Feature/Interview

Scottish harpist Karen Marshalsay (new CD The Road to Kennacraig)

Scottish harper Karen Marshalsay releases The Road to Kennacraig, an album of traditional Scottish music and her own tunes written in traditional forms, on Monday 15 July. This might seem an odd occasion for London Jazz News to mark but there are connections between jazz and traditional music, as Karen explains to Sebastian. 

LondonJazz News: Your music isn’t jazz but it shares some of the same features and techniques; can you tell us more?

Karen Marshalsay (Publicity photo)

Karen Marshalsay: One of the main things jazz and Scottish traditional music have in common is the importance of personal style and interpretation. Like jazz, Scottish music is not a fixed historical thing but a living tradition. And improvisation plays an important part of the tradition in that neither the arrangements nor the ornamentation are set in stone; I’ll play these as I feel right each time and I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do until it happens. So harmonically I’m pretty much following a set sequence of chords though I might make the occasional substitution but how those chords are voiced and played will vary each time I play the tune and even within the tune itself so the second time round will be different and so on. Ornamentation is also a response to the feeling in the moment as you play and in traditional playing you don’t want to always play the same grace notes every time anyway. Tune variations are also a big part of what I do – you take a tune and make it your own, whether that’s a series of set variations to a part or a one-off variation that just happens as you’re playing.

I’m always pushing technique on the harp especially for ornamentation and rhythm, and that’s something that always appeals to me at jazz gigs. But lastly and maybe the biggest link is that like jazz my music tells stories – it’s about people and places and sharing those stories with the audience.

LJN: Jazz has played a major part in your music appreciation, though; who are your favourites and how have they influenced you?

KM: My dad was a big jazz fan and I grew up with the sound of big bands and Glenn Miller around the house. The first albums I bought were Louis Armstrong’s and I played my dad’s Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet and Sarah Vaughan records so much that they ended up in my record collection rather than his! These days some of my favourite CDS are by Trygve Seim, Renaud Garcia-Fons, and John Surman.

There’s a good jazz scene up here in Scotland and some great players around. I’ve been really impressed at gigs by New Focus (Konrad Wiszniewski and Euan Stevenson) and Tommy Smith, both solo and with pianist Brian Kellock, and I recently heard them with Gaelic singer Kathleen MacInnes at the Queens Hall. The young pianist Fergus MacCreadie opened that gig with his own trio and there is a definite Scottish sound in there.

As a traditional player I’m fascinated by the idea of culture and identity coming through in your music but I think the main influence on me is in phrasing and the way these players really explore ideas to the full. Sometimes it’s too easy for traditional players just to move on to the next tune before you’ve really done all you can with the first one. The drummer Tom Bancroft once said to me at a Distil residential weekend for traditional musicians interested in longer form composing that the difference between traditional musicians and jazzers is that the traditional player walks down the street with a bag of apples and takes one bite of an apple then throws it away and reaches for another one, but the jazzer eats that whole apple right down to the core. Through Distil I got to work with people like Rick Taylor who really opened my ears to harmonic possibilities and ways of working that perhaps show up more in my contemporary compositions rather than the traditional material but have been important in my musical development overall.

LJN: You play three different harps on your new album, The Road to Kennacraig; can you tell us a bit more about these instruments?

KM: The modern gut-strung harp (my red one!) is probably my main workhorse instrument. It’s smaller than a pedal harp, so much more portable, and has a semitone lever on each string giving you two pitches for each string. I tune in Eb with all levers off, so by engaging all the levers I can play in E major, and of course the keys in between. For accidentals you have to change levers with your left hand while playing so that can be a bit challenging at times depending on the music. You’d really want a pedal harp for jazz though you can do some interesting things on lever harp too.

