Going With the Floë
CATRIONA MCKAY tells Northings about her soon-to-tour Floë, her chromatic harp and her obsession with the instrument
CATRIONA MCKAY hails from Dundee, but is a familiar figure playing both harp and piano with the mighty Shetland band Fiddlers’ Bid. Her long association with Chris Stout is one of the musical partnerships reflected in Floë, a New Voices commission for Celtic Connections in 2008 that will now tour under the aegis of the Scottish Arts Council’s Tune Up programme, including a date at An Tobar in Mull.
NORTHINGS: Catriona, perhaps we should start at the beginning – how did you get interested in playing harp?
CATRIONA MCKAY: I did piano first, but I always wanted to play the harp, and I find that with most harp players – there is this attraction to the instrument from early on. I really can’t remember exactly what it was that attracted me as a little girl, but I definitely wanted to learn it from pretty young. And of course, the minute you do get to sit down at it, you realise what an alive instrument it is, and it confirmed for me right from the start that was what I wanted to do.
N: Before we talk about Floë, perhaps you should tell us a bit about the chromatic harp you will be playing in that project, which was made for you by Starfish in Ballachulish. How did that come about?
I felt that I was stuck in a very diatonic world, and I wanted to explore a bit more than that, to move a little out of the box compared to an ordinary clarsach
CM: It came around because, as you know, I play piano in Fiddlers’ Bid, but the harp is my obsession. I think of piano as a necessary tool. As I have continued to seek around to challenge my ear and develop my musical language, I grew more and more aware of the limitations of the standard diatonic harp in terms of the sounds and ideas I wanted to explore. I needed something more chromatic.
N: You can do a bit of that with the levers, though, can’t you?
CM: Yes, and I had been doing a lot of experimenting with the Celtic harp anyway. Using the levers to change key is fine up to a point, but it wasn’t enough. People say folk music isn’t difficult, but when you get into all the wee nuances that go on in there you realise that isn’t true. A tiny little thing can really effect the energy and direction of the music.
N: Did you have to start from scratch in devising a chromatic instrument?
CM: Chromatic harps have been tried in various ways, but there are lots of problems. The strings on the harp are basically the white notes on the piano, and if we want to play more chromatically – play the black notes, as it were – then we have to change the note.
Designers had tried ways to make all of the notes available all of the time on the harp, but it was too much of a stretch for the player. The piano has layered strings, but you can’t do that on a harp, so that didn’t work. Even the classical pedal harp has certain limitations, and in fact you can’t do some things on it that you can do on the Celtic harp.
A lot of the time I am using harmonics on the harp anyway, and basically I didn’t really need chromatics for the melody. Where I did really want it was from middle C down an octave. Any lower and it all gets a bit messy anyway.
N: So you went for selective extra strings?
CM: What I needed was a chromatic octave below middle C. I’ve been playing Starfish harps for a long time, and I went to them with that idea. They said, yes, okay, let’s do it, and they did. That is very special, and I was so lucky to have such an outward looking maker.
Mine is the only one just now, but I teach at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, and the kids there are coming out at a really high level, and it may be that this instrument will be spread as a way of challenging developed players.
N: And what does that octave do for you?
CM: That chromatic octave and the technique of playing in harmonics gives me a far greater range than just the nominal extra strings that are fitted. Basically it opens the door a little bit further for me. I felt that I was stuck in a very diatonic world, and I wanted to explore a bit more than that, to move a little out of the box compared to an ordinary clarsach.
It’s all a bit technical, but it makes sense if you are a player. I wondered at first if it was a bit of a gimmick, but when I started playing it I realised how useful it was going to be.
N: And Floë was devised partly with using the chromatic harp in mind?
CM: I spend a lot of time travelling to play all over the place, and I don’t have a flight case for the chromatic harp because it’s an unusual size, so I spend a lot of time away from it. When I was offered the New Voices commission, it seemed a great opportunity to do a whole gig and really focus on it. I used it a bit on my last CD, Starfish, which was about half and half the clarsach and the chromatic harp.
N: How did you choose your collaborators?
CM: They were all musicians I already had a connection with. I’ve been doing a duo with Chris Stout for about 14 years now, and that kind of musical relationship really connects – you can work in a deep way, and it is very intuitive, and that is very much what I aspire to when I work with other musicians.
I also wanted to involve a couple of other people that I have been working with in duos. With Phil Alexander, who plays piano and accordion in bands like Salsa Celtica, Moishe’s Bagel and Tangalgo, we have been doing more jazz and world music oriented things, and I’ve also been working with Olov Johansson, a Swedish nyckelharpa player, exploring the connections between Scottish harp and Swedish – in fact, we have an album due out in April.
