The harp world is small and isolated, often ignored by media outlets. But changes are afoot among those who play the instrument at the highest level. New repertoire and collaborations are on the rise, as are different ways of thinking about the harp’s past and why it’s an instrument overwhelmingly played by cisgendered women. (An oft quoted statistic is that 93 percent of harpists are female.) I called Noël Wan, who recently won the Gold Medal at the USA International Harp Competition in Bloomington, to ask her about her life as a harpist and competitor and the changing role of gender in the harp world.
VAN: You won your first big competition 12 years ago in Amsterdam, and you’ve just won the USA International Harp Competition in Bloomington. How did it feel to compete this time around?
Noël Wan: It felt very comfortable. Having lived in the Midwest for many years, Bloomington was familiar to me, so I knew most of the staff and board members. I’ve also been on the international competition circuit for a long time and at least half of the jury members knew me. I didn’t go in with a sense of needing to prove myself to strangers—more that I wanted to show how I’ve grown over the past decade.
I had decided that this competition would be my last one, mostly because I was starting my new job [as Assistant Professor of Harp and Entrepreneurship—Ed.] at Florida State University. So, I wanted to put my best foot forward, but my attitude throughout the competition was, “Take it or leave it—I’m moving on with my life.”
Is there scope for using the competition as a springboard for your own projects?
My competition life and creative projects haven’t really intersected. Competitions forced me to keep up the standard harp repertoire, which has been important for my teaching and performing in more conventional classical music circles. The creative work I’m getting into these days is interdisciplinary and engages with ideas from critical theories and performance studies. While I still plan on giving solo recitals, my post-competition goal is to devote less time to conventional classical repertoire and more to the experimental stuff.
Where does critical theory fit into the different phases of your career?
When I was a DMA student at the University of Illinois, I took a class on ethnomusicology and critical theory. The professor of that class became my dissertation advisor and nudged me to be more theoretically rigorous in my research on gender and aesthetics in classical harp performance practice.
What aesthetics do you mean?
Conventions of dress and gesture, ideas of what is “tasteful” interpretation—often these standards are applied differently to male and female harpists. This observation may be the result of my coming out of competition culture, where aesthetic gatekeeping tends to be more polarized.
Dress? Are there only female competitors?
No, there were quite a few men in Bloomington.
Nöel, only five out of 44 competitors were male.
That’s a greater percentage than in previous competitions. But yes, it’s still a small number.
Does this affect a competition where feminine decorum is emphasized?
Anecdotally, I’ve heard of different anxieties relating to gender: Some female harpists are worried about male exceptionalism, and some male harpists, especially queer-identifying ones, worry about not being “masculine” enough. However, I’ve yet to hear from a male harpist that not playing with feminine decorum has been disadvantageous. Perhaps the issue is more that there are certain playing styles that have become normalized in a predominantly female field. So, when male players inevitably deviate from the norm, people often respond either with, “Ooh, that’s edgy and cool,” or, “Ooh, that’s not what a harpist is supposed to be.”
What’s the pressure for male harpists then?
I think sex appeal is a huge factor, and some of the most visible male harpists with solo careers just so happen to give super masculine vibes. You know, ripped abs, huge biceps, muscle tees… Emmanuel Ceysson, Xavier de Maistre, Joel von Lerber, Remy van Kesteren types [Ceysson, de Maistre, and van Kesteren have each won the Bloomington competition despite the lopsided gender dynamic—Ed.] The classical music industry is ultimately still in the business of making money, and sex sells. On the flip side, we also need to consider cis/heteronormative biases. Conventional ideas of sexiness don’t make space for the vast possibilities of queer expression, and I’m not sure the mainstream classical harp world has gotten to that conversation yet.
Historically there’s a lot of social conservatism among harpists, especially in North America. Some of that comes from the self-selecting culture around the instrument. For example, the harp’s biblical connotation is attractive to Christian families, many of whom hold traditional views on gender. There’s also the deeply entrenched conception of the harp as being suitable for girls, and that conception itself comes from the harp’s historical role in cementing specific ideas of femininity, particularly in context of the developing middle class, in Western societies.
As a scholar, I’m generally critical of relying on representation as a substantive avenue for systemic change. However, I can’t help but recognize that my personal aesthetic choices—the buzzcut, the pantsuits, the contemporary repertoire—reflect my desire to queer normative performance spaces. At the very least, I wasn’t intending to conform to the “elegant” or “angelic” harpist archetype.
Why do you walk into a harp competition looking like you do?
I’m confident enough in the quality of my playing that I know people can’t criticize me for having style over substance. However, I recognize that confidence is the product of an immensely privileged musical upbringing, so I don’t take it for granted. In retrospect, I see my “looking this way” as a form of soft advocacy for young classical harpists who are concerned with not fitting the traditional aesthetic mold. In other words, it is possible to look different or deviate from the canon and be rewarded, but you do have to work really, really hard—not in the meritocratic sense, but in a “you have to go above and beyond to convince the skeptics” way. It’s far from fair, but I think that’s where the classical harp is right now.
