The Harp Key

Alison Kinnaird

COMD 1001
Rounder Records
One Camp Street
Cambridge, MA

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
By Marji Hazen
( )

The music of the modern Scottish harpers is probably an acquired taste. But once acquired, it becomes a passion. Nurtured in a culture reconstructed from bits and pieces that somehow escaped the destruction after the Jacobite uprisings, the Scottish harp was brought into a new world of Celtic pride underwritten by the Scottish chiefs in America. Their summer games of piping and tossing heavy objects, held in almost every state of the Union, are never complete without a week-long harp school. Rewards of admiration and fine prizes are bestowed upon the best of those who bring their harps and submit themselves to the judgment and tutelage of Scottish harp experts imported from the old country especially for the occasion.

Of those who teach the Scottish harp, there is none more respected by Scottish harpers in the United States than Scots native Allison Kinnaird. Her lessons are steeped in the history of the harp in Scotland and in the traditional music of its ancient people. The national character of that fabled Scotland (which may still exist only in the hearts of those who have never lived there) lives again in this harper's no-nonsense expression of melodic airs and tunes for dancing. Absolute mastery of the instrument is required, for there is no allowance in the conventions of Scottish harping for hiding less-than-perfect technique with distracting decorations, fills, and variants.

Re-issued by Rounder Records, this legendary 17-year-old recording--one of the first coherent statements of what the resurrected Scottish harping has aspired to--is now available again in digital form for demanding PBS and home music systems.

Because the styles and types of music vary so from cut to cut, it is only fair to comment separately on them:

The traditional Scottish lilt as it occurs in Kinnaird's spare, sometimes halting Scottish harp style, sounds to this ear somewhat labored; but there is much thoughtfulness and expression in the rendering of melody. This is demonstrated especially in the Rory Dall tunes Kinnaird scatters through this early programme.

Kinnaird demonstrates her ability to work with ensembles in true Celtic traditional style, leading a group of Celtic musicians that give Niel Gow's "Princess Augusta" the flowing treatment the Chieftains have taught us to expect from Celtic ensemble music.

Her "Glenlivet/Castle Drummond" medley and the medley of three old tunes that ends the album are presented in a stately, almost gothic style--more an exercise in Scottish harping; a composition ABOUT dancing rather than music FOR dancing.

Echoing the vocal solo tradition she understands so well, she persuades her harp to sing to us the air of "Balquhidder," each note well considered and a few highly decorated as Celtic tradition dictates.

Admirers of harping tradition will hear the "calling of the harp" in the melody of "Port Atholl" and this particular harper's wide-ranging skills in its variations.

"Killiecrankie" offers a joyous combination of harp, concertina, flute and whistle trading melody and harmony parts back and forth. Concert harpists do not retune to other instruments. Those who play the smaller harps can and often do. We'll bet that the perfect blend on this cut was aided by Allison's tuning her harp strings to the individual notes of the concertina before recording.

"Cumha Crann nan Teud" exemplifies the successful cooperation between small pipes and harp in capturing the spirit of a tune which has become a pibroch standard, here capably returned to the harp by Kinnaird.

"The Kid on the Mountain" flows and dances marvelously. Is it too critical to note that it takes three of these fine Scottish harpers to achieve the delightful effect.

"Fuath nam Fidhleirean" (Contempt for Fiddlers) expresses again the halting, conversational style of the Scottish harp, almost in defiance of the conventions of fiddling or indeed, any other music created by beings not wearing the family plaid.

In "Chapel Keithack," fiddle and harp cooperate. The fiddle carries the flowing melody while the harp is "struck" and "stroked", sometimes uttering sure and certain chords, sometimes arpeggios, sometimes a series of notes echoing the lovely melody. If there is any doubt what Scottish harp accompaniment should accomplish, this piece dispels it entirely. (In contests, the harper is judged separately on solo and accompaniment skills.)

"Baile non Granndach" (Grandtown-on-Spey), a fine Strathspey, suits the Scottish harp style much better than any reel or jig attempted on this album. This rendition, with its very well done traditional Scots lilt, succeeds most admirably in providing music for dance, had one the inclination.

The initial section of "Port Patrick" benefits from a simpler arrangement that emphasizes the melody. With variations, it too succeeds as dance music.

"The Rymer" is a lovely original creation in the spirit of Celtic traditional music. Here both the harp and the heart of the harper are heard singing. We know that Allison Kinnaird has continued to grow and flourish as a musician in the 17 years since this album was first released. A Best of Allison Kinnaird CD might have been a better choice for Rounder than this reissue of her early work, though the reissue is of value to those who need CD versions of often- played albums.

To those aspiring to develop the Scottish harping style, this album has continued to serve as a historical document and a model for certain techniques. Some cuts are indeed inspiring. Unfortunately, the effect of putting such a variety of material into a single album is to create an unevenness that may not be particularly attractive to the pure listener. Yet, this album deserves a place in the collection of every serious Scottish harper and every traditional music broadcast station.

[Edited by Shawn Linderman] Copyright 1997, Three Rivers Folklife Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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