Karen Marshalsay’s Three Scottish Harps concerts do what they say on the tin – and a little bit more.
The Edinburgh-based musician, who plays at Crail Community Hall on Saturday February 18, actually takes four harps onto the stage, causing one observer to describe her as a “one-woman harp festival.”
The complete set
Karen is one of the few harp players in Scotland to specialise in the “complete set” of Scottish harps.
“Folk music audiences will be familiar with the gut-strung, levered clarsach as it’s the harp that has been at the forefront of harp playing on the Scottish traditional music scene over the past 50 years,” says Karen.
“But there’s also the wire-strung harp from the Gaelic tradition and the harp whose sound often takes people by surprise, the bray harp.”
This instrument, although narrower, looks much like the other harps but despite dating back to the Renaissance period, it has what amounts to a built-in amplification system.
“Brays are small pieces of wood that sit against the strings and give this buzzing, almost sitar-like tone,” says Karen.
A harp for a big house
“Bray harps were the harps that were played in musical gatherings in big houses back in the day and this buzzing tone allowed the harper to be heard above the hubbub.
“The typical ceilidh band back then comprised a harp, a crumhorn and a hand drum.”
Although she’ll be playing with just her harps for company in Crail – the baby version of the wire-strung Gaelic harp is the bonus addition – Karen has played in settings ranging from duos to orchestras.
When not giving her Three Scottish Harps concerts she works with long-established Scottish folk band The Whistlebinkies and with the founder of popular Irish band Boys of the Lough, Cathal McConnell’s trio.
She has also appeared with piper, singer and Gaelic music authority Allan MacDonald, of the revered West Highland piping family, and as soloist with the internationally acclaimed Russian String Orchestra, for whom she orchestrated her own compositions.
“Playing with the orchestra was an incredible experience because they were all brilliant musicians,” she says.
“The way they worked together so closely was like an expanded string quartet and they enveloped you in this beautifully warm sound.
“Unfortunately, their leader, Misha Rachlevsky has been ill and with the current international situation not helping Russian musical exports, it’s unlikely they’ll be back here in the foreseeable future. Hearing them playing my music was special, though.”
In Crail, where she is playing as part of the Scotland on Tour project that’s designed to get musicians back on the road following the pandemic, Karen will be playing traditional tunes as well as her own compositions.
Many of these are drawn from her solo album, The Road to Kennacraig, which received glowing reviews, including four stars from The Scotsman, on its release in 2019.
“I know the East Neuk of Fife quite well, having visited the area often,” says Karen.
“But I’ve never actually played in Crail before. So I’m looking forward to playing in the Community Hall and following one of my favourite musicians, the French bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons, who played in the venue a few years ago.”
Crail Community Hall, Saturday February 18, 8pm.Tickets £12 at Scotland on Tour.