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The Wedding Harpist’s Lament: Or, how I became an ethnographer

Published onAug 16, 2023
The Wedding Harpist’s Lament: Or, how I became an ethnographer

When I was twenty-one, I attended thirty-eight weddings in thirteen weeks. Not as a guest, mind you. I was the harpist.

It was the age of Enya and Riverdance, and the whole world seemed Celtic-crazed. As a college freshman, I abandoned my classical piano training and failed attempts as a passable guitar player for a mahogany folk harp. Green and gold-painted faux Celtic knots wove their way up the soundboard like an illuminated manuscript. I was a hopeless romantic, inspired by Loreena McKinnett and Liv Tyler’s Arwen in The Lord of the Rings. I plucked and crooned those plaintive old folk tunes about being in love with someone but facing an insurmountable problem: he’s too young, he’s too old, he’s gone to sea, he married someone else, he’s dead, he’s my father... Problems to which the only obvious solution is either never to marry, or to lay me down and die—the end.

A few months into my harp lessons, I met up with a high school friend in a local tea shop renowned for its precious lemon pastries and cute sandwiches piled high on tiered platters. Inspired by the lilting music and Victorian décor, we boldly approached the two young female owners and volunteered to play background music at their upcoming fall High Tea. We arrived at the gig under the name “Music from the Mists,” featuring a repertoire of light classics and plaintive Irish melodies, with a generous helping of arpeggios and glissandos. We booked our first wedding on the spot.

Every weekend for the next four years, we donned medieval gowns with billowing skirts and trailing sleeves and hauled our instruments into churches, temples, golf clubs, backyards, restaurants, and living rooms to play wedding after wedding after wedding. While the experience didn’t transform me into a world-famous harpist, it did thrust me into the middle of an important human ritual, front and center as a participant observer. I began to find the whole process, the behavior, the reproduction of events fascinating. In short, I became an ethnographer.

From a guest’s perspective, each wedding seems special. Some are uniquely flavored with family drama to rival a reality television show. There was the one where the groom hit on the maid of honor (at the altar, no less). The one (actually, more than one) where a drunk uncle gave a poorly planned impromptu toast to the bride. The one where the guests were members of the Society for Creative Anachronism, whose costumes were more elaborate than ours. The one where the groom pleaded with me to haul my harp onto a picnic table under a small gazebo so as not to upset his wife-to-be, as she always wanted an outdoor wedding (the drenching rain be damned). More than once, I wondered if we would have any repeat customers—if one half of a no-longer-happy couple would call us the next time around.

Despite these stories, I noticed how similar, even cookie-cutter these weddings were. Here I was, a part of their inimitable “special day”—except it never was inimitable. That, in itself, was interesting! Prologue, processional, registry signing, recessional, reception. “Canon in D,” “Wedding March,” or “Here Comes the Bride” on repeat. The first dance to whatever topped the charts that summer—Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Shania Twain (okay, it was Canada). Identical bridesmaids’ dresses in exactly the same themed colors, whatever wedding trend was laid out in the magazines that year—for a few years everyone wanted “sage green” (not actually green), then “periwinkle blue” (anything from baby blue to dark lavender).

Years later, I would think about these weddings as I sat in the nerve center of the Mars Exploration Rover command room at Cornell University, watching a group of scientists and engineers log into their daily planning meetings.1 Sure, each day their rover was in a different location, and the issues the team confronted changed. But they signed in at the same time, opened the meeting with the same updated PowerPoint slides, and closed it with the same repeated words, sealing what Goffman called the ritual “interaction order.” That’s how they knew the meeting had been conducted properly, the Rover was well cared for, and their duty was done. There were local variations, but always the underlying cadence, turns of phrase, conformities and expected rules of communication.

The rover meetings were rituals, just like the weddings. They contained the observable micro-foundations of a society, a place where transitions were sanctioned, status performed, and community ties forged and affirmed. Rituals produced social order even as they fashioned participants.2 Rituals were not something of the past, archaic observances by colonial anthropologists. They were meaningful, alive, and infused our lives. Rituals, and ritual interactions, make us human.

