They're not scholars with advanced degrees, but Ann and Charlie Heymann are doing research that would win professors grants and compile a lifetime worth of dissertations.
Ann is the world's foremost performer on the wire-strung traditional Irish/Scottish harp that disappeared two hundred years ago. Her husband, Charlie, sings lilting songs in Gaelic and English and plays traditional instruments such as the cittern, bodhran, button accordion and bones.
Like monks in an abbey, the Heymanns have secluded themselves in the farmtown of Winthrop, MN to unearth and study long-lost pieces for the cláirseach or Gaelic harp. And like educators, they lecture and teach across the country, sharing the knowledge they've gleaned. They've been performing their discoveries since the mid-1970's in recordings, at competitions and at festivals, folk clubs, colleges and universities, performing arts centers...and Irish bars.
When Ann began studying the metal-strung harp, she says "there were no books, no arrangements, no recordings, no performers and no instruments to play." Today it's a different story, thanks largely to the efforts of Ann and Charlie. In fact Ann has written a tutor for her instrument (Secrets of the Gaelic Harp) that has been called the Gaelic harper's bible.
It's a long road to promote a harp that hasn't been heard in nearly 200 years. The Gaelic harp's metal strings are sounded with fingernails rather than plucked with the pads of the fingers, and this produces a brighter and longer ringing tone than that of the common harp. "My duty as a player and arranger," says Ann, "is not only to sound the notes, but also to stop them when I want them stopped."
This resonance allows the performer and composer the luxury of using still ringing melody notes as an harmonic background, thus requiring far fewer notes added to create harmony. Sometimes there is no need to add harmony notes at all.
The fruits of the Heymanns' labors have been well-received worldwide. Although the world-class harper shuns any comparison with celestial instrumentalists, listeners have found something truly heaven-sent in her playing:
"There is magic in Ann Heymann's fingers!" exclaims WNMU radio in Michigan.
"Heymann plays [her] difficult instrument with a fluidity and grace that is unparalleled among harpers of any kind," writes Dirty Linen magazine.
Alastair Clark in The Scotsman calls Ann an "outstanding clarsach virtuoso ... she really is in a league of her own, not only in terms of the technical manipulation of a notoriously stubborn instrument but also in making it breathe expressively through the subtle use of string-stopping."
Ann, however, is not comfortable with the mantle of angelic performer. "The harp I play doesn't look angelic," she says. "It's so different from those images. I've shaken any impression of that a long time ago. After all, I started out playing in Irish pubs!"