Clouds Harp Quartet

Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh

2 June 2017

For those that don't know (which is probably most people reading this): the Clouds Harp Quartet is a group of four harpists who play new classical music written for them by Esther Swift, who is one of the quartet. I've seen the group a few times before, and been impressed every time by the skill of the musicians and especially by the brilliance of the compositions. I think I could honestly say that Esther Swift is my favourite contemporary composer. And that's why I've come to Edinburgh today.

When I mentioned I was going see a harp quartet, somebody made a sarcastic comment to the effect that it would be much too exciting for him. I suspect some people think of harps and can only think of angels on clouds playing sweet tunes with tons of glissandos and not much in the way of excitement (but then, these people probably also think that "Relaxing Classics" is a good name for a CD, whereas relaxing is the last thing you should want classical music to be).

Luckily, Esther Swift doesn't share these notions, and writes the most unconventional music I've ever heard a harp play (ok, there's John Cage, but unlike Postcard from Heaven, Swift's music is also packed full of angelic tunes). Some of the music includes vocal elements (though there are no songs, as such), and a lot of techniques you've probably never seen used with a harp before, such as drumming on the soundboard and weaving objects (wire, folded paper) between the strings to make weird sound effects.

I've been in the Scottish Storytelling Centre before, and it's got a really nice venue for music, a small basement theatre space. It has excellent sound, and the volume of four unamplified concert harps fills it completely and perfectly, whether they're whispering the smallest notes or crashing out big chords. The room probably can't hold much more than 100 people, and tonight it probably wasn't half full, which is a great tragedy because more people need to hear this music. But I don't know how you convince people to try contemporary classical music by a composer they've never heard of when they've already got all the wrong preconceptions about what harp music sounds like.

Tonight mainly showcased new music, which meant they didn't play everything I would have wished for. It's the same problem you get when you discover a new rock band—as their repertoire increases, they're going to stop playing some of the things you fell in love with, unless they start playing four-hour gigs. You can only hope that the new things are as good as their older things, and after tonight I can say, yes, the new material is still stunning, and stands equal to any of their older material: complex, unconventional, occasionally difficult to listen to, but ultimately beautiful and rewarding.

So here I am once again trying to describe music I'm completely unqualified to talk about, but I'll do my best to give you an idea, while probably getting the details completely wrong. The first new piece, Fairytales, is short(ish), three movements lasting maybe 15 minutes in all. The first movement is variations on What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor, and features the refrain from the song played manically over and over by two of the harps with a disconcerting stop-start rhythm and odd timing, while the other two play something completely different, dark and eerie. It's hard work to listen to, but in a good way. The second movement is based on the Fairytale Lullaby a traditional Scottish song—and I found it really interesting to hear what Esther Swift does with it, as Rachel Newton also plays a version of it on the harp but the two versions are radically different in style.

The entire second half of the concert is taken up by the other new work, and it's one long piece that must have lasted about 30 minutes, called, I think, Dance Music, though I'm not entirely clear where the dance part comes in, because the form doesn't match any popular or ethnic dances that I'm aware of. The first movement is jazz-like, and after that there's so much going on, it never stands still, the rhythms are changing all the time, and it veers from beautiful tunes to discordant bits, to sections that are purely percussive. And each movement ends on single unison chords repeated several times, like the chiming of a bell, that are finally repeated over and over to form the entire final movement that's oddly affecting. The whole suite is absolutely beautiful, and it's easier to listen to than Fairytales but still compels your absolute concentration. It's going to need a few more listens, but I'm tempted to say it's the best thing Esther Swift has written (so far). And it's more than good enough to justify saying that this was the best concert I’ve ever seen.