39-string acoustic Harp-Sympitar with MIDI capability


The Flying Dream represents a new phase in my life; unlike anything I've done before, I know it will forever change my work in important ways. I say "unlike anything I've done before", and that's true in a sense, but of course like all my work it's influenced by everything I've done previously. Specifically, the Flying Dream contains major elements of two previous, commissioned works: the Harpouditar and the first Harp-Sympitar, Oracle.

The Flying Dream has a total of 39-strings, which are grouped in four separate components making up the whole. She (and here I realize I need to accept and honor my impulse to refer to this instrument as something that seems alive to me, and has a female aspect, a "she" rather than an "it") has:

  • six "main" strings, running guitar-like over a fretted fingerboard/neck;
  • six sub-bass "harp" strings running over a bass-side body extension in a fashion similar to the old Dyer-style or Knutsen harp guitars of the early 1900s;
  • twelve "sympathetic" resonating strings (as on my Sympitars) that run inside the neck and body of the instrument;
  • fifteen treble "harp" strings running diagonally across the lower bout of the instrument, below the ebony bridge that anchors the main and sub-bass strings.

All of these strings resonate acoustically, separately and together, to provide an amazing range of sonic possibilities. In addition to this rich acoustic potential, each set of strings also has an electronic pickup system and the separate outputs of each can be mixed and processed. The six main and the six sub-bass strings go over individual RMC piezo saddle pickups; that is, each group of six strings has six separate pickups, one for each string. Because of the separate sensing of each string, it is possible to use them as a MIDI controller, to activate synthesized sounds, for instance by controlling a guitar synthesizer like the Roland G-33 (or for the sub-bass strings the Axxon 100).

Both sets of harp strings utilize "sharping levers", as are found on some folk harps. The sharping lever is a little brass cam that has two positions. In one position a little brass arm is locked into contact with the string, essentially fretting the string and raising its pitch. The other position moves the arm out of contact with the string, and the pitch of the open string is heard. Most commonly the sharping lever (on a harp) is placed at what would be the first fret, so flipping the cam raises the pitch a half step. I have one sharping lever on each of the Flying Dreams' harp strings, each set to raise the pitch of that string a half step. I find the sharping levers really marvelous for quick key changes on the treble harp strings, and for easily varying the bass notes. There is some audible difference in the tone of the string with the sharping lever "on" or "off". This is more noticeable with the heavy bass strings, and is probably due to the fact that the sharping lever doesn't provide as solid a resting place for the string as the nut or post does. But any loss of tone is slight, and is more than made up for by the increased ease of key change, and opening up of harmonic potential.

The sub-bass harp strings use typical (Schaller) guitar tuners; the treble harp strings use a combination of "zither pins" (the type of tuning pin used on autoharps and other zithers) and violin "fine tuners". The violin fine tuner is a very small, light device operated by a thumbscrew. A tailpiece mounted with 15 of these allows for very easy fine tuning of each treble harp string. With a range of easily a whole step or more, and combined with the sharping levers, one rarely needs to use the tuning wrench to adjust the zither pins.

In my own experiments playing the Flying Dream, I've tuned the main 6 strings to an open tuning, either DADGAD or open G or C. The harp strings sound wonderful in these keys; I tuned the treble harp strings to 2 diatonic octaves, starting with the lowest note being the G of a standard guitar 3rd string. I can easily then just flip a few sharping levers to change from G to D. My favorite of the tunings I tried (for the treble harp section) is a D mode with a flatted 2nd and a flatted 6th. This also gives a really nice minor scale when starting on G. I then tuned the sympathetic strings to notes in this raga, and made appropriate changes in the sub-bass section as well. The effect is wonderful , with all those strings reinforcing each other. Transporting!


With two hands to combine various techniques on 3 sets of strings, and sympathetic strings that can be turned on or off with the flip of a lever (operating a string-damper), the possibilities are mind-boggling even without the electronics. But the Flying Dream really began as a very simple, personal need I felt to open more fully, connect more strongly with what I'll call "the creative source". I sometimes use the word "god" instead of creative source, but god has a lot of powerful associations for a lot of people, and not all of them would be appropriate to the feeling I want to convey. Essentially, I've come to feel that my spiritual path is the path of being an artist. My spiritual expression, my special connection with the essence or the source that all life springs from, happens through my creative work. I have a gift for using that connection to create physical manifestations of that creative/spiritual energy; that's what being an artist means to me. In the summer of 2002 I was at a point in my work where building other people's dream guitars, wonderful as that can be, was not satisfying that need for a deeper connection with my own channel to the creative source. Many aspects of my life were being effected by this, especially my health and happiness. So I decided to take a simple leap of faith, to leave behind my oppressively long waiting list and dive off into my own Flying Dream.

The name, Flying Dream, came to me early in the design process. The design grew out of a series of doodles I had made a year earlier, after stringing up Oracle, the first Harp-Sympitar. One of these sketches, especially, reminded me of a chicken trying to fly; it had a sort of awkward grace; I found myself really charmed by the thought of such an unlikely shape becoming a beautiful musical instrument. Just like a chicken might dream of being able to soar like a wild bird, I looked at this silly doodle, pinned to my office door, every day and dreamed about being free to take one of my own ideas for an instrument and fly with it. My partner, Suzy, and I love to recount our nighttime dreams to each other, often on our morning walk together. She has had many dreams over the years in which she has flown; I have had a few myself, and we always consider them to be special, to contain some really special dream-magic. We call these dreams flying dreams; they often seem to represent the longing and/or the potential to be free in some way. So, the name Flying Dream seemed right for this new instrument that represented to me a flight beyond work that I was feeling cooped up in.

I decided to take a year off from my waiting list (perhaps leave it behind forever) and build this new instrument that was forming in my heart and mind. I had the sense that it was meant to be; I had the faith that in doing something I really felt was right for me to do; I would be using my gifts in the best way I could. I had a lot of fears to release surrounding this, and keeping the faith while releasing the fears became a part of the work. I didn't necessarily put it consciously in those terms; I was just following my creative passion and hoping I would somehow be taken care of by the universe.

Some ten months after beginning the design work, I was struggling to get the new creature born in time to show her at the 2003 Healdsburg Guitar Festival. The night before I first put strings on and heard her birthing song, I had a dream in which I flew, the first such in perhaps several years. In the dream, I was told the three things one needs to do to learn to fly: 1) have faith; 2) release fear; 3) do the work. It was that simple, and I flew.

The next morning, telling the dream to Suzy, I realized I had done it in my waking life, with this new creation. I'd jumped up and flapped my arms and I was flying.

And the Flying Dream, too, is out there flying. At the Healdsburg Guitar Festival I had the great joy of hearing Alex de Grassi, who has been incredibly supportive and helpful in my development of the Sympitar, improvise on her in an inaugural mini-concert. I've arranged for Alex to have some time with the instrument to compose and record a piece using her, and there may be other good things that come from that; I'll keep you posted! I also found a buyer for her at the festival, which means I'll be able to keep flying in this direction with my own work. I've already got a design for the new dream beginning to take shape.








My favorite website for a look at the contemporay and historical harp-guitar, its builders, players and music, is Gregg Miner's wonderful Check it out- it may be the greatest guitar-oriented site on the entire web!