Unusual for its use in jazz, the harp is not without its headaches for upkeep: pedals, strings, transporting the instrument. Yet with humor and joy, Stina Hellberg Agback has made its music her life’s work, and is proficient in many genres.
She plays with a sway, embracing the instrument as if it were her child. On the iconic “My Favorite Things” she’s deliberate, starting off deep in thought. When Stina breaks out in improv things really get cooking. She uses echo and sustain with full mastery to produce a sound sweet like candy.
Why did you choose the harp?
The harp is the perfect combination of beautiful sound and ingenious construction. To play the harp is different from any other instrument, due to the system with pedals controlling the pitch of the strings. It takes a different way of thinking to play the harp, especially if you choose to improvise in a challenging harmonic setting.
What other instruments do you play?
I have played the violin and the clarinet. There is also one tune recorded for an upcoming album, where I sing. It is a tune by Harpo Marx, his only one with text. I found it symbolic that a harpist should sing the silent harpist’s song. And then never again. I am not a singer.
What were the most important and valuable elements of your education at the Royal Academy, Berklee, and/or Trinity College?
I had different goals going to all these three schools. I learned so much about the music business, harmony and jazz legacy at Berklee, classical harp technique at Trinity, and at the Royal College I had the freedom to put everything together. If you have the opportunity as a student, I think it is a great idea to go to several institutions to pick the raisins from the cake.
Two different planets with the group Trilobit as experimental, and the more straight-ahead jazz of your Quartet. Is it refreshing to express two very different approaches?
I think it’s essential to work on different paths building a career in music. I work in so many different fields, from recording and touring with major pop stars to improvising on mantras for healing recordings to playing classical harp for orchestra. What my projects mirror are what is most dear to me in music; working so much, time is valuable to me and only the dearest of my ideas become something real.
Trilobit has a prominent guitar presence, reminiscent of the American “surfer” music of the 1960s. Your thoughts?
Simon Svärd is one of my favorite musicians to play with, with his huge reference library. He can sound like anyone you could imagine, and he has always this playful relation to the music he makes. I can find plenty of comparisons to his sound in older American music. He uses vintage guitars and amps that truly bring this old sound to our records.
The harp has such a full and intense sound. When playing small clubs, do you have to hold back so as not to overpower the other musicians?
We have worked a lot with our live sound to make it perfect. Unfortunately, playing the harp is not as popular as playing the guitar, hence, there are more faults in electric harps than there are in guitars.
Sometimes it is the other way around; it is impossible to make the harp heard. My dream is to have a dedicated sound engineer in my band, but reality probably will be that I have to learn that skill myself.
Talk about the maintenance and upkeep of the harp.
As with any instrument, tuning, dusting, changing strings, making sure it is transported safely (preferably by myself). Always bring extra strings, have a harp technician look at it every other year…
Strings are mainly changed when they break or are very worn. Bass strings, I change every five years. Last year was one of those years and I had to change them on three pedal harps. It took several weeks.
How is the harp tuned and, what do you tune against, a piano?
The harp is tuned diatonically: C, D, E, F, G, A, B. The seven pedals change the tuning of all the Cs, or Ds, accordingly. By moving the pedals you can re-tune to C# or Cb etc. I use a tuner.
With the way the strings resonate in the air, something like Coltrane’s “Naima” allows the echo to be part of the song. Where else would you use this quality?
With the classical history of the harp, I get to play a lot in churches. I always include free improvisations in my programs and it is very satisfying to use the rich sustain of such a room. The sound of a harp in a big room is absolutely enchanting.
How do you keep your instrument safe when transporting it, especially when traveling by air?
As a rule, I try to borrow a harp at the spot if I cannot drive. I drive quite far with my harp though.
How do audiences react and what do they ask most about it?
I think Alice Coltrane was quite close to defining how the harp should be used in jazz, and if she had more time to study it (busy being talented with so many other things!) I think there would be no one questioning the harp as a jazz instrument.
So many people I play for have never seen a harp up close before, so seeing it played in a jazz setting can be quite a surprise. Many times, people are surprised it isn’t bigger.
Are there challenges in recording the harp in the studio?
You should always have the harp in a separate room for recordings, and then you are pretty much set. It is hard to fail recording the harp. Recently I have collaborated with one of Sweden’s most successful pop producers to set up my own home recording studio, which enables me to record harp for producers all over the world. This is so exciting for me, I really enjoy recording and arranging/improvising for them.
Is the harp common in Sweden?
No, it is not. My teacher was an immigrant from Switzerland. I am very lucky to have been able to play the harp as a child. There are more teachers now than back then, but it is still quite rare, and you need dedicated parents.
What is the jazz scene like where you live?
There are so many talented jazz musicians, but the audience is failing. Sweden is a small country with great music education, but somehow, we have failed teaching the public to appreciate other styles of music than the most obvious pop and rock. It is quite depressing. Many Swedish jazz musicians have greater audiences abroad.
Latest CD and some of the highlights?
In March 2017, the record Jonas Isaksson/Stina Hellberg Agback was released. It is a beautiful contemplative record with our own music, mixing harmonies of jazz with melodies of Nordic traditional music. We were lucky enough to have Mats Öberg as a guest artist, a legend in Swedish music. He was discovered by Frank Zappa in his early teens and have made some absolutely amazing creative music since.
Favorite venue anywhere in the world?
To play, I think the Cathedral of Uppsala is unbeaten. I have come to play there quite often, I have collaborations with the choirs there, and we have made a beautiful program with music from Finland and Sapmi, where my heritage is from. I get to improvise in the traditional Sapmi style, and the Cathedral (the largest one in Scandinavia) answers so beautifully to the sound of the harp.
Where have you not played yet that you would like to?
Budokan in Tokyo. I also do Martial Arts, so this is a place where my musical heroes and Martial Arts heroes, such as Nakayama Hakudo, all have performed.
Plans for 2018 to grow your music – both bands?
There are so many exciting things happening next year! The Quartet will release our first record in the spring of 2018. Trilobit will make a new record, a collaboration with the legendary electric violinist Jonas Lindgren, which is great timing since Simon is having a child and hence will be busy changing diapers and cannot tour. (Sweden is the best place in the world for women having children – men are really taking equal responsibility for the kids and we have a long, paid maternity/paternity leave. I have two kids and still the career I want). I have also started a collaboration with a booking agency – something that makes my life a lot easier.
Scheduled shows for 2018?
As we speak, we are booking the release tour for the Quartet record. The plan is to play abroad in the fall. I also have a tour in Sweden with the improvising violinist Eva Lindal. I am so excited for next year. So much work I have done will bear fruit.
For more information, visit www.harpa.se.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Stina Hellberg Agback.
(c) Debbie Burke