Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Overdressed Late Guy

Picture a professional harpist.  Do you see a beautiful woman in a flowing ball gown, plucking delicately away at the stringed instruments often associated with cherubs, King David, or Greek gods?  Maybe she’s playing in a chapel at a wedding, in a garden surrounded by roses, or at high tea in an overly extravagant and more-than-slightly pretentious hotel lobby (yes, The Drake, I’m looking at you).  She is the absolute picture of beauty and grace: the hypnotic motion of her fingers, the rise and fall of her arms, the soft smile, the perfectly styled hair.

Now throw all of that out the window.  Picture some guy who looks like he was picked up off the street for one of those rags-to-riches makeovers, and wound up shoved into a tux, long stringy hair and all, and plunked down next to an instrument that you would expect to see in the hands of Venus herself, not some hippy dragged in off the street.  Rather than sitting up with a rod-straight back, he hunches over, resting his chin on the soundboard.  Instead of that lovely, delicate plucking motion or the graceful slides of glissandos that you were probably expecting, he opens by absolutely whaling on the bass wires, smacking them with an open hand.  Preferred method of transportation?  Motorcycle.  Need to take the harp along?  No problem—that’s what the sidecar is for.  Sound like a sitcom?  It’s not.

This isn’t some random dude picked up off the streets for a social experiment to be documented on TLC (though it would certainly be a far more interesting show than Honey Boo Boo).  This is a world-renowned, Julliard-educated, stereotype-shattering, absolutely fascinating jazz musician.  This is a man who states in his own website’s biography that he “has recently discovered that virtuosity at the harp doesn’t immediately translate to aptitude on the alphorn...
His neighbors likewise agree.”

This, ladies and gentlemen, is Park Stickney.

I first came across Park when I was about 10 years old.  I attended one of his concerts, and, having never seen live jazz, I was struck by the intensity of the performance.  He literally melts into the instrument, performing in a way that communicates an intimacy with his harp that most musicians can only dream of someday experiencing.  Park has revolutionized the world of harp, bursting onto the scene of a genre previously relatively untouched by harpists.  And boy, can he hold his own.

So where does Park draw his inspiration from?  Apparently, everywhere.  The whole Master’s from Julliard thing kind of gives him an air of authority in classical music and classical music performance.  But what about a jazz version of Debussy’s Danses Sacree et Profane?  Done.  Bohemian Rhapsody?  Why not?  Hotel California by the Eagles? Of course!  Mozart with a twist?  You get the idea.

Musical genius aside, and I’ll let his music speak for itself on that point, Park is the epitome of a jazz artist.  He spends his life doing, basically, whatever the hell he wants.  He lives half the year in Brooklyn and half on a farm in Switzerland (where he met his wife—see song “Swiss Miss”), where he lets harpists from all over the world come camp on his lawn in order to study with him for the summer.  He collaborates with who he wants, performs when and where he wants, and appears on some mixtapes that are, colloquially, “fire.” 

Park has rewritten the rules for harp music and performance.  As discussed in the Melcher article on jazz, challenging expectations is a huge part of that genre’s purpose, and it is an area in which Park excels.  Obviously, a lot of theory is needed to successful improvise, but artists must counter and balance this with spontaneous creation.  As G.O. says in the article, “innovative musicians have a level of fearlessness and a keen intuition—an awareness and a quick response to the environment” (Melcher).  This description, in my mind, seems not only to describe the successful jazz artist, but the successful creative.  

Links to youtube:

Debussy Danses:

Take 5:

Bohemian Rhapsody:

Hotel California:

Swiss Miss:


Melcher: Melcher, D. (2011). Improvisation in time: The art of jazz- An interview with Greg Osby and Skip Hadden. In F. Bacci and D. Melcher (Eds.) Art & The Senses. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

1 comment:

  1. Granted, my knowledge of jazz music is fairly limited, but before reading this post I would have never considered the harp to be a jazz instrument. Park Stickney seems like epitome of a creative and a badass. It's one thing to completely shatter the stereotype of a harpist (which is incredibly impressive, don't get me wrong), but to take jazz, a fundamentally individual and creative form of music, and make it MORE creative—that is brilliant. His cover of Bohemian Rhapsody is unreal, and I'm so glad I'm now aware of its existence. Actually, I'm quite glad I'm now aware of this man's existence, because he is so fascinating.


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