The Highest Harp in the World
February 19, 2020
It’s official: a Camac Janet lever harp is the proud record-holder of the Highest Harp In the World! At least, it is in the hands of Siobhan Brady, world’s loftiest harper. After many careful checks to make sure it’s really true, Guinness World Records has declared that, at her concert in the Himalayas to raise money for cystic fibrosis research, the harp was played at higher altitude than ever before. This was at 4954 m (16,253 ft 3.37 inches), on September 6th 2018, at Singla Pass in India. Janet Harbison also contributed her harp composition, ‘By Strangford Waters’, which was premiered by Siobhan at the concert.
We blogged about the project at the time: an amazing concert at an equivalent to Everest Base Camp. It was the brainchild of the late Desmond Gentle, also famous for taking a piano to the Salina Turda salt mine in Romania, and to the mountainous Zanskar region. The Highest Concert in the World was an apposite way to increase awareness of the lung condition cystic fibrosis, and also breathing difficulties caused by pollution. At 5000m, you’re breathing 12% oxygen, compared to 21% at sea level. It is difficult to breathe, much less perform, and indeed not every musician involved was able to reach the highest point.
If you think practising the harp is enough to cope with, spare a thought for Siobhan, her father Sean and the rest of the Highest Concert team. Before they left for the Himalayas, they had to undergo three months of hypoxic training at The Altitude Centre in Limerick. “This is a sealed room that reduces oxygen to create the simulated atmosphere at 4800m”, Sean reports. “During this intensive training, our diet included iron-rich foods such as kale and spinach, to increase our red blood cell production. We were also advised to drink plenty of liquids including green tea while acclimatising in Leh, along with carbs like pasta and bread to help with the effects of altitude.
“Leh, our base camp for acclimatisation and where the performers rehearsed, has one of the highest airports in the world. Planes are often grounded due to low air pressure, and the runway is at an angle to give the planes greater lift when taking off. Even here the altitude can be dangerous – the actor Chris Hemsworth almost died when he visited this location in 2016. A further challenge was the dust, so military-grade dustmasks were recommended (especially for the singers).
“Siobhan and I really felt the benefit of the altitude training when we reached 5000m. At this point, two members of the team required oxygen, and one of the team had to be brought down quickly and rushed to hospital due to breathing difficulties, and another was advised not to make the final ascent.”
As for the team member that required neither oxygen nor hypoxic training: how did the harp stand up to the altitude? It travelled 5000 miles, from Limerick in Ireland to Leh in Northern India, and was then transported bumpily for thirteen hours to the summit. Some of the tuning pegs worked loose, but this is common to all harps even at sea level, and can be easily corrected (if you’ve never “pressed the pegs before”, see our video for how to do it). The bottom C lever got snapped off in transit, but we had sponsored a full set of spares, which Siobhan and Sean – both realists – had brought with them.
During the concert, a video was made of Siobhan playing the Knappogue Medley by Anne-Marie O’Farrell, while project leader Desmond Gentle read “The Prophets are Weeping”, a poem by President of Ireland Michael D Higgins. The geodesic concert hall, constructed for the event out of recycled plastic bottles, has been left on the mountain as a prototype rescue shelter for trekkers. The concert has a great story to tell, but also several serious messages. Desmond Gentle, who sadly passed away not long after returning from the Highest Concert, was a piano restorer always concerned by and committed to wider issues, and using music to do something about them.
Siobhan, also now studying pedal harp in the Cork School of Music with Anne-Marie Papin Labazordiere, will soon be performing some of her Himalayas programme on that instrument. “Some of the music is more adapted to the concert harp”, she explains. “Who knows, maybe one day we’ll go up the mountain with that…”