Ancient music and the natural world inspire the sound of Oundle

If there was one sound that could be said to define Oundle in the last many years, it might be the music of Nick Penny.

Specializing in music for the harp that merges with sounds inspired by the natural world, he is often found performing at public and private events throughout the year in Oundle. The originality of the distinctive music is immediately recognizable as his.

In addition to performing and composing, he also makes string instruments such as guitars, lutes and harps in his workshop.

Mr Penny started learning how to play the guitar at the age of 14 by watching others and learning from the way they played. He says that he didn’t practice in a formal way. Instead, he “just played a lot”.

“There was never any problem with motivation – the guitar was my best friend.”

He started playing the harp later in life in what he calls “a round-about way”. He got interested in lute music and started making lutes. Eventually he became an instrument maker and people asked him to make Celtic harps. He then discovered Paraguayan harps and travelled to South America to learn more about them. A local player in Asuncion offered him some lessons and he was hooked.

“I love the sound of the Paraguayan Harp: it looks and sounds like a harp but there’s something earthy and immediate about it too,” he said.

Musical influences include the sound of the guitarist Julian Bream, whom he credits with recreating the sound of English lute music in an inspiring way. Mr Penny said: “There’s such passion and individuality in his playing and in the beginning he had to fight to get his instrument taken seriously.”

Mr Penny also admires singers such as Nina Simone for her emotional music, as well as Bjork and Tom Waits for their individualistic creativity.

He draws a lot of inspiration within walking distance of his own front door – birdsong, sounds of wind and rain, children playing in the distance.

Mr Penny has always been interested in natural sounds, but the idea of using birdsong as an inspiration for his music came about by accident. He had recorded a nightingale singing in a local wood and was playing it back in his home studio. “I picked up the harp and started improvising along with it, then hit the record button as it all felt so natural and I was aware that something unusual was happening. I played it back to some friends later and they were fascinated.”

All the recordings he uses are made within walking distance. “We’re lucky that there are accessible woods locally, though if you want quiet natural recordings you must be up very early in spring.”

He particularly admires nightingale sounds. “They sing through the night and you can record them while the rest of the world is asleep.” He notes blackbirds for the beauty and simplicity in their song.

Like a lot of artists this year, due to Covid-19, Mr Penny has been unable to do his usual music workshops in schools and with the elderly, but he has had more time to play and record a lot of his own music instead. Ordinarily he would spend up to a year on a CD album, but due to the pandemic he has been recording a lot of music and videos, often improvised, which he shares on social media.

He also bought a Handpan last year and has been playing and recording with that. He has even done some online collaborations with musicians he has never met and is working on new designs for wind harps.

“I like surprises, trying new things and sometimes ending up in a completely different place I wouldn’t have anticipated. And of course, you can share that sense of surprise with other people,” he said.

“There’s plenty to keep me busy.”

Gabriel Sun
1 December 2020