Jamming on the harp

Oppermann writes his own music, builds his own instruments and creates an unusually eclectic sound

Posted: Thursday, August 30, 2001

World travel and an insatiable curiosity have shaped harpist Rudiger Oppermann into an unusual musician. Although he has mastered styles from Celtic, Asian, Indian and European traditions, he's proud that most of his work over the past two decades has gone beyond traditional harp music.

"I don't play anything specifically harp, I mostly compose my own stuff," said the Germanborn musician. "It's not New Age. It's a lot of different interesting sounds played on the harp. There's the influence of jazz and blues and some Indian styles."

Oppermann spoke from his home in Alsace, the farming country in northeastern France that borders Germany. He was enjoying a brief respite in a hectic summer schedule before leaving for an American tour that includes a Juneau performance at 8 p.m. Saturday at Northern Light United Church.

"I played in Florence (Italy) yesterday," he said. "The day before I drove a thousand kilometers. Being a musician, you get to travel a lot."

Oppermann is more than an award-winning composer and musician. He builds his own instruments, including innovations that allow him to bend the strings of the harp so he can play styles usually associated with blues or rock guitar. He's incorporated tone-altering and sound processing effects into his playing as well.

"There are so many people around who play sweet, soothing, sleepy music and that's what people expect," said the German-born harpist. "I don't play harp music, I play music."

Oppermann will bring a variety of instruments to Juneau, including a wirestrung Celtic harp and a nylon-strung harp.

"It's a big, tall harp, human size," he said. "I'll bring an African harp and I play the African mouth bow, the mother of all harps."

"He's very innovative," said Liz Saya, who is producing the concert as a benefit for the Alaska Folk Festival. "He knows traditional medieval and African (styles) but he loves to make it his own. He loves to improvise. He'll jam with anybody on anything."

Saya's sister Diana Stork is a harpist and professional musician in San Francisco and produces "The Festival of Harps," an annual music event. Saya met Oppermann at that festival and has been determined to bring him to Alaska.

More than 20 years ago, Oppermann left Germany and studied dervish music with Sufi musicians in Turkey. He traveled on to India, Africa and Asia, playing with local musicians and adding a variety of ethnic instruments to his repertoire. He built lasting musical relationships with players from Mongolia to the Congo, becoming a champion of "world music" before the term was a musicindustry buzzword.

Oppermann founded and serves as artistic director for "Sommerfest," an international music and dance festival in Germany. He's produced recordings of a variety of ethnic musicians and frequently collaborates with world musicians on his own recordings.

"I have 38 recordings out, 19 of my name, and 19 where I have pieces and samplers," he said.

Oppermann has produced four CDs in a series called "The Art of the Harp," which feature all manner of traditional and cuttingedge contemporary harp players from around the world. Although he frequently performs solo, as he will in Juneau, he has a regular musical ensemble comprised of a percussionist an Indian tabla player he's worked with for 18 years a German keyboardist and two Mongolian multi-instrumentalists.

The Mongolians share the rural farmhouse with Oppermann and his wife, American classical harpist Cynthia Mowry, and their three sons.

"They came over seven years ago for a tour and they stayed," Oppermann said.

Oppermann will spend two weeks traveling in Alaska and will also perform in Skagway and Haines before heading south to California. Tickets for the Saturday concert are $14 for adults and $7 for children 7 to 12. They are available at Hearthside Books and at the door.

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