Esther Swift

Scottish Poetry Library, Edinburgh

14 September 2019

You have certain expectations when a concert is in something called the Scottish Poetry Library, just off the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. But in fact, confounding expectations, the Scottish Poetry Library is in a modern building. But it's a really nice one, small but well laid out, and with a kind of mezzanine open space that was used to host the concert. Only about fifty seats were laid out, and less than half of them were occupied, which is really disappointing. I mean, it's a free concert, right in the middle of town, conveniently held on a Saturday afternoon. I managed to come up all the way from Newcastle, where was everybody else?

Those of us who did bother were treated to a short set of music from the best composer of modern times. She played a selection of pieces from The Flood, which she wrote for harp and string quartet but has adapted for solo harp today. I heard the piece in its original form a year ago, but as is often the case with complex classical music it fades from memory after only a single listen, so I couldn't identify exactly how much she changed it. But if you didn't know there was supposed to be a string quartet, you wouldn't know anything was missing. It sounds complete and rich and complex on just a solo harp. Helped by Esther Swift being an extraordinary player, of course. I mean, not only does she have more strings than an entire string quartet, I think she has more fingers too. And the harp sounds beautiful in this space, every whispered note perfectly clear and every crashing chord filling the space completely. You can even hear the click of the pedals! Oh, and I've completely forgotten to mention her singing, which is, well, it's just beautiful.

As in the previous performance, the music is accompanied by the striking and evocative visuals of Tom Swift's film of the Peebles floods. Or, as Esther puts it, the film is accompanied by the music. She's watching the film as she plays, obviously taking cues from it and from glances at Tom, and the mood of what she plays matches the mood of the film perfectly, sometimes quiet and beautiful, sometimes angry and crashing. Well, basically, it sounds like Esther Swift music. In everything she writes her voice is unique and distinctive, and does things that you don't expect people to do with a harp. At the end, someone asked her about the way she's thumping on the harp. "I don't think they should just sound angelic," she says, sounding almost embarrassed. But that's it entirely: that's why I love her music so much. She approaches music in the same way that my favourite Prog bands do, pushing the boundaries of what you're "supposed" to do.

Seriously, Esther Swift is astonishing. Listen, just find where she's playing and go and see her. I don't care what kind of music you normally listen to, you can't possibly fail to like this.

Best concert I've ever seen.