Tristan Le Govic is the sound of modern Breton harp music

Admittedly, I didn’t know much about Breton music before I met Tristan Le Govic. He introduced himself at a harp festival several years ago, and as he described the arrangements of Breton music he just published, it was impossible not to be persuaded by his enthusiasm for the music. Breton music is in Le Govic’s bones. He is Breton through and through, and the intensity and commitment with which he pursues everything in his life has helped him build a vibrant career as a Breton harper. He has published volumes of music, put out several critically acclaimed albums, and is in demand as a solo and chamber musician. Oh, and he’s also working on his Ph.D. in his free time. Free time, however, is not something he has too much of at the moment, as he has just become a first-time father to his baby daughter, Lena. We caught up with Le Govic on a video chat with him at his home in Baud, a town near where he grew up in Brittany.

Harp Column: What makes Breton music special for you?

Tristan Le Govic: It’s the music where I come from. It’s my roots. I’m the second generation after the big Celtic growth of the Celtic harp, which happened with Alan Stivell, of course. He was the first to play traditional Breton Celtic music on the harp, and I am part of the generation which came after that. When I grew up, there was a huge Celtic revival, thanks to Alan Stivell, and in particular, a huge concert he did in 1972 at the Olympia Concert hall in Paris. That started a huge wave of Celtic music all over the world. For the first time, you could see the Celtic harp on stage with the electric guitar, with a rock attitude on the stage, which was very popular at that time. I was born in 1976, four years later, so I didn’t see that concert, but I was part of the wave that followed that concert. Without Stivell, I probably would not be here. He made the music popular, he made the Breton language more popular, and of course he made the Celtic harp more popular. He presented something that was completely new to people, so when I came along it was a bit easier for me because people knew this music already. I came to the harp in 1982, 10 years after this revival, and by then the Celtic harp wasn’t such a new thing. There were enough Celtic harpists around me that I was sure I wanted to be one too. Playing traditional music still wasn’t so easy at that time, despite Alan Stivell. There were no structures to learn Celtic harp at that time like we have now, of course. I was very lucky in my hometown there was a school—it was a unique place because it was a private conservatory only for traditional music. It didn’t last for a long time, unfortunately, but I’m part of this generation that started only with traditional music. It was great. It was as normal for me to go in and learn traditional music as it would have been to learn Mozart or Bach. I used to go to the fest-noz. I grew up with those pictures and images and sounds in my ears. I was able to see harps on exhibition at the biggest folk music festival in the world, Festival Interceltique, which happens to be held in my hometown of Lorient in Brittany. There were thousands of people coming to the festival from around the world every summer, except this year of course. I remember when I was young, I lived in a part of the city where there was a campsite where musicians who were invited to perform would come and stay a week before the festival and practice together. So I would hear this music and these sounds—I was surrounded by that and fascinated by that as a child. So for me, Breton music was not something new. I heard it all around me.

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Editor of Harp Column, freelance harpist, private teacher, hot yoga lover, and grammar geek.

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