"C O M M U N I O N"
An Interview with Kim Robertson by David Michael
originally published in the Folk Harp Journal
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Celtic harpist Kim Robertson was interviewed by fellow musician David Michael on a recent visit to the Pacific Northwest. This interview took place at a time when David was preparing to leave for Europe and Kim was headed home for Minneapolis after giving a harpers' retreat ... a bright, brief sliver of time caught on a tape recorder and reflected in typography. Though they had never met prior to this, a similar approach to making music and their love for the Celtic harp allowed for a meeting full of humor, insight and understanding ... a communion accompanied by the random clatter of flatware on china and the Seattle Hilton's finest muzak ... - ©1998 Adam Victor Christensen
David: Kim, you've been doing a lot of harp workshops in the past few years. I know they're very special to you and to the participants. Tell me about them.
Kim: About fourteen years ago I went to a harp retreat in Vermont hosted by Christina Tourin. Derek Bell from The Chieftains was there, and Roslyn Rensch, the pedal harp teacher and historian. For me, this retreat was a huge turning point in my life. I was a pedal harpist at the time, playing orchestral music. I had a token small harp and I subscribed to the Folk Harp Journal. But this retreat was significant for me because I discovered that there was an entire repertoire surrounding the Celtic harp and this wonderful social context of musicians getting together to learn, share and grow. (Derek Bell pictured at right.)
Anyway, I re-met Tina ten years later and we decided it would be neat to start sponsoring retreats and creating a supportive environment for other harpists. We spend a lot of time in the workshops on life principals and philosophy: what are you doing this for in the first place, what is the function of the music for you and others. Rather than focus on turning out concert harpists, we gear the workshops for the players who are using it in their daily life, using improvisation for self-expression and creativity.... also, for people who are looking for alternative careers using healing arts and who want a more holistic approach to the harp rather than the competitive approach that Tina and I both experienced when we were in the classical harp world.
David: Do you find a lot of people showing up who are really afraid to improvise?
Kim: Oh God, yes!
David: What kind of methods do you use to get them to let go of their fears?
Kim: Sometimes it sounds so crazy you wouldn't believe you were walking by a harp class. We have them doing things like howling like wolves, or doing different physical exercises, Tai Chi exercises, or using guttural sounds. It's all about realizing you are your instrument, not your harp. Anything that comes through the harp first has to start with you. We use a lot of singing and vocalizing to help release the creativity, which also helps hand coordination. By using the voice and breath it releases something in people, too. It's amazing how the barriers break down.
Tina emphasizes the visual arts, I work more in sound with the singing, the noises and grunts. Tina does a session on painting with colors to evolve compositions. She shows how to use squiggles and lines to create a symbolic visual mapping as a tool to composing ... and works with animal imagery, phone numbers and things like that. It's good fun. I wish somebody had shown me this kind of thing when I was first starting the harp ... maybe I would have gotten more creative sooner in my life.
David: Do some people have a difficult time with this approach to harp creativity?
Kim: Sure, there is resistance in some people. But my rule is not to make exceptions. If someone comes to these workshop retreats, I assume they must want to break open their creativity and to benefit from these techniques. Some of them do get embarrassed but we just make everyone do these things. I'm the one who's the silliest of all so they all learn to loosen up pretty quickly ... not to be afraid to sound absolutely awful or absolutely wonderful.
We're all afraid on stage and in performance situations. I bring this stuffed toy harp seal named "Harpo" along to use as our "cringe police" so that whenever anyone thinks they've completely blown it ... you know "Oops, I played the wrong note. I deserve to die, I'm so horrible" the seal comes over and clubs them on the head. It's a playful way of exaggerating and acting out that internal self-critical "I'm no good" attitude we all have. The whole world doesn't have to know we made a mistake. Isn't improvisation just keeping going? You know, the only difference between a "mistake" and an "improvisation" is that you keep going.
Kim: No, I've never met either of them, but certainly I know their music.
David: They do an incredible job of getting people to improvise. Part of Paul Winter's philosophy is that any combination of instruments can work together if the musicians are in touch with each other. His approach seems to be getting people to unlearn whatever they might have learned before ... trying to get people into a "group-mind" place ...
