Alison Bjorkedal: A story of harp, Hollywood and the heart

Alison Bjorkedal in a black dress sits on the ground, leaning against her harp.
Grammy award-winning harpist Alison Bjorkedal first decided to pursue music seriously when she was an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. (Courtesy: Aaron Jay Young Studios)

Pomona College music lecturer Alison Bjorkedal fell in love with the harp as a freshman in high school, although she couldn’t even dream then that she could make a life out of it. Decades later, though, Bjorkedal has won a Grammy, worked with major recording artists like Madonna, Sia and Kid Cudi and recorded for Hollywood blockbusters, something that her childhood self didn’t think was possible.

Called a “force field unto her own, yet joined by something bigger” in a Los Angeles Times article, Bjorkedal is now an accomplished harpist and musician, a passion that takes up half of her career. The other half is focused on her second love: teaching. 

Bjorkedal first decided to pursue the harp seriously when her brother guided her through the college admissions process.

“As I was applying to colleges, my brother, who’s older and had just been to college, sat me down and said, ‘What can’t you imagine being absent from your life?’ and I was like, ‘Well, it’s easy: it’s music,’” Bjorkedal said. “He was like, ‘Well, maybe you should consider being a musician,’ and I was like, ‘I don’t think you can do that.’ He, kind of gently, was like, ‘You’re at a time in your life where you should try,’ so I decided to study music.” 

After that, Bjorkedal relied on the connections she made with other harpists as an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon and later during graduate school at the USC Thornton School of Music, which provided her with the opportunity to play the harp on several recordings. As a result of her performance in these jobs, she said news of her work would travel by word of mouth and she would get offers for more recording opportunities. 

Eventually, Bjorkedal’s success led her to play on tracks for major recording artists and for various television shows and movies. Bjorkedal is “honored” to have been able to play on these tracks because of her passion for movies and listening to records. 

She particularly loved getting to work with recording artist Sia, whose album “This is Acting,”  came out a few years prior to Sia’s mainstream success in the United States. 

“I remember sitting down recording solo harp for this album, and hearing this voice in my headset and being like, ‘Who is this person?’ and they’re like, ‘Her name’s Sia. She’s kind of new to the States,’ and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. She’s amazing,’” Bjorkedal said. “And then, four or five years later, she was all over the radio and I was like, ‘I can’t believe she made it! It’s amazing.’ I just think she has one of the best voices.” 

Bjorkedal’s other favorite experience recording for a pop album was when she had the opportunity to record for Madonna’s record “Rebel Heart” and see Madonna in person. 

“I was like, ‘Wow! That’s a bucket list thing,’ and she was super gracious and really cool,” Bjorkedal said.  

For movies and TV shows, Bjorkedal especially enjoyed recording in the horror genre because of how it differs from what is normally expected of harp players. 

“Although I don’t like to watch horror films –– I’m a little bit of a wimp –– the music is really fun to play because you can imagine everybody being scared and you’re playing these ominous things and the harp, as a general reputation, isn’t thought of as scary, so it’s really fun to get to inhabit that emotion for the scary movies,” Bjorkedal said. 

Bjorkedal’s experience as a musician isn’t just confined to mainstream music, though. Her work also extends to contemporary classical music for which she has received a Grammy. 

She won her 2014 Grammy for Best Classical Compendium for her song “Plectra and Percussion Dances,” which she recorded with the musical ensemble Partch, a contemporary music group in which she is a member. According to Bjorkedal, Partch plays “niche music” composed by Harry Partch. 

The group members did not expect to receive a Grammy despite their nomination, so they were caught off-guard when their win was announced. 

“I just find it a fascinating process to get to know each person, help them highlight their strengths, take the things that are more challenging for them and find a way to access them and get them better,” Bjorkedal said. 

Alison Bjorkedal

“They called our name, and none of our group got up because we were just stunned, and then it was just pure surprise and joy to work really hard on something and feel like people responded to it in a nice way,” Bjorkedal said.

Outside of recording, Bjorkedal currently teaches at the college level as faculty at Pomona, Occidental College, Pasadena City College and California Institute of the Arts. Getting to teach provides Bjorkedal with “a lot of joy.” 

“I just find it a fascinating process to get to know each person, help them highlight their strengths, take the things that are more challenging for them and find a way to access them and get them better,” Bjorkedal said. 

As a faculty member at Pomona, Bjorkedal has found that teaching has changed her “as a person” and has made her “strive to be a better musician.” While part of this growth has been facilitated by her relationships with faculty members, she also cites her relationships with her students as contributing to her growth, as their work ethic and academic ambition continue to stun her. 

“[My students] were into so many different interesting things and then beyond that, they brought this curiosity to the harp that is just so refreshing,” Bjorkedal said. “I was blown away. When you’ve been playing an instrument for 25 years, you can start to feel like maybe you’ve done everything but then, all the students here brought interesting questions and then were practicing so hard on their own. The fact that [I get] to teach [at] an amazing set of institutions [is] definitely a pinch-me type of situation.” 

And that’s coming from someone who has won a Grammy.

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