Composer Graham Fitkin and his harpist partner Ruth Wall are a quietly dynamic duo, apparently reinventing themselves with every project, yet always true to their individual musical identities while implicitly attuned each to the other.
Harpland, their new touring programme, foregrounds Wall’s playing and, with its play on heartland, specifically her Alba heritage, using old Scottish melodies and taking the theme of migration as the thought-provoking connecting thread. Peter Freeman’s light installation, like flickering candles at the front of the stage, contributed to the intimacy of the setting. Wall played three different harps – wired, electro and bray – with Fitkin presiding over the electronic input, adding background sound and manipulating it, setting up pulsing patterns with an element of sampling, complex though never intrusive.
The traditional folk lilt that established a number in the simplest possible way – characteristic grace-notes colouring the often haunting, lamenting nature of the lines – had its own attraction. But any notion of stasis was dispelled as the duo’s treatment began to develop and migrate, melodies acquiring aura, the electronics sometimes conjuring wind and air, raw and elemental. In tandem, an accretion of figuration under Wall’s fingers became more intricate without losing the essence of the original. Variation in the three instruments – the wired harp brittle and metallic, the electro more mellow, and the edgy buzz of the bray harp reminiscent of a sitar – countered any possible monotony.
A deeper engagement came from the incorporation of the recorded testimonies of migrants to Scotland whom Wall herself had interviewed. The 18th and 19th-century history of the Highland clearances – the context for some of the melodies – now took on a contemporary resonance with the tone and grain of their voices reinforcing the poignancy of their words. “I try not to think,” said one, “but …” and the speech falters.
Among the voices was an Iranian, giving the cue for Wall’s rendering on the bray harp of the vibrant Yalda, the traditional Persian celebration of the winter solstice. Here it also underlined loss and deracination, and, in singing the old songs, that sense of longing that the Welsh call hiraeth. Since Wall had earlier played the Welsh song Y Gog (The Cuckoo) on the bray, it was an affinity not lost on this audience.
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