Harpist Bridget Kibbey on ‘Crossing the Ocean,’ Collaboration, and the Harp as a Musical Passport
By Jane Lai
Friday, November 24, 2023
Bridget Kibbey first listened and saw a harp at age nine while attending church in the middle of Ohio cornfields. Immediately, she was mesmerized, taken in by the shape and sound of an instrument that seemed to capture and sing inside a cavernous room. She was taking piano lessons since age three and her dad suggested the pragmatic transition. “I loved practicing and sitting alone with the harp and exploring sounds, especially since the fingers have direct access to the strings,” she said.“There’s nothing between me and the instrument, which is pretty edifying.”
At 14, Kibbey played her first advanced solo piece beside her desk lamp. She remembered feeling she had the tools to express what she wanted. “It was a variation of sound to put in my hands,” she told me. At that moment, something corroborated in her mind and body. The harp wasn’t just a vehicle for her practice. It evolved into a lifetime commitment.
Yet Kibbey’s relationship with the harp doesn’t begin and end with how well she can play. The harp existed in many iterations over the centuries. For instance, one of the earliest known instruments, a kora from West Africa, combines a harp and lute. There’s also a 78-string-trapezoid-bodied Turkish Qanun dating back to the 18th century, a modern concert harp that Kibbey plays, and much more. “The resonance is so powerful. It feels timeless. But the instrument is also timeless,” she told me. As she ages, Kibbey grows further in touch with those native forms of harp that informed what it is today. There’s endless exploration both as an instrument and alongside its many shifting histories.
Kibbey describes this lifetime of exploration to me. I imagine it’s like entering many relationships with one person and learning to love them in different ways throughout numerous years. She’s particularly interested in playing with musicians from different traditions, nurturing sensibilities and skills in a room together, and learning with them. “Collaboration expands my perspective of the harp,” she ended.
In Kibbey’s latest work Crossing the Ocean, six composers who emigrated to the States bring their musical traditions to her and the harp, such as Syrian Dabke (an Arab folk dance), Canadian folk, Milonga from Argentina, and more. Composers were mainly trained in classical music and as a result, created a blend of folk, native, and classical.
“In Kibbey’s latest work Crossing the Ocean, six composers who emigrated to the States bring their musical traditions to her and the harp…Kibbey asked each composer the same question: which is the rock from which you’re cut? And how do those memories (musical or otherwise) synthesize with your current circumstances?"
Kibbey asked each composer the same question: which is the rock from which you’re cut? And how do those memories (musical or otherwise) synthesize with your current circumstances? “It created this cohesion because each composer responded to how they synthesized their childhood memories to the now,” she told me. That’s also how Kibbey views the harp—it unites these cultures and influences and her experiences as a harpist.
In Crossing the Ocean, “Caja de Música: III. Tempo di Joropo” (composed by David Bruce) feels like a conversational dance of exciting and secretive conversation. I imagine two children running in a field with an endless sky chasing one another, catching fireflies. It’s mellow and bright throughout and blends grace and movement.
In contrast, “It’s About Time” (composed by Kinan Azmeh) features a slow, nearly ominous crescendo. A stillness expands like filling up a swimming pool. With a sudden volta captured amid the piece, its surprise observes something fulfilling along with a descending and minimal resolution. However, in terms of resolution, it’s difficult to pin objectivity.
Trying to explain how Kibbey’s music moves would be like bottling your love for a single person. The landscapes Kibbey paints and takes down and draws over are massively detailed. When she’s painting, she remembers, in a large brush stroke, the shifting hues of a blue sky but also the line depths of corduroy buttons on the people carrying fresh pies. “The resonance is really unique. I basically get to embrace it,” she said.
About Jane Lai
Jane is pianist, songwriter, instrumentalist, and collaborator based in Brooklyn, NY.