Halifax-based harpist Ellen Gibling refuses to define herself through a specific music genre. Instead, she works in various musical styles, from classical to environmental improvisation and orchestral pop. But her love for Irish traditional music is the subject of her newly released solo album, The Bend in the Light.
“I studied classical music, first of all, but over the years, I’ve been playing more and more traditional Irish music,” says Gibling. “So this is an album that brings together lots of tunes that I’ve learned over the years and especially compositions by musicians that I’ve met while playing Irish traditional music.”
While Gibling says there may well be some Irish heritage in her family lineage, she was introduced to Irish traditional music informally while studying classical harp performance at McGill.
“I got more into the traditional music when I was living in Montreal, and I really started to feel like that was a home for me,” she says.
Gibling also found herself playing a variety of genres as an artist, trying to work full-time as a performer in Halifax.
“It’s best to be open to as many different opportunities as possible, and so I try to say yes to everything that comes up,” she says. “I also enjoy the variety and meeting all kinds of artists working in different scenes.”
It also helps that Gibling finds playing traditional Irish music fun and what she listens to when at home. “I don’t stress about it at all,” she says. “There’s no anxiety associated with it, whereas with classical music, I felt like there’s quite a lot of pressure towards perfection.”
Free of any perceived restraints from playing classical music, Gibling recorded the album during her pandemic downtime. “I was sitting on a lot of arrangements and tunes but hadn’t done anything with them yet,” she says. “So it seemed like a good time to bring together a bunch of that work and release it.”
The title of the album, The Bend in the Light, refers to a metaphor that I enjoy thinking about when considering the oral transmission of music. In this metaphor, the music that is passed on is a beam of light, and each person who receives the music and passes it forward is a prism. Sometimes, the light might pass through in almost a straight line, in the case of someone who plays the music nearly identically to the way they receive it. Other times, the light could be split into new colours or diverted sharply in its path, in the case of someone who treats the musical material with radical creativity. In between those two extremes, there are countless other ways that the light could be altered as it moves forward, depending on the prism. I find both extremes and everything in between to be both beautiful and necessary for the music to thrive. I love thinking about the little elements of personality that each musician brings to the music – purposefully or not, obviously or not – and how those changes shape a tradition over time. – Ellen Gibling
While growing up surrounded by a father who played violin and a grandmother who was a piano teacher, Gibling credits another family for her interest in pursuing music.
“I became friends with a family who were extremely musical and were the kind of family who would like sing choral music together for fun,” she says. “And as I was growing up, I spent a lot of time in that household, and that was really inspiring to me.”
Picking up the harp for the first time at age eleven, the instrument’s “visual logic” initially got her started. “I could see long strings, low notes, short strings, high notes,” she says. “It wasn’t like the guitar that was a mystery where the finger placement on the fret would relate to pitch.”
In addition to writing the album, Gibling also keeps busy as a harp instructor at Halifax’s Maritime Conservatory of Performing Arts and will soon begin a tour with Halifax folk duo The Bombadils.
In the meantime, Gibling continues to promote The Bend in the Light, an album of music that she says showcases new tunes within a tradition that goes back hundreds of years.