Music For Spock’s Vulcan Harp & Theremin

Electronic musician Peter Pringle has released two Youtube video performances on the Vulcan Harp – an instrument descended from Spock’s own in the original Star Trek.

“There are very few Vulcan harps in the world and even fewer musicians who can actually play them, so I thought people might might like to see it,” says Pringle.

According to Pringle, there are only two instruments in the world like the one you see in this video.

The first piece, embedded above, is called THE KATRIC ARK and it is one of a series of 12 compositions for Vulcan harp and theremin.

vulcan-harpSince the Vulcan harp was introduced by artist and visionary Wah Ming Chang more than 40 years ago, it has evolved considerably, along with the technology involved with its manufacture. It is acoustic, electroacoustic and electronic (it is the electronic component that permits such things as the playing of complex harmonies, glide pitch shifts, etc.). As a sculptor, Chang molded the instrument to fit the human body, and it is wonderfully ergonomic.

Pringle’s vulcan harp has 26 strings (copper, brass and silver) and is played with finger picks. There are no steel strings and the instrument does not use magnetic pickups like electric guitars. It also does not need to be plugged into anything so there are no cables to get in the way. It transmits directly to its amplifier and speakers by means of an antenna integrated into the pin column (the extended curved vertical arm that holds the tuning pins).

As a concept, the characteristics of “Vulcan music” are determined by the capabilities of the Vulcan harp, which include many of the possibilities of the classical instruments of India. The sound of the Vulcan harp has been described as a combination of harp, lute, violin and sitar. If you add to this everything that is possible with the use of the shift disc and the harmonic valves (the seven button controls – one for each note of the diatonic scale – riding above the brass plate) you have an extraordinary number of combinations that can be explored.

The harmonic valves are all level-sensitive (each responds to three degrees of left hand finger pressure applied to them: touch, half, and full) and this determines the harmony applied to the vibrating strings. Octave displacement is played by multiple valve configurations depending on the register in which the harpist wants to play.

There is also a “tapper control” incorporated into the Vulcan harp for generating complex polyrhythms but it is not used in this particular composition. The “tapper” is the knob that sits just behind the lowest bass strings on the upper edge of the instrument facing the harpist. It can be silently programmed just before a piece is played by drumming the fingers of the left hand on the knob in the exact rhythm combination you want to hear applied to your sound once you begin to play. The instrument will loop the rhythm continuously throughout the piece (or until you squelch it).

The theremin in this video is the 1929 RCA that once belonged to Hollywood thereminist Dr. Samuel Hoffman. It was used by Dr. Hoffman on the soundtracks of many classic science fiction films of the 1950’s.

This composition is called THE FIRE PLAINS and it is the second in a series of 12 studies for the Vulcan harp and theremin.

This piece is a study for the use of the gated arpeggiator.

Before starting to play, Pringle tapped two bars on the “tapper control” in the tempo he wanted the arpeggiator to engage in the second half of the composition (two bars instructs the instrument to play sixteenth notes – one bar would have told it to play eighth notes). Once the pattern is entered, all the harpist has to do is touch the tapper to engage it and apply it to the chords that are struck. From that point on, it is activated or deactivated alternately by touch until it is cancelled.

This instrument is a prototype. It is entirely self-contained and it is not MIDI capable. It has 15 banks of its own sounds, and each bank has 10 programs. The instrument is also provided with its own effects, timbre controls, etc. It is not mechanically activated like a keyboard. It triggers its sounds by means of the frequencies that the strings are tuned to, so it must be very accurately tuned prior to playing. It transmits directly to its amplifier by means of an antenna integrated into the pin column (the extended curved vertical arm that holds the tuning pins) so there are no cables.

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