Interview: Maeve Gilchrist on her new commission for Edinburgh International Harp Festival

We call it a family affliction.' Edinburgh-born, New York-based harpist and composer Maeve Gilchrist is talking about her family's love of the harp. 'My mum, who's Irish, has two sisters who are professional harpists in Ireland, and I have cousins who play as well. My family was very involved in the traditional music scene in Scotland, so I grew up going to sessions. There was a lot of music in the house.'

Maeve Gilchrist

After that childhood immersion, Gilchrist is now one of the most exciting young figures in harp music, comfortably straddling traditional music, jazz, improvisation and experimental music in a style very much her own. Which makes her a fascinating figure to be creating a brand new work for the Edinburgh International Harp Festival. She returns to Edinburgh to premiere the new piece, for harp and string quartet, on 3 April.

But how did she end up in the USA? The move followed her initial training at the City of Edinburgh Music School, which combined more classical and theoretical study alongside traditional music. “They were very open to more traditional things,” Gilchrist explains, “and really excited about nourishing us, valuing the different elements of musicality within each student.” It was in her later teens, however, that Gilchrist felt her musical horizons broadening still further. “I was drawn more and more towards improvised music and jazz, so the director of the music school suggested I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston. I met musicians from all over the world there, which I found so exciting – Colombian and Venezuelan musicians, for example, who used the harp in completely different ways.”

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Gilchrist later returned to the eminent US institution as a teacher herself, and is now a visiting artist there. Most recently, she explains, she’s been moving more and more into composition. “It’s been thrilling and terrifying at the same time,” she admits. She’s created a concerto for harp and symphony orchestra with US composer Luke Benton, as well as a piece involving string players from the Orlando Symphony Orchestra. “So I was delighted when the Edinburgh Harp Festival approached me with a commission.”

Her new piece, called Pastures Red, also looks towards Ireland for its inspiration. “I’m using elements from Samuel Beckett, from his novel Watt – a gritty, earthy passage where he’s talking about his father’s earth and his mother’s earth. He goes on to talk about the cycle of the year and the seasons, and the passage really spoke to me: he insists on a reinspection of everything, every time.”

Gilchrist sees a similar reinspection going on in her approach to writing for her instrument. “The harp comes with lots of stereotypes, and I want to turn those on their heads. I love the sound of the harp, of course, but I also want to insist on its reinspection, to take it away from its natural timbre and then bring it back again, to take the listener on a diverse sonic journey.”

Gilchrist has completed the Harp Festival piece, but accepts that a lot will be finalised during rehearsals. “I’ve written the harp part out, but it’s very hard for me to stick to what I’ve actually written – I’ll be morphing that as I play.” And she’ll be drawing on the musicianship, too, of string players from Edinburgh-based Mr McFall’s Chamber, an ensemble long immersed in melding musical genres. “I’ve been listening to the group since I was a child,” says Gilchrist. “I’m a huge fan – they’re the perfect group to work with as I know there will be a lot of room for exploration in rehearsals.”

In fact, Pastures Red is just one of two new pieces she’s written for her Edinburgh concert. The other draws on the unusual side career of Mr McFall’s cellist Su-a Lee as an exponent of the musical saw. “It would have been such a waste not to use that,” says Gilchrist. “There’s such irony to me in that combination. When I think of the sonic possibilities of the harp and the musical saw, I think of totally dreamy, music-box, trippy music. But when I think of the weapon of the saw and the wood of the harp, that brings up such different images. So I’ve been having a laugh with that.”

Maeve Gilchrist and Mr McFall’s Chamber premiere Pastures Red at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh on 3 April. Edinburgh International Harp Festival runs from 30 March to 4 April, www.