New Zealand diaries

"I took my harp to New Zealand" - a travel tale by Asni

This series of articles was originally published in "Harpa" magazine throughout 2004

Where it all started: Bavarian village in winter

Bavarian village in winter - this is where it all started

I. Of Harps and Hobbits

New Zealand is probably not the first place most people would think of when they think about the harp. However, the two Islands in the South Pacific may well have the highest ratio of harp players per total population in the world. While New Zealand’s population has just passed the 4 million mark, the New Zealand Harp Society currently counts some 150 members – and it keeps growing. In fact, currently there is something like a regular harp boom.

The reasons? Well, the Celtic origins of a large number of the European population is probably part of it – Irish and Scots have always been particularly numerous among the immigrants. The need to actively explore their own history and tradition seems to be particularly strong in such a young country – the nation was founded in 1840, and this date also marks the beginnings of large scale European settlement. Even the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori only reached the islands about a thousand years ago – not much time to develop a native cultural tradition!

Personally, I suspect that The Lord of the Rings has something to do with it, too. Peter Jackson’s film version of Tolkien’s fantasy classic was shot entirely in New Zealand, and the the films are very much a matter of national pride. And those who have read Tolkien’s books will know how often the harp appears in them! Actually, my own decision to pick up the harp probably owes something to my teenage fascination with Tolkien’s books – and why should other people not react the same?

In any case, the fact that I bundled up my harps and travelled halfway round the world certainly has a lot to do with The Lord of the Rings. My first personal contact in New Zealand was established on a movie fansite on the internet, and this resulted not only in increased curiosity to see the country with my own eyes: I also found very active support, in that my virtual friend decided to use his contacts at his former alma mater, Victoria University Wellington. This resulted in an invitation to do a series of recitals, workshops and masterclasses at several university music departments throughout the country.

Of course a tour on that scale requires quite some planning and preparation. Eight months had passed, before the first email contacts resulted in a solid tour plan that at least offered some measure of security and the prospect to more or less cover my travel expenses – luckily I did not entertain any illusions as to the possibility of earning any money with this kind of enterprise! I regarded it as a chance for a paid holiday, which I would otherwise not have been able to afford. Attempts to gain sponsorship from the German Goethe Institute unfortunately failed – apparently the baroque harp still lacks acceptance as a signal of German culture in the international context! However, Mr Bretzler, the head of the Institute’s Wellington branch kindly assisted with obtaining a work visa, and has generally been very supportive of my project, in an entirely un-German unbureaucratic fashion.

As my travel plans were taking more and more shape during the summer, I decided to mark the occasion by finally putting into practice a long-cherished plan to record a solo album. Of course I had only six months left to take care of the entire production, from sound recording to cd manufacture! The recording took place in Berlin at the end of September, but the editing couldn’t be done until Christmas. A number of stressful weeks ensued, while I was dealing (mostly personally) with the booklet design – luckily another of my internet acquaintances had offered to produce a professional cover design for me: Michelle Tran, an exceedingly talented young design student from Sydney, Australia…

The result of all that effort was delivered to my door three days before my departure: "700 years of Pop", a medley of old, very old and rather new pop tunes through the centuries of music history. Of course a reference to New Zealand could not be missing: the youngest piece on the album is an arrangement of tunes from Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings soundtrack.

Further turbulences were caused – one could have guessed! – in connection with harp transport. My harps are copies of historical instruments from the Middle Ages and the baroque period, and they are definitely no standard models. Therefore I had to have a case custom made on very short notice – a task which Ray Doherty in Ireland fulfilled marvelously. However, when the case (which, to top it up, had got stuck in the mail for over a week) finally arrived in Bavaria, three weeks before my departure date, it turned out that the harp in the case exceeded the maximum weight limit for airplane luggage by quite a margin. This was particularly disappointing in view of the fact that I had spent five days on the phone, talking Qantas Airlines not only into accepting a piece of luggage of those dimensions, but even granting me an extra 20 kg of free luggage! In the end, I was forced to send the harp with a freight company after all – which made my hopes to cover my costs rock bottom. But by then I had invested far too much time, effort and pleasurable anticipation, to cancel my trip because of some hundreds of Euro additional cost. So, on a sunny day at the beginning of March, I started out in my snowy Bavarian village, on a journey that would take me – via Frankfurt, Singapore and Sydney - to Wellington and late summer in the Southern hemisphere.

what happened next >>