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In "L’Impatiente de Balfour" for viola and harp by Claire-Mélanie Sinnhuber, there are some harp notes that sound somehow dissonant and metallic, almost like a prepared piano. In this video by the Ensemble Intercontemporain it starts at around 12'21", and again after 17'.

Is this a playing technique that uses some kind of partial muting to bring out certain harmonics, or maybe a sort of half-pedalling? Or am I hearing things, and it's just the choice of notes that is creating this sound?

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I'm not a harp player, but it appears that this is done with the harp equivalent of prepared piano on a few strings. About four or five strings of the harp appear to have some kind of putty attached to them:

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At least one of the strings in the higher range is "prepared" in the same way. This would certainly affect the timbre and resonance of the strings.

I think (though I'm not 100% certain) that the prepared strings are the only ones that give this particular timbre. Presumably Sinnhuber wrote the piece so that these notes would only be used in situations where they would have this particular effect, since applying and removing this putty would be difficult during a performance.

Similar sounds can apparently be achieved by attaching small, lightweight hair clips to the springs. This page contains a sample of this effect.

That page also notes that hair clips, while easy to apply and remove, will not necessarily stay in place if the string is played with full force. Perhaps the putty is a good substitute if the string is to be played fortissimo.

You mention half-pedaling, but this gives a very different, much buzzier sound:

More details on the half-pedal technique can be found at this question.

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  • Oh, I hadn't looked closely at those white things on the strings; I thought they were just colour markers. They do indeed look like some kind of putty. I wonder whether that would be heavy enough to change the sound so radically.
    – All Ears
    May 7 '21 at 18:57
  • The hair clip demonstration does indeed sound almost identical. I'm surprised it takes only such a small object. Prepared pianos usually have stuff wedged firmly in between two strings, not just hanging from one string.
    – All Ears
    May 7 '21 at 19:49
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    I think the position of the putty might be critical. The string vibrates in waves in accordance with the harmonic series, and the putty cancels out the anti-nodes it overlaps with, redistributing the vibrational energy to other modes/harmonics.
    – Brent
    May 8 '21 at 18:16

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