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For the last 3 months, Australian harpist Michelle Smith has been here at HipHarp Headquarters doing intensive studies with me. Michellle’s only been playing 3 years, but she’s serious about making a career playing harp, is already a great Burlesque harpist, can play up a storm on Hendrix’s “Red House” and was here to study jazz harmony, improvisation and arrangement.

Michelle and I do classic sax-section swing with our twin CAMAC body-harps

Michelle and I do classic sax-section swing with our twin CAMAC body-harps

Four or five times a week, Michelle and I would meet for lessons and questions and the rest of the time we’d all hear her practicing away in the student room, or marvel at the gourmet meals she cooked herself in the tiny efficiency kitchen in the office.

One of the advantages of her being right here was our ability to connect often or brief periods – sometimes as short as 2-or-3 minutes – tiny ‘micro-lessons’ several times a day, just so I could answer questions or refocus her work slightly. Since I was first a student myself, I’ve always imagined this as a useful way to study, since I noticed that sometimes I just needed a tiny bit of direction from my teacher, but many hours to practice that before getting the next tiny bit of direction. Having Michelle here, on premises, allowed us to work exactly that way.

In her 3 months here, we focused on four areas of study:
– Jazz Harmony: learning to read jazz ‘charts’ or ‘lead sheets’ (the standard form of musical shorthand used in jazz); to become more fluent translating that to harp; and getting a basic understanding of harmonic structure. Since she had very little training in music theory, this part of the training led to some intense discussions – my favorite, after a week with very little sleep, was when I blurted out in sudden sleep-deprived euphoria, “But wait! Don’t you see! The structure of music is time! Music IS the time-space continuum!!”

– Arrangement: learning both standard and non-standard ways to take a basic tune (melody and harmony) and turn it into a complete musical ‘story’ or ‘arrangement’ including an introduction, improvisation section, cadenza and coda (apologies to non-musicians for these technical terms!). In fact, we explored various forms, including classical forms like “Rondo,” and “Theme and Variation.” Our goal was to apply these principles to standard jazz tunes, but first we separated the basic concepts so it was easier to see how to use them — and my favorite week for this section was Michelle’s utter committment to arranging “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in a variety of styles, from the sublime to the ridiculous — and using that simple tune to develop her arrangement chops.

– Inflection: This is an area of work that I had no name for before Michelle arrived, but when she showed up with her own transcription of Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” we had to find a way to bring it alive. Our challenge was that, at first, it just sounded like a harp transcription of the notes to a Jimi Hendrix tune. What we wanted was a way for Michelle to musically channel the spirit of the song to an instrument that typically doesn’t play this style. The solution was Michelle’s detailed focus on each note, finding the right ‘inflection’ by bending notes, adding unexpected harmonies, avoiding typical harpistic gestures and discovering that making this piece sing required many hours of “living it” even after she had the notes firmly in her grasp. You can see a late-night session she videotaped in my studio, where she plays the piece.

– Performance: Because Michelle’s a natural on stage, and has experience performing Burlesque harp at home in Perth, we kept our focus on more structural and technical practice. But two weeks before she flew back to Australia, Michelle joined me on stage for two concerts.at Tupelo Musical Hall in New Hampshire, and TCAN in Natick, MA. I tried to create a sense of our stunning choreography in the series of images from my Flipcam above.

Burnt Food Museum Exhibits

"Burnt Food Museum" Exhibits

I recently received a query from a national TV show about the “Burnt Food Museum” of which I am the founder and primary contributor. They asked me some great questions, so here they are, with my answers:

Curator & Founder’s Background:

Q: A bit of background on you personally.

A: I’m a Grammy-nominated composer/performer; I perform one-woman shows and play the electric strap-on harp, an instrument that was invented for me. My most recent project (“Invention & Alchemy”), with symphony orchestra, aired on PBS as a music special. I often become so focused on my work that I lose track of the mundane — which is how the Burnt Food Museum was (accidentally) created.

Link to Curator/Founder/Artist Home page: www.HipHarp.com
Link to BFM  Exhibits
(more BFM links at the end of this post)

Curator’s Top 5 Exhibits:

Q: Can you tell me what your Top 5 favorite burnt items in your collection are and why – what are the stories behind them? When did you get them? From who?

