Esther Swift

Pianodrome, Edinburgh

3 August 2019

The Pianodrome is extraordinary. From the outside it looks like an abandoned industrial unit, tucked away in a hard-to-find side road somewhere in Leith (I only got lost twice on the way here). Inside ... well, it still looks like an abandoned industrial unit, but in the middle of the open space they have constructed a circular amphitheatre made entirely from recycled pianos. I literally climbed up a stack of pianos to take a top-tier seat on top of an upside-down upright piano. I swear I am not making this up. The light was too dim for me to take decent photos, but look it up and you'll see what I mean.

Esther Swift was set up on the floor in the centre, surrounded by the audience (maybe 50 people) sitting on banks of pianos. Despite the oddness of the venue, the sound was fine, the only complaint being that too much noise leaked through from outside. Both harp and voice were amplified, but probably didn't need to be, even allowing for the external noise. When she hits her surprisingly powerful high notes, she backs right away from the microphone, and still sounds plenty loud enough.

I've heard Esther Swift's music in concert about a dozen times, but this is the first time I've seen just her solo, just her harp and voice. She played songs from both of her solo albums, plus a couple of things I didn't recognise.

To be completely honest, I prefer her long-form compositions for larger ensembles. But that's just me: I like long and complex music. That's in no way a slight on her songs, which are all beautiful, and still have all the same elements you find in her longer music. Within the space of one short song you go from something all moody and Modernist to something that sounds suspiciously like a folk tune. Her rhythms go off in unexpected directions, and her voice—a pure, classical soprano—carries its own tune that's often at odds with whatever she's playing on the harp. The whole effect is mesmerising, and holds your complete attention. It's what makes her the most interesting contemporary composer I know: music that's constantly doing something unusual, without ever sacrificing its beautiful melody.

I know before she even announces it that she's going to end with Light Gatherer. It's among the most beautiful things I've ever heard, and has me leaving the venue humming it and wondering if there's any way I can make it back for the next performance in a couple of weeks.

That's the kind of feeling that tells me it was the best concert I've ever seen.