The harpist and composer talks to AM about her childhood, her
inspirations and her brand new album
Savourna Stevenson’s biography is so lengthy and so impressive it’s difficult to know where to start. I suppose the beginning is as good a place as any.
“It was a very unusual household to grow up in,” she says of her childhood in West Linton near Peebles. “We had music for breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Her mother was a nurse. Her father, Ronald, was a composer and pianist and encouraged his daughter from an early age. In fact, she started playing the piano at just five years old.
“I’d absorbed so much music… it was an intuitive gift. It was a wonderful upbringing but quite pressured at times. It’s really difficult to follow in your parents’ footsteps.”
She does, however, refer to her parents as ‘wonderful’ and clearly has a lot to thank them for. Their passion for the arts not only influenced Savourna and her siblings (her brother is a violin maker and her sister, an actress) it’s also in the blood of the next generation too. Savourna’s oldest son is a guitarist, her daughter is a soprano, and her youngest son plays the double bass.
“Having been brought up in a house of classical musicians, even though I fought against it, it was in my heart all the way.”
Already an accomplished pianist, eleven-year-old Savourna then discovered the harp.
“We had Peter Pears (the famous tenor) and Osian Ellis at the house,” she recalls. “Osian Ellis was a harpist and I fell in love with the harp. And then I fell in love with the Scottish harp, the clarsach.”
In those days, the clarsach was apparently seen as a stepping stone towards the larger, more complicated pedal harp but, Savourna tells me, this is no longer the case. She herself is a master of both.
“I did seven years of lessons with Sanchia Pielou, she was the principal harpist of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. She was a wonderful teacher… probably the best teacher of harp technique I’ve ever come across.”
Things began to take off for Savourna when at fifteen years old, she was asked to play on Dave Swarbick’s solo album (a former member of Fairport Convention) and then to play at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, in what she describes as ‘an amazing experience’. She went on to experiment with playing the harp with rock bands and became interested in the traditional music world, releasing her first CD ‘Tickled Pink’ at the age of 24. This included several of her own compositions for the clarsach, attracted interest from musicians, and led to her first commission.
“My first was a dance commission and then I was lucky to be commissioned by Judy Steele for the Borders Festival of Ballads and Legends for ‘Tweed Journey’. The idea of it was that I would follow the River Tweed from source to sea and use inspiration from folklore on the way.”
By her own admission, she earned herself a reputation for crossing boundaries and for writing difficult music. “I wanted to see how much I could do with it,” she says.
In the meantime, at a young age, she had married a harp maker. He developed a ground-breaking mechanism for levers which resulted in Savourna experimenting with blues and jazz and later, working with WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) and travelling to Real World Studios.
“It was a Peter Gabriel project,” she confirms. “In fact, I got asked to play the small harp for the ceremony of Peter Gabriel’s second wedding. He’s a lovely man, so genuine.”
It’s difficult to keep up with her swift rise to success and to remember all of the famous names she refers to. In fact, I begin to wonder if there’s anybody she doesn’t know!
“I’d had a fantastic experience of working with some of the best people. I’d done an awful lot of Scottish Celtic stuff and world music and jazz. But I wanted to get back to my roots which is classical music.”
At this point, she put herself forward for a Creative Scotland Award with the aim of writing a children’s orchestral work based on Scottish folklore with narrative. The award was specifically for those who had already made a significant contribution to Scottish Music. Having written a Harp Quintet based on Scottish women’s songs, released an album of re-workings of new Scottish ballads and ‘done an awful lot of Scottish Celtic stuff’, she was highly deserving of the award.
“My Harp Quintet was so successful… it was used for Sex and the City twice, and Ugly Betty, so I was encouraged. I thought, if I can write a String Quintet, I can write an orchestral piece. Which was much more difficult than I thought, but this wonderful award allowed me to study it.”
It was another string to Savourna’s bow, and she credits Ian Macpherson for her orchestral success. Ian was born and lived in Ayrshire before moving to London where he was a West End Conductor.
“Ian had worked with Frank Sinatra, Bert Bacharach… I worked for 20 years with him, he taught me orchestration.”
Sadly, Ian died in hospital during Covid and Savourna pays tribute to him by referring to him as ‘the most remarkable man and a wonderful teacher’.
Her orchestral premier with Children’s Classic Concerts was Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift, mention of which leads her to tell me of her concern for the downfall of classical music.
“People don’t know anything about classical music which is partly the problem of the composers but also the ignorance of the school and exam system. It does not encourage music literacy and musical performance. Arts education needs to be taken seriously because it deals with the mental health of the nation. It’s a very, very important resource.”
She obviously has strong feelings on this particular subject and is determined to do her bit to promote classical music and encourage children to become involved.
“My biggest inspiration as a child was Harpo Marx,” she tells me, thinking back to her own childhood. “I’m writing a piano concerto at the moment. I found a piano in Galashiels that was played by Hofmann, Horowitz, Louis Armstrong, Gershwin, Ravel and the Marx Brothers. I’m writing a piece called ‘The Secret Life of a Piano’. How fascinating… the story of this piano being played by different people.”
Coming from such a musical family, it must be hard for Savourna to imagine a childhood without music, which goes some way to explain her work with Children’s Classic Concerts.
After the success of Misterstourworm and the Kelpie’s Gift, Children’s Classic Concerts commissioned more works: Hansel and Gretel and The Snow Queen. This led to Savourna being asked to contribute to the National Youth Choir of Scotland’s 10th Anniversary Songbook, after which she decided to return her attention back to the pedal harp and to choral working.
“Catrin Finch, the queen of harps, she was the first Official Harpist to the then Prince of Wales. She wrote to me saying ‘I hear you’re writing a harp concerto, I’d like to play it’. That was premiered in 2012 at Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh.”
She goes on to tell me about her work with poet, Les Barker, a commission from the Scottish Vocal Ensemble for a Scottish Christmas carol, and then a commission from St Giles’ Cathedral which, as well as being performed by St Giles’ Choir, was actually played at the memorial service for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
I feel as though I could listen to Savourna all day. She has a fascinating story to tell but I’m keen to hear about her new album. ‘Wine of Life’ is a joint project with saxophonist, Steve Kettley, released on 20th January. Having worked with Steve before (he’d played on her ‘Tusitala’ album) the duo reunited after Savourna had separated from her husband.
“I was lonely. Steve was a nice, safe person,” she says, explaining her feelings at the time. “I was very fond of his wife. We went out on the road together and we’d just started the CD when lockdown hit.”
Much of that time was spent arranging and recording ‘Wine of Life’, a reflection of her ‘glass half full’ attitude and based on the eleventh track on the album, ‘Maybe Then I’ll Be a Rose’.
“There’s a line in the song… Here and now, let’s drink the wine of life, while life is ours. That’s the meaning behind the album.”
The album is described as a blend of haunting melodies, pulsating rhythms and stirring improvisations, a combination that Savourna and Steve have entertained crowds with during their tour, including performances in Ullapool, Glasgow’s Piping Centre and Dunfermline.
I wonder what could possibly be next for Savourna. Is there anything else left to achieve?
“My piano concerto is still not finished. And I’ve been writing for the guitar and the flute quite a lot. In fact, I’m one of many composers asked to do a composition for Ayrshire-based JKL Duo. But my next album… will actually be with my own children. We think it’s time to do an album together, so that’s what we’ll be doing.”
In the meantime, ‘Wine of Life’ is now available to buy or download.