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My Dog Emery & Me

Emery, the Rock-Hound, and Me

My dog and I lived in a small cabin on Tomales bay when I was 18. By “on” I mean the house was on stilts and the water sloshed underneath the house.  When I went to school every day, he’d stay home,  dig up rocks from the beach and carry them home.  He was a rock hound.  He’d bring them inside the screen door and collect them on the tiny mudroom floor.

Every few days, when the pile of rocks was so big I couldn’t get to the front door without falling, I’d pick them up and throw them back on the beach.  It usually took 5 or 6 trips.

He’d spend the next few days collecting them again.  And then I’d throw them back onto the beach.  And so on. It’s just what we did, part of maintaining our relationship.

I think about him a lot when I straighten my house and my studio. I notice that things just seem to collect in ‘the wrong places’ — tea mugs end up on the porch, in the bathroom, on shelves; eye glasses end up in boxes and backpacks and sometimes inside tea mugs.

Yeah, I could maybe become one of those people (if there really are any people like this) who actually put things back where they belong (now that I think of it, I did meet someone like that once), but there’s something beautiful about the still-life of  things in the wrong places.  It tells a story.  Someone was there, they did something, maybe something important to them, maybe just a moment of leisure, or preoccupation, or whimsy — or a moment interrupted — and this is the imprint.

There’s something touching about erasing that imprint. A slow sweep through the house, gathering the rocks and throwing them back on the beach.

But for a long time I resented it. I felt like the fact that things don’t stay clean was personal, a way life has of thwarting me.  Maintenance can seem so unimportant compared to project work, where you create something new – including a new, impressive mess.  But it’s taken me a long time to embrace the beauty of maintenance – at least as a concept

Houses don’t stay clean.  Inboxes don’t stay empty.  Maintenance isn’t work that ever gets ‘done.’  It’s periodic, like breathing.  You do it, and then you do it again. And in its perfect sense, it’s a chance to touch the imprint of what just happened, to reconnect and catch its faint scent before it’s gone.

So the challenge for me isn’t how to get it “done” or even how to get better at cleaning up after myself in the first place.  The challenge is to reconnect, to re-engage with this human touchpoint.   At least … that’s how I’m looking at it today.  Rocks in the mudroom, a beach where they belong — and finding a way to love those five slow trips across the porch at twilight to throw them back where my dog can discover them again tomorrow and return them to the place they don’t belong.


Instrument & Player ( Photo: Jakez Francois - CAMAC Harps) - This photo links to my current show

Instrument & Player - Photo taken by Instrument Builder

Lately, my shows have been changing on a fundamental level. I know this because of the kinds of comments I get.  People have stopped commenting about me, personally, or even about how much they liked the show — and instead, I they tell me excited stories about what the show is made them think about. This is a very exciting change for me.

About fifteen years ago, when I started to sing in my shows, people would say, “Wow, I didn’t know you could sing,” or “I’m not sure the singing is adding anything” or my all-time favorite, from my brother, “You actually let people hear you sound like that?” I decided to keep singing, regardless of any negative comments  – because if I don’t sing, the audience isn’t really getting ‘me.’  Eventually the comments changed to, “I love that song,” or “Are you Irish?” or “You sound like Carley Simon” or Joni Mitchell, or whoever (but never, sadly, Ethel Merman, which was what I was shooting for).

Eventually the quality of my voice (is it good? is it bad?) became a non-issue.  My voice seemed to become invisible and what I was trying to say started coming across.  Either that or I got a whole new audience — but  I could tell something had changed because of the change in how the audience responded and in what they responded to.

At about the same time, I started letting myself tell the stories that were in my head.  Every piece, for me, was a sound track or scene from a musical, movie or ballet – but I thought those stories were, in a sense, crutches – my equivalent of sheet music; just the schematic I use to recreate the music.

Then one day I stopped hiding the fact that I’m a compulsive story-teller and thought  “Why not tell those stories? Then the whole audience would be imagining a similar scene, every imagination in the room engaged in the same story.”  I was curious what that would do.  The comments changed. Along with the inevitable, “I liked you better before” and “Would you please just shut up and play”  I started hearing: “Oh I loved that song ABOUT…so I knew they were experiencing the music as stories, and that was meaningful to me – because that’s how I experience them.

So recently, I’ve been working to get deeper into the pocket of meaning that’s behind a narrative. It started with my show “Strings of Passion” which took 7 principles that I use in developing my own work and life as an artist, and presented them in words and music.  It wasn’t a story-narrative, though it used story and spoken word – and was a new way for me to mix spoken word and music.

