ALAN STIVELL: RENAISSANCE DE LA HARPE CELTIQUE (1971)
1) Ys; 2) Marv Pontkalleg; 3) Ap Huw / Penllyn; 4) Eliz Iza; 5) Gaeltacht.
No less an authority than Bruce Eder, writing for the All-Music Guide, once called this «one of the most beautiful and haunting records ever made by anybody». Truth be told, I believe that this statement has more to do with basically falling in love with the overall sound of a well-played Celtic harp than with Alan Stivell's personal-individual artistic contribution to the world of musical ideas. These days, with Celtic revivalism going stronger than ever before, whole battalions of twenty first century minstrels are doing the same thing all over the world.
But it must not be forgotten that most of them are doing it exactly because, in 1971, Stivell released this key record in his career that launched the «Celtic hardcore» movement. Before Harpe Celtique, most of these motives had either been tapped in various folk-rock syntheses, or sculpted into relatively simplistic LPs with immediate popular appeal. Few, if anyone, actually dared to explore that sound in more complex, demanding ways.
The album is completely instrumental, a fourty-minute sequence of brief compositions (some authored by Stivell himself, some recreated from various traditional sources) sometimes formally merged into longer units — 'Gaeltacht' takes up an entire side, but is really a set of five or six entirely different tunes. The harp is, of course, the leading instrument, but it is almost never completely alone, with either a cello or a fiddle or an organ or a guitar or, in a few spots, some drums — at one point, even tablas! — providing the accompaniment. More disconcerting for the average listener might be the fact that very few of the tracks include tight, «danceable» rhythmic structures: if what you're after in Celtic music is jigs-a-plenty, you're probably much better off sticking to The Pogues. This is the sitting man's sound, not the moving one's.
Adequately reviewing Harpe Celtique is akin to reviewing a lengthy chamber music piece: since no «pop hooks» are surmised, no words are spoken, and no radical mood changes are involved, you can either get all technical on this (if you're qualified, which I am not) or just sit back and let the music do all the talking. The only question one might pose is whether one is supposed to enjoy Stivell's unquestionably beautiful playing from an «ambient» perspective — heavenly sounds with a background-embellishing function — or a «classical» one: fleshed-out, meaningful compositions that should be listened to over and over again until they finally sink in properly.
For my ear, most of these pieces sound way too «samey» to justify spending significant time on them so as to learn to know the difference. (Obviously, I am talking about the basic musical skeleton: the fact that 'Eliz Iza', for instance, boasts a much fuller sound through the addition of cello, bagpipes, drums, and choral vocals does not in essence make it seriously different from the radically minimalist 'Marv Pontkalleg'). After all, this is an attempt at faithfully recreating sounds that represent either «folk» or «medieval court» music, emotional and spiritual but also conforming to an intentionally limited formula. Best way to assimilate it is pretend you're King of Wales and this Stivell guy is standing to your left while you're enjoying your banquet — works great for the digestive system.
Trivia buffs will want to learn that 'Ys' is dedicated to the legend of the God-cursed, ocean-swallowed Bretonic city of Ys (hence all the ocean waves in the background); that 'Marv Pontkalleg' ('The Death of Pontcallec') is an old Breton ballad about a failed conspiracy in the 18th century; that Penllyn is in Wales, meaning that track number 3 takes us from Bretonic tradition to the closely related Welsh one; and that 'Gaeltacht' refers to Irish-speaking regions, meaning we now jump to the next island. Not that it is all that easy to distinguish between Irish, Welsh, and Bretonic music, mind you, but as far as the various sub-styles of Celtic playing are concerned, Harpe Celtique is fairly diverse.
I have no idea how overtly sincere are those who, like Bruce Eder, declare this to be one of the most haunting records ever made, but one thing is for certain: I would be very pleased if this kind of music were ever able to really haunt me. Ambient or not, it requires additional listening, and if you are already a major fan of the likes of Fairport Convention or Steeleye Span, this is the next logical stop — but even in this case, you might find it somewhat of a challenge. Better still, start learning how to play the harp, and, if possible, forget any Marx Bros. movies you've seen, at least, for the time period it takes to get used to this. A reverential thumbs up.
Check "Renaissance Of The Celtic Harp" (CD) on Amazon
Check "Renaissance Of The Celtic Harp" (MP3) on Amazon