We talk to the Scottish harpist about recording Christmas carols on three different harps and how she is preparing for her upcoming tour of concerts in venues from Cornwall to Scotland
You have recorded a disc of well-known Christmas carols on three harps – what are the differences between the three instruments?
The oldest instrument is a medieval wire-strung harp that originates from the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. The strings are metal rather gut, so it’s got a completely different playing technique. You use your fingernails and have to do quite a bit of damping as you play. It’s a beautiful instrument, small and capable of making a lovely bell-like sound. I also play a Renaissance bray harp, which is a big, buzzy beast of a thing. There are little bray pins at the bottom of the soundboard that touch the strings and vibrate to make a buzzing sound – it almost sounds like it’s got a distortion pedal. The third is the concert harp you’d see in an orchestra, with pedals and the full chromatic range.
Why did you decide to play on three different harps?
The main reason is that I’ve got these harps and wanted to make use of them. Graham Fitkin, who arranged all of the carols on this disc, was excited by the distinct sounds they each make and was keen to make the most of them too. He wanted to be able to exploit the changes of mood between the tunes while pointing out the different characteristics of the instruments. In the concert harp pieces, like Corde Natus, he uses chromatic harmony – it’s very beautiful, almost jazzy – where as the bray harp pieces, like We Three Kings, are bolder, with repetitive bass lines and dance-like moods.
What challenges – and opportunities – does arranging such well-known carols for the harp present?
In a sense, I see them almost more as new compositions. You could go down a very well trodden route of harmonising the carols with traditional chords and keeping it all in a Romantic soundworld, which is what people expect from the harp. But in fact, these two older harps lend a completely different character. Graham’s arrangements take big risks with very simple tunes and I find that really interesting as a player. The tune of Away in a Manger is almost completely hidden in his arrangement – it’s like a secret that reveals itself gradually. I love having the opportunity to tell new stories with well-known pieces.
You are touring with the release in the UK from Cornwall to Scotland. What significance do the venues hold for you?
I wanted to perform at really interesting historical venues, like Culzean Castle in Scotland and Pendennis Castle in Cornwall, and do something that wasn’t just a straight concert. Graham will be there to introduce the Christmas arrangements as well as the other pieces I’m doing – works by Debussy, Satie and others – and will talk about the history of the carols. A more intimate affair seemed fitting for harps with such a long history. It’ll be candle-lit and some of the venues are even providing champagne and mince pies, so it will feel really festive.
Do you have a favourite Christmas carol?
I would have to go for Silent Night. What Graham’s done with it on the album is wonderful and I have always loved it anyway. The slowness and stillness reminds me of growing up in a remote part of the Scottish highlands.
What do you enjoy most about the run up to Christmas?
Well, this year I am zooming around in a car with a ton of harps, which will be great fun! But the things I love doing each year are making mince pies – I make my own from scratch, including the mince meat, which takes a long time but I love it – and having friends around to spend time in front of a roaring fire. I’m a big fan of snow as well. Add a Christmas tree with lots of fairy lights and I’m in heaven really.
The Three Harps of Christmas is out now.