The comments afterwards were very different in that …

I’m suddenly remembering  the first time I went to Wales. I’d been told Wales was a country where singing was deeply prized and practiced, but I thought that was just a marketing concept, like “Castroville is the Artichoke Capital of the World.”

I was presenting a workshop about the Blues, and early in the workshop there’s a “call-and-response” section where I sing a line and ask the audience to sing it back to me.  I’d done the workshop a lot so I had a general expectation of what the audience would sound like when they sang the line back.  But what I heard in that room was completely different, and it felt like it rocked me back and slammed me against the wall.

It wasn’t that it was louder, but the resonance was so rich, and the sense of simple musicality so complete.  There was no hesitance in their response. These were people who sang as a natural expression. And that was a pivotal moment in my life – I never expected to be met with such willing, natural, complete and able musicality from every single person in a room of 150 people ages 4 – 90.

The sense of having stepped into the rich, vibrant center of where these people live was profound.

… instead of talking about me, or my performance, or the stories I’d told, people were telling me what the show made them think about, their own stories.

They didn’t even talk about the performance itself, just what the performance awakened in them – and I was met with this richness of storytelling. The show had become a catalyst.  It felt like if I’d said: “Here, have a bite of this bread I just baked,” and they responded: “Why, thank you – oh, and that reminds me (sweeping open a door I hadn’t noticed before, which leads to a gracious room, sumptuous banquet, candlelight, steaming plates) please come join me for a bite of supper, won’t you?”

It makes perfect sense that the quality of response is so different to a different expression from the same artist — I’d just never thought about how different it could be, or experienced how rich it might make my own life.

So as I work on “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” (working title of my new show) – and present the various half-baked versions to other performers and writers for input – I’m moved by the comments and images I get in response.  In “…Shrunk…” the narrative is much more a sketch than a meticulous painting.  Words are used not to explain, but to express, and along with the words and music, the dimensions of image and movement are a much bigger part of the work – so it’s more dreamlike.  The responses I’ve gotten are so evocative and rich, and because I’m getting them so early in the process, they’re part of the work’s development.

So what am I learning from this?  Maybe that when I’m willing to leave the art more open, when I don’t tie it up neatly with a bow, don’t wait until it’s ‘done’ to show it — but create it as a wireframe of strong images and music that evokes instead of presenting – then performer and performance become invisible, merely a doorway through which the audience steps to begin their own dreaming.

And then they tell me those dreams.

Regent Theatre Stage and Marquee

Regent Theatre Stage and Marquee


What’s so cool about it? Well … everything! The sound is great, there’s not a bad seat in the house, there’s plenty of free parking and great restaurants within steps of the theater. It’s MBTA and handicap accessible.

They do Dinner-Theater deals with some really great restaurants in the neighborhood; there’s a great ice-cream shop right around the corner.  There’s a music store just up the street where you can actually buy harp-strings (!!!), a costume shop which I love to browse, and there’s one of the area’s greatest arts-and-crafts stores about 3 blocks in the other direction where I buy all the ribbons for my hair.

I love that the Regent has a big, generous stage, a great history — and while it holds 500 people, it still feels like I can really make contact with everyone in the audience. I love the folks who work at the Regent,  I love the big cushy front row seats, I love to sit in the balcony, I also love that I can walk to the theater from my house.

The Regent opened back in the early years of the 19th Century as a Vaudeville house that was “the rival of the best Boston playhouses,” .. well, at least according to the Arlington Advocate.  But I believe it!  It had an 8-lane bowling alley in the basement and took advantage of traveling Vaudeville performers to fill the stage.

When I moved to Arlington, the theater had recently been bought, after years of neglect. I’ve watched the Regent Team, Leland Stein, Rick Stavros and their staff return the theater, little by little, closer to its original beauty, installing new theater seats, improving the building’s exterior, adding a backstage green room, and a backstage bathroom (ahhhh, that was a highly appreciated addition!), adding new heating and cooling, upgrading the sound and lights and adding two rows of premium cushy seats right in front of the stage.

I’ve done Birthday concerts in this theater, I’ve done benefit concerts, I did a reading of my musical “The Zero Club” here, I filmed all the “Special Features” for my DVD “Invention & Alchemy” right on this stage, and developed the idea for the cross-discipline collaborative project “Inviting Invention” (pdf) with my husband and partner, Jonathan, here.  Heck, I even filled in and played a “Family Fun” concert once when my friend Gunnar couldn’t get out from the West Coast to play it.

