“700 years of pop” is how German-born harpist Asni describes her music, which she will be performing on a tour for Chamber Music New Zealand next month, as well as at venues in Wellington, Hamilton and Dunedin. Internationally recognized as a specialist on medieval and baroque harps, Asni one day got tired of playing only music written before the year 1750, and picked up a Beatles tune. Rather to her surprize, it sounded really well on the harp, and since then she has been exploring the repertory of contemporary pop and film music more thoroughly.
Asni will be presenting her programme “700 years of pop” in Te Awamutu, Tokoroa, Warkworth, and Motueka, as well as in Wellington. In addition, she will be performing her new programme “Travelling in Middle-Earth” in Hamilton, Dunedin and at Old St.Paul’s in Wellington.

Upcoming performances:
Wellington: Friday, 22 April,7 pm at 91 Aro St: “Jammin’ at the gallery – Asni , harp; Rick Jensen – saxophone; Richard Whyte – guitar.
Wellington: Wednesday, 4 May, 1.30 pm, Central Library, Victoria St: “700 Years of Pop” – as part of the New Zealand Music Month presentations.

Chamber Music New Zealand tour: “700 Years of Pop”:
Te Awamutu, Saturday, 7 May, 2.30 pm – Waipa Council Chambers
Tokoroa, Sunday, 8 May, 2 pm – Putaruru Timber Museum, Pinewood room
Warkworth, Sunday, 15 May, 12 noon – Mahurangi Estate Winery
Motueka, Saturday, 21 May, 7.30 pm – Chanel Arts Centre
For more information visit the Chamber Music New Zealand website.

Additional tour dates in May and June: “Travelling in Middle Earth”:
Hamilton, Wednesday, 11 May, 1 pm – Lunchtime concert, Performing Arts Center, University of the Waikato
Dunedin, Wednesday, 18 May, 1 pm – Lunchtime concert, Marama Concert Hall, Otago University
Wellington; Tuesday, 28 June, 12.15 pm – Lunchtime concert, Old St. Paul’s

cd release: Asni – 700 Years of Pop, with Laurie Randolph, guitar, Christian Hagitte, producer – available here and in selected music stores

About the music

Improvisation – also called jamming – plays a large part not only in jazz and contemporary music, but also in baroque and medieval music, and it bridges the time gap between songs written and popular at the time of the Crusades, and arrangements from Howard Shore’s “Lord of the Rings” soundtrack. Inbetween are jazzy arrangements of pop songs from the Renaissance, dance hits from the era of J.S. Bach, roots music from the Spanish Golden Age, and a selection of folk tunes from Ireland, Africa and Estonia – the latter are culled from an old and battered book on Estonian folk dance that has been passed down to Asni on her mother’s side of the family.

“As a harpist, people always seem to assume that one has to be some sort of angelic – or spaced-out? – New Age-y sort of person” says Asni, “ but I am much too down to earth for that! I like pieces that have a strong rhythm, a groove, a swing. I also love exploring all the different tone colours one can produce on a harp. Proper phrasing and expression are important – it is all about how the music ‘speaks’, and you can apply that to a modern pop song just as well as to any baroque or medieval piece.”
“I like the unexpected and will often surprize myself in the middle of a performance, with an idea, an expression, a turn of phrase that I hadn’t thought of before. Improvisation plays an important part – most of the arrangements are my own, but they aren’t nailed down and fixed for all time, but will often change over the course of several performances. And I am definitely not trying to be mystical or angelic, except under very rare circumstances! Down to earth and groovy is more my thing, and at times I can be quite the drama queen on stage.”

Asked what made her pick up such an unlikely instrument, Asni’s answer is spontaneous: “Reading too much Tolkien!” Disappointed with the decidedly un-elfish unwieldiness of the modern pedal harp, which she had been learning since a teenager, she took up early harps after finding out about all the fascinating varieties of the instrument that existed during the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque eras. Meanwhile, she has established herself internationally as one of the foremost modern performers on early harps. She was a member of New York early music ensemble ARTEK/458 strings, as well as working with internationally acclaimed ensembles such as Chanticleer (USA) and the Drottningholm Baroque Orchestra (Sweden). Later this year she will be representing New Zealand at the World Harp Congress in Dublin, Ireland.
In 2003, Asni came to New Zealand for a tour of concerts, fell in love with the place and stayed. She has been teaching at Victoria University Wellington, as well as getting involved in Wellington’s vibrant cultural life in various other ways. She has performed with singer Pepe Becker and her specialist early music ensemble “Baroque Voices”, as well as with alternative pop group dGare at last year’s Fringe festival. Asni is also an accomplished painter and photographer and is currently exhibiting some of her work at 91 Aro St. in Wellington, which is also the venue for her next upcoming performance.

Little did Asni imagine, when she first went to see Peter Jackson’s “Fellowship of the Rings” in her native Berlin some four years ago, that the movie would spin her life out of orbit and have her end up on the other side of the globe. So impressed was she by the creative accomplishments of the movie, that she decided Wellington was the place to go: “If they can pull off something like that, it can’t be a bad place for someone like me!”
Chance, or fate, assisted her in putting her idea of coming to New Zealand into practice: On an internet fan forum she made friends with a former Victoria University music graduate, who put her in touch with the university’s music department. Eight months and many, many emails later she boarded the plane to embark on a three month tour of the country – and fell utterly in love with the place. It then turned out that one of the music students at Victoria University had an interest in learning about, of all things, baroque harp, and so she was offered a small teaching position. Immersed in Wellington’s creative buzz and delighted by the support that artistic and creative endeavours are currently receiving both from government and City Council, and from the man and woman in the streets – which is in stark contrast to the attitudes she has encountered in her native Germany – she has never looked back.