Kim: That's it, isn't it? By being in a group, it releases something and seems to assist people in enlarging themselves beyond their own psychological or creative limits. Sometimes the harpists with the most technique have the most difficulty in these exercises because they're over-trained or have over-identified themselves with a certain image of the harp or a certain repertoire.
David: In this process of working with other people, have you made some interesting discoveries yourself? Do people who come to the retreats have a lot of ideas themselves?
Kim: Yes, to both questions. Absolutely! We do a lot of open forum things where people contribute their expertise, their insights and it becomes very illuminating. Also, for me, there's something really purging about showing people what I do and how I do it .. showing them all my "tricks." This also helps me pull apart some of my own techniques so that I can reassemble them and put them in other people's hands ... which always leads me to invent more things. Some of the retreat participants are repeating the workshops already so I want to have new things to offer them as well as reviewing previous material. Each group has its own personality and its own energy level so we have to be extremely flexible. We get not only advanced players but beginners, too. Sometimes I forget how sweet it was when I first discovered the harp. It's wonderful to see that again, reflected in the new people.
David: I had such a love affair the first year with my harp and it's never really ended ...
Kim: Yes. But don't you find you get a little jaded in a way when you start getting on to being a professional. Beginning harp players remind me of the beauty and simplicity of the instrument. When I get with a beginner group, sometimes they can get overwhelmed with everything I give them and would probably be very happy to take a pattern or two and go over and over it. In a way, teaching has taught me to slow down and simplify my playing as well as evolve the more "hyper space" techniques.
David: So you and Tina share your own process for how you come up with music ...
Kim: Yes. We do a lot of arranging within the workshops so people can see the process of creating music, a lot of left hand patterns, right hand work ... hot-licks, I call them. We do a session on stage-fright ... which I've re-dubbed "stage-craft" ... learning to have more composure on stage. Occasionally, we have a massage therapist available. You could think of it as a "holistic harp" weekend.
David: Your teaching is obviously very important to you ...
Kim: Yes. I feel a real strong sense of being an educator on folk harp. I'm not trying to create an army of harpists. Not all of us intend to be concert artists, but what a wonderful addition to any body's life the harp can be. There are wonderful stories I hear everyday of what harps have done for people for the people who play them and for the people who hear them. For instance, at the Edinburgh Harp Festival, I saw the Scottish clarsach ensemble directed by Isobel Mieras, a group of thirty folk harpers with ten-year-olds mixed in with sixty year-olds. They donate all their earnings to charity. They bought a seeing-eye dog for a blind person and a hearing dog for a deaf person.
David: I understand that you're giving one of these retreats in France ...
Kim: When I was 19 and 20 I lived in France as part of a study-abroad program through my college. I switched at that time from being a music major to a French major. I actually don't have a degree in music but in French. A friend's sister, from Scotland, bought a Medieval farm in the Dordogne area of France and has transformed it into a retreat center. It should be great ... there'll be harpers and non-harpers and, if everything works out, I'd like to do it annually.
David: An acoustically recorded harp is a "folk" instrument but it has the potential to be so ethereal andotherworldly ... it crosses over easily to New Age projects ...
Kim: Yes, there's a healing sound inherent in the instrument itself ... and an intimacy. I'm not at all tempted by the electronic or chromatic harps. I love the limitations of the folk harp because it's so freeing. That may sound like a contradiction but by having the folk harp set in basically one key, it really opens all these possibilities in other directions. I've been listening to my early recordings and hearing how differently I play now. Last night at a concert, someone asked me to play "Arran Boat Song" which I hadn't played in years. I discovered that I'm simplifying ... taking out more notes, putting more rhythm in and more syncopation, learning to imply the music and let the ear reach out for it rather than just filling up the spaces. I think, as a race, we're evolving in the way we hear sound. It seems to be getting less thick, more sparse. Maybe that's why folk harp is appealing to more and more people ... there's a beautiful simplicity where even plucking one note can be so meaningful.