I watched a naked comedian once from behind on this stage, because I was playing in the band — and I could see the entire audience cracking up at his routine.  Once, on my birthday, my husband rented the theatre and a troupe of story-telling performers came to play back my life’s story to me on that stage while my brother and two old family friends sat, watching open-mouthed in the empty theater and laughed and cried, and I was able to connect to my brother in a way I never had before, there on that stage.

There’s magic in every theater.  This one holds a lot for me. When I first moved to Arlington, MA – I walked  into the Regent and thought, “What a gem! What a great place! I want to make this MY theater – a place where I can develop ideas, where I can create new pieces!”

So come to my theater and share that moment when a new piece first comes to life — when I perform my new piece, “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” for the first time during my November 6th concert.  And find out why I LOVE the Regent Theatre!

Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!

Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!

“Honey, I Shrunk the Harp” is a music-theater piece I started developing last summer at performance camp in Maine.

Er … yes … I go to performance camp. OK, OK … you could call it a theater ‘retreat’ – and I go there to work with other professionals in different fields like dance and theater, to push myself into new areas of artistic expression. So this new piece combines music, theater and …gulp … dance. Well, no – it’s not really dance — it’s stylized physical movement. OK, dance.  Actually — it’s simply whatever I have to do to make the music and the story as clear as possible in every way: with words, music, movement and images.

What I wanted to do with this piece was to create a metaphor for my own metamorphosis of the past two decades from classical harpist to collaborating in the invention of a completely new instrument –the electric harp — that’s become my signature instrument.

Instead of just telling the story with words, my friend Alex Feldman, a physical comedian, suggested I create the experience as a theater piece, to actually show the experience of peeling away layers like a musical striptease, digging into styles like an archeologist, and showing how the changer is changed through changing an object of desire. Sound serious? Well the more serious I get about it, the funnier it gets!

Shrunk Rehearsal Image

Movement theater coach, Karen Montanaro, and I discuss concept

And I think this is a universal experience: the stages of misconception, exploration and discomfort it takes to actually find a way to expression that’s true to who you really are.

There were times on that journey, when I felt like I was moulting – like a snake or a chicken — knowing my skin didn’t fit anymore. Not sure how to get out of it, but extremely uncomfortable inside it.

There were times I felt a powerful, pure force trapped inside the massive size and ornate decoration of the concert harp

and I had to get it out. Times I discovered a part of the instrument it seemed that no-one else had ever touched – and that was now truly mine.

And there were times I felt completely silly. Like – why am I trying to turn this instrument into something it just isn’t … and ditto for myself! Double ditto!!! But I just kept doing it, changing me, changing the instrument, changing me … like a game of metamorphical leapfrog.

Shrunk becomes Shrink

With the Shrink - studio Rehearsal for "Honey, I Shrunk..."

In life this all happens so slowly you barely see the change, but on the stage I could encapsulate a 20-year metamorphosis into 20 minutes. Thus was born “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!”

And all this is possible because of one man, Joel Garnier, of CAMAC harps, invested in my vision 20 years ago and started building instruments specifically for my performa

nce style .

Now the second generation of CAMAC visionaries has brough that to complete fruition.  A little over a year ago, Jakez Francois of CAMAC harps, handed me the prototype of the new instrument they’d built for me, it just felt completely right, like it was the arm I’d been missing, like it had been made for me — which, in fact, it had.

Rehearsal for "Honey I Shrunk the Harp" - Image 1

Karen and I working in studio

My vision of the instrument had been so strong from the beginning that now that I finally have it, it seems self-evident to me. It’s taken other people to point out that I’m in the midst of an historical moment with this instrument. It’s like living through the the ’40’s when Les Paul made the first electric guitar — only this is the first commercially produced carbon fibre electric harp.

There’s also one other big difference – and don’t believe it if anyone tells you size doesn’t count!

But small is the new big. The harp I have today has shrunk from an ornate 75lb, 6-foot tall musical edifice into an 11-pound carbon fibre powerhouse I can strap on with a simple harness.

This instrument gives me the power, the range and the physical flexibility create music-theater pieces where I am my own orchestra, a creative laboratory — and “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” is my newest experiment, which tells the story – in music, theater and movement – of the very metamorphosis that brought me here.

The piece is about 20 minutes long, so I’ll likely start the show with it and then kick back with pieces I’m more familiar with – including some from my all-harp musical “What the Hell are you doing in the Waiting Room for Heaven??” and from my new show “Strings of Passion” — and then I’ve already started getting requests, so I’ll definitely try to play a few of those, which I always enjoy.

