THE SEVEN HARPS OF AVALON
Reviewed by Peter Hearn
Three years ago I listened to France Ellul tell stories - Orpheus and Eurydice was one - to his own harp accompaniment. It didn't work: his harping was too good and too continuous. It drew attention to itself and away from the story. Last year I heard France at Nettlebed Folk Club where he let his harp tell its own stories. Much better…
And that is how it is on this CD: France's harp at the centre, accompanied by other musicians, and with a few spoken and sung lyrics. The music and words are laced around the story told by Taliesin of the Seven Harps of Avalon, in which seven harpers - including Taliesin himself - witness and lament the passing away of Arthur at Avalon, and thereafter become forever silent. One piece does indeed feature seven harpers. Other instruments are tastefully used, the tabla and the low whistle being particularly effective in this largely gentle and mystical setting. There are traditional tunes, some pieces by Irish harper Carolan, and compositions by France and his fellow musicians.
So, not storytelling in narrative: storytelling in music. Music for closing your eyes to. Music for 'thinking' story to. Music to drift you into Arthurian legend and away to Avalon…
Reviewed in 'Storylines' the magazine of the SfS, the Society for Storytellers, Vol. 4, No. 17.
THE SEVEN HARPS OF AVALON
Reviewed by David Kidman
France had already achieved mention in the hallowed pages of this mag [ see last issue's Live Reviews section - Ed ] , for his claim to String fame is that he was taught the harp by Robin Williamson, but of his background I know little else, I'm afraid, other than that he's a member of the roots band Vitae.
On this new album his own rather attractive harp playing is variously augmented by a further eleven musicians, six of whom play "named" Celtic harps (these are detailed in the booklet, at the risk of sounding pretentious). It would appear that the collective name Harps of Avalon refers to a small ensemble which consists of France himself with Nuala Kennedy, Chris Conway, tabla player Tarsem Kalyan and fiddle player Martin Herbert.
The idea for this album came from the annual Winterdrum festival held in High Wycombe. It contains ten instrumental tracks - the last being merely a reprise of the first - , three songs and a recitation. The instrumental tracks comprise four tunes by O'Carolan, three traditional, a jig (Eirian) by Chris Conway and two of France's own compositions. The vocal items range from the title track (a short extract from the writings of Taliesin) and Lament for Arthur, on which a traditional Manx harp tune is given lyrics by France himself (though I find his singing less convincing than his playing here), to Dreamtime by Paul Hodgon and Justine Hoile - a little over-sung, I feel, - and last but not least, the rather fine The Grail, well written and sung by the underrated Elaine Samuels.
I suppose you might describe the mood of much of the album as new-age Celtic, but of a superior kind. I admit that I was inclined to write some of it off as "merely pleasant rather than deeply moving" after just a couple of plays, but closer examination in a more receptive mood began to reveal many subtleties and more than incidental delights and I realise that my first impressions were significantly unfair.
The first track, Anwen, maintains a fairly even keel over its nine minutes, wending its meandering way at a fair pace with whistle, fiddle and tabla busily offsetting the rippling harps. The next track sets a Welsh tune to a kind of Indian tal. But actually, every track contains some delightful and individual musical ideas. Anwen and Eirian both meld Celtic and Aztec influences in a very appealing manner, and the tabla imparts an interesting rhythmic slant to Carolan's Hewlett.
The artists' commitment to the project can't be faulted, and the recording is fine, though some unfortunate minor engineering glitches disturb the flow occasionally (as on the well-poised reading of Tip of the Whistle). It's all well worth a listen then, and not exclusively for those who like harp tunes.
Reviewed in 'be GLAD', the magazine of the Incredible String Band, Vol. 19.