David: You're certainly associated with the New Age genre. Your Crimson series with Singh Kaur on the Invincible label I find completely magical. It's basically a mantra repeating for an hour, perfect for doing yoga or meditating. How did your work with Singh Kaur come together?
Kim: She was familiar with my recordings and contacted me through the record label to find out if I would be interested in doing this project. She was a Sikh ...a student of Kundalini Yoga ... and wanted to create these meditative musical tapes for her spiritual community which could be sold at their yoga classes to enhance the practices . We had no idea they would be so popular to the general public. The first four volumes we did in one recording session. We rehearsed for two weeks beforehand at my home and then went into the studio. It was quite an intense time.
Although we recorded my harp and her vocal tracks separately, she was always with me in the recording studio during my harp sessions, keeping that musical connection with me. I had to do these ten-minute sections where I couldn't stop or pause otherwise I'd have to start all over again. One time I was recording my track and I heard this singing in my headphones. I thought "O darn, she's forgetting this is just the instrumental part and she's singing out loud. I'll have to do it all over." I threw an angry look over at her and saw that she was glaring at me, too. We both thought the other was singing, and it turned out neither of us were. We had heard some kind of digital angel singing in our headphones at the same time, singing along with the harp part. There's no explanation and we still don't know exactly what happened. It's just one of those uncanny things.
David: There is a very special atmosphere in the recordings
Kim: Yes, I feel there's a real pure-heartedness in this music we made. We both were doing the recordings because the melodies were so beautiful not because we wanted to sell a million copies. For me, the words of the mantras didn't mean or convey anything specific. I wasn't personally into that religion or path ... but I believe there is a power in them. They come from Sanskrit, one of the most ancient languages.
A lot of people in the harp world don't know about this series because it's not in the Celtic tradition but some of the Crimson Series sells better than my solo work. I get letters all the time from people... drug clinics, hospices. Veterinarians have written that they use the music for post-op for their animals ... Parents have written saying they used the music in childbirth. So Singh Kaur and I are back in touch with each other and we're thinking about doing another recording together but I can't say definitely what or when right now.
David: When you're sitting alone composing do you go into a trance state to come up with your original music...
Kim: I think I create mostly from improvisation towards composition. I've learned that it's something you need to practice just like your repertoire. For some people, new music may come like a divine inspiration but I find it helpful to improvise as an ongoing part of my relationship with my harp. One of my favorite quotes is by Aristotle. "You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit." I really like the idea that by continually practicing improvisation you're making an opening for new music to flow through you. We can only improvise at the level of our current technique so beginners have just as much potential as more advanced players.
I recently had an argument with a harp teacher whose attitude was "Why are you teaching improvisation to beginning harp students? Improvisation is the crowning achievement of musicianship." But my experience is that some of the beginners improvise more beautifully on the harp because they're still listening to and being led by the sound of the harp. A harpist I had as a beginner I met several years later and she said, "You know, I liked my compositions better when I was a beginner." When I asked her why she said, " ... Because, then, the harp told me what to do and now I tell it what to do." Isn't that a sweet insight?
David: I've always thought the Western approach to music ... learn 500 etudes on the way to becoming an actual musician was completely backwards. So you believe in incorporating improvisation early in the learning process ...
Kim: Yes ... it's also a very forgiving approach.
David: But you must, when you're improvising, come up with something that excites you and ...
Kim: Yes. What happens is that I start forming motifs. Everyday, I try to sit down with my harp and I approach it like communion in a church where you go up to the altar and have a ritual that, ideally, leads you to a reflective or receptive mood. I do this when I first sit down. Rather than practice scales or something that might turn it into a mechanical experience, I treat it as a time when I am just open to let things come to me. I try to start slowly, to let my hands warm up naturally. Or, if I'm in an angry mood, I may be more percussive and play faster. It's amazing how each day it will sound different. I also use my voice as a tool ... not with specific words or lyrics but with syllables and open vowels.
