review ‘will elevate your soul'



by Alex Gallacher 19 October, 2020

Glimster Records (GLMCD5) – Out Now

The harp never featured that large on my musical horizon until, after a few years of running Folk Radio UK, I received an album from Catriona McKay titled Starfish (2007). The album was named after the makers of the instrument she played, Starfish Designs, who are based in the heart of Lochaber, between Glencoe and Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands where all their lever harps are handcrafted.

Since then my exposure to the instrument has grown, as has my admiration which is due in no small part to the innovational playing by artists such as Catriona, Corrina Hewatt, Rachel Newton and Brona McVittie who have all continued to push the musical boundaries of the harp.

Since meeting Alistair MacDonald, a composer, performer and sound artist, at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama in 1998 where he is now a professor (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland), Catriona has been playing improvised electro acoustic music and it’s her improvisations that left such a lasting impression on me. Together, they released HARPONIUM electrosessions last month, a follow-up to her 2014 HARPONIUM solo album and while together they were spurred to take off, play and enjoy, she reveals on her new album that she’s just as capable as doing the same in a solo setting.

Love in Secret is Catriona’s first solo release since 2014 which was mixed and mastered by the keen ear of Alistair. For anyone that has listened to our latest Folk Show (Episode 85), I included one of the longest pieces from the album titled Harp Like a Hell, a piece that feels both improvised and carefree, a real celebration of not just how the harp can cross boundaries but also, when in the right hands, how expressive an instrument it can be. It’s a meditation to her friend and harper Helen MacLeod (1980-2018) and those elements that represent Helen – humour, honesty and vibrancy, shine both through this tune and much of Catriona’s playing on this album.

Alongside two other self-composed pieces which include the sprightly and playful finale Champagne and Laybourn’s are eight tracks that complete the Love in Secret Suite for Solo Harp which explores old harp tunes “reimagined in all sorts of ways”. The suite opens the album with the title track Love in Secret, a tune that blooms from the heart with long caressing notes and immediately moves the listener into a blissful surrender for what’s to follow. The Gathering Swell follows, a reimagining of the Irish air Dermot O’Dowd, as suggested in its well-chosen title, it builds slowly, hinting at a cohesive force of nature, bound by an inner energy which slowly grows with age, undaunted by external forces such as wind and wave patterns.

Continuing with the suite, Listening Below the Surface (Girls’ Have You Seen George) is a personal album favourite, a tune played on an undercurrent of deep notes, it has an edgy and exciting improv-feel that’s quite unlike any other harp piece I’ve heard. Throughout the album, McKay’s demonstrates over and over that while she is creating music completely outside traditional constraints she is still able to pay homage to those old harp tunes.

One of the attractions of McKay’s playing is how visual it can be; whether it’s the musical inference of the sparkle of water in the light on Glitter Path or the coiling intertwining strands on Twisting of the Rope, there’s a vividness and purpose in her playing. Each listen reveals another layer as your senses are drawn ever deeper into the tunes.

Throughout the album are subtle playful breaks and improvisational stretches that bring a certain joy and elation resulting in an engaging musical journey from start to finish.

While this album has been, as she says, a challenge and a joy to create, it’s been worth the wait. It’s a bold and inspiring solo album that will elevate your soul, definitely one to feature in the “best of 2020”.

Catriona dedicates the album to two talented harpers: Barbara Doyle (1977-2007) from Keadue, Co. Roscommon, Ireland and Helen MacLeod (1980-2018) from Inverinate, Kyle of Lochalsh, Scottish Highlands

Catriona McKay 2020