Edinburgh International Harp Festival 2021: Alex Monaghan watched as hundreds of harpists went online for a global gathering of music on this ancient instrument.
There have always been harpists in Scotland, and connections with other harp traditions, for as long as Scotland has existed really, but this festival started at a pretty lean period for Scottish harping and has watched the scene flourish and flower over the past four decades. Around 1980 it was early days for names like Alison Kinnaird, Patsy Seddon, Billy Jackson and Mary MacMaster, the harpists I encountered at that time, and while there were other harpists around they were using the harp more for accompaniment than as a solo instrument in its own right. The picture is very different nowadays: generation after generation of harpists have improved technique and repertoire, and there are now so many Scottish harpists that his festival could have concentrated on them alone. Instead it has become ever more international - from the obvious choices of Ireland, Wales and Brittany, to the more distant relations in Galicia and North America, and the parallel evolutions in places like Paraguay and Peru - and is now arguably the most important event on the traditional harp calendar.
The 40th Edinburgh International Harp Festival featured several generations of Scottish players as well as Welsh, Irish, American and European harpists, and players from other continents too. Everything was online, of course: four big evening concerts, a number of smaller concerts, plus workshops and tutorials and other events. This was the second online festival - last year was a bit of a scramble, but this year was very organised and hugely impressive. I didn't drop into the teaching sessions - I don't have a harp to bring to the party - but I enjoyed every concert, renewing old acquaintances and discovering exciting new players.
Ailie Robertson, one of Scotland's best known harpists, opened this concert with a selection of Irish and Scottish classics both ancient and modern, as well as some of her own music and one or two pieces from Quebec where she spent a year or two studying and teaching. Ailie's style is quite jazzy, plenty of swing and great bass lines: she is a mainstay of the international folk group The Outside Track, whom you could think of as a sort of Atomic Piseag. In a set of mainly dance music - jigs, waltzes, polkas - she included the lovely slow air Chrissie's Tune by West Highland fiddler/violinist Donald Grant, and rounded off with a very flash version of the hornpipe President Garfield's. Continuing the West Highland connection, Ailie was followed by Ingrid Henderson and her fiddler husband Iain MacFarlane with some driving dance music from Scotland, Sweden, Cape Breton and elsewhere. It was interesting to hear the harp both as an accompaniment and an equal melodic partner to the fiddle: difficult to imagine the fiddle being so flexible in most hands, but Iain does also play bagpipes and piano accordion, so be careful what you wish for!
Although this was a virtual and pre-recorded concert, EIFH put a lengthy interval in the programme, for this and the other evening concerts, which had the advantages of creating a natural break and also providing a slot for information about merchandise and future performances. After the interval Maggie MacInnes, daughter of the great Barra singer Flora MacNeil, combined Gaelic song with harp accompaniment, and with some strong words about those who meddled with the Gaelic tradition in the past, particularly with reference to Marjorie Kennedy Fraser's changes to the song known as The Eriskay Love Lilt from the island of my ancestors. Fortunately the original version - or as close as we can get - is now well known and was beautifully performed by Maggie here. To close the opening concert of the festival, the pioneering Edinburgh harp duo Sìleas revisited many of their classic arrangements of Scottish music for Patsy Seddon's gut-strung clarsach and Mary MacMaster's wire-strung instrument. For some of us this was a trip down memory lane, back to the 1980s: for others it was probably a new experience, and as fresh today as almost forty years ago. The camera work on this performance was a little jerky and limited, perhaps because this was the first recording done with a live audience in Greyfriars Kirk: the rest of the festival had smooth and satisfying video, with no visual distractions.
Saturday's lunchtime concert presented the first handful of new generation harpists - and the first male harper on this year's programme. From its historical character as a male-dominated pursuit, harping has become almost all women, certainly in Scotland and in several other countries. I can't name a young male harpist - or I couldn't until I heard Dubliner Luke Webb, sharing this concert with five female harpists from around Scotland. This was the first of three showcases for young talent, which demonstrated great technical and composing skills as well as an encouraging level of inclusivity and some very young names to watch. The second concert featured wire-strung harp as well as gut-strung instruments, with a mix of old and new music from Scotland, North America and the Isle of Man: I particularly enjoyed the technical aspects of Brèagha Charlton's performance on close-up video, and the liveliness of Arabella Ayen's playing. Monday's youngsters were Scottish based again, with some lovely performances including a great medley of dance tunes from Sorcha Thompson and a fitting finale from 2020 Up and Coming Artist award winner Becky Hill.
The big piece in Saturday's evening concert was The Mask by Yiota Myserli from Greece, which won her the Iain Macleòid Young Composer Award. It's a flowing, changing river of notes, running through a range of moods, impressively played on a lovely lever harp. Before Yiota, Corrina Hewat & David Milligan presented a varied programme of modern music for harp and piano - which is just a big fancy harp when all's said and done! Their combination of music and song, jazz and tradition, led up to a grand rendition of American fiddler Liz Knowles' spiky 7/8 piece Rumble Thy Bellyful, a delight for the senses.
While the great majority of harps on show at this festival are lever harps - configurable chromatic instruments - there were also a number of different styles of harp, and even related instruments such as the Chinese guzheng which featured in this concert, a horizontal instrument like an enormous zither played by five female musicians for a piece of music depicting a dramatic storm. Another Chinese piece portrayed the Silk Road through a whole ensemble of traditional and modern Chinese instruments - moon guitar, flute, zither, and other Asian instruments, together with keyboards and drum kit for a very varied soundscape.
