Dr. Karen Loomis
I conduct construction and craftsmanship analysis of historical
musical instruments. My goal is to uncover the wealth of information these instruments hold
in order to help musical instrument makers, musicians, and museums. My expertise is in
non-invasive techniques, utilizing my experience in digital multispectral scientific imaging,
and interdisciplinary background in STEM and music.
I studied at the University of Edinburgh, where I earned a PhD in music (organology) and
a MMus in musical instrument research. I earned a BS in physics at the University of Connecticut,
and an MA in astronomy at Wesleyan University. Prior to turning my attention to musical
instruments, I pursued a career in astronomy.
My area of interest is historical harps. I’ve led groundbreaking work studying the harps of
Ireland and Scotland, and recently led a project funded by the Arts Council of Ireland to undertake
analysis of the 18th-century Hollybrook harp at the National Museum of Ireland, for the
Historical Harp Society of Ireland (HHSI) irishharp.org.
I have worked closely with the HHSI for several years, serving on the Governing Body from
2016–2020, and as Assistant Director for the 2021 HHSI Scoil na gCláirseach – Festival of Early Irish Harp
Harps and Science:
historical Irish and Highland harps
The historical harp known as a cláirseach or clàrsach (in Ireland
and Scotland, respectively) played a central role in several centuries of Gaelic culture.
Today, it is an important part of Irish and Scottish musical heritage and, since the late
20th century, has experienced a renaissance of engagement with it through historically
informed performance of its repertory.
There are few known surviving harps of this type, and these are all too fragile to be played,
so musicians must rely on informed replicas or reconstructions. Building these new harps requires
a thorough knowledge and understanding of the construction and craftsmanship of the historical
exemplars, but this information must be obtained with careful and minimally invasive handling of them.
In recent years, scientific analysis has made possible significant discoveries that are
changing our understanding of these harps and bringing musical instrument makers closer to
building new harps that sound and behave like their historical counterparts.
This talk will explore these discoveries, and the significant impact scientific analysis
has had on our understanding of the historical harp of Ireland and Highland Scotland.
It will also look to future work, and potential avenues for further inquiry and collaboration.