Celtic Connections 2008:Catriona Mckay

29 Jan 2008 in Festival, Music

Strathclyde Suite, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 27 January 2008

Catriona McKay (photo - Louis de Carlo)

THERE’S NO arguing Catriona McKay’s status as one of Scotland’s top harp players. Having won last year’s Best Instrumentalist award at the Scots Trad Awards in Fort William, what separates the young harper from the rest of her peers is her continuing ability to be at the cutting edge; combining progressive clarsach playing with improvisational and experimental electronic music.

Celtic Connections’ New Voices offered up another opportunity for McKay to present something remarkably unique and original. Her 45-minute piece, ‘Floe’, had its starting point in a visit to the harp workshop, Starfish Designs, in Ballachulish. Indeed, as people continued to filter into the Strathclyde Suite, recorded sounds from the workshop reverberated around the venue, as McKay and her accompaniment – Chris Stout (fiddle), Phil Alexander (piano/accordion), Vasen’s Olov Johansson (nyckelharpa) and Alistair MacDonald (live electronics) – took to the stage.

Dressed in jeans and T-shirt, McKay looked like she was heading to the shops to fetch a pint of milk instead of performing some magical new music. Her fashion sense might not have been the most appropriate attire for such an occasion; nevertheless, while popular music might be all about hair and clothes, in McKay’s genre, it’s the music that comes first and foremost. So who cares what she was wearing.

Leading off with a brief speech about the project’s concept, the sensory overload of McKay’s ‘Light All Night’ hit you like a cold bucket of water – the cosmic interplay between the harper’s mazy runs and Stout’s fiddle playing shadowed by MacDonald’s John Carpenter-esque electronic atmospherics.

A sonic link between the harp workshop and electro-acoustic instruments seemed to be the centrepoint of the performance. ‘Dark’ – a segment based on sounds from inside the nyckelharpa – echoed Frank Zappa’s percussive experiments as the group unearthed all manner of screaming rhythms by bashing, scraping, and ripping at their respective instruments.

Yet while the groove-laden ‘Dancing Piano Man’ may prove to be a much sought-out track should McKay ever commit ‘Floe’ to CD, it was ‘Sleeping On Snow’ (a fine example of onomatopoeia) that displayed the Dundonian’s virtuosic array of soundscapes best.

Towards the end, the ‘Isflak Reel’ (“Isflak” meaning “Floe” in Swedish) brought this one-off project to a scintillating climax, McKay captivating all before her with an audacious display of blissful, faerie-like melodies and jaunty, romantic rhythms. But that was before returning to the stage for a well-deserved encore; signing off with a short, energetic, and almost throwaway ditty that would still ensure McKay’s contemporaries’ eyes remained rooted to her harp strings.

For those who yearn for something new and innovative, Catriona McKay ticks all the boxes. One can only hope the leading light of the clarsach will have the desire – and time – to take Floe on tour. It would be a shame if only those inside the Strathclyde Suite last Sunday got to hear it.

© Barry Gordon, 2008