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This is part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from now until Valentine’s Day 2011 with songs and stories about romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

I first wrote out the story of Anna Bella & Piano Man Sam  in a letter to a friend sometime around 1989 or 1990.  Here’s what I wrote …



Anna Bella & Piano Man Sam - 50th Anniversary

Anna Bella & Piano Man Sam - 50 years later

I’ll tell you something now, if you want to hear. It’s a story about my grandparents that nobody’s ever told.

For years, my Grandmother pretended to be leading a normal life: three children, a husband who sold used auto parts, a house with a back porch and a screen door, a cherry tree in the garden. But she was not normal. I know this to be true. Because every night at eleven-forty-five, after she put my mother and my two aunts and my Grandfather to bed, she’d get up secretly and fix the pillows in her bed to look like she was still sleeping there. She and my Grandfather slept in two separate beds in the same room. Then, she’d sneak downstairs and open a secret trap door in the kitchen pantry. And right below their house there was a passageway, a tunnel, that went straight from the secret cellar to another house, many blocks away.

Halfway along the passage, she was right under City Hall; that was where her dressing room was. She’d stop there take off her nightgown and put on this brash and feathery costume, sequins and rhinestones all over, and she’d paint her face and put one long, purple feather in her hair. You would have never recognized her in a thousand years.

This was in the 1930’s. During the Depression. During Prohibition, when there were secret speakeasies all over Portland, Oregon. And that’s just where she was going. At twelve-thirty, she was right at the other end of the tunnel, where she could hear the rumble of a boogie-woogie piano and hear the announcement, “And now the lovely, the talented, the exceptional beauty and wit (wild applause and shouts from the crowd), Miss Anna Bella Bellissimo!” (even wilder applause and shouts). Then, she’d open the trap door and right before her was the split in a crimson curtain.

Anna Bella & Piano Man Sam kiss at 50th Wedding Anniversary

Anna Bella & Piano Man Sam - 50 years later

She’d quickly lock the door behind her and step out onto the stage, into the spotlight. She’d look over at Piano Man Sam, give a wink and then sing and dance the night away. At one-fifty, when she’d finished her fourth encore of the night, she’d blow kisses to the crowd and back herself behind the curtain. Quick as a light, she’d be back down the trap door, and running down the passageway. She could hear the music for a block or two, but then it faded. Down the tunnel she hurried, and raced into her dressing room. While she was taking off her costume, she drew the water into a huge white porcelain bathtub that stood behind her dressing table. For seven and a half minutes she’d soak in the tub, in the light of a candle, sipping on a hot cup of tea nad gazing at a single bud in a small base hanging from the hot water handle, thinking maybe she could still hear a faint echo of the music. Then, she’d jump right up, dry herself off in the candlelight, pull on her nightgown and run down the passage to the pantry. Ever so quietly, she’d open the trap door and then fasten it tight behind her. She’d pour herself a small glass of milk and sneak back up from the kitchen, sipping at the milk enough to get a small white moustache, to prove she had a reason to be up.

In her room, she’d look over at my Grandfather, sleeping there so soundly, like a lump, never dreaming about his wife’s shenanigans, and she’d feel a little guilty. She’d fall asleep thinking about the music and about Piano Man Sam. Sometimes her heart went out so surely to his that she wanted to throw her arms around him, and run away with him to Paris, but then she’d think about my Grandfather and my two aunts and my mother and she thought it was better not to. By two-fifteen she was fast asleep.

Now, my Grandfather, who was a heavy sleeper, never heard my Grandmother get up. He was the kind of person who was dead asleep when he was asleep, but he was also the kind of person who could wake up exactly whenever he wanted to if he set his mind to it. And for reasons he never divulged, would wake up at exactly twelve-ten every night. He’d look over at my Grandmother’s bed, rearrange his pillows so it looked like he was still there and pad downstairs in his bare feet.

Then, he’d ever so quietly open the back door and sneak out into the garage. In the garage was a special room for his repair tools, and on the floor of this room there was a brilliantly concealed trap door. Well, no sooner did he open the trap door than he’d start down his own secret passageway. and halfway down the tunnel, when he was right underneath the Police Station, there was another little room, this one with an old candelabra on the wall. He’d go there, light up the candles, tear off his pyjamas and put on a natty black tuxedo and stick a fresh red rose in his lapel. Then, he’d pull a silver mask over his face, and put on a silk top hat.

