Interview with Maeve Gilchrist
in january 2008, the iJHF interviewed Maeve Gilchrist, as first prize winner of the Lyon&Healy International Jazz&Pop Harpfest lever harp competition
When did you start playing the harp, and why?
I started playing the harp (‘clarsach’ as it is called in Scotland) around the age of nine. My mother is Irish and two of my aunts are professional Irish harp players, thus making it a natural choice. Harp was in my blood!
Which music did you grow up with?
I was lucky enough to be exposed to a huge variety of music as a child via both of my parents. My mother and father were very involved in the traditional music scene in Edinburgh and there was constantly music and dancing in the house.
This instilled in me a joy of music which I am sure I will never lose. My traditional roots were very strong but at the age of ten I entered the ‘City of Edinburgh Music School’ where alongside harp I studied classical piano and later on, jazz vocals. My dad was a music critique and had a record collection that ranged from ‘Ravi Shankar’ to ‘Pink Floyd’ and a lot f ECM jazz.
I was bombarded by all kinds of music when I was young, it was wonderful!
Why do you play jazz?
I don’t think of myself as strictly a jazz player. I use improvisation in my music because it gives it freedom, I use extended chords because it gives it color and I use syncopation because it grooves!
These are all techniques which I add to my traditional roots to create my sound. It is a constant journey.
I think jazz is a wonderful tool to expand the horizons of many kinds of music.
Whom did you study with?
I primarily studied harp with a wonderful teacher in Scotland called Isobel Mieras. She was very open minded and embraced any ideas I approached her with.
I took lessons from many of the Scottish harper: Corrina Hewitt, Wendy Stewart, Savourna Stevenson etc
I think Scotland is really breaking ground with the harp at the moment. There are some really innovative players there.
When I came over to Berklee I was a voice principal but they were very ope to me bringing my harp into labs and ensembles with pianists and horn players. That was a great learning experience because it forced me to have to come up with harp parts that would fit tastefully into a modern instrumental ensemble. One of the most inspiring classes was a mixed world music ensemble run by ‘Jamey Haddad’ (of Paul Simon, The Paul Winter Consort, Nancy Wilson and Kenny Werner etc) and ‘Alain Mallet’ (of Paul Simon, Dave Samuels, Robin Mckelle etc) The concept behind that ensemble was that everyone would bring their background into the music and glue it together by our common understanding of improvisation and jazz.
Who is your jazz harp hero?
That is hard. I don’t know if I have particular harp hero. So many instrumentalists of all kinds have inspired me in different ways.
I was recently blown away by the music of a young Columbian harper called ‘Edmar Castaneda’, he is bringing his traditional instrument to a new level. His time is incredible. Kristen Nogues was a fantastic Breton Harper who I have just got into listening to recently. She recently passed away and left behind some beautiful music.
Who is your favorite (jazz) musician?
Some musicians that have particularly influenced me are Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, John McGloughlin, Miles Davis, Arvo Part, Bill Frisell and Nina Simone.
In different ways all of these musician’s music has developed through their lives, constantly changing ad evolving yet always remaining tasteful and musical.
How did you prepare for the contest?
I chose pretty straight ahead tunes and practiced them. Most of them were tunes I had already been playing for a while, so I could play over the changes comfortably. There's nothing like being able to relax when you play. Specially in a competitive enviroment.
Which standard are you working on now, and which one is your favorite?
I’ve not really been working on standards recently. I have been trying to write a lot of tunes and songs.
The standards are a wonderful repertoire for any jazz musician and a great way of coming together with other players, but you can’t keep recycling. It’s every musicians duty to try and evolve and create new sounds. That’s what the composers of these tunes would have wanted. That’s what the players who made these tunes famous would have wanted too. Learn them, play them, then play with them or do your own thing.
Saying that, there are some ageless tunes in there. I was thinking of making a new slightly ‘clunky ‘ version of ‘bewitched’ the other day. Some of the old ballads like ‘skylark’ are gorgeous. I also love mingus so don’t get tired of tunes like ‘Reincarnation of a love bird’.
What are your plans for the years to come?
I’m not much good at maps and I’ve been so blessed in my journey so far that plans haven’t been very necessary. I would love to record again soon.
Most of all I just want to keep playing and writing music to the best of my abilities. The harp is a beautiful and deep instrument which hasn’t quite found the place it deserves in contemporary music. I want to push the leverharp as much as I can into that place while retaining my musicality and taste.
I have no idea what is going to happen in the future, it is very exciting!