Photography: Keith Saunders
The expressive musicality of the harp is no secret to many. But by those unfamiliar with its versatility, it is often unfairly associated with providing whole tone glissandi to herald an angelic figure or a long-lost memory. This reality only partly highlights the magnificent achievement of American-Australian harpist Emily Granger, whose debut album In Transit makes a boldly convincing claim in support of the proliferation of more contemporary harp repertoire. To plead her case, she has assembled and recorded a collection of 12 works from both American and Australian composers that dispel any preconceptions about the harp’s limitations, all the while showcasing her remarkable virtuosity and sensitivity.
The title track by Sydney-based Tristan Coelho (also the album’s producer) is a stunning way to commence the listening experience. Its persistent extended harmonies are at times transfixing and hypnotising, and at others, ferocious and startling. 'In Transit' is not only thematically representative of Granger’s journey, but it’s also a musical microcosm of the larger record itself. Mesmerising and imaginative, her interpretation of Coelho’s piece is the most exciting on the album. His other recorded work, ‘Old School,’ is similarly beautiful and a total gear shift, revealing the voice of a gifted and thoughtful composer.
Ross Edwards' dual-movement 'The Harp and The Moon' (2008) is a gorgeous continuance, beginning with the atmospheric 'Lento e molto languido' and finishing with the propulsive and syncopated 'Allegro grazioso.' In Edwards' own notes, he writes:
"These moon-drenched fantasias, a song followed by a dance, were composed primarily in response to the allure of this most magical of instruments. Having fallen under its spell, the music flowed naturally and simply."
Granger's sophisticated performance of Edwards' two musical ruminations (originally composed for Australian harpist Marshall McGuire) unveils the harp's dramatic and affecting potential with daringly sparse rubato in the former and a brisk, lively treatment of the latter.
Delawarean composer Libby Larsen’s ‘Theme and Deviations’ (1973) is another of the album’s entrancing highlights, simultaneously occupying a more traditional musical structure (albeit with contemporary tweaks) but infusing it with modern sensibilities. Granger’s playing here is assured and commanding, deftly navigating the changes in mood and breathing life into each seemingly disparate movement. This is followed by Elena Kats-Chernin’s ‘Blue Silence’ (2006), originally for ‘cello and piano but now one of two transcriptions for harp (completed by Granger herself, the other being Augusta Read Thomas’s ‘Eurythmy Etude “Still Life”,’ (2007) for solo piano). It’s an understated and meditative performance, and also speaks volumes about her skills as an arranger — there is nothing to suggest this piece wasn’t written specifically for solo harp.
Nancy Gustavson’s ‘Great Day’ (1975), the most undeniably idiosyncratic harp composition on the album, is perfectly positioned as the penultimate track — it’s as if it’s a treat for those who had come seeking something more familiar. The florid glissandi are perfectly executed by Granger — you can almost hear how much she enjoys the sheer physicality of the piece.
Irrespective of your personal familiarity with solo harp repertoire, there is very little not to love about both Emily Granger's playing and the artistic merit of the works she has assembled here. Existing followers of Granger will find 12 more reasons to continue to admire her, and newcomers will discover an unexpectedly charming addition to their classical playlist.
In Transit will be released by AVIE Records on March 11, 2022.