At twelve twenty-five, he was down the rest of the passageway, and climbing up the stairs on the other end. Now, here was another trap door and this one opened behind a huge upright ‘Winchester’ Grand piano. It was the only piano ‘Winchester’ had ever made and it was a beauty. One of a kind. He flung the tails of his tux out behind him and sat down on the piano bench. The crowd went wild. He was so intent upon his playing of this wonderful instrument that he never noticed much for the first few minutes. And then, always, the apparition!

At twelve-thirty promptly, Anna Bella would appear. With a cherubic wink of her eye, she’d signal him for the first song, and from then on, he felt he was in heaven. Halfway through the night, he would always get carried away with one of her songs and he’d throw her the rose from his lapel. It made his heart swell when she took it every night and blew him a kiss.

At ten minutes to two, Anna Bella would disappear behind the curtain and my Grandfather would play for half an hour solo piano, his own compositions. He wondered if she ever stayed behind the curtain for a minute to listen to him after her act was over, and if she ever knew that he poured out his love for her in these songs. He always played one heart-breaking , melancholy waltz for her first, hoping she would hear at least some of it. He almost told her once, in a letter, how much he loved her, but then he thought of my Grandmother and my two aunts and my mother at home in bed, and he decided it was better not to. At two-twenty, he’d take his bow and saunter off the stage. He’d hang around backstage for a few minutes talking to the magic act, hoping Anna Bella might appear again, but she never did.

Then, he’d creep behind the piano and sneak back to through the trap door, always just a little bit sad. Down through the tunnelway he’d go, change his suit for his pyjamas in the dressing room, and crawl back up into the tool shed. He’d sneak back into the house and pour himself a glass of cider, then tiptow upstairs. There was my Grandmother, breathing a little louder now. He’d always stop to kiss her cheek and look at her for a moment before he got into bed, always glad that he hadn’t told Anna Bella about his wild ideas. He’d pad softly to his own bed and sit for a minute on the edge, looking out the window at the night sky. Then he’d lie down, and stretch out full, and finally drop slowly back into sleep, his own music still softly in his ears, thinking about the night and the old ‘Winchester’ and the long passageway and the beautiful, talented woman he loved.

©1990, Deborah Henson-Conant

AN ADDENDUM: Years later, after Sam had died, 
I read this story to my grandmother, and she 
vehemently denied it. “That’s not true!,” she said ,
”Your grandfather and I never slept in separate beds.”


Below is my is my 1990 recording of “Anna Bella” 
on the album “Caught in the Act” with guitarist Chieli Minucci and percussionist George Jinda.
 (The sound you hear at first is crickets, rain and thunder.) This song is based on one of the solo compositions Piano Man Sam played in the speakeasy.

The CD is available via my website store.


Below: French harpist Jakez François improvising on the melody “Anna Bella.”

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This is part of my “Wired for Love” project, to blog each day from now until Valentine’s Day 2011 with songs and stories about romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

This is a story I wrote out in 1996 when my local NPR station challenged listeners to write in about their first kiss. Here’s mine — read on the air Feb. 14, 1996.


I lived in North Carolina.  He lived in California. When I met him, I was visiting my grandmother, as I did every summer. He was twelve and I was twelve, but he was a younger twelve, and that seemed very daring.  He was the catcher on the baseball team, an exquisite diver, soft-spoken but a rebel and in a different time, I think he would have been a pirate or a highwayman and he was the most beautiful and thrilling boy I had ever seen in my life.

I really don’t remember him talking, but one night, just at dusk when we were walking past the school-house, he pulled me into the shadow by the front door and tugged me towards him.  He just looked at me.  He said nothing.  And then he kissed me, a wonderfully dry and static kiss – my first kiss – and it was perfect, exactly like every kiss I’d seen in the movies.

And in that moment, the world stopped as though its spring had wound down.  That kiss was everything.  All art, all history, every war, every great human achievement — was nothing compared to my first kiss.

