There is a scene in the 1970 Disney classic cartoon The Aristocats, in which said cats – Duchess and her three kittens – are led by the suave alleycat Thomas O’ Malley to an abandoned house to spend a night in safety; there they are met by a group of other alleycats playing hot jazz and singing. One of them even plays some bars on a harp. This particular sequence may last no more than mere seconds, but it had a deep, lasting impact on four-year-old Maria Christina Harper, who was watching wide eyed.
“At that exact moment, I made the mature decision, at the age of four, that I want to learn to play the harp,” she remembers, laughing. Her parents took her demand seriously, but finding a harp teacher in Athens proved difficult.
“I started learning the piano at the age of five and six or seven years later, after my parents had been repeatedly requesting for a harp teacher, the music school hired someone who had come from Romania.”
Thus started a fruitful journey in musical exploration.
“Since there are not many harpists in Greece, I got to gain a lot of experience, playing with orchestras before even finishing school,” Maria-Christina says.
“I knew from a very young age that I am not going to do anything else.”
Still, the classical world was not large enough to contain her creative spirit and inquiring mind.
“I had always been listening to classical music, these were my studies, but when it came to my own favourite music, the one that I chose, not the one that I found at home, it was more rock-oriented,” she says.
“I have always been wondering why shouldn’t the harp have its own Jimi Hendrix? And I don’t mean that this is me, but I wanted to do something different, something else with this instrument, ever since I was very little. The classical harp repertoire seemed old and limited to me.”
She refers to the stereotypical images and ideas that the harp conveys, “that it is an instrument played at the palace, or played in heaven by the angels. In movies, whenever someone is dreaming, you will hear a harp indicating it,” she jokes.
“I wanted to change that. There is much more than that in the harp; it has seven pedals, 47 strings and it is 1.8m high – it is not just a piece of furniture,” she says passionately.
It was when she moved to London, to get a masters degree in Music Therapy, that the young harpist found an answer to her question.
“Each student was called to experiment on their respective instruments. So I started to try different tuning, to explore the different sounds that it makes and this slowly turned into compositions. Then I took part in a competition in Wales, the first one for original compositions for harp and I won the first prize, which gave me the boost to continue composing and experimenting. My harp is electro-acoustic, so I started adding electric guitar pedals, like wha-wha, distortion, reverb, and loop pedals; I also experimented with using a bow, or wedging pieces of paper on the strings to create different sounds. I loved this process!”
This slowly led to her creating a series of original compositions, where classical music meets rock and jazz and traditional Greek rhythms, all blended together to create a cinematic soundscape.
These tunes are now part of an album, Gluten Free, released through Valentine Records in the UK.
When asked to describe it, Maria Christina points to what one of the label executives said, that this is “mainstream experimental” music.
“I wanted my music to be people friendly despite the experimental sounds,” she says, admitting that she considers it a compliment when people tell her that her music does not fit into any category or genre – which is very often.
“I like being in this grey area,” she says.
But how has her music been received by her fellow harpists?
“Reactions are mixed,” she says. “The harp community is a bit conservative when it comes to music. The are amazing musicians and wonderful people, but they are mostly not interested in jazz, rock, hip hop; they like the classic repertoire. Others are more interested in my music, they like it a lot, it excites them – but this doesn’t mean that they want to do the same.”
As for the very characteristic Greek elements in her music, she says it has to do with being an expat.
“I had already been living in London for about six or seven years when I started working on this album, so I was affected by the rainy, grey atmosphere. I was missing the Greek sky I guess,” she says.
“On the other hand, the ‘grey’ elements in my music represent my influences from living in London. It is a combination of sounds.”
After 11 years in London, Maria Christina Harper now shares her time between the UK capital and Athens, enjoying the best of both worlds.
“From an artist’s perspective, living in London is great,” she says.
“In Athens, I got to make my dreams come true – I learned to play the harp, I played with the National Orchestra and other ensembles, I’ve worked with acclaimed musicians.
“In London, I’m doing things that are beyond my wildest dreams – I’m meeting artists from all over the world, I found myself in Jools Holland show, I’ve played with Katie Melua and Soft Cell, I got to perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
“In London, when you think of a crazy idea that you may think it is too eccentric, too much, you meet someone who is even more eccentric.
“This inspires me, it makes me think that everything is possible. And the weather definitely helps – it urges you to stay inside and study more and experiment.
“Every time I’m back in Athens, I’m thinking how much easier life is. How easy it is to park. I carry the harp around with me all the time and it doesn’t get wet with rain.”
She is not joking – she always has her harp in her car, carrying it around to venues and rehearsal spaces. That is the life of a freelance musician, she says. Not that she is complaining.
“Harp is my life,” she adds, leaving no room for doubt.