They also make us into particular kinds of humans. At weddings, gender roles came alive for me in a way that brought my undergraduate course readings vividly off the page. I quickly learned that most brides apparently already have ideas about their “special day,” even before they meet their partners. They have talked it over with their girlfriends, even rehearsed it in their minds. I found it strange how few couples planned their wedding together, how few broke the script. When we met to discuss music choices I would purposefully engage the groom, asking if there was anything he wanted: “whatever she wants,” was often the shrugged reply. The mother of the bride typically had more opinions: she had clearly mentally rehearsed this day too. It was a dizzying, head-on collision with gendered imaginaries focused on a single day’s event. A wedding day that seemed more important to get exactly right than the life-long partnership pledged ahead.

I wondered who these women were, apart from the tulle and the fantasy. What was it about being “The Bride” at the center of the event that was so important? The brides themselves seemed unfazed by the repetition. If anything, doing the ritual made the day even more special. The white dress, being at her father’s side down the aisle, the adorable flower girls and ring bearer, her First Dance, the sizeable ring. Whether under a chuppa or at the altar, under a gazebo or inside a Victorian manor, it was the ritual performed for her, with her at the center, doing its transformative work to change her from fiancée into wife.

It was also, undoubtedly a display of white hegemonic femininity—and I was a part of it, the harpist with long hair and flowing robes plucking placidly away in the corner. On stage in my color-coordinated princess dress, I was not only an accessory in someone else’s fairy tale. I was also an accessory in their conspicuous display of status. I grappled with the issue of class and my role in its reproduction every time we tuned up and settled into the backdrop at black tie events.

I would witness these codified identity performances years later at NASA too, observing the men and women of planetary science teams. You could tell types of scientists, administrative duties, hierarchy, even friendship networks based on their forms of comportment and interaction. Like in Rosabeth Kanter’s Men and Women of the Corporation,3 gendered styles of dress marked specific social status, cliques, and roles. Scientist, Project Manager, Principal Investigator and bride: all were identity performances, enrolled in and produced through rituals.

It all hit home at one of the last weddings we played, at a golf course atop a hill just outside the city. The houses got larger and larger as we drove upward, until they were elaborate imitations of Italianate villas. We pulled into the majestic lot and unpacked our instruments, gawking. There was a rose sculpture and an ice sculpture (in late August, no less) and live doves to release at their first kiss. Ten bridesmaids arrived in a white stretch limo, followed by ten groomsmen in a black one, then a horse-drawn carriage for the bride (and her mother). She augmented her dress’s cathedral-length train with an additional six feet of fabric. They had commissioned two sets of musicians to play her two favorite Andrea Bocelli songs: alongside us were twin teenaged sopranos, angelic in their white dresses and blonde curls. As I tuned my harp before the ceremony I felt overwhelmed. I couldn’t tell if all this was due to the paralysis of choice, the couple’s enthusiasm for their commitment, or a purposeful display of opulence—the effect was the same.

As if all this were not enough, the couple were dog breeders and wanted their dogs to accompany them. This included the current litter of puppies, which they planned to include in the ceremony in a baby carriage. Since puppies don’t tend to stay in one place of their own accord, let alone a pram, they drugged the dogs. The pups sprawled sleepily in the pram, tongues lolling down the aisle. The Mother of the Bride in the front row recited the marriage vows along with her daughter—perhaps to boost the audio over the sound of the Clydesdale horses, who chose that precise moment to unleash their full equine bladders on the adjacent paved parking lot. At that point, I realized, I had played my fill.

Most of us experience rituals in our own lives: graduations, quinceañeras, weddings, or family funerals. But few of us get to watch other peoples’ rituals on repeat, a Groundhog Day-esque parade of other people’s lives. Being a wedding harpist exposed me to the combined complexity and commonplaces of human behavior, the intermingling of the sacred and the mundane, the transformative effects of words and action, and the way that social order reverberates again and again through meaningful ritualized moments of intense participation and performance.4 I saw how family, gender, class, and community are produced and reproduced, time and again, and how rare it was to redefine the ritual or upset these standard roles. It also exposed me to a form of reflexivity as I saw how my own presence, as musician or ethnographer, inescapably contributes to the events I observe.

Being a wedding harpist prepared me for the kind of ritual interactions, personal transformations, and identity work I would observe only a few years later at NASA. But that wasn’t the only change. I folded the medieval dresses away and switched from history to sociology. I traded my folk repertoire for jazz: now, if I was in love with someone and there was a problem, they could Cry Me A River while I moved on. And years later, at my own wedding, my partner and I flipped the script. We chose a rainbow of colors, asked our families to pick songs and readings, and walked each other down the aisle to John Williams instead of Johann Pachelbel. To everyone’s surprise but mine, there wasn’t a harp in sight.

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