From Iceland — A Harp, A Human, And A Machine: Úlfur Hansson’s Segulharpa Births A New Sound

A Harp, A Human, And A Machine: Úlfur Hansson’s Segulharpa Births A New Sound

A Harp, A Human, And A Machine: Úlfur Hansson’s Segulharpa Births A New Sound

Published April 9, 2021

Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Élisabet Davíðsdóttir

“When it worked and I finally got the string sound working correctly, it was pure magic,” Úlfur Hansson says—a big smile on his face. He’s fresh off of taking first prize at this year’s Guthman Musical Instrument Competition with his own instrument, an electromagnetic harp called the Segulharpa. Right now, he’s reminiscing on his first attempts at making it. “No one is telling you whether this is possible or not and then you go and get it. It’s a Frankenstein moment,” he grins.

A hermetically sealed mystery

“I’ve always been into electronic music since I was small, but when I became a bit older, I got really interested in death metal and black metal and that kind of music. Going to concerts, you’d just feel the music in your body. It’s such a visceral experience,” Úlfur says, when asked about the origins of the harp. “So that physical aspect of sound became a huge deal for me, and it’s an age-old dilemma with electronic music—it’s always confined to speaker systems. You’re programming something on a computer. Then you either run it and it does its thing or you have pre-programmed tracks that you play like a keyboard, but the sound is always coming from another source. It’s almost as if there’s always an extra step away from your body or your immediate interaction with the instrument that you’re playing.”

Úlfur, therefore, sought to see what he could do to rectify this gap. How could one create a three-dimensional meaning and physical relationship within the context of electronic music? And then, like a lightbulb, the Segulharpa appeared.

“This [Segulharpa] just came to me—what it was supposed to look like, the feeling that it evokes. I wanted to create something that was very mysterious and that you don’t have to be technologically oriented to interact with at all. It doesn’t have any markings or any text or anything. It doesn’t even have moving mechanical parts,” he says, smiling. “All you do is just approach this kind of monolithic thing, and out of curiosity, you start touching it and it responds to your touch. As soon as I had that idea, it just took many years to implement it and figure out how to make that work. So even though it’s very complex technically, that’s not the point.”

Úlfur Hansson

Úlfur Hansson Segulharpa. Photo by Élisabet Davíðsdóttir.

Fear of feedback

Within a perfect wooden circle, the Segulharpa contains 25 steel strings that are curved within a magnetic field. On the top of the instrument lie copper and steel circles that, once touched, oscillate the strings through electricity, emitting a sound that’s created by a machine but controlled through the nuanced touch of the player.

“I felt this was an attempt to create something that would be a kind of two-way communication between human and machine.”

“It’s based on feedback, which is an inherently unstable phenomenon that provokes almost like a fear reaction, which makes it exciting and unpredictable. So you’re always unsure of what this process that you’re getting yourself involved with is gonna create as you touch it,” Úlfur continues. “And I think that physicality and that uncertainty is interesting as you touch the instrument and play with it. I felt this was an attempt to create something that would be a kind of two-way communication between human and machine.”

The sound itself makes one think of what a church organ would sound like were it floating within the singularity of a black hole. It’s trance-like, but with a stillness and cleanness that manages to walk the line between discomfort and meditation.

Inconsistency, though, is a hallmark of the instrument. “The strings want to go the path of least resistance,” Úlfur says. “So they decide whether they jump up an octave or an octave and a fifth, and all the way up the harmonics scale.”

A being

Úlfur hasn’t yet used it in any of his own compositions, but for him, the innovation and exploration of the instrument was the ultimate pleasure. “I think building instruments from their most discrete elements is just my obsession,” he laughs.

“I’m making new things all the time. It’s mainly the interface of how you’re interacting with a thing that creates the instrument. It’s not about the technology, or how it works. It’s how you feel when you’re touching it, or in the presence of it,” he concludes. “It’s like the harp is looking at you when you’re in its space. And it’s really fascinating when you finish something how an instrument can become more than the sum of its parts. It’s an intimate relationship once you get involved with these things. It has a character.” He pauses. “It’s almost like a being.”

Check out Úlfur Hansson on his website

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