The last time I came across Sara was on her 2005 album Timing Her, which was a gentle and pleasing if mildly understated collection of tunes played on the Celtic harp with a few songs interspersed for good measure. Sarah’s moved on apace since then, having made her name as the world’s only Aeolian harpist. (For those not in the know, the Aeolian harp is where the wind blows through the strings and chooses its own harmonics, chords, rhythms and pulsations – truly, then, the music of nature.) In other words, Sarah performs alongside wind-blown harps and creates music around them using acoustic Celtic, medieval and classical harps. She records them on location in the wild, amongst nature, and then weaves her own musical tapestries around those recordings, for its special connection to the natural world and the landscape. Her latest disc, Wild Harp, finds this modus operandi deployed in a variety of ambient settings where the musical mode chosen (traditional or classical) is of virtually no relevance – instead the listener is able to focus on the range of sounds and resonances and associations evoked by her performances. It turns out that this the second of Sarah’s discs to be devoted to the wind-blown harp (her first, Soirbheas, was voted Classic FM’s Album Of The Year a few years back). Sarah’s playing can only be described as joyous, exhibiting a sense of pure abandon in her deft and creative phrasing that transcends her classical training or any overt desire to impress. The communication of mood and spirit-of-place is paramount. This can mean that the “found sounds” become a touch obtrusive at times and even in danger of swamping the purely instrumental “voices”.
At its best, though, Sarah’s music is spellbinding and seriously enchants. On this disc Sarah uses five different harps, ranging from concert harp and wire-strung harp to electro-acoustic traditional harp and electric harp, and also plays various keyboards, the medieval gemshorn and low whistle; she sings (well) on Miri It Is, Breaths and Blow The Wind Southerly (the latter not the familiar tune), and recruits the Exeter University Chapel Choir for the atmospheric (yet harp-less) Blow Northern Wind. The first couple of tracks were recorded in the Lake District, and cast a unique, airy spell all their own. Whispers is a decidedly strange duet for harp and throbbing wind turbine, while Sarah’s musical partner for two linked tracks is the song thrush and the cuckoo respectively, and the constant booming sound of the bittern accompanies Miri It Is. Perhaps my favourite part of the disc, however, is the storm-tossed sea sequence of The Mermaid and Seal Song. Finally, the CD closes with a rather weird, meandering electropop setting for the tune commonly associated with Burns’ Westlin Winds, which takes a while to get going! Wild Harp is ethereal, fascinating and intriguing by turns, even if the more overtly impressionistic tracks like By A Woodland Stream might be found a touch too consciously new-age for some listeners. The CD’s presentation is first-rate, with extensive background notes to savour.
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