The wire-strung clarsach is the more ancient harp that was played in the Highlands and the Gaelic speaking areas of both Scotland and Ireland and going back hundreds of years. The sound is clearer and more bell-like and the strings are struck with the fingernails. Each string has a really long resonance so you have to return your fingerpads after you play and damp the strings when they’re no longer part of the harmony you want to hear. It’s a diatonic instrument but can be retuned for different pieces. I find it really suited to older Gaelic tunes and of course pibroch too, though I’ve been writing more contemporary pieces for it recently.

The bray harp is a very different sound to modern ears– quite like a sitar really as each string has a small wooden bray pin at its base which touches the string lightly and causes a buzzing sound. It was very much the dance band instrument of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, as the sound helped to amplify it and cut across the noise of the great halls. There is a fascinating manuscript of pieces from the 14th century that works really well on bray harp and has been likened to modern, ambient chill out music. It’s more linked to the lowland areas of Scotland, and there’s only a few players these days. I played it on a version of Strange Fruit a few years ago and it was pretty effective on that.

LJN: There’s a big bagpipe music influence on quite a number of the tracks; is there a particular historic link between the harp and the pipes and how did you come to play pibroch [the classical music of the Highland bagpipe]?

KM: The harp and the pipes are the older instrumental traditions in Scotland, with fiddle being the new kid on the block, and there’s a definite link between them, particularly in the older styles like pibroch which is very much theme and variation-based. In pibroch the variations become increasingly complex before returning to the opening ground, or urlar, again at the end. The harp tradition is a broken one in Scotland, with the old style traditional harp dying out in the late 18th century, whereas the pipes were taken up by the army and thrived but also became quite standardised by that. There were theme and variation style tunes in the harp repertoire, but the harpers never wrote their music down so we have to reconstruct the pieces, and the piping tradition is the obvious place to look. I worked with pibroch expert and renowned piper Allan MacDonald on his Edinburgh International Festival series of pibroch concerts, From Battle Lines to Bar Lines, in 2004, and he helped me understand the genre and translate the sounds and rhythms of the variations into harp forms. For me it’s a very natural way of playing the harp.

LJN: The title track itself and a number of others are your own compositions; how do you compose and do you work outside of the standard traditional tune form?

KM: Tunes often come from just improvising around a few notes or ideas and gradually solidifying those into a tune. Sometimes it’s sparked by the thought of a place or a person or event and a conscious decision to write a tune specifically for that. And sometimes it’s a practical response to the need for a particular type of tune in a particular key to make up a set. I generally compose on the harp with the melody coming first and the arrangement developing from that. While I love writing tunes in a traditional format I am more and more interested in composing for other instruments and larger ensembles, and in those cases I often use a piano keyboard or write straight into Sibelius, and that’s more an exploration of all aspects of  composition rather than traditional tune forms. I played with the Russian String Orchestra last August here in Edinburgh as guest soloist on two of my pieces that I orchestrated for them, and I’ll be doing that again at the Fringe this year.

LJN: You have concerts coming up in a variety of venues; what are your favourite places to play and why?

KM: It’s great to be able to play in all sorts of different venues from large to small. Some of the smaller places like the church in Linlithgow where I played in May have gorgeous acoustics that you can really use in your playing and I love being able to respond to the sound and feel of a venue. I also love playing in places with a real sense of history like the National Trust properties. As a harper I do feel a strong connection to the players who played in some of these castles and great halls hundreds of years ago.

LJN: What would you like the audience to take away from your concerts?    

KM: I want listeners to be moved. The pieces are variously sad, thoughtful and reflective, poignant, but also strong and celebratory, and a bit mischievous at times. There’s so much going on in the world that a gig should be a haven where folk can be absorbed by the music and leave feeling uplifted and more able to go out and get on with life.

TOUR DATES

Fri 23 Aug: Hill of Tarvit Mansion House, near Cupar (Fife)
Sun 25 Aug: Eyemouth Hippodrome
Fri 13 Sep: Biggar Music
Sat 21 Sep: Wighton Centre, Dundee
Fri 8 Nov: Birnam Arts Centre

LINK: CD available from Karen Marshalsay’s website 

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