Savourna Stevenson
at The Anvil,
Basingstoke, England
(24 March 2002)

She's a harpist who has ancestry that's both English and Scottish, and, while she currently resides in Scotland, she's also lived in England. Undoubtedly, her music must be of the Celtic tradition. She must be one of those performers who sits back languidly, wears a long, flowing dress and closes her eyes as if meditating on the music she plays.

Wrong. Clad in a sequinned shirt and leggings, Stevenson does things with a harp that the average layman might not think technically possible. There's no "airy fairy" harp music at her shows, and she admits that she doesn't play the harp the way that might be expected. "I did an interview with the Basingstoke Gazette last week," she said."They were thinking what an angelic instrument -- but not in my hands," she said with a grin, admitting that a German review once referred to her as a devil-inspired harpist.

What makes her style so unusual? She doesn't play a full concert harp; she plays a smaller harp, made by her husband, Mark Norris, which she says is identical to the Irish and Breton harps. "The harp came from Ireland to Scotland in the 7th century," she said. "It's the oldest Scottish national instrument."

Despite those facts, she does not tend to play traditional material. She writes her own music, and, while she often is inspired by Celtic traditions, her material goes far beyond that as demonstrated by her first two numbers. The first, "Dawn, Earth, Wind and Water," has African inspirations. It starts off very gently, but then there's the first subtle Stevenson surprise. She changes the pegs midstream and segues into a piece with guitar-like strums here and there that seemingly transforms her harp into a guitar. However, a few measures later, it suddenly takes on a New Orleans-style piano feel. Stevenson plays the harp, but she manages to make it sound like several instruments all at once.

Her second number, "Blue Orchid," is, as she herself introduced it, "jazzy, bluesy stuff." Once again, she changes pegs throughout the song. She is very focused as she plays; she constantly moves the pegs and purposely plays with them to fluctuate notes and create a bit of a trill-like sensation.

"This is going to be me pretending to play the banjo," she announced. It almost sounds as if Stevenson dislikes "traditional" harp music, but her love for the harp itself clearly is evident. "Silverado Squatters" definitely is a bluegrass piece for the harp. She later laughs and refers to herself as the "fastest harpist in the West." She probably is correct. Later, on "Fording Tweed," played right before the interval, her fast fingers are crucial. When she introduced the song, she laughed and announced the interval after it because she "usually couldn't play anything after this number." The title, "Fording Tweed," refers to the various festivals in Scottish border towns. "It's a macho affair," she said as she described it. The men take the horses out and around, then they "ford the Tweed," with the women standing by the river hoping the men fall in.

The tune features an unusual element in harp playing. Stevenson strums the strings with the back of her hand. She turns her right hand so that the backs of her fingers touch the strings; her nails and fingers almost strum the harp. Perhaps it's to represent the horses' hooves (she repeats it at the end); then there's the feeling of running quickly, with some intentionally slightly dissonant bass notes thrown into the mix. Stevenson changes key in the middle of the piece, and there's simply the feeling that the harp isn't simply a complement to the music; it is the music.

A common element to Stevenson's music is the imagery it evokes. It helps that she introduces each song's settings, but, even so, the music all by itself helps create the mood and evoke images. The opening of "The Source," a song inspired by the border ballad "Thomas the Rhymer," sounds like a "typical" harp piece at first, but the most astonishing part of it is the sensation of feeling water flowing through her fingers with the opening notes. It's a light flow, but it grows stronger and echoes and the piece continues. "Calman the Dove," part of a project with piper Davy Spillane for the 1,400th anniversary of St. Columba's death, conjures up of images of Iona Abby.

On a song written for her daughter, "Emily's Calling," I could hear a child laughing, running, tumbling, screaming, crying and smiling. The song has a intentionally rushed feel at some moments, as if it's trying to present a child running back and forth -- wanting it now. While Stevenson said she based the song on her daughter calling out "Mom!" on the landing of a staircase, the music came from string band influences. "Mexican Monterey" does have a Mexican feel to it, along with a very dramatic ending. "My dream is to join a Mexican mariachi band -- have a harp small enough to strap on my back -- or rather, my chest," she said with a laugh.

Even when Stevenson plays traditional Scottish tunes, such as "The Flowers of the Forest," it doesn't always seem like a traditional piece. While it was a slow, pensive number, she freely admitted that "in the hands of Savourna," it sounded different. However, different is not always bad. It can be very refreshing. Stevenson may play "devil-inspired music," but, even if she sold her soul to the devil, she certainly hasn't lost it just yet.

[ by Ellen Rawson ]
Rambles: 13 April 2002