Interview: Savourna Stevenson, harpist and composer

Stevenson is aiming to cover the whole harp gamut in one show

The influence of clarsach and harp player Savourna Stevenson – celebrating her 50th birthday with a Celtic Connections concert tonight– shows no sign of waning, discovers Sue Wilson

TAKING a break from rehearsals for her 50th birthday concert at Celtic Connections, harpist and composer Savourna Stevenson is the very embodiment of a woman happy in her work.

“If I could, I would just play the harp all day, every day, every waking hour – and possibly in my sleep, too,” she says. “Obviously I can’t: as it is, I often play to the point of, ‘Oh dear, I can’t straighten my fingers,’ or noticing I’ve got all these broken blood vessels in my wrists – but I just love it.”

Although she’s primarily known as the leading contemporary renaissance pioneer on Scotland’s oldest national instrument, the clarsach, the most immediate reason why Stevenson’s cup overfloweth is her rekindled love affair with the much bigger classical pedal harp. “I played it as a teenager, but for a long time after that, until maybe three or four years ago, pretty much all my work was on the clarsach – which pedal harpists tended to look down on in those days, though that’s all completely changed now. But as a composer, the pedal harp is like having a grand piano to work with: it’s just got so many more notes, and also pedal harpists are much keener for new material – the clarsach players all want to do their own thing.”

Stevenson has only herself to blame for this creative independence of spirit among her Scottish co-instrumentalists. Name any leading younger exponent – of whom there are plenty, such as Corrina Hewat, Catriona McKay, Fiona Rutherford and Ailie Robertson, all headlining elsewhere at Celtic Connections – and the chances are she’s taught them, or they’ll certainly cite her as a key inspiration.

“I first heard Savourna’s music on a cheap compilation called The Celtic Harp or some such, when I was about 14, and I just played it to death,” says Rutherford, whose New Voices commission premières at the festival on Sunday. “I just loved the way she has no genre boundaries, all the really inventive ways she uses the harp, and the way she combines it with other instruments. As a teacher, too, she was so inspiring and encouraging, particularly with my interest in composing as well; she really treats every student as a total individual, and will work with whatever style you want to pursue.”

“Savourna just keeps on raising the bar,” says Hewat, principal harp tutor at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, who performed in her own six-harp suite, The Oak and the Ivy, at in Glasgow last week, and who’d been playing for just six weeks when first taken under Stevenson’s wing at a fèis in Fort Augustus. “She’s incorporated influences from all over the world, she uses all the colours, textures and rhythms possible – and as long as she keeps doing that, everyone else in Scotland has to follow. She’s a total inspiration.” Both players, needless to say, will be at tonight’s gig – in fact, if you want to know the whereabouts of pretty much any Scottish harp player that night, established or aspiring, it’s a fair bet they’ll be in the City Halls.

The outset of Stevenson’s own musical journey involved a similarly full immersion in her milieu as she continues to practise. As the daughter of the great Scottish pianist and composer Ronald Stevenson, she too started out learning the piano, and was writing her own tunes from the age of five. “But I was also hearing just about every other kind of music around the house, with lots of different musicians visiting – everything from Gaelic psalm singing and mouth-music to modern jazz, stuff from all round the world. In fact, I used to have a game with my Dad called Journey Around the World, where we’d play duets in different modes from different countries. You just ate, slept and drank music in our house – there was no escape. I actually took up the harp to get away from my Dad – just in the sense that the piano was his instrument – but then he immediately started writing lots of music for the clarsach.”

Her subsequent landmark albums, such as Tweed Journey and Calman the Dove, saw Stevenson charting new territories in exploring her instrument’s capabilities, demolishing its douce, drawing room image in bold creative encounters between folk, jazz and world music. During the past decade, though, she’s been back working mainly in the classical realm – albeit one that’s progressed considerably in its attitude to other genres since she was young – composing for and performing with orchestras, chamber groups and choirs. Hence her return, too, to the pedal harp – which, she mentions as an aside, celebrated the bicentenary of its invention last year, Sebastian Erard’s revolutionary double-action mechanism having first opened up the instrument to chromaticism back in 1811.

“But even though I might be seen now as a contemporary classical composer, I don’t compose squeaky-gate music: I am always going to write accessibly,” she says firmly. “I get fed up with new music that doesn’t lift your spirits in some way. And the one emotion I never want to elicit in an audience is boredom.”

The birthday show’s centrepiece is a semi-première performance, with the Edinburgh Quartet, of Stevenson’s Harp Quintet – originally staged at Celtic Connections 2000, and now newly transcribed from the clarsach to the pedal harp, in the interim having been excerpted for the soundtracks of both Sex and the City and Ugly Betty. (“I’d never heard of either,” she confides, “but I did at last manage to impress my daughter.”)

