Festival International de Harpe-Guitare, Part 1

It was about a year ago that I heard from my French friend Philippe Fouquet about a local classical guitar society working towards putting on an all-harp guitar festival.  This was exciting news, as it would be the first of its kind in Europe.  (BTW, we’ve long talked about the option of a Harp Guitar Gathering in Europe, but so far, logistics have not made it possible).   And last night, the party kicked things off…

Some introductions:

Some background on Philippe: By day, he works for highway security (in a key position that, frankly, sounds about as relaxing as being an air traffic controller).  By night (when not doting on his wife and daughters), he does his guitar music.  After commissioning the first Brunner travel harp guitar, he composed new material for it (and his 6-string) and recorded a full album, which I produced and released in 2009.  The following year, he was our featured guest performer at HGG8 in Indiana, and has appeared on my last two HGM compilation albums as well.  He’s passionate and serious, but with a great sense of humor (and knows infinitely more about wine than I do!).  His role in this endeavor was as Artistic Director.

Guitare en Sarthe (members in photo below): This dedicated group exists to promote the classical guitar.  It consists of Gwenael Pichon (President), David Occhio (Secretary), Jerome Fontaine (Treasurer) and Pierre Louis Viollet (Member).   It was nice to see that they took presenting our more unusual instrument as seriously as “classical” guitar.  This festival was their special presentation/activity for 2013.

Early on, The Harp Guitar Foundation pledged a sponsorship for their event.  Philippe told me that this simple gesture and show of modest financial support was not only helpful, but crucial to gaining additional sponsorships. So you hundreds of HGF donors out there should feel proud to have helped make this happen (you’re part of history!) – they might not have been able to do it without us (and we can’t do it without you).

Here are the members of Guitare en Sarthe and families, the performers (and same) and luthiers

Performers included Philippe, John Doan (starting a Euro tour), Jason Carter (from Nimes in southern France), James Kline (from his hideaway in the Canary Islands) and Yaouen (pronounced roughly “YAH-wen” – the preferred professional stage name of Jean Dobrota).  Most of you know them already, as all but Yaouen (from Colmar, France) have graced our Harp Guitar Gathering stage in the past (in addition to their own prolific activities).

Luthiers included Cedric Verglas (from Ramatuelle in southeastern France), Sean Woolley (who drove up from southern France with Jason and his fiancé, Verity), Benoit Meulle-Stef (Brussels) and Stephen Sedgwick (England).  I knew Cedric and Sean only by reputation and our long correspondence, so it was a great opportunity to finally meet them.

The Event:

(Steve, Sean and Jason)  We had the small but sprawling Le Mans civic center pretty much all to ourselves, and the five performers had most of the day to prep and sound check.  Sound check here took longer than we’re used to; not sure why, but in the end, Cedric volunteered to run the board (and the stage) – and did a great job (turns out he was an audio engineer in a previous life).

Cedric at the board

My first glimpse of and listen to a Sean Woolley harp guitar.  This is one of his new 6+6 hollow arm nylon string series, this one meant to be a “classical” harp guitar.  Jason Carter loved it and bought it on the spot (a bit before the festival).
Sean, your instrument’s nice, but let’s face it – it’s the pants that are gonna sell this act.

Front and back of the heads

These are the last two Sean made: flamenco harp guitars!  His designs are inspired by both Knutsen and Dyer (bass headstock and the upper right bout bulge of the Dyer Style 3 that acts as a bit of a “cutaway,” as it actually meets the neck at the 13th fret).  All 3 of these new nylon strings have different bracing, and the first and third instruments are very noticeably different in tone.  The classical is quite smooth, round and warm, the last flamenco is very bright, but in a good way.  It was my favorite – brand new, but already very open and responsive – the air and overtones I prefer.  The first flamenco was somewhere in between the other two.  The subs on these were near-perfect all the way down to the lowest F.  Bottom line, while I normally don’t publicly “review” instruments I’m not offering for sale, I can say that these are definitely among the best-sounding hollow-arm nylon string HGs I’ve yet heard.

Meanwhile, Philippe was warming up on his own new nylon-string by Cedric Verglas (with steel supers and subs).  I’ve been following Cedric’s work from his very first harp guitar design (back when he was Pierre Lamour…long story).  Each is a completely new design and re-invention.  The latest are more in the Sullivan-Elliott neighborhood, but with his own twists.

At first I didn’t even notice that this one has a sort of arm bevel – a “bent,” cantilevered spruce top.  Pretty interesting!

Pardon my focus…I was trying to capture the interesting rosette and headstock “patchwork.”
And though you can’t quite tell from this angle of the Sullivan-Elliott-style head…

…they are completely separated – something I’ve seen more and more builders incorporating.

Already by this time in the morning, it hit me that this is what it must feel like for you folks that go to the Harp Guitar Gathering.  Meaning, that I haven’t had the luxury of being completely free of duties or responsibilities for many years now.  What fun!  I actually had the time to visit – talking, playing, listening, brainstorming, anything I felt like – with all the participants.  Though even with just this small group, it went too fast, and I didn’t spend enough time with many of them.  To continue:

I don’t know what Yaouen and I were laughing about, but it was obviously something we could both appreciate without speaking each others’ language!  (His English was much farther along than my French).  I’m trying out his custom 20-string Cedric Verglas HG – all steel strings.  Note the differences between this and Philippe’s, especially the super-treble configuration.  Yes, they certainly sounded somewhat different, yet both worked in their own ways.

John Doan trying out Yaouen’s instrument

Again, having no duties, I had all the time in the world to hang out, as the mood struck.  I now found myself fascinated by John’s super-treble technique, as if seeing it for the first time.  I was able to hover and study his unusual contortionist plucking position, with his subtle keep-track-of-location-by-touch-via-moving-pinky-support method.
PS: Note how the unique top of Cedric’s harp guitar above has the super-treble tuners on a lower level.  Cool!

This was so much fun, I hovered over Jason (playing Ben’s HG) for awhile, doing the same “investigation.”
(BTW, he had a perfectly logical explanation for the white false nails, but you’ll have to ask him about it…)

The venue had a nice indoor/outdoor courtyard.  We often found Jim out there, playing his low whistle.

Eventually, the guys went through their sound checks.

Jason decided to do some tunes with Verity, his singer/ songwriter fiance.  Always by her side (well, in theory) was Uffa, her large and lovable seeing-eye Labradoodle.

Our hosts made sure to have lunch and dinner (and drinks) brought in, so everything was pretty comfortable.  The public had been randomly coming in also here and there to get a peek.  The first true “attendee” (equivalent to our Registrants, I suppose) was Martin Scott, a Brit now living in Nice.  A fine 6-string guitar player (of course trying out harp guitars), he’s also a professional photographer, and supplied some of the (better) photos for this series.  (Photo credits appear as they do on Harpguitars.net, with the copyright owner’s name at the end of the file name)  You’ll see more of them shortly…

Next: The Concerts

  1. Thomas Nielsen Says:

    Having had my brains subjected to work-related evaporation I had to cancel our already planned trip to Le Mans. And boy do I regret that decision! I was happy to learn that the festival had been a success, causing me to having started planning for next year already. This time I shall not miss!

    – Thomas

  2. Philippe Fouquet Says:

    On the 1st photo, the second man on the right, with an orange shirt is Jean Pierre. He was in charge of the food and he has done great work! Many many thanks to him!

  3. David Occhio Says:

    Great article and very good blog !
    Kids on the 1st photo from left to right : Fanny, CHarlotte, Pierre and Chloé (always stuck to her mum (my wife Angélique)).
    These were great concerts and a very good time for all of the french crew and families !!

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