Turning the Harp on Its Head
March 26, 2017
To me, the harp seems like a chick instrument. Feminine. You know, sylphs draped in green dresses, flowers in their hair, plucking away, the whole ethereal stereotype. I guess it's because the only harp player I'd known up until recently was a friend I had in high school. She wasn't exactly sylph-like, but she was serious about the harp, a huge, full-throttle instrument as tall as I was.
Dan Dickerson is no sylph. I didn't look, but I don't think there are any green dresses in his closet, unless they belong to his wife, De. Ethereal? Not quite. He's taken the image of harps and harpists and turned it upside down. He stuck a violin pickup on the inside of his homemade harp and surrounded himself with a Yamaha RX-8 drum machine, a Yamaha DJX keyboard, a DOD guitar processor, a Roland drum pad and a Peavey bass amplifier.
Imagine Trent Reznor with a harp and you get the picture.
But this is no classical performance. Think Nirvana, Tori Amos, Soundgarden, Ani DiFranco, Elton John and the Beatles. Sounds chaotic, but yes, it does work.
Dickerson, formerly a member of Billy Goat Gruff, developed his harp condition in 1991. Watching a Marx Brothers movie, he was inspired by Harpo dismantling a piano and turning it into a harp. Which, with some help from his mother, is what Dickerson did. Since new harps run about $15,000, and since no one was going to gift him with one, Dickerson and his mother set about harp construction.
He told her of his plans and asked her to look for a cheap old piano for sale.
Dickerson recalls her saying, "Do you really want to do that?"
He did. And she found a place that sold patterns and kits. "She did most of it," says Dickerson. "I basically put the strings on it."
He also put the spin on the music coming out of it. Instead of playing traditional harp music, Dickerson thought maybe he could do the songs he liked, such as "Children of the Sun" and "Dream Weaver."
"I heard Tori Amos do 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on the piano. Hearing her do that made me think I can do this. First thing I did, I bet it would sound cool through my amp. Lo and behold, harp feedback. The feedback was cool."
Interestingly enough, "Teen Spirit" sounds beautiful on the harp, probably because it isn't being drowned out by guitars. That's one of the discoveries Dickerson has made.
"It really made me appreciate what Kurt Cobain did," he says.
One song transition to harp that surprised him was "Dear Prudence."
"I didn't think the harp would sound decent with a beat going on behind it," says Dickerson.
It turns out some old favorites get some new life. With all the electronic gadgets, Dickerson ends up being a one-man band. The drum machine and keyboard provide the beat and backing melodies. He describes his music as "Celtic reflection with a trip-hop injection."
Dickerson's solo harp stylings hit the Fort Jan. 22 at the Dash-In. It's wasn't your usual harp performance. Surrounded with equipment, Dickerson spread his electronic wizardry on the floor and operated what he needed with his bare feet.
"That was a pretty good night," recalls Dickerson. Right now, he's working on some originals, a few of which will be featured on free cassette demos to be released sometime this month. About 100 copies of Intergalactic Space Harp From Planet X will be produced. A CD is also in the works, with Dickerson literally doing it all himself, from printing the CD sleeves, to recording the songs and burning them onto the discs.