(This is from an note I just wrote to members of the Seattle-Tacoma harpist community)

Play-Date with an Orchestra

I’m excited about coming back to the Seattle-Tacoma area and thrilled to play with the Tacoma Symphony Sunday, March 27 at 2:30 pm! Seattle-Tacoma is a hotbed of harp activity in the U.S. and we’ve been in touch for years looking for just the right time and the right orchestra program — and this is it!   Details below about tickets, program, etc.  But here’s the story of how this happened…

What’s so cool about this concert is that, every time I play with a symphony, it’s the realization of a vision. Really!  A vision!  It happened one New Year’s Eve about 20 years ago:  I was sitting on my porch in Boston, shivering in my parka and I saw a vision of myself playing an electric harp in front of a full orchestra. The harp was strapped on and each string I plucked soared with the brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion of the orchestra.   I could see it all very clearly — and I knew that’s where I wanted to be.

There was just one problem:  no harp like that existed, and I had no idea how to write music for orchestra.

But I had a friend who played in a string quartet, so I asked if she’d perform a concert with me, she agreed, and I played that concert on an old acoustic Wurlitzer with a little pickup to amplify it.  But it was a beginning.   Little by little, I kept learning to write scores for more instruments — by taking ‘lessons’ from other instrumentalists, and getting them to show me how to write for their instruments, and to critique the parts I’d written for them.  At the same time, I kept talking to all the harp builders I knew, trying to get them to build me the kind of harp I’d seen in my vision.

Harvey Felder, Tacoma Symphony Orchestra conductor

Harvey Felder, Tacoma Symphony Orchestra conductor

Many builder friends built me beautiful ‘harp-monsters’ trying to find a way to recreate the one I’d envisioned. And I wrote many orchestra and chamber music scores that almost worked, but that I had to rewrite many times until they started sounding the way I heard them in my head.

In the same way, CAMAC Harps kept building and rebuilding, changing and testing, investing  years of research, new technology and new models between the time they handed me the first one, made of wood, with thick plastic levers – to the streamlined, silver-levered, carbon-fiber model I play today, and that carries my own name, the “DHC Blue Light.”

This journey to simply having the ingredients for this wonderful artistic feast — the journey of learning  how to compose for orchestra, and to finally having the instrument I imagined – has been an amazing one, not always fun, and definitely not easy!  And  it’s taken over 15 years!   So when I walk out on stage now, wearing that gorgeous 11-pound electric harp that CAMAC built me — and when the conductor raises his baton and the orchestra plays their first notes — I feel like I’m finally stepping into the vision I had that New Year’s eve.  It’s like the end of a journey to where I wanted to begin … and the beginning of a huge new musical adventure.

I  hope you’ll be there to share it with me, and that while you’re in the audience,  you’ll envision yourself on the stage … because my next vision is seeing YOU up there playing these pieces.

WHAT MUSIC I’LL BE PLAYING:
Almost all the music I’m playing is original, all of it features the harp and I’m working to publish all of it so you’ll be able to – literally – get your hands on it!   That means that I’ll be very interested to hear from you all after the show about which pieces you most want me to publish first — which ones you can most see yourself playing. And all the music on this program is playable on both lever and pedal harp.

Right now the program includes Cosita Latina, Minstrel & the Wild Harp, Belinda, The Nightingale, Dance with Me, Siana’s Dream, and Way You Are Blues  — all in full-orchestra versions – as well as Nataliana as a solo.  Sometimes the program changes as the date nears. AND … it’s possible that we might even be doing a full-orchestra version of “New Blues” with not one harp, not two harps — but … well … as many as we can get on stage! (More on this as it unfolds!)

WHAT HARP I’LL BE PLAYING:
I’ll be playing my wonderful new 32-string, 11-pound carbon fibre “DHC Blue Light” which has a gorgeous sound and looks like something out of a science fiction novel.

Please make sure you’re on my mailing list and a fan of my Facebook page, because if I can, I’ll also be trying to share some solo harp versions of the music from the show ahead-of-time on line.   You can join both from my homepage: www.HipHarp.com.

TEACHING & OTHER CONNECTIONS IN THE NORTHWEST:
I’m hoping there’ll be a chance for me to connect with all of you when I’m out there, let you see the harp up close and personal and just hang out a little bit!  I’ll also try to come a day or two early to be available for lessons, so if that’s something you’re interested in, please email my office (info@HipHarp.com).

