Harp Nouveau Band at Edinburgh Festival 1987


By Neil Hedgeland


Assembly Rooms Edinburgh Festival Fringe


On first reading in the programme for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe that Savourna Stevenson, one of the most prominent of today’s harp players in Scotland, was playing with a bunch of rock and jazz musicians, I was uncertain what to expect, although the Harp Nouveau concerts were listed under “Folk/Ceilidh/Scottish”, and the Scotsman described Harp Nouveau as “exploding your preconceptions and pulsating with jazzy, rocky, funky music you never imagined possible from a harp”.
Harp Nouveau’s music did turn out to be very far removed from the traditional material generally associated with the harp, and although, being myself a lover of traditional Celtic harp music, I found the strong jazzy flavour of the performance I attended highly enjoyable, stimulating and quite unique. Savourna’s harp blended perfectly with the percussion of Dave Hasswell, the fretless bass of Neil Hay, and the keyboards of Rab Handleigh to provide an extraordinarily rich mixture of melodies, harmonies and rhythms which proved so mesmerising that the concert was alas too soon over.
This was only their forth gig together, so there was no encore prepared, though the reception would certainly have merited on – however it was apparent that confidence was growing with each performance. The material consisted mostly of material composed by Savourna, the opening number being an interpretation by the complete band of Tickled Pink, the title track of Savourna’s solo album. This was followed by a new composition, Soapy Water, and then her only solo performance, a piece called Borders On The Insane. Various other striking new compositions followed, such as Nadir, a spine-tinglingly beautiful slow melody, then the aptly named Caught in the Web, an intricate and complex piece involving remarkably dextrous harp playing, along with another track from the Tickled Pink album with the mysteriously titled Djalan. The final number was named after the group, or could it have been the other way round – anyway, it was called Harp Nouveau and was a fitting end to an extremely interesting and innovative mixture of music.

Apparently, although the band is at an early stage of existence as yet, they have already attracted the attentions of a record company, and they hope to tour more widely eventually. Certainly if they do come to your part of the world, Harp Nouveau is well worth checking out if you’re interested in modern forms of music. Alongside Sileas’s experiments with syncopation and the electroharp in a more traditional folk idiom, Savourna Stevenson’s playing of the harp within a jazz/rock context underlines the healthy prospects for the harp in today’s musical climate.

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