Originally from Scotland, clàrsach in hand, Maeve Gilchrist has moved to the United States where she has developed a unique sound between Celtic, jazz and experimental music. The release of her new album, 20 Chandler Street, gives us the opportunity to come back to the unusual career of one of today's most talented harpists.
Maeve Gilchrist: My father is a music critic and one of the most musical folks I’ve ever known. He had a great record collection that included some contemporary classical music, a lot of good classic rock, ECM jazz, Ravi Shankar, Fairport Convention – everything you can think of! In the house, there was always music and parties or social occasions of any kind ended with a session. Fiddles, piano, pipes – these were all around me growing up and it really instilled a joy in music that will never ever go away. It was also representative of the connecting nature of music which is something very important.
When I was ten, I joined the city of Edinburgh Music School. One of the most moving musical experiences I had early on was playing as part of a new composition called Mackay’s Memoirs by Martyn Bennet (one of my musical heroes) at the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999. The combination of the music, the occasion, my proud and patriotic grandfather standing in the audience: the feelings stirred in me in this performance and others, courtesy of the music school, definitely solidified my desire to become a professional musician.
I was moved by all kinds of artists: the dark, free, cascading colours of Kristen Noguès’s harp playing; Tom Waits (particularly his early stuff). I used to spend hours thumping away on the piano and singing through the Asylum Years record in keys way too low for my voice. Similarly, I remember watching the Jools Holland show late on Friday nights and hearing all kinds of great stuff. Often I’d go to the piano afterword and just play some – looking back it’s amazing my parents never complained!
From Scotland to the US
The harp is very much in my blood with two professional harpist aunts (Kathleen Loughnane and Máiréad Doherty) and a cousin on my mother side. They put it on my radar but I was also lucky that living in Edinburgh, we were immersed in the Scottish traditional music scene from a young age. The Celtic harp being a traditional instrument in Scottish music meant that it wasn’t such an alien choice for me as it may be for someone growing up here in the United States.
I started learning the clàrsach when I was eight and took lessons for a couple of years with a great musician, Wendy Stewart, before going on to study with Isobel Mieras. Isobel is an incredible teacher. She managed to constantly encourage and challenge musical curiosity helping to draw out the emotion of the music and create images, while all the time shaping a solid technique. She could write words on my music like "mischievous", "mysterious", even "sexy"!! I’m very grateful to Isobel for being such a huge inspiration.
Knowing my interest in jazz and improvisation, Tudor Morris – the director of the City of Edinburgh Music School – suggested that I apply to Berklee (Boston, USA), a place that could cater to my different musical interests and help me gather some tools as a modern musician. Berklee is a great place to be as a curious and motivated young musician, its resources are seemingly endless and the competition inspiring. There are so many musicians attending the College from all over the world.
The American roots program is really blossoming right now. It was created to house and celebrate all the young musicians coming to the school from bluegrass, old time, Appalachian and Celtic music backgrounds with an interest in developing their skills in contemporary music, harmonic vocabulary etc. The students have the option to study with off instrument instructors. After my studies, I was hired by the string and roots dept a couple of years ago. So as well as teaching both lever and pedal harp, I work with guitarists, mandolinists, fiddlers and ensembles on various stylistic techniques.
I love details, textures and colours. These are things that appeal to me not just in music but in art, literature and film. I’ve always been curious about the fine line between the real and the surreal. It probably musically translates to in and out of tradition, in and out of the familiar. Both appeal in equal ways and it’s an ongoing endeavour to find a tasteful way to work them both.
Living in New York where historically there has been such a strong Irish music scene through the last century, I’ve been playing more Irish music than Scottish recently. Depending on what I’m playing, however, it becomes more or less obvious that my music is inspired by Scotland but always in the subtlest of ways. In my more esoteric music, such as The Ostinato Project, it probably comes out in the melodic choices, phrasing, and constant ornamentation.
Writing some new textural ideas recently, I’d been listening to some Piobaireachd music. I love the space and the involved ornamentation leading up to certain notes. I ended up writing these very spare little textures with many repeated notes. It may not be obvious to the listener what inspired these sounds but it grounds my music and makes it appeal to the heart in a more deeply rooted way.
My duo with the percussive dancer Nic Gareiss is a delicate, thoughtful collaboration which brings together the harp and dance. Our respective "instruments" often represent two completely different ends of the musical spectrum: the harp is often brought out for a romantic, still or ethereal moment in the show whereas the dancers would come on when the music was really driving along to up the energy even more! We wanted to create an artistic project where the harp could at times become a driving, rhythmic force and alternatively, the dance could play a more melodic, legato role, and vice versa. The bare-bones nature of this partnership makes us really utilise our "instruments" in order to create as much contrast as possible and explore all possible soundscapes.
Freedom and freshness of spontaneous creation drives and excites me. In relation to folk music, there are many minute improvisations happening all the time in tune playing: tiny variations, ornamentations, phrasing choices. The more tunes in we are to these little improvisations, the more involved and active the playing becomes. When one listens to some of the early masters of Irish fiddle playing (folk like Michael Coleman, Tommy Potts, Padraig O’ Keefe…) there are these incredibly fluid variations happening all the time. In a genre like jazz, or any kind of contemporary improvisation-driven music, the improvisation is on a much larger scale. It’s important to be sensitive to the context of whatever you are playing to make sure you are being tasteful in the scale of the improvisation.
20 Chandler Street
20 Chandler Street was actually recorded a few years ago and it just took a while to be released. If The Ostinato Project was me paying heed to my more abstract musical ideas, 20 Chandler Street record was probably the opposite: using my traditional roots as the vehicle for more abstract ideas. This record was also a chance to really have fun with other musicians – the conversational aspect of music is one of the most enjoyable things for me.
When I moved back to Boston in 2009, it was right around the time that I started to become involved with what we call the "new acoustic" scene (folk musicians of different traditional backgrounds with an interest in creating new music and collaborating in different ways). It felt great to be part of an active scene and those 4-5 years were big playing years for me.
Every summer, I’d head out to Shasta Music Summit camp in California – an amazing camp that was the brainchild of brother and sister, Tristan and Tashina Clarridge (of Crooked Still, the Bee eaters, Tony Trishka band etc etc). At the camp were wonderful musicians of all different kinds and everyone just wanted to play and make music. This was hugely influential on my playing. Trying to find a way to make the harp fit in different instrumental groupings and not step on any toes. I remember sharing a gorgeous, golden afternoon with Roger Tallroth (of Väsen). I love the knot-like sound of the harp and his very unique way of playing the guitar, weaving in and out. It’s impossible to put a musician like him in a box. His playing transcends any stylistic or geographical boundaries – Roger is a unique artist and musical mind.
We toured with Aidan O’Donnell and Duncan Wickel for a number of years. Aidan is also from Scotland but we met when I first moved to NYC in 2007. We bonded as two Scots in a foreign city and I’ve been spoiled by his supportive and beautifully musical playing. Wickel comes from a traditional Irish background but moved North to expand his knowledge and experience in bluegrass and jazz. He’s an incredible improviser and thoughtful musician. Darol Anger has been a mentor and dear friend to me since I met him in 2009. He’s been most generous in welcoming me into many wonderful musical situations, both as a member of his band and with my own projects.