Q&A: Esther Swift, Clouds Harp Quartet

Esther Swift

What’s the origin of the name, Clouds Harp Quartet?  

The first piece I wrote for the Quartet was about different cloud formations when I was walking in the Scottish Borders with my Dad under an expansive sky. It was what brought us together and made me realise that this combination of instruments can be really exciting.

What genre of music do you consider your work to be?

I take influences from all the music that I love – folk, minimalism, dance music, electronica, Berio, Bach. It is difficult to pinpoint it to a genre but I think it resonates with people interested in folk, jazz and classical music, even though those genres in themselves are very open ended!

Who are your major influences?

My influences are vast so it’s hard to say…I love Jon Hopkins, Steve Reich, John Adams, Gogo Penguin, Nina Simone, and of course in the harp world Catriona McKay and Park Stickney, among others.

How did you all meet and what inspired you to form this collaboration?

We met at Music College at the RNCM in Manchester. We were all really good friends already, thanks to our amazing teacher Eira Lynn Jones. When we first played together it was really just for fun and to get to know each other’s musical minds. We do a lot of improvisation together which is a lovely way to bond musically. One of our original members, Rebecca Mills, is currently in Thailand so we are working with the incredible Elinor Nicholson, with whom we all instantly fell in love and felt a musical affinity with when we heard her play.

You are known for performing without music, having learnt everything together by ear. How do you prepare for a performance and what have audience reactions been like, for example at your recent appearance at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival?

I teach all the music aurally for two reasons – I feel that this makes us all more free and open to listen and interact with one another, and much like folk music, my music changes a lot over the course of time, as we get to know it more and use more improvisation.

What do you like to do outside of music that contributes to your musicality?  

My main inspiration comes from nature and so my very favourite thing to do is go for a long walk somewhere, preferably on my own, or with someone who inspires me… forget the time, forget my phone. This is where most of my ideas begin.

Of all the instruments in the world, why the harp?

I was very lucky because I grew up with lots of harpists close by and when I was about 5 I fell in love with Savourna Stevenson. I then went to St Mary’s Music School, where I learned from Catriona McKay (amongst others), who suggested I take up the pedal harp as there was one I could use at school, and I never looked back.

Where have you performed?

All four of us have played all over the world with different projects, which has influenced how we all play.  It’s nice that all of us have such different careers; playing with orchestras, as soloists, chamber music collectives, folk bands, jazz festivals and creative projects. Our favourite concerts as a quartet include The Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, Wales International Harp Festival and the RNCM.

What are your favourite venues?

We love playing acoustically if possible so for that reason a church with a nice focused acoustic is really our comfort zone. However we LOVE playing big festival stages too, as we think that what we do goes down well with younger people as well as older.

How has your music evolved since you first began playing together in 2008?

My music has certainly become more complex, which I would not have realised but for the others in the quartet… I have been looking to make the harp appeal in a more chromatic way, which is a challenge, as it is comfortably a modal instrument.

What has been your biggest challenge as Clouds Harp Quartet?

Our biggest challenge is certainly logistics….travelling and hulking 4 great expensive harps is harp going. But worth it!

What advice do you have for people who want to form their own collaborations?

If we can do it, then you can do it!  Embrace ALL crazy ideas, don’t let the setbacks stop you!

Clouds Harp Quartet, 7.30pm, Fri 2 Jun, Scottish Storytelling Centre

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