© 2020
Real. Reliable. Texas Public Radio.
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Maeve Gilchrist's New Album Features Heavenly Harp Music

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

No, you haven't landed in heaven. You're listening to the Celtic harp of Maeve Gilchrist.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's a Scottish harpist and composer known for her improvisational skills and her collaborations with Esperanza Spalding, Yo-Yo Ma, the Silkroad Project and other musical innovators. Her new album is called "The Harpweaver" and it owes its origin to a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, "The Ballad Of The Harp-Weaver." And Maeve Gilchrist joins us now from Cold Spring, N.Y.

Welcome.

MAEVE GILCHRIST: Thank you. Great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about that poem. Part of that reads, (reading) all that was left to us was a chair we couldn't break and the harp with a woman's head nobody would take for a song or pity's sake. And it's a story of a mother's love, essentially, and how this harp sort of ends up providing in times of great, great hardship.

GILCHRIST: I love this idea that the instruments provide for the musicians. So often as a technical musician, we can get so caught up in the idea of mastering the instrument, conquering, pulling the sound out of it. And I just think it was a lovely reminder that the instrument gives to us. Certainly in my case, my instrument, the harp, has brought me from Scotland over to America. It's given me a community. And I just thought it was illuminated so beautifully in this poem of the harp-weaver.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I understand you were surrounded by harps and harpists growing up.

GILCHRIST: I was, yes. And two of my aunts were professional harpists. I grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. My father's Scottish, but my mother's Irish, from Tipperary. And two of her sisters are harpists. And I have cousins who have harpists. So my parents brought me up very immersed in the traditional folk scene. And in Scotland, the harp - the Celtic harp, as it's known over here, although I grew up just calling it the clarsach - the clarsach is a dominant instrument in Scottish traditional music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I read that back in the days when Irish culture was being oppressed, the harp was outlawed because of its ability to stir the spirit. It has a very profound connection to the history.

GILCHRIST: It does. Absolutely. And I'm still often kind of awestruck by their ability that the harp has to truly move people in a very literal way - I mean, it's used more and more in music therapy circles - but also just the way that people connect to the sound. And as a young person interested in music, it was such a wonderful connective choice to bring me closer to the music of my country because immediately, I was creating sounds that were pleasing to my ear in a way that in other instruments, often, people kind of have to fight a little bit or work for the sound. And nowadays in Scotland and Ireland, it's really popular. I mean, there are hordes of fantastic young harp players. And I think part of it is probably that they sit down at the instrument; they feel the vibrations on them; and it speaks to them immediately.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I love the idea of hordes of harp players. The image is...

GILCHRIST: Peaceful warriors.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Also pleasing. Yes, exactly. I want to listen to one song. It's got an amazing title. It's called "Chris Stout's Compliments To The Bon Accord Ale House/Ancestral Mud." Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAEVE GILCHRIST'S "CHRIS STOUT'S COMPLIMENTS TO THE BON ACCORD ALE HOUSE/ANCESTRAL MUD")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This sounds incredibly complex. Can you explain what's going on here with the music?

GILCHRIST: Sure. In that track in particular, I really enjoy exploring some of the grittier sounds of the harp. We all know it can make this ethereal, kind of luminous sound. But actually, it's such a versatile instrument. And in that particular track, I enjoy using the muted strings a lot at the beginning to kind of set up this rhythmic, more driving ostinato.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAEVE GILCHRIST'S "CHRIS STOUT'S COMPLIMENTS TO THE BON ACCORD ALE HOUSE/ANCESTRAL MUD")

GILCHRIST: This idea of creating drive is something I have to think about because I don't have that percussive strum of the guitar, or I don't have the ability, like bowed instruments do, to lean in and create that forward-moving motions. So as harp players, we need to do it in different ways - through intention, through dynamics, through arrhythmic juxtaposition, which is another thing that I play with in the arrangement of this piece - this idea of using different rhythmic cycles, overlapping to create the illusion of forward movement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAEVE GILCHRIST'S "CHRIS STOUT'S COMPLIMENTS TO THE BON ACCORD ALE HOUSE/ANCESTRAL MUD")

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are a lot of collaborations on this album - with the Aizuri Quartet and guitarist Kyle Sanna, among others. And you sing, too. Let's listen to a bit of "Young And Old."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOUNG AND OLD")

GILCHRIST: (Singing) When all the world is young light (ph) and all the trees are green and every goose is swan light (ph) and every lass a queen, the (unintelligible).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The harp seems at this particular moment in time a bit of a gift. I wonder if you have people remarking on that. It is such a time of uncertainty and tumult and anxiety. And the harp - even though it has all this range that you discuss, it is something that sort of gets to the heart of things in a way that maybe other instruments don't.

GILCHRIST: Yeah. I mean, I hope so. But that idea of using the harp to create familiarity, sounds of comfort - that does feel like a real gift. And I hope that using these old-sounding melodies clothed in the context of the contemporary string world will evoke good feelings in the people that hear it. And it - during these last few months, it feels particularly relevant when we simply can't be with those that we love. Perhaps we can feel those feelings of comfort through sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maeve Gilchrist's new album is called "The Harpweaver."

Thank you so much.

GILCHRIST: It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.