If you join my fan page on Facebook, you’ll see pictures of “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” as it develops — and it will develop right up until November 6th, when the audience at the Regent sees it for the first time. I really hope YOU will be there!!

But even if you can’t be, tell your friends, share the widget on the show page and stay in touch. Join me on line. Watch the show develop at Facebook, Twitter, and here at my blog. I love sharing the projects I’m working on and I love it when I preview new material and people come and give feedback!

My anxiety at even looking at my to-do list is overwhelming.  I’ve taken to heading out for a run every time I feel the overwhelm.  So I run a lot these days. But I get the sense that admitting I feel overwhelmed is verboten.  Taboo.

Frankly, that doesn’t help.

Another performer told me once that, no matter how things are, it’s important for performers  to tell people that things are great.  “They need to know that your life is wonderful,” he said, meaning the fans and the audience.

OK.  My life is wonderful.

And frankly, I often feel overwhelmed.

Why, I don’t know.  Maybe I never learned to manage my homework well.  Maybe I’m a perfectionist. Maybe everyone experiences what I’m feeling and some have greater tolerance for it, or better escape skills.

Maybe it comes with the territory if you decide to forge a new path; or if you decide to create in large forms that involve other people – like writing for orchestra.  Maybe I really love being alone, but don’t know how to say that, so feeling behind-the-eight-ball with the details of creative preparation is a way to get that solitude.

Maybe this is just the way it is – and the way it would be for anyone – and the overwhelm comes from thinking it should be different.  Maybe everything’s right on keel and – like, when I used to be terrified on nearly every airplane flight — I simply feel each bump exaggerated.

But pretending it isn’t so seems like the wrong approach to changing it.

The fact is, I struggle with management of my own life, creative and otherwise.  The one time I feel completely liberated from all of that is when I’m on stage.   That is my adventure, my travel, my moment of lift-off.  And all the day-to-day, and practice and preparation I do is to fuel that moment.

So, am I asking for advice?  No.  I’m just making an admission.   Things are great.  I’m feeling overwhelmed.  And I can’t wait for that next moment the curtain opens.

First Rehearsal with Christina Pluhar and L’Arpeggiata at the festival Ruhrtrienalle in Duisburg, Germany — and I’m kicking myself with more feet than I have. It’s all about this harp. We needed a simple acoustic lever harp for one piece. It took a couple months for me to realize that I didn’t need to find one in Duisburg proper – that my harp company, CAMAC could send one from Paris.

But at about the same moment that I realized this, the organizer emailed and told me a harp had been found. She’d had the same revelation, had called CAMAC and arranged for it to be sent. “You can stop worrying,” she told me. So I did.

That was my first mistake.

It all comes down to the word “Blue.” What we needed was a small acoustic lever harp. The one I played in 2009 when I worked last with L’Arpeggiata happened to be Blue. So the organizer asked for a blue harp – and lo and behold, it seemed she’d found the same instrument! She emailed and told me they’d be sending the blue harp.

There was a little voice in my head that said, “I should call and double-check on this.” But, no, I’d just sent her the details of the harp and I was in the middle of five deadlines — and what could go wrong? So I didn’t double-check.

That was my second mistake.

Because “Blue” isn’t just a color — it’s also the name of a specific concert harp model which is NOT an acoustic lever harp.

The long and short is that we got here and the WRONG HARP was here. The wrong TYPE of harp. A harp that will not work with this concert. And worse than that, this harp was probably 10 times harder to send than the harp we needed.

Does this help me be less stressed-out about concert preparations. No.

I can see now where it all went wrong. First, I focused too closely on the language. We needed a harp IN Duisburg, so I looked for a harp IN Duisburg — but it was just as well to have a harp GO TO Duisburg.

Secondly, I forgot how much can be misunderstood shifting from culture to culture, even when there’s no language shift … and this included both a culture and a language shift.

So I feel like it’s all my fault. In fact, I’m sure it is. The fault of a literal mind. But does that help? No. It doesn’t help anyone.

What have I learned? Well, I’ve learned that the first thing to do anywhere and everywhere I’m playing is to contact my harp company – to let them know what I’m doing and to coordinate in general.

Like most everything that goes wrong, it seems obvious now. It could have been so simple.

So the next question is: how will I get the instrument I need here? And the final question is: how will I make the most of the fact that I have the wrong instrument? Stay tuned. This is my artistic cliff-hanger.

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