Music and Beyond: Life on a string with Michelle Gott

Michelle Gott is performing at the Music and Beyond Festival.

For the past few years, Michelle Gott has been a road warrior for music.

The harpist has travelled some 11 times between teaching gigs. One is in Tucson, Arizona where she is in a fulltime tenure track job at the university there. The other is at uOttawa.

That’s a lot of hard kilometres, some 4,100 kms to be more precise, in her Hyundai Santa Fe. But for the Las Vegas native it’s been worth it because she has been able to pursue her passion for playing and for teaching the harp.

“I am doing a lot of driving. It’s the easiest way to do it because I have two dogs (Mika, a husky cross and Chloe, a lab cross she got when her mother passed away in 2009), a lot of music and a harp.

“I don’t think I’m unique,” she said about all the miles. “People just make it work.”

In addition to seeing her students in Ottawa, Gott is in town to take part in the Music and Beyond festival where audiences can see her in a recital with her friend and NACO principal flutist Joanna G’froerer on July 7, in performances of the puppet opera Sleeping Rough and accompanying the Ottawa native, baritone Jonathan Estabrooks on July 16. Gott and Estabrooks were students at The Juilliard School in New York, where Gott stayed for three degrees, including her PhD.

But why the harp?

“I was probably brainwashed. My mom was a harpist so I grew up with it. It was not an unusual object in my house. She was my primary teacher until I went to Juilliard.”

Like any career choice there comes a day “when you have to decide if this is something that you love or something you are just used to. I decided it was something couldn’t really live without.”

The turning point happened in the summer she was 16 and attending a summer session at Interlochen in Michigan. She was having success and she said she had realized she could actually do something with the instrument.

“There weren’t a lot of harpists growing up in Las Vegas so it was hard to know how I stacked up against the rest of the world. When you start seeing that you can go into that pool you get bitten by a little bug.”

The tiny bite turned into a big decision when she was working with Lynn Aspnes who is a major force in the American harp world.

“We were standing in a crossroads of paths between the cabins where the students were staying (at Interlochen) and the practice room and talking when she asked me what I wanted to do.

“And I was shy to tell her because I hadn’t said the words out loud yet.” So she stammered out that “‘I kind of, maybe, want to go to Juilliard with a big question mark at the end.

“And she shook her shoulders and said, ‘Well then, go’. I turned around and went back to the practice room because she said just go.” And she did.

After getting her PhD, Gott started emigrating to Ottawa and got her permanent residency in 2013. She also started subbing with the NAC Orchestra and started working for the Ottawa Youth Orchestra. By 2014 she was working at uOttawa.

But she didn’t move for music. She moved for a relationship. Sadly that didn’t last but she decided she liked Ottawa anyway.

Along came the University of Arizona position and the circle was complete. She likes Tucson and Ottawa. Both are smaller cities with “a lot going on.”

But, “when I moved to Ottawa people thought I was crazy leaving New York.”

Turns out New York wasn’t her cup of tea. “Ottawa is perfect because you have the city and the country both.”

She has also made strong musical connections here. For example she and G’froerer have been a duo for a few years now.

The Sunday recital which is based on a theme of water features a 2017 NAC commission to mark G’froerer’s time with the orchestra and to have a new work that would premiere in NACO’s WolfGANG Sessions series that runs at the Mercury Lounge.

The music for the piece Exit Eden was written by the the award winning Andrew Staniland. It’s based on a poem of the same title written by the Kingston, Ontario poet Joanne Page and collected in the book Watermarks.

“We were interested in contributing something to the repertoire for flute and harp,” Gott said.

The idea for the program is that “water is a transformative force and it comes in many forms that can be destructive and peaceful.”

Staniland came upon the poem on a yoga mat, Gott said.

“He had gone to a class and this book had been placed on his mat as a gift. It became the inspiration for the piece.”

Gott says the work is, in parts, very percussive, in other parts meditative. It even has her drumming on her Lyon & Healy harp while G’froerer plays a solo.

She is no stranger to new music. The introduction was at Juilliard.

“Over the years, I have played lot of bizarre stuff and a lot of music that I would consider is now in the canon of classical contemporary music including pieces by Elliot Carter and Luciano Berio.

“I have been interested in using the harp in different ways and colours and I have not being afraid of trying new stuff on the instrument.

“When you get the music in your hands you realize this really works. My approach with composers is that I want to put my best into it to see if it’s worth it even though it might seem awkward at first.”

Those fingers are everything. And Gott tries to protect them and the rest of her body from the kinds of injuries that are caused by the repetitive nature of playing an instrument.

She practices something called the Anderson Technique which she learned at Juilliard.

“It’s more about body awareness and release of tension with a specific focus on the way that tension accumulates in the body. That’s not just from playing but from all activities” even talking on the phone. She calls it a life-long pursuit.

Her openness to new music and new projects for the harp got her involved in the Roddy Ellias opera Sleeping Rough.

She can’t wait to play that again.

“I thought it was brilliant last year. There is a lot in it. I’m really glad we are doing another staging because I feel the piece is growing with everybody.

“I think Roddy wrote a piece that deserves to be out there. He kind of created a little masterpiece.”

This openness to new options and ideas for the harp is something that Gott tries to teach her students.

“The harp is a very diverse instrument. You can actually take a number of different directions like film work.”

The harpist Tom Monger plays with the band Florence and the Machine, for example, she said.

“My job is to train students to be at a top level, to make sure they have all the foundational things, are good musicians and also creative and encourage them to think about how they want to make a difference.”

Her last student has graduated from uOttawa and the long drives will be ending for Gott.

“It was a wonderful five years, but it was brutal to go back and forth 11 times like I did. Still I have no regrets.”

Music and Beyond presents Music and Water
With Joanna G’froerer (flute) and Michelle Gott (harp)
Where: Allsaints event space
When: Noon
Tickets and information:

Sleeping Rough
Where: Great Canadian Theatre Company
When: July 9 & 10 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Jonathan Estabrooks
With Michelle Gott (harp) and Frederic Lacroix (piano)
First Baptist Church
When: July 16 at 2 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.