(I’ll also be in Eugene later that same week performing a solo show so Oregonians, you can chime in, too!)

So…. I’m hoping all the harpists in the Seattle-Tacoma area can come to this show because the program is harp, harp, harp and harp.  Oh, and also harp!  And because the concert’s at 2:30 on a Sunday – March 27 – you’ll miss any rush-hour traffic by a good 16 hours!  I’ll see you there!

BASIC SHOW DETAILS:
Sun. Mar. 27, 2011 – 2:30 PM
Pantages Theater – 901 Broadway – Tacoma, WA 98402
Deborah Henson-Conant, Electric Harp with The Tacoma Symphony
Harvey Felder, Music Director
Buy Tix: (253) 591-5890 / http://bit.ly/gh8d1K
Tix: $24, $42, $62, $77 – Discounts available for groups of 10 or more

More info about the show on my website

Not being Me

Until I left home at 16, my mother controlled my wardrobe. I got around it by learning to hand-sew in my teens,  and at some point I discovered thrift shops.  But until then, I was stuck in her skin.

Some of it was practical.  The new pair of saddle shoes I got once a year – a torture born of married student life.  Frivolous clothes were a luxury, and saddle shoes were cheap and sturdy.

Some of it, on the other hand, was pure control — like her insistence, once I hit my teens, that I iron my overalls before wearing them.

My one reprieve was the summer I was 14, when my mother was away studying, and a friend of my dad’s took me shopping. She was a gorgeous, round, voluptuous woman, and she knew how to put outfits together – and match them with accessories.  She showed me how I could choose clothing that matched, buying several different blouses to go with a skirt – to change the look by changing one part of it – and for a few months, I had the sense I knew how to dress myself.  Though when I look back at pictures of me in these clothes, I look stiff and posturing.

It took years to find clothes I love wearing. It still takes years to find clothes that feel like me. And there are very few that do.  I’m happy wearing the same ones every day.  But there was a time when I wanted to look like someone else – something else.

When I started playing the harp in my early 20’s, I longed to wear the long black dresses and to look like a real musician.  My proudest moment was walking to an orchestra rehearsal, dressed in black, high heels clicking, and carrying a tuner – a box with a handle, something that looked like it might be an instrument case.  For a moment I felt like a real musician.

It’s funny how we clamor to be in the box.

Lately I’ve been discussing with my agent a project we’re putting together for someone else  — someone who has strong ideas about the repertoire I should play, none of which I’ve ever played or listened to – but according to her, it’s “popular” and will therefore get the audience to identify with me.  I started wondering who they’d actually be identifying with.

I honestly thought I’d gotten beyond this, but it keeps coming back.

It reminds me of one month in Junior High when I went steady with a football player. See, how I don’t even call him by his name? He was a guy I didn’t even really know. I wasn’t attracted to him.  I didn’t like being near him.  I especially didn’t want him to touch me. But I was not a popular girl, and he asked me to go steady. A FOOTBALL player asked ME!

I cringe remembering just how graceless and objectifying I was. All I could see was that I was desirable to someone who lived in a place I don’t belong.  What an amazing opportunity!! So I said yes.

That’s an obvious example of the wrong fit, but when something comes along that’s out of your comfort-level, how can you know if it’s an amazing opportunity to expand who you are and what you’re comfortable with — or an  amazing opportunity to succeed at being what you’re not?

What feels like “me” — is that a truth, or just an inhibition?

It’s not always easy to tell.  The difference between trying new clothes to find a new part of me —  and trying to stuff myself into clothes that don’t fit — that’s a huge difference – but they’re both uncomfortable.  And sometimes it’s really hard to know which kind of discomfort it is.

So, at the moment, this is my wish:  if  I fall on my face, please, let it be as myself,  and not dressed up to be something I don’t even want to be.

Now, where are my cowboy boots?

McPherson Opera House

In two days I’ll be wearing my snowsuit and my ruby slippers.

(By the way, last night I could have sworn I heard a local WBUR newscaster say, “Brace yourselves for a GIANT OYSTER headed in this direction!” I was pretty excited. Then I realized she said “Nor-easter.”)

So my snowsuit is for the Nor-Easter and my ruby slippers are because I’m headed to KANSAS to perform a solo show at the beautiful old … and new … McPherson Opera House.