Beyond competitions, how do you look at the role of the harp in the wider world?
I wrote my dissertation on the subject of the Western pedal harp and gender, and I wanted to challenge ways of thinking about gender and the harp: how gender identity is negotiated around, or maybe even because of how we relate to an instrument that itself kind of has gender identity, which has been, in turn, negotiated around its practitioners and historical cultural role. It’s very much a shift to thinking about the performative—not just who is performing, but also what is performing. In the course of my doctorate, I started thinking about “agential realism” and new materialist theory, as set out by Karen Barad, a feminist philosopher and theoretical physicist who draws on thinkers from Niels Bohr to Judith Butler. Around the same time, I came across “Fidélité” by Georges Aperghis and decided to use it as a sort of case study for examining how one might analyze gender and the harp from an agential realist perspective.
What happens in the piece?
The piece has a subtitle, “For female harpist to be watched by a man.” It’s semi-staged: There’s a chair near the harp and the addition of a male actor. At the beginning of the performance, the man leads the harpist, almost dragging her by the wrist, on stage. He installs her at the harp and sits in the chair, watching her but never really looking at her. She is supposed to be dressed in an elegant black dress—very “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The piece itself is about the inner life of a woman: She sings, she reflects, and she rages at the harp. When I first encountered the piece, I was really struck by a few things. One, the gender politics of domestic life is heavily implicated. “Fidélité” is the final piece in “Triptyque,” a set of works written for harpist Brigitte Sylvestre and her husband, percussionist Gaston Sylvestre; Aperghis himself notes that “Triptyque” “tells the story of a couple … [and their] desires, complicity, memories.” Two, the idea that only female harpists were meant to play this piece meant that “female harpist” signified something beyond being a woman who plays the harp. There’s both an embodied history and a historical embodiment to consider.
So harp isn’t just heavily associated with femininity, but with domesticity also?
Not just any domesticity, but refined domesticity. There was a Fall 2022 Moschino show with Jeremy Scott’s furniture dresses; the show notes state that the designs were inspired by “the concept of the well-appointed home–and what its finery both suggests and signifies.” One of his pieces is literally a giant gold fabric harp attached to the back of a dress. I think the model was supposed to be the column of the harp.
So the harp itself as a material object can shape a gendered identity from the get go?
Yes. What “Fidelité” highlights is that to be a harpist is to be a female harpist and vice versa. But we also can’t forget that there were all these male harpist-composers in the 19th and 20th centuries who were writing with their own physicality in mind, and their works still comprise the classical harp canon, and their methodologies are still being used. Culturally, the harp is very female, but historically, most of its professional advocates were male, whereas the female harpists were relegated to the home and/or to amateur study. That recognition of the pedal harp’s layered existence helps us analyze when and where power differentials exist.
There are two stories of the harp then?
Yes, or rather two dominant narratives: the domestic (female) and the stage (male). At some point in the 20th century they converged because more women had opportunities to work and be professionally visible. Somehow, at least in American popular culture, the male gaze-y version of the angelic female harpist persisted and still persists. I remember watching the TV show “Psych” many years ago while I was writing my dissertation, and there’s this one scene in which the lead character says to his boss, “Let’s hug it out,” to which he gets the response, “I would rather play the harp”—implying that hugging is even worse than the most effeminate action he could imagine, playing the harp.
What does all this add up to?
I feel hesitant to make any decisive statements about what should be or what shouldn’t be, especially when talking about aesthetics. I’m not an idealist. However, I think there should be more discussion among harpists of where our aesthetic beliefs come from, not because we’re trying to preserve history per se but because we’re trying to understand the logic underlying our current sensibilities. The pedal harp tradition has a deeply complicated history, full of contradictions and flaws that are difficult to accept or can be glossed over with a shiny new vision. Previous generations of harpists did the important work of unearthing and archiving information about the harp’s past lives. However, I think it’s my generation’s job to make sure we don’t settle for grand narratives.
So the harp does have more than two lives?
Absolutely. At the end of the day, we’re all trying to excavate the different layers or narratives of the instrument, whether you’re a queer harpist or a Black harpist, or you’re trying to take on the pedal harp from a feminist or postcolonial perspective. It’s not just a monolith. There are many ways to explore it that are fulfilling and aesthetically pleasing. I’m annoyed sometimes that we’re pressured to move the harp “forward” or come up with some futuristic vision of the instrument. If we don’t consider how the harp has existed or how it exists in many different harpists’ lives, we fall into the same narrative that we’re supposed to be avoiding—that is, we risk repeating the past. ¶