A: FIRST, A BIT OF BACKGROUND: All Museum exhibits are accidental – in fact, that’s a submission requirement. Although I’m the museum creator, it turns out that many people, worldwide have a deep and undiscovered talent for burning food — and we regularly receive exhibits, photos, testimonials and offers from far and wide. I discourage contributors from sending their originals, so most exhibit the works in their own kitchens, (or “Burnt Food Museum Franchises” as we call them) — and proudly display their “Burnt Food Museum Official Contributor” certificates.

We generally ask contributors to answer the following:

  • Who is the artist/creator of the work
  • Who submitted the work (interestingly, it’s often a family member)
  • The “Original Intention”
  • The “Unintended Result”
  • An “Artist Comment.”

That document then becomes part of the exhibit.

We also accept “Testimonials” — or Burnt Food stories — since, sadly, many people realize far too late the profound artistic value of a meal they think they just destroyed, and by then the garbage has been taken out.

Of course we also have a Museum Gift Shop & Boutique, which includes “Burnt Food Museum” aprons, magnets, T-Shirts, mugs and tote-bags. What self-respecting Museum Gift Shop wouldn’t include these items?

Here are five of my favorite exhibits all on display either at the Exhibit page or the Testimonial Page.

1. FREE-STANDING HOT APPLE CIDER: A chilly night, a pot of cider brewing slowly on the stove, an unexpected phone call, a two-hour conversation — and the Burnt Food Museum was born. When the curtain of thick, black smoke finally cleared in the kitchen, I discovered an amazing gem, the Free-Standing Hot Apple Cider — an impressive structure of burnt cider-foam — inside a completely blackened pot. I took the cider out and put it on a shelf as a memento.

A year later, the cider it was still in remarkable condition, so, naturally, I put it under glass and labeled it. And thus began my fascination with the beauty of burnt food and the stories behind each piece. Over two decades later, the “Cider” is still the all-time favorite exhibit, and the Museum’s mascot. (http://www.burntfoodmuseum.com/exhibits_bfm/cider1_exhibit.html )

2. A STUDY IN PIZZA TOAST: My former boyfriend claimed this exhibit — a 6-part multi-color pastiche with a hint of Warhol — was a Freudian expression of hostility when I offered to make him a tasty snack and ended up incinerating it. I still have the pizza-toast, under glass. The relationship, however, went up in smoke.

3. HONEY, I FOUND IT: “Honey, I found it” is an unusually colorful exhibit and only available online. It’s not food, exactly. It is, in the words of the contributor, an attempt to find some “safe, long-term storage” for rarely used plastic utensils … in the drawer beneath the broiler. Submitted by the artist’s husband, he commented proudly, “A masterpiece… You can’t make this stuff up!”

4. A LABOR OF TURKEY: One of my favorite Testimonials is from the woman who put a turkey in the oven for Thanksgiving and promptly went into early labor. Six days later she returned to find, “a perfect (though blackened) paper-maiche’ model of a roast turkey, still cooking away.” Sadly, there’s no photo of this, but her moving written account makes up for that.

5. THIS GYOZA’S TOO FAR: “This Gyoza’s Too Far” is a favorite, in part because of the stunning Asian setting of the petrified gyoza, including ebony chopsticks, enameled plate and colorful fan. This is also one of our rarer Micro-wave submissions. It was also the first time one of our kids (Ben Wyner, then 9) created an original exhibit. Honestly, it warmed my heart when he proudly showed me his first Opus.

Seriously … part of my motivation in creating the museum and displaying it on line is that perfectionism is debilitating. People judge themselves too quickly. When we think we’ve ruined something, it’s important to stop for a moment and look at what it truly IS, and at what unintended beauty it might reveal – rather than simply focusing on it as a failure. Had any one of the exhibits in the museum been a “successful” meal, it would have been eaten and forgotten. The Burnt Food Museum is my way of celebrating the failures that make life beautiful and funny … which is what makes it worth living.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE QUOTES FROM A BFM FAN LETTER: “Growing up, my mom burnt everything. I had no idea how cool that was until tonight. You have healed my soul, thank you.” (K.C. 10/1/02)

Link to EXHIBITS page: http://www.burntfoodmuseum.com/exhibits_bfm.html

Link to TESTIMONIALS page: http://www.burntfoodmuseum.com/testimonials_bfm.html

Museum Media Appearances

Q: Have you ever showcased your collection on television? On what show and when?

