Ahead of her 30 May livestreamed concert as part of the OWRI Cross-Language Dynamics project at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, harpist Tamsin Dearnley reflects on her experiences moving between different musical traditions in Britain, France and Japan – and the extent to which music behaves like spoken language.

When we want to express something first heard or read in a language other than our own, we first need to have a reasonable understanding of both languages. Either we’re lucky enough to have been brought up in a multi-lingual environment, or we acquire our non-native languages at an older age.

Anyone who has had the latter experience (including myself – I learned French at school and read Japanese at university) knows that this is not an easy task, especially when the languages are extremely different from one another. 

But what if there was a language that contained enough vocabulary in common all over the world that even a passing familiarity with the version from your home culture would enable you to understand – and even join conversations with – people from thousands of miles away speaking their own local dialect of the same language?

We are, of course, talking about that ubiquitous – and yet in so many ways slightly mysterious – cultural phenomenon that we call music.

There are so many similarities with the ways we learn and transmit both music and language that it’s very helpful to use a common set of vocabulary to describe the two. Music is often said to be a ‘universal language’ – the fundamental physical properties of sound and the human body ensure that all known musical cultures make use of certain intervals and rhythms (the octave, the fourth and the fifth, for example, and the simple 1-2, 1-2 rhythm of human gait). And you don’t need any familiarity with a particular musical culture to appreciate the pathos of an elegy, or to want to get up and dance to a jig or relentless drum rhythm. 

But what happens when you want to ‘translate’ music from one culture into another? What happens when (as in my own case) one is essentially ‘mono-instrumental’ – but you want to learn and express musical ideas from other cultures that you find appealing or inspiring?

As a Yorkshire-born musician who studied in Edinburgh, taught at a harp school in Tokyo, and is now based in Toulouse, I perform and teach in English, French and Japanese. I grew up playing the lever harp and singing in choirs, and I find that my ‘native languages’ of British folk music and English choral music colour the way I play today. I’ll find myself adding ‘Scottishisms’ in my ornamentation of Japanese pieces, or using more plagal cadences than are perhaps fashionable in the 21st century.

Equally, however, I’m fascinated by just how literal a translation of a particular piece one can make. I don’t really play, for example, the Japanese koto – but a harp is similar enough that if I imitate certain techniques I can imitate the sound of this instrument, and in doing so discover ways of using my harp that I had simply never envisaged! 

Tamsin plays her lever harp arrangement of Japanese folk song Sakura Sakura (‘Cherry blossoms, cherry blossoms’)

During my online concert and presentation on 30 May, I’ll be exploring the ways in which I translate musical elements from a wide range of cultures onto the lever harp. How does one note bend on an instrument that really isn’t designed for this (yet)? How can one sound like a double bass to give jazz pieces a bit of extra oomph? And is it really possible to ‘sing’ the harp, as one does in Welsh? Tune in to find out!

Tamsin Dearnley is a harpist, composer and sound designer with a focus on bringing the lever harp to a wider audience. She will be playing live on Saturday 30 May at 7pm BST – further details here. Booking is not necessary, but by doing so you will be sent a reminder containing the livestream link nearer the time.

longer version of this post can be found on the OWRI Cross-Language Dynamics blog, the translingual strand of which is based at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.