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Holly Erskine

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


Emissarian Spotlight: Celtic harpist Kim Robertson
Emissarian Spotlight is a new, regular feature highlighting a cast or crew member of The Emissary Movie.

We are delighted to have Celtic harpist Kim Robertson on board The Emissary!

Kim is playing Friday, August 14, at the 2015 Milwaukee Irish Fest if you want to catch her performance this week.

Kim is highly regarded in folk music worldwide. In the mid-70's her music helped kindle what is now the huge popularity of Celtic harp in the American folk music scene. AND Kim is a native Wisconsinite, so she is locally sourced!

We discovered Kim's Alayi was ideal for a climactic end scene. You can hear Alayi on her album Wood, Fire, & Gold. (Listen to a preview of Alayi here)

Alayi gets me every time I hear it. It perfectly captures the mood we were looking for.

I will never forget a remarkable coincidence that took place with Kim's music. Though I spent most of my career as a chemistry professor, I've been an part-time amateur harpist since I was a teen, so I thought I was moderately familiar with Kim's work. Over the years I'd accumulated a lot of Kim's recordings and sheet music, since I particularly resonated with her style.

In my mind, Kim Robertson was A Famous Person, so I never imagined I would be interacting with her. But in the summer of 2013, my harp teacher, Tammy Naze , let me know that she thought it was about time that I went to my first harp conference. At these, harpists meet to have workshops focusing on common harp techniques and issues.

If I wanted, I could pay to schedule a private lesson with a well-known harpist when I registered. I had a choice of four. I jumped at the chance to have a session with Kim! Tammy prodded me to focus on one of Kim's arrangements in anticipation of my lesson. Maybe I shouldn't play this, I thought nervously, as my fingers fumbled through Kim's arrangement of The Maids of Mourne Shore. I thought, I'd feel stupid if I messed this up! I resolved to play something more obscure.

But I first met Kim in a morning workshop with other harpists. Kim danced energetically into our classroom, a petite, powerful figure, loaded with professional experience but at the same time, earthy and approachable.

Kim was bursting with amusing harp advice. This quickly relaxed the nervous crowd of students. She showed us the difference between what she dubbed "thrrrrummy strummmy!" and "thickkky pickkky!" playing. "thrrrrummy strummmy!" she would call out, as we went through our exercises. and then, "Now, "thickkky pickkky!"" We found ourselves laughing through most of the class.

When it came time for my private lesson, we had no room available, and were awkwardly forced out into a hallway. I had hastily moved my harp into position to play for her, but found I had left my music locked up by accident in another room where a workshop was in progress. Not only that, but I realized the skirt I was wearing was too short for harp playing--this is an instrument that requires your legs are apart. She glanced at my overexposed thighs and, noticing my discomfort, said knowingly, "Leggings. Next time wear leggings." (Great advice which I remember every time I perform now.)

She requested I play something. I didn't have any music with me. No matter, I have never felt all that comfortable reading sheet music anyway, so I would just play something I knew well. But what?

In the early 80's I had worked at Legends, a New-Agey themed gift shop, trying to earn my tuition double majoring in biology and chemistry at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. There were these old, unlabeled cassette tapes in the back of the store. We played these when the store was open, but there was one tape I found uniquely, deeply soothing as an overworked, overwhelmed, impoverished undergraduate. The piece was just magical. It was harp and voice, and I determined to learn the piece. I had no idea what it was. It stuck with me all these years. I had that one in the bag, I thought. I thought it was safe, Kim probably never heard of it, so she wouldn't know if I was playing it incorrectly.

So I start playing this mystery piece, and to my surprise, Kim starts singing along. What? "You know this piece?" I asked, incredulous. She laughed kindly, and informed me that it was her harp arrangement. I was dumbstruck. I attempted to explain, stammering stupidly, that I had no idea that it was her harp music. What an amazing coincidence! And I had probably messed it up, too!

I observed to Kim that the chord sequence was the same as Pachelbel's Canon. "It's better," joked Kim in a conspiratorial whisper, her eyes twinkling. (If you talk to any harpist, they will secretly moan about the number of times they have been requested to perform Pachelbel's Canon. It's sort of a harpist's inside joke.)

At last I learned what the mystery piece was, so I could finally order the CD and refresh my memory of how it went.

Crimson Collection, Volumes 1 & 2: Guru Ram Das/Mool Mantra

If you are looking for powerfully soothing music, I recommend this! It is part of a series called The Crimson Collection, volume 1, Guru Ram Das with the angelic vocals of Singh Kaur.