Swift and Lindop are the UK’s leading contemporary horn and harp duo. Their debut EP, ‘The Forest’, inspired by the pair’s shared love of nature, demonstrates just how effective and complementary this underused instrumental combination can be. John Wadsworth talked to the duo – Esther (Swift, harp) and Jennie (Lindop, horn) – ahead of their concert in Oxford on Thursday July 16th, part of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series.
Please could you tell us a little about the aims of Oxford Contemporary Music’s Warneford Chapel series?
These concerts form part of OCM’s education and outreach programme, presented in collaboration with Artscape and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust. Lunchtime concerts are held for patients and staff and there is also a concert in the evening open to the public. Entry to the evening concert is a recommended £5 donation to Artscape, who co-ordinate a programme of workshops and commission new artworks across the NHS Trust to enhance the hospital environments. Within the chapel’s small acoustic setting, contemporary music can become more accessible. Performers have the chance to discuss their music, as well as take any questions alongside performing in Warneford Chapel’s intimate setting.
You have often stated that your music is inspired by nature; how do you approach translating the sea and the forest into sound?
The sea and forest are already full of very complex and diverse sounds and rhythms, the difficulty is in pinpointing the sounds you’re particularly interested in or that you feel would translate well onto your instrument; rather like making a poem about a blade of grass or one tiny moment or thought. We first try to simplify the sound or rhythm to its most basic form and then improvise around that to see how best to vary or build on it. For example, we looked at the sea’s constant perpetuating motion almost as a lullaby. In contrast, we also looked at the amplification of any tiny sound in a thick dense forest, whether it be the scuttling of a woodlouse or a crow flapping by, or even in the blanketed silence itself.
Beyond the soundscapes you create, how does your emphasis on nature affect the way in which you play your instruments?
Our instruments are both acoustic and have been made by nature. We like to use the wood and air around them to create as many textures and colours as possible, and use their physical shape to experiment with grand gestures, sweeps and movement; as in nature things are always moving and changing. We like to approach our instruments in the same way you might approach the sea or a forest; as a physical journey from start to finish, each piece a short story. This we also see as part of the bigger picture, rather like a photographer will photograph a bird mid-song or flight.
Esther – Do you think that harpists such as Joanna Newsom and Serafina Steer, who are influenced by classical music and folk but produce music that can be broadly described as indie, are changing the instrument’s reputation?
I think that both Joanna Newsom and Serafina Steer are great musicians and have done some interesting things on the harp, and it’s great that they popularise the instrument, but there are others who have done more to change the instrument’s reputation and push its boundaries. My old teacher Catriona Mackay has been a massive influence on my career, as well as Savourna Stevenson, Rhodri Davis and Park Stickney, who, though they are perhaps lesser-known, have developed their own individual technique and incredible skills, using the full voice of the harp in folk, jazz, roots and contemporary music. The harp should be a very physically demanding instrument because of its size, and a lot of power and energy can and should be used to give it its full voice, but this also makes it extremely diverse. I think it’s very exciting thinking about future techniques that could be developed on the instrument that are still to be discovered.
Jennie – Many consider the French horn the most difficult orchestral instrument to play. Would you agree, and how would you encourage more musicians to take the horn up?
The horn is such a versatile instrument, which can blend with brass, wind, strings, and even percussion. I was drawn to play the horn because of the beauty of the rich, warm tone you can make. To a certain extent I would agree that it is a difficult instrument to play, as you have to hear the pitch before you play it; each valve combination can result in a number of different pitches sounding. You need breath control and physical strength and it can take a while to get past beginner level, compared to some other instruments, such as the piano. However, playing the horn is much like singing in many ways; the horn is almost an extension of your voice, and if you approach it from this angle, it makes learning to play much less of a challenge. I have always felt that the horn, of all instruments, most closely replicates the voice of the musician playing. Once you experience playing your first notes on the horn, you get such a buzz you may be unable to stop playing, as happened with me!
Why do you think that horn and harp duos are so rare, and what are the advantages of the combination?
Creating balance is a challenge; the horn is naturally loud and the harp quiet. Also, there has not been much music written for this pairing. One of the things we are aiming to do is encourage composers to write for the instrument and show them what a beautiful, intimate combination this is. It is very much a duo, unlike horn and piano, where the horn is usually accompanied. The contrast between the resonance of the harp and the pure tones of the horn, as well as the spiky staccato notes playable on the harp and legato quality available on the horn, help make the instruments both complement each other and come together in a very unique way. There’s still lots to discover!
For more information about OCM’s forthcoming events, please visit their website.