Harponium Reviews

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HARPONIUM, Catriona McKay

Harper Catriona McKay is a musical free spirit who can tackle wholly improvised works and has the ability to take traditional music out to the edge without sacrificing traditional forms and techniques at the altar of experimentation. Indeed, it is the easy intermingling of her fearless adventures with her folk roots that makes Harponium such an enriching, rewarding and uplifting listening experience. Essentially, as its name suggests, a blending of Scottish harp and harmonium, both played by McKay herself, into one new instrument, this is a triumph of brilliant musicality, joyous expression, daring harmonic shifts and moving melodicism. The harp sparkles, jinks and occasionally buzzes like some ancient African instrument while the harmonium brings both subtle and rich colouration, a certain endearingly clunky jauntiness, and a church organ-like grandeur. The sheer virtuosity of the opening Kronos Reel is simply dazzling. Harp Royalty Meets Banjo Czar drives McKay's clear, expansive tunefulness with an almost club music beat, and Irish Harp Hero sings exultantly. BBC Folk Awards take note.

Rob Adams, January 2014, The Glasgow Herald

HARPONIUM, Catriona McKay

Harponium is a collection of (mostly) newly self-composed pieces for Catriona’s Scottish harp, of whose seemingly limitless expressive possibilities this musician is here described as a fearless explorer - a tag which even a cursory listen to her latest CD will seem entirely apt. But this is not just a disc of solo harp music, for she augments the signature sound of the harp with the warm tones of the harmonium – hence the title of this project. There’s something of an implication that the two instruments have been somehow magically fused together into one living organism – which is obviously physically impossible (isn’t it?). The rippling melodies of the harp are so delicately upholstered by the gently expressive chords played on the harmonium, the playing style also complementing that of the harp itself and blending into an almost symbiotic whole. The level of invention over the course of the nine tracks is continuously high and the playing invariably stunning – no other word for it – but also definitively subtle, with plentiful delights on quiet display on each play through; rather like viewing an expanse of water and its ever-changing moods and patterns, it’s never quite the same twice.

Catriona’s compositions are clearly inspired by tradition, sometimes more obviously rooted there than others, but they also tend to showcase an adventurousness of spirit and expression that’s only partly born of a desire to exploit the boundaries of the instrument’s sonic and textural capabilities. The disc’s energy-fuelled title track may be the most overtly virtuoso of Catriona’s excursions, but there’s every bit as much virtuosity in matters of phrasing in the altogether more reposeful pieces like Silenced With A Kiss, the gracefully pointed, balleticMaureen’s Waltz and (especially) the heartfelt lament that is Prayer For Ceren. Even so, it’s hardest to resist the Harp Royalty Meets Banjo Czar medley, where Catriona tackles a banjo tune by Séamus Egan with glissandi and all manner of creative flourishes; on this selection, Catriona’s virtuosity brilliantly encompasses both uncannily deft note-spinning and line-weaving and her intensely skilled use of dynamics. The disc’s closing item, the medley of reelsIrish Harp Hero, with its playful syncopations, then makes a breathtakingly agile finale.

David Kidman,  Feb 2014 ,The Living Tradition

HARPONIUM, Catriona McKay

A the annual Edinburgh International Harp Festival draws to a close, here is a complex array of self-penned and tricky-fingered new pieces by Scotland’s leading small harp performer/composer. The accompanying sound of the pedal-organ or harmonium is also layered in, again played by McKay. Well known as the keyboard player in Shetland-based band Fiddlers’ Bid, she is also no stranger to the variety of contemporary musical genres and here allows her imagination to wander freely down graceful rhythmic side-roads and through sparkling harmonic showers. Though technically challenging for any harp player, the music is so dynamic, well expressed and full of life that it wholly unfolds only after repeated listening.

Norman Chalmers, April 2014, Scotland on Sunday

HARPONIUM, Catriona McKay

Another quite contemporary-sounding solo album from Shetland's harp queen, who is also a talented keyboard player with Fiddlers' Bid and others. Here she plays her Starfish custom harp and a German harmonium, with no additional instruments as far as I can tell. The music is modern without being mainstream, adventurous but accessible, with a traditional acoustic core: almost all Catriona's own compositions, with background notes which describe her inspiration. Each of the nine tracks on Harponium is different, distinct in form or feel. Kronos Reel honours the eponymous classical quartet, an intricate piece with a syncopated melody line and a bass part which ebbs and flows. One for the Sleeper is more mystical, inspired by magic and whisky in equal parts, dissonant at times but with a pleasing air of antiquity to the music. Roof of the World is what you might expect, a hypnotic piece evoking temple bells, high peaks, sun on snow, and a state of dreamy bliss.
The title tune is fun and funky, with a percussion line which I think is damped harp strings, but apparently this is possible at the same time as playing the melody and accompaniment: there's only one recorded harp track, and one harmonium track. Silenced with a Kiss brings us back to the celtic tradition, a striking slow air which shows Catriona's clarsach virtuosity over a harmonium ground. Maureen's Waltz is another challenging piece, sparkling runs and triplets in the right hand, chords and ringing bass notes in the left. The next track combines a piece for Catriona's teacher with an East European reel by multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan. Prayer for Ceren is a powerful and moving slow piece dedicated to the memory of a Turkish harpist. The final track joins two of Catriona's own reels into a pulsing rhythmic toe-tapper to end this fine album. As well as being an outstanding musician and composer, Ms McKay is a bit of a snappy dresser, and quite a tease: not for her the Fairisle sweaters and faded jeans. This CD, like her previous releases, sees Catriona clad as a catwalk model, a bare shoulder here, a flash of thigh there, with a glamorous sleeve design to match. Visually attractive and musically delightful, Harponium pushes all the right buttons, levers, pedals, keys and strings. You can see more of Ms McKay's on-stage wardrobe, and her other recordings, online.
© Alex Monaghan, April 2014, www.folkworld.eu

© Catriona McKay 2015