Old City

Posted by Ellen

On Sunday afternoon, there was nyckelharpa music in the air at Third Street Gallery on Second Street (don't ask) in Philadelphia's Old City.

That doesn't happen too often in Philly or really anywhere in the United States, with the possible exception of the Seattle area, home to the American Nyckelharpa Association and site of occasional dance evenings accompanied by nyckelharpists.

In Sweden, on the other hand, there are an estimaed 10,000 nyckelharpa players, and the keyed fiddle is featured on the back of the 50-krona note and has in fact been declared the country's official musical instrument. Swedes have been building and playing and composing music for nyckelharpor for more than six hundred years. Five-hundred-year-old stained glass windows feature angels playing the nyckelharpa.

The modern version of the instrument has 16 strings, 4 of which are played by the bow; the other 12 vibrate sympathetically, producing a resonant, vaguely organ-like sound.

The bowed string on the upper side of the neck, closest to the player's body, is a drone, unaffected by the keys and used rarely. The other three bowed strings can be shortened by pressing different keys to produce several octaves' worth of tones; there are three rows of keys, each dedicated to a different string.

Most nyckelharpa music harks back to folksong or polka, but the instrument is used by a handful of Swedish rock bands, and some serious musicians can play pretty much anything on it, such as Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

The nyckelharpa occasion on Sunday was a reception for an art show featuring two Philly-area artists: Judith Schermer, who exhibited twelve paintings of clotheslines, and Priscilla Snow Algava, who showed a variety of drawings and paintings of "matriarchs and sages."