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Maeve Gilchrist's New Album Features Heavenly Harp Music


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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."


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.


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.