After an interval punctuated by a new tune from Isobel Mieras, Keep On Smiling, Irish American harpist Maeve Gilchrist performed extracts from her recent album The Harpweaver in her inimitable flamboyant style. James Hill's Locomotive received a jazzy make-over amid some of Maeve's own sparkling compositions. Gorgeous music with a story behind it, Maeve's new pieces are available in her recordings and music books. To finish an epic concert, The Tarab Trio combined German harpist Tom Daun's clarsach with the three-string lute and many-stringed santur dulcimer of two Kurdish musicians: their sound is ancient, eastern, and yet still shares elements with the oldest pieces in the Celtic harp repertoire: the modal harmonies and dissonances, and the close connection of phrasing and rhythm between singers, dancers and musicians. Based in Solingen but with a store of tunes and songs from Greece to Afghanistan, this band provided a fine finale for the second evening concert.
In an afternoon concert on Sunday, Anne Denholm and Eira Lynn Jones mixed lever harp and pedal harp for contemporary solos and a final duet. This was much more how many people are used to seeing the harp presented, in a parlour or grand atrium setting, with a repertoire that emphasises the bell-like qualities of the instrument rather than the more modern staccato or even percussive possibilities. Anne and Eira played some very beautiful and approachable pieces by Welsh composers, and a couple of more challenging works.
Sunday evening mixed harp and nyckelharpa from Swedish duo Dråm with a range of less traditional harp music. Erik Ask-Upmark used a harp technique I hadn't seen before, a sort of pinch between finger and thumb of the left hand. Anna Rynefors alternated nyckelharpa and Swedish bagpipes, a relatively quiet instrument which fitted well with the clarsach, and also played plucked nyckelharpa, another first for me. Esther Swift's short set included a range of music on pedal harp from 9th century brain-teasers to Kate Bush songs, all with her energetic vocals and fingerwork. After a virtual interval, Park Stickney coaxed cool jazz and world music sounds from his green and gold pedal harp - a mix of his home state's Encanto Park with his adopted Geneva's Park de la Grange perhaps. Instructive, entertaining and inscrutable, often simultaneously, Park's performance was uniquely inspirational. All that was missing was a dance piece, but maybe next time we can look forward to a sort of Stickney ballroom. As if this wasn't enough, the evening was rounded off by Paraguayan pair Hermanos Corbalán with rather different harps and techniques for their Latin-tinged music: cascades of notes, complex tunings, sinuous rhythms and subtle melodies. There were resonances with Spanish and even Celtic traditions, but just as much with the Tex-Mex music which is almost as geographically distant, so no doubt this tradition has a fascinating history behind its lively toe-tapping music. Their final piece was stunning, a real highlight of the festival.
The closing concert of this year's event embraced music from Wales, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and of course Italy. Adriano Sangineto is a harpist I had actually heard before, in a live stream with Ailie Robertson: like everywhere else, Italy seems to have fallen in love with Celtic harp music, and Adriano is leading the scene with his Arpa Creativa performances. Sangineto played four of his own pieces, all happy and uplifting: contemporary music with a good beat, and a heart of swing or ragtime or perhaps traditional dance. Technically superb, and with great sound quality as all the concert sets had, this performance was highly entertaining and great fun, a different voice for the ancient but oh so flexible harp.
Laoise Kelly, recorded on Achill Island just off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, kicked off with a couple of tunes from the Connellan brothers, 17th-century harpists who travelled between Ireland and Scotland. There was a very full sound from her harp which suited the slower pieces, but when she switched up to dance tempo for a couple of polkas the ringing strings weren't an issue at all: Laoise's great technique is obviously adapted to damping as needed. She wrapped up with three Scottish tunes, some Skinner virtuoso pieces played flawlessly on harp. Welsh harp icon Llio Rhydderch played a set of seven traditional and new pieces on Welsh triple harp with its characteristic rippling sound. From the bright air Sir Fôn Bach through the descriptive Beuno a’r Gylfinir to the final joyous jig Difyrrwch Ynysmaengwyn, we were treated to the full gamut of Welsh harp music played by a true master of the instrument. The finale by duo Rachel Hair & Ron Jappy came back to Scotland - with a touch of Irish and Manx music, and a couple of Rachel's own compositions. Their combination of harp and guitar is tried and tested, Jappy's rhythmic chords leaving Hair free to harmonise with both hands on the beautiful Looking at a Rainbow through a Dirty Window, and to concentrate on the tricky melody of The Duke of Fife's Welcome to Deeside. Solo harp for two slow airs showed the lovely deep notes of the instrument, enhanced by the live setting in Greyfriars Kirk. Ron and Rachel ended in funky style with a set of salty jigs: Starry-Eyed Lads, Alan Kelly's The Alamo, and The Rolling Wave.
Four days of the finest harp music, all put together by committee members and volunteers: a very impressive achievement, and so smoothly presented. The concerts were introduced by familiar faces from the harp world, doing themselves and the festival great credit. Each evening concert was preceded by a half-hour chat between two harpists - serious, sociable, and silly by turns! Among many tasteful and innovative touches, the combination of small-audience recordings and home videos was inspired: so varied, and so adaptable. I hope the Edinburgh International Harp Festival will find a way to keep the advantages of online performances - for both audience and artists - as they plan for in-person concerts in April 2022!
Photo Credits: (1) Sileas, (2) Edinburgh International Harp Festival, (3) Ingrid Henderson Iain MacFarlane, (4) Hermanos Corbalán, (5) Dråm, (6) Rachel Hair & Ron Jappy (unknown/website).