruments. At times it reaches sublime spirituality especially when he does those arpeggios. There is something ‘quiet’ about his music that speaks to you. One of my favorites is The Wild Geese taken from his 2001 album Holy Wood. The relaxing beauty of his tunes makes you sit back and relax. He has unique harp interpretations of bagpipe tunes like in the case of Catriona’s Lament (piobaireachd). There is no arguing. The harp makes a unique sound that could never be achieved by other instruments.
Chris continues as a musical asset through building harps, playing tunes and handing them down to generations upon generations of Clarsach musicians telling you: this is the beautiful way to play the Celtic harp.
I began making harps in 1972, first with Jay Witcher, then by 1977 in my own shop with Terry, my wife for 20 years (who was working at Witcher’s before I got there!). Over those years, my sense of calling has become only richer and clearer. In fact, the last few years have resulted in more new and possibly significant ideas than ever.
I always say I never make a harp I wouldn’t play myself. In fact, I tend to design new models to fulfill what my inner ear says is possible. This goes hand-in-hand with my own growth and experimentation as a player. Here, as best I can, is how I describe this calling:
to make harps designed from the heart, and in the lineage of the ancient Celtic harps
to continue to evolve the harp for a new generation of players, and for the future of the instrument itself
to combine fine craftsmanship with a passion for its sound and esthetics, bringing each design into the realm of art
My aim during the making of every harp–from the least expensive to the most–is to connect with life directly, and experience a taste of my existence. My sense is that this translates into something in the instrument itself.
My goal isn’t to make lots of harps (though I have and, God willing, will) but to make harps that respond to their players’ desires, becoming a vehicle for the magic of music in each of us.
It’s a great blessing in my life that I continue to have an opportunity to follow this passion, and that this passion is as bright as ever. I invite you to be part of it by following your own desire. If you have a harp you love, wonderful. If you would like another to fulfill something you want to hear, contact me.
If you’re brand new to the harp, I will do what ever I can to put the right instrument in your hands, and support you as you blossom. Remember–Yes You Can!
“Yes You Can” is my way of saying :Don’t put off that which you know in your heart to be right for you! We all can find reasons not to do what we know will make our lives richer.
Life is precious and we must support that which connects us to the deep part of ourselves. If playing the harp helps you do that, then I am here to help you.
All best wishes,
Updated: I am posting the last exchange I had with Chris after this article was released. This was around June of 2012. You can tell he was a man of humor and great spirits. You will be missed Chris.
Thank you so much for the kind review!
You might not have seen a recent FB posting of mine that you (or rather, the review) might benefit from. I’ll copy it to you here:
“Finally, I can go public with a bit of news I’ve been sitting on for about nine months!
I was contacted back then by an editor for the BBC who had found my recording of pibroch (piobaireach) on the metal-strung harp and intended to use it in an upcoming documentary. It looks like they’re ending up utilizing three of the pieces off my Holy Wood CD – Catherine’s Lament (the pibroch), the McLeod’s Big Tune, and Rowing from Islay to Uist.
Here’s the email I got this morning:
just a quick heads up to say that the Cairngorms show is finished!
It’s now called “Cairngorms – A Year in the Wild” it’s part of a three part series. Our date for transmission is as yet unconfirmed but it looks like a Sunday in July for the UK.
I can tell you your music has been used to illustrate some lovely material round the River Dee, and a very special piece contemplating ancient pines that our poet/nature writer Jim Crumley calls Wolf Trees…
I am still intending to send you a copy of the material but our production manager is reluctant to allow anything out until it has been broadcast. Hopefully this is enough to be going on with for you in terms of publicity efforts.
Thanks again for allowing the use of your music!
all the best,
Also, I’m a little confused by the last sentence. It seems to make me sound like I’m telling people the “right” way to play the harp. That’s not something I’m comfortable with.
Regardless, thanks again. Best wishes for your blog.
All the best,
Hi Chris ,I know what you mean now. I altered a word in the last sentence. I hope it makes you comfortable now
Chris Caswell: Thanks! That does feel better. Thanks again for the review.
Baxter Labatos: Hahaha all the best Chris! you are welcome.
A memorial service for Chris is planned for this Sunday, Feb 10 at 6:00 pm, at St Monica’s Church in San Francisco, Geary & 23rd Avenue. His friends are welcome.