Yes, an Opera House. The McPherson was built in 1888, fell into disrepair at the end of  last century, then got a 5-year renovation and reopened one year ago. In fact, it received a Rehabilitation Medalion Award (Hmmm… wonder if I should go for that one myself in a few years…), and now it’s on the National Register of Historic places.

A building becomes a partner in a performance, just like an audience does – and one of my favorite things about performing in historical venues is the time I get to be alone in the theater, both before and after the show. The relationship, for me, becomes very personal. The building, itself, becomes part of the romance of a performance. So when I have a chance to perform in a building with as much history as this one has, it’s something I really look forward to.

McPherson - Restored Stage & Seating

Part of what’s really interesting to me is that when concert halls are rehabilitated, they’re often actually improved, in terms of function.  In this case, while the building itself was restored (you can see by the photos), its capabilities for live music performance were actually enhanced.

But a concert is a combination of performer, hall and audience – so I started wondering: what are the people like in Kansas? So I decided to find all the Twitter followers I could within a 150 mile radius of McPherson Kansas.  (Turns out there were only 60 people who tweet  in McPherson proper), and I started following some of them from my Twitter account. What I discovered was a huge variety of people including artists, homemakers, social media mavens, ministers and hip-hop artists. I’ve been really enjoying following their tweets and getting a little advance taste of Kansas.

But what I hadn’t thought about was how important the movie “Wizard of Oz” is to Kansans. I was talking about the show on Facebook when someone wrote, “They are going to LOVE your Wizard of Oz medley!” — and I suddenly realized I can’t play that piece on the harp I’m bringing! I commented back, “Oh … gulp! I only play that on concert harp and I’m not bringing my concert harp. Any harpists in Kansas want to bring your concert harp to the show so I can play Wizard of Oz???”  and within a few hours, I had an email from a RoJean Loucks, a harpist in Kansas, who’d arranged for another harpist to bring a concert harp for me, so I can play the “Wizard of Oz.”

And then that harpist (who, by the way, is also a belly-dancer), offered to play a cool little Boogie-Blues duet I wrote with me on stage.  (Hmmmm…. belly-dancer … harp … that gives me an idea …)

This is becoming more and more fun — and I’m not even on the plane yet! Now neither giant Oysters nor Nor-Easters could keep me away.

And this is how shows are born, and how they become shaped by the halls and the audiences as much as by the performer, and why I love the adventure of seeing the world from its concert halls and theaters.  If you know folks in Kansas, send them to the show Saturday night  – January 15 – 7pm — or bring them with you if you’re coming! And if they have ruby slippers, I might need  backup pair.  Size 10 womens, please.

Sat. Jan. 15, 2010 I’ll perform at the newly renovated “McPherson Opera House” a little gem of a theater in McPherson Kansas. You can read the full article below at the Salina Journal, where you can email to friends and post comments (Yes! Please do!).  Or my own show page for tickets and other fun information.

By GARY DEMUTH  Salina Journal  1/7/2011

McPHERSON, KS — What do you get when you cross a harp and electric guitar? You might get a carbon-fiber DHC Blue-Light, an 11 pound, blue, triangular, electric harp with 32 colored strings that straps to the waist of musician Deborah Henson-Conant, enabling her to strut across the stage like a guitar hero.

The harp was made for Henson-Conant to her specifications by a harp company in France, which subsequently named the instrument after her.

“I told them to think of a marriage between a harp and a guitar, and the result was the child I wanted,” she said. “They made it, and suddenly it sparked people’s interests and became a big commercial success in the harp world.”

Henson-Conant is no ordinary harp player. For the past 15 years, she has combined original songs, personal stories and dynamic harp instrumentals in solo concerts and with symphony orchestras in the U.S. and Europe. Her powerful singing voice has been compared to Carly Simon, Carole King and Joan Baez, and her harp playing, which ranges in mood from ethereal to electric, has drawn comparisons to Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix.

Henson-Conant has been nominated for a Grammy award for the music CD from her PBS concert special, “Invention and Alchemy,” a collaboration with the Grand Rapids Symphony in Grand Rapids, Mich. She also has performed with Bobby McFerrin, Doc Severinsen, Marvin Hamlisch and … read the rest at Salina Journal

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