Out of that, comes themes and motifs I may use later in composition. If something comes, like you say, that I get excited about, I'll keep playing it over about 50 million times ...Then I would turn my tape recorder on or write down the key and chords. But I never have the recorder on while I'm having my "harp communion" because that changes the experience from spontaneous expression to trying to catch the butterfly and pin it on the wall. You don't want to contain it yet. The whole idea is to let it flow through you ... the William Blake idea of kissing the joy as it flies. Isn't that beautiful? It's just flying by and you reach out and give it a little kiss and you're not concerned about owning it or turning it into your property. You're just filled and completed with it in that moment. I'm never worried about forgetting something that's especially beautiful or brilliant like that because it comes back later. I don't think it ever really goes away.
David: And you trust that there's more where that came from ...
Kim: Exactly. That's the attitude, isn't it? It's a richness with no ending to the source ...
David: It sounds like you've evolved a personal ritual to your approach to creating music with your harp. Is the harp a spiritual path for you?
Kim: Some people come to my concerts and later they tell me they've had these really great visions and inner spiritual experiences. I get so jealous because for me the physical act of playing is pretty mundane. I don't go into trance. Concert performance is very athletic for me; I'm very rooted, very much "in my body." My improv' sessions ... yes, they are a spiritual experience for me but, even then, it's more the quality of working as a vehicle There is a prayer that says, "Make me as a hollow reed from which the pith of self has been blown, so that I may become a pure channel through which Thy love may flow to others." I just love that prayer.
The idea is to get out of the way and let these things come, but you do have to do the physical labor in order to manifest those moments. In other words, learn how to play your instrument. Once in a while, a tune comes to me in complete form where I hear the melody, I hear the chords, I hear the whole thing ... it's like a complete gift that comes through. The tune Gratitude (avi performance presented here.) was one of those pieces and is still my favorite. I wish that would happen more often but usually I'll start with a chord progression ... once in a while I hear a melody but not a complete package all at once.
David: Kim, you're considered an innovator in the field of the Celtic harp and you're known for your original music. At the same time, don't you find audiences want what is familiar, the "evergreens" and "chestnuts" of the Celtic harp repertoire? Can original creative artists get appreciation here and now for what they are doing?
Kim: You mean, not have to wait until they're dead? Of course, but you have to believe in yourself and in what you're doing. And you can compose things that have an ancient familiarity to them as well.
David: I think that's how artists bridge the gap. We're always borrowing from what came before...
Kim: That's what I try to teach. I tell people, "Don't worry if you compose a piece that sounds like 'Greensleeves', it's your 'Greensleeves'." I swear if I listen to someone's recording I can pick out the pieces that person has composed because there's more life force in it ... there's something more expressive. The same thing in concert. People come to life when they're playing their own works.
David: Do you see your life as having a mission or do you just take each day as it comes?
Kim: I really feel that the Celtic harp is my life's work. It's an instrument you can spend a lifetime with. Truly, I need to play the music that I'm meant to play. If I tried to do something merely for the money or to be commercial, well, you know. People say, "You could be as big as Andreas Vollenweider or somebody, why don't you do this or that" or start wearing mini-skirts or something. People are so keen to give you advice as a way of expressing their enthusiasm.
But I really know in my heart exactly what I should be playing. Sometimes I wish I were more versatile. I'm not at all. I very much have one style and am good at one kind of thing. Sometimes I wish I could play "Satin Doll" the way Tina Tourin does or play funky blues the way Deborah Henson-Conant does but my mission is to play what I play ... not that I have a five-year or ten-year plan but I feel that I have a real gift and a responsibility to use it. Anytime I've tried to stray off this path of the harp, bad stuff happens in my life.
David: The universe has a way of ...
Kim: ... getting you back on track. It's as simple as that!
You may enjoy these other articles featuring Kim Robertson ...
"Bridging Heaven and Earth" Cable Television Program
with hosts Allan and Wistancia transcribed by Adam Victor Christensen
"Nothing true is lost. The fire only makes it pure and strong."
- Grandfather Griffin in Gwinna by Barbara Helen Berger
from the liner notes of Wood, Fire & Gold
Wood, Fire & Gold is available from