Esther Swift

Manchester Jazz Festival

26 July 2018

Why am I at a jazz festival, you are probably wondering.

The Manchester Jazz Festival has commissioned a new work from Esther Swift, who is the most interesting contemporary classical composer (and singer and harpist and folk musician) I know. So I'm here to hear how she writes not for a classical or folk audience but for a jazz audience. Should be interesting ...

Oh my God, it was beautiful.

The Light Gatherer is a suite of seven movements that lasts about 50 minutes and is scored for piano, percussion, saxophone, trombone, violin, viola, cello, voice, and four harps, and sets the text of Carol Ann Duffy's poetry, sometimes sung and sometimes spoken.

The Light Gatherer was also the most extraordinary song on the extraordinary album Fiere by Esther Swift (with Joy Dunlop and Catriona Price), and that song forms the last movement of the work. The rest of the suite is entirely new, I assume. And while I would still call this contemporary classical music, you can also hear the jazz rhythms, as well as bits of folk melodies, and just some incredibly inventive, innovative playing. Esther Swift's compositions for harps always make use of unconventional playing techniques (slapping and scraping the strings, and in one case here using a tuning fork (I think) as a blues slide) and she's extended that inventiveness to the other instruments—the piece starts with the entire ensemble mimicking the sound of breathing. It's mesmerising, and from that remarkable start it just gets better, taking advantage of the length of the piece to drag you through every mood imaginable. I laughed as well as cried.

All the instruments in the ensemble get their moments to shine, but the heart of the piece still seems to be the harp quartet she usually writes for, even when they are just playing the rhythmic base for the rest of the ensemble to solo over. Playing without sheet music, I am amazed at how they can play 50 minutes of music note-perfect, from memory, watching each other for cues, and probably using telepathy or something, I don't know. It's mind boggling. The way the harps move in and out of unison playing ... it's just beautiful. I could listen to this all day.

It's Esther Swift's biggest and most ambitious work to date, I think, and it makes me a bit sad to think that this kind of music is so rarely programmed that I'll will probably never hear it again. But massive credit to the Manchester Jazz Festival for taking a chance on something different from a relative unknown name—judging by the standing ovation at the end, the gamble paid off.