A: Absolutely!

  • FOOD NETWORK: My favorite TV showcase was on the Food Network’s “Warped” (or was it “Unwrapped”?) in the late 90’s.
  • ABC’S “THE VIEW”: In 2004 I made a brief personal appearance on “The View” with several items from the BFM.
  • UNIVISION: A few years ago we created a gala public exhibition for Univision – and though we don’t know whether that show ever aired, the host contributed her own exhibit to the collection (the lovely “Chorizo de Verdad”).
  • RADIO: The museum’s also been featured on several radio shows including Scott Simon’s “Weekend Edition” and American Public Radio’s “The Splendid Table.”
  • PRINT: The museum originally debuted in the pages of the “Annals of Improbable Research” a satirical scientific journal. I think the Canadian equivalent of the Food & Drug Administration also recently featured it in their year-end report (but I might have that wrong). The Boston Globe recently featured the BFM in an article that hit #1 in “Most Emailed Stories” Chart.

Link to BFM press page: http://www.burntfoodmuseum.com/press_bfm.html

Museum Visits, Salon Events & Public Exhibitions

Q: Do people visit the museum?

A: Rarely. The most recent visitors were a reporter and photographer from the Boston Globe did a wonderful set of articles (print & video) that made it to Number One of the Boston Globe’s “most emailed stories.” Occasionally we have exclusive Invitation-Only Burnt Food Museum “Salon Events,” and even more rarely we travel with one or more of the exhibits.

Useful BFM Links

Link to Curator/Founder/Artist Home page: www.HipHarp.com
Link to BFM  Home-page
Link to BFM  Exhibits
Link to BFM Testimonials
Link to BFM Gift Shop
Link to BFM Facebook Fan Page
Link to recent Article about BFM in  The Boston Globe (Boston.com)

Read the rest of this entry »

My neighbor, Betsy, recently sent out a neighborhood bulletin asking for “occupational clothing.” Betsy’s teaching a course called “Social Change in Action” at Boston College and the clothing was part of the students’ field work.

Lab Coats Double in Musical Theater and Guerrilla Theater

Lab Coats Double in Musical Theater and Guerrilla Theater

I just happened to have 20 lab coats left over from the filming of my DVD “Invention & Alchemy” so Betsy took them for their next theatrical mission – this time Guerrilla theater.

This week, Betsy sent me photos of the lab coats with this note proving, once again, that dressing for success may look different … or oddly similar … in different circumstances:

“Dear Deborah, the lab coats were successful!

The group of 17 Boston College students in a Social Change in Action course, calling themselves Student Allies for Vocational Experience (SAVE), set a goal of reversing last year’s $4 million state budget cut in two career internship programs for low-income high school students. They marched on the State House, where they did street theater, wearing borrowed occupational costumes including the infamous “Invention & Alchemy” lab coats, lobbied every senator and delivered petition signatures. The Senate Ways and Means actually put in a small increase ($100K) in its proposed budget for one of the programs, even though they cut or level-funded most programs due to the budget crisis. Not a big increase, but the House budget proposal cuts the programs even more, and that’s what we expected from the Senate too, so even level-funding is a victory.

And I do think their sincere pleading may have won the $100,000 increase. I promised them extra credit for the course if they won any increase, so everyone’s grade was bumped up one notch when the Senate W&M budget came out on Wednesday.   I’ll return the lab coats next week. Thanks! — Betsy.”

I wonder what the lab coats’ next mission will be.

When my wellness-coach, Natalie, saw the article about my Burnt Food Museum in the Boston Globe, she said  it made her think of the piece I debuted in my shows last weekend, a 15-minute musical stream-of-consciousness that weaves together some of my favorite songs from childhood – songs I’m embarrassed I still love —  and never felt that, as a performer, I could share  on stage.