The rest of the programme reunites her with that man she calls “probably my favourite collaborator of all”, double bass legend Danny Thompson, for a selection of favourite pieces ranging from Debussy and Granados, to originals variously inspired by Gershwin, Harpo Marx and kora maestro Toumani Diabaté. “Basically I want to cover the whole harp gamut in one show,” Stevenson says. If anyone can do it, she can.

Well connected from the Middle East to Sex and the City

review by   SUSAN MANSFIELD – The Scotsman

chemiraniLong SAVOURNA Stevenson boldly takes the clarsach where no clarsach has gone before. In her hands, the Celtic harp has voyaged into the territory of bluegrass banjos, sitar-style cascades, Indian ragas and African beats.

A concert at Celtic Connections will preview tracks from her forthcoming album, her ninth, which has a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour. But this is only one aspect of her work.

“Scotland’s most adventurously accomplished clarsach player”, as she has been called, has many other strings to her harp, from writing orchestral work, to having her music featured on Sex and the City.

Persian Knight Celtic Dawn  –  a typical Stevenson title, with a quirky twist of humour  –  features the playing of Iranian percussionists, the Chemiranis, and in particular the zarb, a drum played with the fingers which can produce as many different notes as a piano and is described by Stevenson as “mesmerising”.

Two of the Chemiranis will join Stevenson for her Celtic Connections gig at the Arches on Saturday.

They first met and played together at the Real World Festival. “I was doing an all-night live broadcast for Radio 3, and all the artists were listening to each other as we waited for our turn to play, appreciating each other’s music. Argentine accordionist Raoul Barbosa was there, the Chemiranis and myself, and we all just started playing together. It was a lovely impromptu playing experience.”

She promised the Chemiranis that when the right opportunity arose, they would collaborate. When Stevenson began to write songs for her new album, using text from ‘The Prophet’, by Lebanese writer Kahlil Gibran, she realised the time had come.aylith _bestcropped for website

“The album will be very much a meeting of cultures from East and West,” she says. “The intricacy and ornament of Persian music is a little like Celtic music. I want the Chemiranis to bring some of their culture to it.”

She was reminded of the musical potential of ‘The Prophet’ in 2002 when she was asked to play at Peter Gabriel’s wedding “on a beach in Sardinia”, at which Gibran’s passage on marriage was one of the readings. She has now set that, along with two other passages, to music. Gibran’s  ‘Joy and Sorrow’ has been translated into Gaelic by her brother-in-law, the poet Aonghas MacNeacail, and will be sung by Alyth McCormack.

“I love to hear the human voice on my records. Just as music is an international language, the words of Gibran speak to anybody and everybody. It’s full of wonderful messages and symbols, a book you keep on the shelf and dip into. And it’s so international, we all feel the same about marriage, children, friendship.”

Stevenson is also increasingly being recognised as a classical composer. In 2001, she received a Creative Scotland Award – “a life-changing experience” – to write an orchestral work for young people. The resulting symphonic piece, ‘Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift’ was performed to great acclaim in 2003, with the actor Billy Boyd as the narrator.

“It was so successful that Children’s Classic Concerts decided to commission another one, which was an absolute joy,” she says. Hansel and Gretel was performed this season by the Scottish Opera Orchestra to capacity crowds at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, and Usher Hall in Edinburgh, narrated by Taggart actress Blyth Duff, wearing “a fantastic pair of witchy shoes.”

It’s a challenge for Stevenson to switch between different types of music, one day composing for herself at the clarsach, the next sitting at a desk with a full orchestral score. “It’s a very different world to break into, but I think it’s a really healthy thing to be involved in so many different kinds of music”.

“I’ve had such a warm rearonaldction to my music from the orchestral players, maybe there’s something new for them in the fact that I started out in traditional music, with the likes of Fairport Convention and Aly Bain, and have been involved in world music and jazz. Hansel and Gretel also has a strong East-European element.”

She is following in the footsteps of her father, the composer Ronald Stevenson, who peppered her early piano lessons with eclectic musical influences. “I’m very lucky to have been exposed to so many different types of music from very early on. My father was passionate about Lewis Psalm-singing, pibroch and jazz, as much as classical music, and he would talk to me about these things when he was teaching me the piano.”

However, of all the places her music has ventured, perhaps the most unexpected is on to the set of Sex and the City, where a recording of her string quintet was used for scenes such as Charlotte’s wedding.

“My record company phoned me up completely out of the blue and said, ‘Somebody wants to use your music for Sex and the City’.  I was a bit shocked, but it certainly gave me a bit more street cred with my teenage son and his mates.”