N: That’s all fairly conventional in terms of instrumentation so far, but I see you also have live electronics involved, with another of your regular collaborators.
CM: I like to work in experimental music as well, and I work with Alistair MacDonald in that area. It is always a real journey to see how that music works, and it is a journey, it’s not down to working by rules. It is all down to my decisions and what I think. I like to try to keep an open mind in all music I make, and I wanted to look at how Alistair and his laptop might work with more melodic or folk music. We did a little bit of it on the last track of Starfish, ‘Mareel’, and I thought that worked pretty well.
So I wanted to see how that could be taken into a live context, and see how the things that make very free or experimental music good could be made to work along with the things that make melodic or folk music good. These are the musicians that I have been working with a very deep level, and bringing them together was very exciting.
N: And you are touring as a double bill with the Norwegian musician Nils Økland’s trio.
CM: Yes, and in fact I asked Nils to be part of the original line-up for Floë as well, but he couldn’t make the date at the time. There is a little segment I wrote for him, and he is going to join us on that for the tour.
N: So how did you go about writing music for that combination?
CM: I set about trying to write material that would give all of them something to work on, and would also reflect my interpretation of their particular styles and strengths. Some of it is notated and some of it is more open. In the case of Alistair, I was thinking that I had these musicians who all came out of specific traditions and had their particular language, but what was Alistair’s language on the laptop?
What I eventually decided to do was to go up with him to Starfish at Ballachulish and make recordings of all kinds of sounds in their workshops there, which he then manipulates and processes. It may not always be obvious that is the source of the sounds, but it is always in there.
N: It must be nice to get another chance to do the piece – so often musicians put tons of work into these commissions, and they are never heard again.
CM: It is great to get a chance to tour it. I haven’t had a chance to play it again since the Celtic Connections concert last year, although I have done bits of it in the duos.
As a musician I am really focused on the kind of connections that I have with all of these musicians. There is a fantastic amount of just amazing stuff going on in Scottish music now, and it’s not just the musicians – I’m fascinated by the instrument makers and all the rest of it.
N: How did you get interested in working in free improvisation and more experimental music with Alistair, and indeed the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, since I know you did some stuff with them at one point.
CM: I think it is what music means to me, my idea of what my world is in sound. I’m the type of person to question things I’m told, and it is very much about communicating for me. I think one of the things that connected me with improvised music was dance. My mum is a dance teacher, and I used to play piano for her, and would have to improvise for different situations.
I spent a fair bit of time exploring contemporary music on the harp, and then I came across Alistair MacDonald when I was at the RSAMD, and did electro-acoustic music as one of my elective subjects. He wrote me a piece and I wrote some more for that elective, and I just found it so exciting to work with that vocabulary of sounds. It was quite a while from there to get to a point where I felt comfortable with free improvisation, but I do feel it is a crucial part of what I do as a musician.
It’s all very much part of my own personal journey as a musician, and I don’t see myself ever exhausting my interest in it. It is important to work across all the areas of interest I have, though, and moving about like that keeps everything fresh for me. If you are doing one thing for a while, then switch to another style, you can feel all kinds of benefits from that, and the more I explore the different points of reference, the more that everything becomes more interesting, and more interesting on different levels.
N: How did you get involved with Fiddlers Bid?
CM: Originally I was up there on holiday and they needed a piano player for a gig, so I stepped in and did that. Somebody said play a tune on the harp, and the audience really seemed to like that, so I kind of found myself in the band. We’re planning to record again in April, and it will be the 20th anniversary of the band in 2011, so there are things in the pipeline for then.
N: Are you recording Floë?
CM: We are going to record the gig at An Tobar, which should be a great place to do it, and if that works then great. If not we’ll probably do a studio recording at some point, but think it is the kind of music that will work well in a live recording. Chris and I are preparing to do another duo album, and I’ve just done one with Alistair that was inspired by Angus Peter Campbell’s Invisible Islands.
N: Really? How did that work?
CM: I actually teach two of his daughters at St Mary’s Music School, and I find him a very inspiring man. When I was reading the book I could really hear the sound of the language, and I brought lines in from it just to serve as an inspiration in the studio, but they eventually worked their way into the pieces. The title, Strange Rainbow, also comes from the book. The music is partly improvised and partly prepared – sculpted might be the best word for it.
Catriona McKay Floë and the Nils Økland Trio perform at An Tobar, Mull, on 10 March.
© Kenny Mathieson, 2009