You are currently browsing the monthly archive for March 2010.

Onstage in Brittany with a borrowed Celtic harp

Remembering the Edinburgh Folk Festival, years ago.  Singer-songwriter Archie Fisher hea

ded the festival and every year there’d be one show where he’d choose a group of musicians who’d never met. He’d put us in a theater first thing in the morning, introduce us and tell us to have a show ready by 8 that night.

The year I’m thinking about, the ensemble was  bagpipes, harp, voice, bass – and probably percussion.  Hard to forget the bagpipes, though.
We rehearsed, I’m sure, but since most of us were also jazz players, we could choose tunes we all knew, or string a bunch together, describe the layout “Ok, you play a kind of intro thingy, then I’ll come in with a bass-line, set up the rhythm and Max there will yell out which tune we’re gonna do.”  It’s the best kind of playing sometimes, because it’s completely spontaneous and you have to listen like crazy.

And it had been drummed into me: “if the bagpipes start playing, we’re in the key of Bminor.”  OK – so if you’re a bagpipe player and you know I have this wrong, forgive me – it was, like, half-a-lifetime ago.  The point, for me, as a harp player is that once the bagpipes start, there’s a limited number of notes I need to worry about — I can just set my harp into a particular key and just be there.  So the bagpipes give a kind of mental freedom.

Now, the singer and the bass player were a couple – I’m pretty sure of that.  And I’m thinking she was Melanie O’Reilly.  But I’m not clear on that point, either.  Here’s what I am I’m clear on:  It had been a long day, we’d gotten a little sidetracked at rehearsal and we didn’t have a full set-list.  The show started, and we’d been playing an hour or so, when – well, let’s just call her Melanie — started a song I’d never heard before.

I didn’t panic because I was too tired.  And then the bagpipes started.  That was my cue.  I shifted my harp into bagpipe key and, since I had no idea how the tune went, I just started playing glissandos.  For anyone who isn’t a harp player — though it’s hard to imagine there are many who aren’t in the world — OK, yes that was a sad stab at fringe-instrument humor — anyway for those who don’t know, a glissando is that thing harps do when the TV show is about to go into a dream sequence.  But some glissandos can sound pretty eery.  And the one I was playing was an eery-type.

I know there’s no way I can bring this moment back, and I’ve never tried to describe it – or even to explain it – and yet it stands in my mind as deeply important, so I want to try.  Behind me Melanie sang, “…she moved through the fair,” the bass player’s counterline sighing like wind — and the bagpipes, like the ghost of every lost thing you longed to find — and my harp, waves of giving in, me giving in to the experience of playing something I had never heard, each of us playing something so simple that we disappeared into the song, into the singer’s breath.  This, simply giving in to the music, playing in a way that required no skill — no ‘playing,’ no ‘doing’ – – just listening and responding with hands, with movement. Freedom.  Expression. Not “me expressing” — but the experience of being the expression.  And of being lifted.  Lifted, though knowing that if I stopped, the updraft would disappear.  All I needed to do was continue.  Simple, inevitable.

Years later, when I recorded my Celtic album, I chose that piece, “She Moves Through the Fair,” and recorded it.  And the piece is still beautiful, still haunting.  But my memory is beyond beautiful — the voice I heard, the place I went, the sensation of being suspended on the sound.  It’s the quintessence of live music. The updraft of the soul.


Cover of Deborah Henson-Conant's "The Celtic Album"

Cover of "The Celtic Album"

(The following post is from my March 2010 E-Newsletter.  To sign up for the E-Newsletter on my homepage

Pinching!! That’s what I remember about St. Patrick’s Day as a kid. But living under the O’Leary’s completely changed my take on the American Irish experience.

I moved to Boston in my early 20’s from California, and after a few roommate situations, I found my own apartment in one of the ubiquitous two-family homes in Somerville, outside Cambridge. There, for 18 years I shared a ceiling with the Rambunctious O’Leary’s who celebrated St. Patrick’s day annually. And by that I mean all year long. I should also say that the ceiling we shared was their floor.

On St. Patrick’s day the O’Leary’s flew the Irish Flag, their grandchildren performed Irish stepdance and Mary Lou begged me to stuff her into my suitcase when I went to record a PBS Special in Ireland. “I’m small. I’ll fit!” she said.

The O’Leary’s were Irish through and through. And for me, living below them was perfect. I loved Mary Lou and Charlie, and they treated me like I belonged there. In the rare times they raised my rent over 18 years, it was always with a written apology. And I loved living close to a family — but not actually in one. It was perfect for me as a composer, too: The O’Leary’s were noisy, but never played the stereo, so no matter how much noise they made, I could still keep my musical thoughts straight – and by setting my music studio up under their laundry room I could practice or compose all night, and no complaints from them.

Only once in nearly two decades did they complain about my noise, and it wasn’t so much a complaint as a cry of alarm. That was when I was learning Mexican Foot-Dancing for a concerto project. And I only complained once too, during an indoor O’Leary-Boys soccer game. I didn’t mind the noise – or even the house shaking – it wasn’t any worse than a medium-grade California earthquake. But if the boys actually crashed through the ceiling, I wouldn’t make my deadline.

In those years under the O’Leary’s my life completely changed. I started touring to Europe, got a record contract, started soloing with orchestras … and spent a lot of time with Celtic musicians, learning about the music and the culture of the many Celtic nations: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, Isle of Man, Galicia and Asturia.

When I finally bought my own house, I couldn’t bear to leave the O’Leary’s and I kept the apartment for nearly a year, even though I lived two miles down the road. When Charlie died, I played “Danny Boy” at the funeral – a song I’d never liked as a kid (it only takes one tenor to ruin that song for someone forever). But playing it for Charlie was completely different. I suddenly heard the tenderness.

And when I started spending time with Celtic musicians, I discovered how much we have in common: the love of mixing story with song, the thrill of rhythm, the sense of music as an expression of individual spirit – but also of people as a community.

I don’t consider myself a “Celtic Musician” but the influence of the music, the culture and the ethic on my work has been profound. This month we created a Celtic Download Collection in honor of St. Patrick’s Day. It includes all the cuts from my “Celtic Album,” plus cuts from two other albums and a live, unreleased version of “Danny Boy” — so check it out. You can buy it and download on the spot, or listen to the whole album for free. Let me know what you think!  You can link to it here.

Blog Categories