Burnt Tortilla Behind Glass

"Don't Try This if You're Not From California"

Natalie reminded me that when I finally worked up the courage to develop the  piece, which explores what I’ve lost  by leaving childish things behind, that I said I loved performing it because “It celebrates something people are ashamed of.”

The Burnt Food Museum article in the Boston Globe brought out that same impulse, she said.

Ahhh, it’s nice to know I’m consistent.

Also nice to know that my wellness-coach considers Burnt Food a healthy part of my diet, since it’s what I cook best.

To see the exhibits: http://www.BurntFoodMuseum.com/exhibits_bfm.html
To read the article: http://www.tinyurl.com/BFM-Globe
To become a fan on Facebook: facebook.com/BurntFoodMuseum

I’m trying  new material at my Mother’s Day shows this weekend (Deborah Henson-Conant Mother's Day Weekend Showsdetails on the shows below) – so I’m psyched!!  And I’m setting up this page so people who come to the shows will have a place to give feedback.

I’ll try to get back and moderate any comments quickly.  If you want to read more about the show, here’s a link to the press release (pdf) and if that link doesn’t work for you for some reason, you can link to the basic press release page on my website and download the press release that way.

Here’s a link to more show info, including a cool sharable video player, which is fun to watch even if you can’t make it to the shows.

And here’s the basic show info which you can also easily find via my website homepage:

Fri. May 7 – Tupelo Music Hall – Londonderry, NH – 603-437-5100 – Tix $30 (http://tinyurl.com/TupeloDHC)
Sat. May 8 – TCAN Center for Arts in Natick – 508-647-0097 Tix $26 / $24 (http://tinyurl.com/TCAN-DHC)

It’s a little before 7 on a Thursday morning.  I’m heading to NYC to see a workshop of my friend Gunnar’s new musical “The Shaggs – A History of the World.”  I’ve just discovered the Megabus, which costs less than $15 from Boston to NYC, is a subway ride away and has free wi-fi and electrical outlets.  For 30 years I’ve been searching for a cheap, enjoyable way to get to NYC, so I’m psyched.  And I feel like I’m already on an adventure.

Jonathan drops me off at the ball field and I head with my small bags to the main path leading to the subway station.  As the two paths converge, I meet another early-morning walker.  I ask if he’s on the way to the subway, if he’s going to work or on an adventure and, while I can see the hesitation I’m familiar with now as a transplanted Californian on the East Coast, he doesn’t shut down completely and we fall into pace together and keep talking.

He’s on his way to the Boston Public Library to research an idea a friend has challenged him to describe. And as we walk, and then ride he explains it to me.  He calls it “The Shape of Empty Space.”

This term is so beautiful I stop him, take out my notebook and write it down. I know I’ll forget it if I don’t, and then I’ll only remember the feeling of marvel about a phrase I can’t remember.

I see it immediately – the words for something I’ve tried many times to describe.

I’m sure he’s talking about something different from what I’ve experienced, but what I see are the shapes of music.  The structures I try to explain to my students. The idea that music is where time and space co-exist, in structures built of the two.  Fundamental.  The shape of empty space.

I’m sure my interpretation is completely different than what he meant.  Yet, this phrase, ‘The Shape of Empty Space” has become a tiny work of art for me. He’s not trying to be enigmatic, he even explains his own specific meaning, but this tiny art-atom is already working on me, giving me a name for an experience I didn’t know how to name, and which is fundamental to my own work and ideas.

And I think about this:

I’m forever arguing with myself about whether to tell stories in my concerts or not.  Each piece has a specific meaning for me, a story-line, a place.  The music expresses the feelings of characters, or scene or event. Nearly every piece I play is a piece of music-theater for me.  But the theater might be different for each member of the audience.

So the question is: do I keep the stories private, not chancing I might destroy the stories the music might create for them — or do I tell my story and trust the audience to make their own stories out of mine?  If I define the shapes I make in empty space does it engage their own imagination or suppress it?

And one more question …  the man from the subway — if I use his beautiful phrase to express my own meaning … if it becomes the title of a song, the inspiration for a piece of music – have I stolen it?  How do I retain his ownership of it once it begins to inspire me?

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