July 18, 2007

The sounds of Harlech

Dana and I spent the past few days at our place in New Hampshire, and we went into Keene for a Mexican food fix. As we drove down Main Street, we saw something beautiful in the window of Cheshire Music: a harp. We looked at each other, and I pulled the car into a parking space with a full-on view of the harp.

"Go in and look at it," said Dana.

I know nothing about harps but do have some sense of the value of quality musical instruments. Getting out of the car, I said, "I bet it's about four grand..."

It was ten minutes to six, and the store closed at six, and I didn't want to get the shop owner excited about potentially selling a harp in the very last moments of his business day, so instead of going into the store I went to the window, hoping to see a price tag. Dangling off the harp was the cardboard tag: "549.00."

I couldn't believe it. I mouthed oh-my-god-type words to Dana, who was watching me from the car. I went back to the car and got in. "It's only five hundred and forty-nine dollars!" said I, who, again, knows squat about harps. I don't know if $549 is good or bad, but it sounded cheap to me for a gorgeous instrument shaped like a giant heart that could sit regally on my living room floor next to the piano.

I imagined my fingers running over the strings. I figured I could learn to coax music from it fairly quickly, as I inherited by grandmother's ability to "play by ear" (a skill, my mother tells me, that skips a generation -- neither of my kids can do it, so maybe one or more of my future grandchildren will be able to jam with me someday, with grandma perhaps on harp).

"Buy it!" said Dana. "Just buy it. You know you want it. If you don't buy it, you'll just keep thinking about it."

I considered rushing in and scooping up the harp with five minutes to go until closing time. The owner would be floored. Things like this just don't happen -- middle-aged women running in off the street with five minutes to closing saying, "I'll take that harp!" and handing over the plastic equivalent of five and a half C-notes.

"It would look good in the living room, wouldn't it?" I said. "Five hundred and fifty dollars. That's big for an impulse buy, but for a beautiful harp, it sounds almost free. Dad would laugh. 'Honey, I'm home. And I have a harp in the back of the car.' He'd just laugh."

I didn't buy the harp, but the fact that I'm writing this post about it a full day later proves I'm still thinking about it...

I've loved the look and sound of the harp since a day years ago when I stood on the great, gray stone walls of Harlech Castle in western Wales and watched a harpist who'd ensconced himself in the castle's inner courtyard. As we tourists walked walls and climbed towers, the harpist ran his fingers across some 40 strings and created magical music.

Sounds are part of a place, and my Harlech soundtrack has three parts:

The song, which I've been playing on the piano since I was 10, that put Harlech on my radar screen to begin with, the robust Men of Harlech, a mighty tune written to extol the courage of Welsh forces against the English during the 15th century War of the Roses; the rhythmic crash of the sea onto the shore beyond Harlech Castle's rocky promontory; the lone harpist in the castle courtyard.

Strong, elegant sounds.

We're going to New Hampshire next weekend. I hope the harp is still there.