Posted on | December 7, 2011 | 51 views | in OnCampus
Wenda Williamson makes celestial music in her free time
By Julia Harris
Wenda Williamson may not be an angel, but she sure can play the harp like one. Her particular instrument, however, isn’t quite like the sweet little winged harps you see in most holiday cards.
No, Williamson’s harp is cherry red, tall as a 10-year-old child and electrified like a hard-rock guitar. It bristles with pick-ups and power; plugged in, it produces sounds that are simultaneously sublime and jagged and complex. Sounds that make hairs rise on the back of your arms and neck in an aesthetic shiver.
“Playing the harp is very ethereal and freeing,” says Williamson in her Clintonville home, her bare feet tucked beneath her on the couch.
“It’s very fluid.”
It’s also a mystical gift, she says, telling a story about a great-grandfather in England who was self-taught on the harp and played it devotedly until his spiteful wife took an axe to it and splintered it to bits. “It’s like his soul has been floating around waiting to gift this ability to someone,” she says, smiling.
Whatever the origin of her musical ability, Williamson’s love of the harp traces back to high school, when she encountered an acoustic pedal harp in an unlocked closet in her high school band room. She “noodled around with it” a few times after school and discovered she had some talent with improvisation. But it wasn’t until her freshman year in college, when she went to a concert and witnessed a performance by a professional harpist, that she knew she’d found her calling.
“The orchestra had started playing, everything was going along and all of a sudden a harpist dashed in, wheeled his harp in and plunked it down, got a bench and plunked that down, then flipped his coattails out, sat down and played — right on cue,” she recalls.
“That got my attention. Plus he played so beautifully, I came out of that concert knowing I had to learn to play the harp.”
So, with a surety that surprises her today, she dropped out of Earlham College — a small and expensive liberal arts school in Indiana — and enrolled in Ohio University as a harp major.
At that time, there was no such thing as an electric harp, so Williamson went through school playing an acoustic pedal harp in the orchestra, writing and performing her own songs.
It wasn’t until she went to a performance by Austrian harpist Andreas Vollenweider, who was playing his own version of an electro-acoustic harp, that she decided to experiment on her own.
“The first thing I wanted to do was make a MIDI harp, which basically is a harp with a digital interface that would allow the musician to make the harp sound like a cello or an electric guitar or even a brass instrument,” she says. “But the cost was prohibitive.”
She moved from that idea to a fully electric harp that she built herself, on which she made a recording of Tom Petty’s “Face in the Crowd.” In her house today, she has a tiny recording studio, where she can play at the window and film the movement of her fingers across the harp strings.
Williamson estimates that she has written anywhere from 500 to 600 of her own pieces, including what she terms a “comic book music video” series based on a cartoon series of her own creation. A Nashville trip is in the works; the dream, she says, is to get some of them published.
“In my wildest dreams, this Nashville trip will net me a publishing contract, but I’m not naive,” she says. “I don’t think I can have a performing career at this point in my life, but I do think it’s possible to publish songs and get them placed in film and TV.”
Right now, her dreams are fairly modest. “I’d like to play with a drummer and a bass player and develop some innovative dance material featuring the harp. And I kind of want to focus on recording.”
“Until I heard Wenda Williamson, I thought all harp music was either boring or painful, cuz it made my stomach hurt. Not so with Wenda! That was more than just dandy; that was awesome.” — lead singer for The Jarts.
“Your music was so lovely at our banquet. I received many comments and compliments about it.” –C. Romine, Ohio University Alumni Association.
“You are the best-kept secret in town. More people need to hear you play.” –Charles George.
“That was just amazing. You sent chills down my spine. I felt as though you were singing just to me. I just had to come up and introduce myself… that was incredible.” –Taylor Vosler
“Where did you come from!?!?! I’ve seen so many people play here, but they don’t have it. I felt it in my bones. You’ve got it. If you’d started playing out 20 years ago, you’d be famous now.” –Audience member
“Thank you for playing the harp at our wedding. It was just beautiful and the sound really carried outdoors. My mom especially loved it. It made everything so special.” Debbie Bauer, bride.
“You just killed that song by Chris Isaak. In fact, I think you do Chris Isaak better than Chris Isaak.” — Flo Couch.
“I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed hearing you play. I would be honored to have you record a track on my album.” — Josh Richardson, Recording Engineer.