The Salvation Army Thrift Store holds secret treasures —cobalt blue depression-era glass, old 45’s engraved with Elvis’ finest, faded leather couches, and enough chipped knick-knacks to line every mantel in town.
Every once in a while something outside the ordinary calls the store home. I once saw a wind-up Victrola, its horn shiny, black, silent. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for the eight-foot tall alien-looking sculpture rising behind the box of downhill skis. It twisted toward the ceiling, a curved box of titanium topped with a metal string-laced geometrical bud, an Aeolian harp, a musical wonder meant to be caressed by the wind. I plunked down a handful of cash and wrestled the instrument out the door.
Named after the Greek god of wind, “Aeolus,” wind harps first appeared in Grecian culture around 6 BC, when the poet Orpheus held readings accompanied by their unearthly hum. The instrument isn’t played by human hands, but by the wind, its harmonics chosen by the whim of nature. The naturalist writer and poet Henry David Thoreau built his own wind harps, being inspired, in part, by the sounds he heard from telegraph wires as the winds brought them to life. He called his creation a “telegraph harp,” and noted that “the sounds of the Aeolian harp and the woodthrush as the truest and loftiest preachers I know now left on this earth.”
My harp sits in my backyard, a strange visitor to this street of cracked stucco homes and patchy brown grass. Made by sculptor Ross Barrable, it consists of a titanium base tuned to a “C,” like a steel drum, topped by a titanium resonator also tuned to a “G.” The top is made of three arms that extend from the resonator, each arm strung with 12 strings tuned in fifths. When the wind rushes through my cedar trees, the harp produces an otherworldly harmonic hum.
Barrable used to call New Mexico home, and now resides in Pagosa Springs, Colo., where he runs Soundscapes International. His new designs incorporate the healing principles of music therapy and cymatherapy — a therapy that transmits corrective frequencies into the muscle to rebalance its energy — in the design and fabrication of his exquisite sculptures.
“I started off many years ago building mountain dulcimer,” Barrable reminisces. “One evening I was introduced to a folk harp. I became obsessed — it was so enchanting to me.”
After an apprenticeship in Southern California, Barrable began building and playing folk harps, continuing to refine his instrument building techniques over ten years. One day he sat outside with a harp when a stiff breeze blew across the strings.
“It sounded like the music of the spheres to me,” said Barrable. “The very first wind harp I heard about was one in Vermont in the ‘70s made out of aircraft cables. There’s lots of poetry written about the Aeolian wind harp. The ancients would wheel this big harp on the hill to scare off their enemies. Wind harps have such an incredibly beautifully harmonic, but sometimes when the wind is strong, it’s intense, and harsh. The harp’s voice expresses the full duality of living in the world as it is, both the good and the bad.”
Barrable started a wind harp business in Santa Fe, where the art community encouraged him to make his harps sculptural, to use sacred geometry in his designs.
“I started doing more and more public installations,” Barrable explains, “things like public gardens and courtyards. I grew organically from being a folk harp builder. The sound of listening to these harmonics has motivated me to continue.”
Barrable’s designs can be seen in public gardens from San Diego, where one of his instruments sits on the edge of the Pacific, to Eldorado, Kansas, where he is currently installing a memorial for those whose lives were lost in a tornado. He also creates small home garden harps for those who don’t have the space to house an eight-foot sculpture.
“There are moments of inspiration where it makes sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard,” Barrable muses. “It still inspires me, I’m still doing it. I’d like to get this music out there in a big way.” He paused, laughed. “Even if it means someone finds one of my harps at the Salvation Army.”
Ross Barrable and Soundscapes International can be reached at 970-264-2962.