Dusty Harp #001: Interview with Peter Berry
Peter Berry and Ray Mooers with Dusty harp #001
It's not that often that we get to see the very earliest Dusty instruments, so when Seattle harpist Peter Berry brought harp #001 into the shop for a tune-up, we all gathered around to coo over it. The harp turned 30 this year, and we couldn't resist taking a few photos and asking Peter some questions. We're always curious to know what kinds of lives our baby harps are leading out in the world!
To celebrate our thirtieth anniversary of harp building, Peter will be performing on harp #001 as part of our Harp Seattle Festival in October.
Dusty Strings: How long have you played harp, and how did you get started?
Peter Berry: I first heard a recording of Alan Stivell’s “Renaissance of the Celtic Harp” when I was 16 yrs old and I was completely captivated by it. Three years later I heard Dereck Bell play both wire strung and nylon strung harps in a live concert near my hometown in North Carolina. I knew without a doubt then that I wanted to play the Celtic harp, though I had no way to make it happen then. At the tender age of 30 I moved to Seattle, and a month later was on Whidbey Island and met the woman who was to become my teacher and longtime friend, Mara Grey. She was playing her harp at an event I went to, and I went and sat at her feet (literally!) just so I could watch her play while I listened. I had longed for over a decade to play, and a conversation with Mara that day led to my becoming her student, a dream come true for me!
DS: How did this particular harp come into your life?
Peter: My teacher Mara was the first owner of this harp, and it was the first one she had bought after learning to play on one of Phil Boulding’s wire strung harps that had been loaned to her. The inspiration for buying this Dusty Strings harp was a concert by Maire Ni Chathasaigh. Mara fell in love with her playing and decided to get a nylon strung harp to do the faster pieces.
When I went to my first lesson with Mara in November of 1988, shortly before Thanksgiving (indeed I was giving thanks!), this was the harp she rented to me to learn to play on. After renting it for about a year or so I decided I just couldn’t part with it and made an agreement with Mara that I would buy it. I’ve treasured it ever since!
DS: What was it about this harp that caught your fancy?
Peter: I always admired its elegant beauty, the double harmonic curve and the graceful legs. It is a unique prototype design that Dusty Strings never repeated! After playing it for a number of months, and finding it to be so physically comfortable and just the right size, I decided I would want to have it with me for the rest of my life. I have since acquired two replicas of wire strung Medieval Irish harps made in Ireland, which I also treasure, but I always do and will continue to play my Dusty Strings harp.
DS: Has the sound changed over the years?
Peter: Yes, the harp was 4 years old when it first came into my arms, and since then the sound board has risen into a graceful belly curve, and the sound has sweetened over time. One of the rare treats I occasionally get is to hear someone else play it, and then I’m always amazed at the beauty of its voice. Somehow it sounds a bit different when you are the one behind it making the strings vibrate.
DS: Are there any stories you’d like to share from the life and times of DS Harp #001?
Peter: This harp has been to North Carolina to perform many times, in weddings, funerals and concerts. I also took it to Toronto for my favorite sister’s wedding many years ago. It has also been taken to British Columbia, Oregon and the San Juans, as well as the Methow Valley to perform and contribute to meditation workshops. It used to fly in a large wooden crate on wheels and I’d get odd looks from people as I pulled it through the airport on my way to the check in counter. Now it flies in its own seat beside me in a canvas case.
My youngest sister plays the cello professionally, and it has been a great treat to perform duets with her with on my Dusty Strings harp from time to time in concerts. Occasionally I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of performing with a singer signing in Gaelic, which is always a very satisfying endeavor.
Once a month this harp and I go to the UW Medical Center to play as a volunteer on the ward for organ transplant patients. I’m told the music is very soothing for the staff as well as for the patients, and that’s good to know. Sometimes the comments I get from patients and staff are very significant, sometimes funny, sometimes poignant. One night a nurse came up to me and said “To Hell with the patients, it’s the staff that needs this tonight”!
DS: Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement in Harp Seattle?
Peter: When I approached Ray and Sue about celebrating the 30th anniversary of Harp Serial No. 001, they came back with the idea of opening the Friday night “Legends of the Celtic Harp” concert as a way to honor this milestone. I’m honored and delighted to be asked to do that, and I’m really looking forward to it. I felt it was important to celebrate this beautiful, unique harp turning 30 yrs old, and to honor and celebrate Dusty Strings’ contribution to the world of Celtic harps over the past three decades.
Thanks Peter! Coming soon: the birth story of harp #001 and our early adventures in harp building.