About Asni

German-born harpist Asni has been an active participant of the European early music revival since its beginnings in the mid-1980s, and has established herself internationally as one of the foremost modern performers on early harps. She has bern a member of New York early music ensemble ARTEK/458 strings and toured the USA with the Mark Morris Dance Group, as well as working with internationally acclaimed ensembles such as Chanticleer (USA) and at the Drottningholm opera house in Stockholm (Sweden). Later this year she will be representing New Zealand at the World Harp Congress in Dublin, Ireland, as well as perform and teach in Prague, Czech Republic.
In 2003 she came to New Zealand for a tour, fell in love with the place, and stayed. Currently, she is teaching early harps at Victoria University Wellington, and has performed with a wide range of music ensembles in the creative capital – – she has worked with singer Pepe Becker and early music ensemble “Baroque Voices”, as well as with alternative pop group dGare at last years Fringe festival, to name but a few. Her musical and artistic interests range widely and include film, photography, painting and writing, as well as looking after her own ever spreading website, www.asni.net. She holds a MA in musicology and has several published articles and radio broadcasts to her name, including a feature for German radio on Douglas Lilburn and New Zealand Music. She also runs her own music publishing company, The Harp & Hobbit Press.

“Travelling in Middle Earth”
This article can be found on Asni’s website.

J.R.R.Tolkien was known to his contemporaries first and foremost as an eminent Medievalist and professor of the English language. While the languages and histories he created for the different beings that populate his Middle Earth are deeply informed by his academic pursuits, he did not provide a similarly stringent system for the music of his elves,dwarves, men and hobbits. However, music plays an important part in his fictional universe. Readers of “The Silmarillion” – the book that details the history of Middle Earth and Valinor before the events described in “Lord of the Rings” – will remember that the Tolkinean universe is in fact created through music: it comes into being through the song of the Ainur, the Angel-like beings that take the place of Gods in Tolkien’s world.

Among the musical instruments that are mentioned in Tolkien’s writings, the harp takes pride
of place. Played by elves, dwarves, and men – though not, as far as current evidence goes, by hobbits! – it is easily the most popular and widely distributed music instrument in Middle Earth. But what did the music sound like that Thorin’s dwarves played in Bilbo’s cave, right at the beginning of “The Hobbit”? Or the lament that the Lady Galadriel sang, accompanying herself on a harp, as the Fellowship of the Ring was leaving Lothlorien? Or the festive music that the harpers of Gondor provided at King Elessar’s wedding? These things are open to speculation, and musicians have come up with their own solutions, ranging in style from the plainchant-inspired melodies that Tolkien himself suggested, to heavy metal music and such 20th century classics as Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” or “Stairway to Heaven”.

So in my own travels in Middle Earth, where do I begin? Well, I suppose playing the harp is a good start. The film music that Howard Shore wrote for Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies has inevitably been setting a standard – well-researched as well as eminently creative and beautiful, his soundtrack has become an instant classic, and I have adopted several of his songs in my programme. And if proof is needed that they are authentically Middle Earth, I can confirm that they work extremely well on the harp!

Another lead might be the musical cultures of the people on whose languages Tolkien molded the phonetics and grammar of his Elven languages Quenya and Sindarin. Celtic languages such as Gaelic and Welsh were a major influence in their creation – but so was Finnish, the odd one out among the European languages. Finnish is closely related to Estonian and also to Hungarian, but not to any of the other Indo-European languages generally spoken in Europe.

The Estonian folk tunes that I present in my programme also have strong personal connotations – I found them in a book on Estonian folk dance (written in Estonian, alas!) which has come down to me on my mother’s side of the family. Their style is similar to that of much Scandinavian and Northern European folk music, and they mix very well with some German dances from the early 18th century – the “pop music” that a J.S. Bach would have been familiar with.

The Neapolitan toccata I present at the beginning of the programme may be a less evident choice – but with its strange and twisting harmonies and sudden outbursts it provides a fitting prelude for “Gollum’s song”. The Spanish and African-inspired dance music sets a festive mood fitting, perhaps, to a wedding in Gondor – their use of ostinati patterns has inspired much Baroque music, as well as substantial sections of Howard Shore’s soundtrack, as can be witnessed in his beautiful Elven song, “Evenstar” – as well as in my own creative speculations on what the music of the Elves might have sounded like.

Celtic music has often been the first choice of musicians trying to create Tolkien’s musical universe, and it cannot be missing in my programme, either. New Zealand, of course, has its own Celtic heritage – and for many people all over the world, New Zealand has become almost synonymous with “Middle Earth”. The soundtrack that Michael Nyman wrote for Jane Campion’s “The Piano” uses Scottish folk tunes quite extensively, as can be witnessed in the beautiful and soaring “The heart asks pleasure first” – which should thereforehave its place on my short itinerary through Middle Earth.