Gary Wikfors: Music for waldzither

From the composer

Nyckelharpa & Octaveharpa“Wikfors plans to use the 38th Voyage to compose original music that blends the folk traditions that likely would have been heard aboard the Charles W. Morgan in the 19th century. Since the Morgan was composed of wood and metal in the 1840s, he will compose music for the waldzither, a stringed instrument built in Germany from similar materials in the same time period. While on board, he will react to the rhythms of wind, wood, and wave. Tunes that result will be “scratch” recorded by video camera, and then brought home for the creation of more-polished arrangements.”

This text from my proposal describes superficially how things went. I composed two melodies aboard, and a flood of tunes came in the following two weeks or so, which was a great relief as I was concerned about my bluff that inspiration surely would come. What I didn’t anticipate, though, was how difficult it would be to learn to play the tunes relatively error-free on the variety of musical instruments I envisioned using in arrangements – in the end, ten different instruments. Very gradually, usable tracks were captured. For gear-heads, I used two Octava microphones placed approximately a half-meter apart for stereo imaging and captured and mixed tracks on a Zoom HD16 digital recorder.

Tenor mandolaThe most enduring impression I will take from seeing this project to completion is that the year-long process kept my Morgan experience in mind through four seasons, allowing a somewhat dream-like escape from everyday life while practicing and recording tracks. I did transport my imagination to long sails under varying conditions and to exotic ports-of-call while arranging and playing the tunes. During this year I essentially stopped listening to recorded music of others, not wanting to contaminate focus.

Now, as I continue to play these tunes in privacy and with friends, my experience as a 38th Voyager aboard the Charles W. Morgan will remain vivid in my imagination – the contagious thrill of fellow voyagers as they experienced and shared reactions from unique perspectives, the whales (!!), the feeling of acceleration as the sails caught the breeze…

I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to experience this event and to share my musical reaction to it. I hope that these tunes somehow reflect the boldness and generosity of the Mystic Seaport community to imagine and realize the 38th Voyage.

–Gary Wikfors

The Music

1. Medley.

A medley of three tunes in traditional Celtic rhythms that highlight the direct connections between New England and the greater British Isles. (The Work At Hand Hornpipe/ The Morgan Jig/ Acceleration Reel)

2. The Sailor’s Dream Waltz.

Journals recorded by sailors on the Morgan often reflected an idealized view of home and civilization. This waltz is meant to invoke “a sailor’s dream” of a life left behind and awaiting his return.

3. Two Bells, Four Bells.

Time was kept aboard ship by bells that marked the hours. The hours between 2 AM and 4 AM may have been relatively inert, especially when the ship was moored overnight, as it was during my voyage experience.

4. Den Valfångst Polska.

Northern waters presented challenges to the crew, and this Nordic tune is intended to portray the hard and unpredictable conditions and to introduce a strong Scandinavian influence in the Morgan crews.

5. Rodd.

This tune, in the Swedish polska style, arose from my attempts to imagine how arduous and repetitive it must have been for the dory crew to row a vanquished whale back to the ship.

6. Charles W. Polska.

Although Nordic tunes often convey the harshness of the elements. pleasant dances in warm halls likely were remembered by Scandinavian crew aboard the Morgan.

7. Medley.

A medley of Nordic and Celtic styles meant to simulate the emotions of escaping the grip of the frozen north and sailing to the warmer south. (Ic I/ Isberg/ Haste To The Halyards)

8. Morning Aboard the Morgan Jig.

A return to a Celtic tradition as the imagined voyage turns southward.

9. The Lights of New Bedford.

This tune was inspired by the lights of Provincetown that I experienced, but it is transferred to the Morgan’s home port in the title.

10. Banish The Doldrums Polka.

Again, an imagination that the crew would have brought memories of festive occasions with them, and perhaps expressed these memories in tunes shared with fellow crew members.

11. Flickorna i Storbritannien.

A very introspective tune associated with memories of home.

12. Caribbe Bound.

The Caribbean Sea provided whaling opportunities, as well as a change in pace of life, to Morgan crews. This tune is meant to appreciate the diverse cultures that have made Carribbean culture unique.

13. Caladeira do Vento.

The African/Portuguese blending that occurred in the Azores, especially in Cape Verde, was very strongly represented in crews of the Charles W. Morgan. The musical blending of these cultures inspired this tune.

14. Coladeira Boa Vista.

Crew from Cape Verde were very important in the commercial success and on-board culture of the Morgan. This tune pays homage to their energy.

15. Praia Farewell.

Nostalgia for home obviously was a major factor in the psychology of individual crew members and in the on-board culture. This “fado” waltz is inspired by an imagined longing for home.

16. Dança de Sylvia.

A tune with Portuguese rhythms, to which one of my heroes, Sylvia Earle, danced aboard the 38th voyage of the Charles W. Morgan, concludes this collection.

The Instruments

WaldzitherWaldzither. This is the instrument I took aboard and composed all the tunes on. It is a folk instrument built in the east of Germany in the 1840s by a member of the Carpenters Guild; these instrument builders were prohibited by the Violin Makers Guild from signing or naming their creations, as they were not considered to be “legitimate” musical instruments. I tune this instrument as an octave mandola, G/D/A/E.

GuitarGuitar. I used three different steel-string guitars on these recordings:  a 1918 Gibson L-1 round-hole, arch-top, a 1971 Martin D-18 flat-top, and a recent Taylor Baby.

MandocelloMandocello. A 1915 Gibson K-2.

Octave MandolaOctave Mandola. 8-string (4 courses in unison), fixed-bridge instrument custom-made by Jim Blankman of Eastport, ME in 1998.

Nyckelharpa & OctaveharpaNyckelharpa. Modele 1, made by Jean-Claude Condi in Mirecourt, France in 2013, tuned C/G/D/A.

Octaveharpa. The fourth octaveharpa ever made — the third by Olle Plahn of Falun, Sweden, in 2000, tuned C/G/D/A, one octave below a nyckelharpa.

Harp GuitarHarp-guitar. Referred to also as a “bassguitar,” this instrument was made in the early days of the 20th century in Germany. It has 12 bass strings below the traditional low-E string of a standard guitar and is strung with nylon and silk-and-steel. I change the tunings of the bass strings depending upon the key of the tune.

MandolinMandolin. I used my mysterious, F-5 copy mandolin hand-made in the mid-1970s by an unknown builder in Maryland.

Tenor mandolaTenor mandola. 1914 Gibson H-2, tuned C/G/D/A.

String bassString bass. Grumman aluminum-body, ¾-size rockabilly bass.

Tango banjoTango banjo. 1913 Gibson TB-3 made before the designation “tenor banjo” was created, but still in tenor tuning, C/G/D/A.

MandriolaMandriola. 12-string mandolin (4 courses of 3 unison strings, G/D/A/E) made in Germany in the early 1960s.


Steel-bodied guitar. Mid-60s Dopyra Brothers Hawaiian model, tuned to an open D chord.