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Harps and the Cosmos

As our star-filled sky drapes over us each evening, it's easy to look toward the heavens with wonderment and curiosity. Known as the astronomy capital of the world, Tucson offers dark skies enabling us to view a multitude of stars with the naked eye.

While astronomers study the cosmos for a deeper meaning and understanding of life, a group of musicians at the UA have also taken a glimpse upward to express their view of the cosmos. The musicians--a 15-member harp ensemble called HarpFusion--present their artistic view in an upcoming concert.

HarpFusion was formed in 1978 by Dr. Carrol McLaughlin, who holds a master's degree from Juilliard and a doctorate in harp performance from the UA. KUAT was looking for a harp ensemble to perform for a broadcast. McLaughlin, a teaching assistant at the time, gathered her harpists, and the ensemble was born. Now, 29 years later, McLaughlin says HarpFusion is the largest touring harp ensemble in the world.

The group has a worldwide presence, including appearances in Russia, Spain, Japan, Korea, China and Mexico. The musicians range from undergraduate freshmen to doctoral students.

Their next concert, entitled the HarpFusion Cosmos Concert, is presented in part by a grant from the Astrobiology and the Arts Program at the UA. McLaughlin says the goal was "to have an artistic view of the cosmos. ... The theme is to look at the cosmos and at how human culture has interpreted the importance or their understanding of those elements beyond the edges of the Earth."

In order to take this broad look, McLaughlin and her musicians composed newly written and arranged music for the concert. The program has multicultural roots and includes Irish, Chinese, Native American and Japanese pieces. The music will be accompanied by special lighting, video and costumes.

McLaughlin is keen to "excite the audience's creative imagination" and wants to keep the oohs and aahs flowing. She talks about the program and what is on tap.

"There is an Irish piece. ... I took pictures of an ancient moment called Newgrange (in County Meath, Ireland). It's older than Stonehenge. Only one time of the year, the sun streams in through the rocks and bathes the whole structure in sunlight. ... The Summer Thunder Music Ensemble will perform a Chinese piece with harp accompaniment. The Chinese were the first to honor the zodiac. ... Every piece has a philosophical or historical background. That is why we chose them."

The multicultural theme continues with medicine man Tom Warcloud accompanying the ensemble on "Celestial Passage." And "I Am the Soft Star Shine at Night" will be premiered with Japanese dancers. To honor the cosmos in a direct fashion, FluteFinity will accompany HarpFusion on two pieces, including the Jupiter movement from "The Planets" by Gustav Holst. "Beyond Night's Veil" will feature the theremin, an electronic instrument associated with "alien" sounds and used on the soundtrack of The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Reflecting the diversity of music performed on the instrument, HarpFusion will offer an arrangement of the Star Wars theme. McLaughlin took part in the filming of the picture in London and performed on the original recording. She says she doesn't believe in limitations and thinks that anything can be performed on the harp, including jazz.

McLaughlin's optimistic attitude stems in part from her upbringing in northern Canada. "When I was (2 years old), my grandmother used to read me a story called "The Little Lost Angel." There was an angel who gets locked out of heaven and spends days on the Earth helping people. The angel meets a woman who is sad and gives the woman a harp to play, saying it will make her happy. My grandmother told me I said, 'I want to play the harp.' In my mind, it brought joy to people."

At 4, McLaughlin saw a television show on CBC where a friendly giant had a giraffe that played the harp. Her interest was sparked again. Eventually, her father secured a harp, but the instruction book was in French. With no harps or teachers in town, McLaughlin's father came up with an idea: He owned a hotel and decided to offer free nights to any French-speaking guests in exchange for assistance in translating the book. Finally, at 9 years old, she had her first harp lesson--though she had to travel 300 miles each way for the experience.

McLaughlin, who was the recipient of the UA Five Star Faculty Teaching Award for Excellence in 1994, instills the same upbeat attitude in her students.

"The philosophy in my family and in my teaching is, 'Certainly you can.' Anything your creative imagination can come up with--if you work hard enough and are dedicated--you can accomplish."

The HarpFusion Cosmos Concert takes place at 7:30 p.m., next Thursday, March 29, at UA Crowder Hall. Crowder Hall is located in the UA School of Music building at Park Avenue and Speedway Boulevard. Tickets are $9 general, and $7 for UA employees and senior citizens. Call 621-2998, or visit harpfusion.arizona.edu for information.

More by Irene Messina

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