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So last Sunday…

… after a ridiculously early Sunday morning flight, jazz harpist Susan Ottzen picked me up at the Atlanta airport and brought me to the Atlanta Harp Center, where I immediately took a nap on the floor of the Harp Storage Room (it was like bedding down in a forest of towering harps – really).

Then I spent a rollicking afternoon with 13 intrepid harp players, singing and playing the Blues.

This was a workshop that mixed four things: passion, Blues, adult beginners and professional musicians. And here’s what I love about that:

As adult beginners, the adult part of us has a choice:

We can use our adult mind to strategize a path for the beginner … or we can revert to being a tantrum-throwing juvenile. Both are fun. But if you go for the first, as a musician, you can use your strategic adult mind to simplify music so that you can enjoy playing with others even if they’re “way beyond you.”

Unlike running with people beyond your ability. Trust me, I know.

If you’re a slow runner, like me, you can’t really run “with” a fast runner and both of you be challenged,  engaged and comfortable. Even if you start off at the same time, they’ll be ahead of you within a few steps (did I mention my husband is a marathon trainer?).

But music moves at the same rate no matter who’s playing.

So if you’re a beginner who knows the secrets of simplifying, then you can decide to play fewer notes and still play music together with people of far greater technical ability. Sure, they may be playing 10 times more notes than you (or 20 or 30 times) — but you’re still playing the music together.  The strategy comes in knowing which ones to leave out.

And, by the way, I learned this many times in my life, once from the great bass-player, Rufus Reid.

So I was really excited to have players with a huge range of skills – from Susan Ottzen, who teaches jazz harp – to a student who’d only just had her first 3 harp lessons. So how did this all happen?

I’m working on two education-type projects right now:
One’s called “Blues by the Dozen” and the other is called “Strings of Passion:”

The Blues project is about creating simple, immediately playable structures and the Passion project is about revealing underlying principles.

So one is about learning through doing, and the other is about deconstructing an idea — the idea of passion in performance — so we can find it, practice it and explore it everywhere in our lives.

In “Strings of Passion,” the point is to create an “Enhancement Loop” (I just made that up, so don’t bother Googling it),  where exploring the expression of passion in life gives us insight and connection to performing with passion as performing artists – and exploring passion in performing arts enhances how we live with passion.

In the Blues project, the point is to just get your fingers on the notes, sing, play and have a rollicking good time.  You learn a ‘technique’ and immediately put it into practice.

‘Til now I’ve always thought of “technique” workshops and “concept” workshops as – well, basically as opposites — even though I use a lot of physicalizing in concept workshops.

I wanted to see what would happen if I put these two ideas together in a workshop: I wanted to combine a simple playable structure with concepts of passion and performance — within a fairly short amount of time.

And, judging by the experience of 12 harpists belting out the Blues on harp and voice, the experiment was a success!   

What I discovered was that by describing principles of impassioned performance before we even started learning notes, and by telling just a few stories to put the principles into context, the level of performance in people’s playing was so much freer right off the bat, in terms of physical investment and energy. (And remember, this was a mixed group of professionals and adult-beginners – each of whom have different issues when it comes to freely expressing themselves through music).

So I’m excited to continue exploring this in future workshops and I’ll keep you posted!

It turns out I’ll be doing a lot of this in March at the “Beginning in the Middle” retreat near Richmond, VA.  This is an entire learning retreat just for adult beginners on harp.

I’ve heard about this festival for years, loved the idea and always wanted to give my workshops at it — and 2012 is the first time it’s worked out with my schedule.  So if you know an adult-beginner harpist or a harpist wannabe, tell them about “Beginning in the Middle” – or, heck! Buy them a registration for Christmas!

Me, I’m off to begin in the middle of dinner …

It was a composer’s Cinderella story:  a CD/DVD project with symphony orchestra and all my original music.  7 cameras, a director, designers, producer, Union negotiations, makeup artists … and did I mention the full symphony orchestra?

The video would go beyond simple documentation to truly bringing an audience into my world, my experience as an orchestra composer and soloist. I didn’t know at the time, but it would eventually be shown on PBS stations all over the US, and the CD would get a GRAMMY® Nomination.  I’d sit in the dark, waiting to see if my name was called, terrified about tripping on my way to the podium.  Then keenly disappointed that I didn’t have that chance.  A huge, rich, vibrant slice of life most composers only dream of.

And all of it was made possible by one man, a philanthropist – and now my friend — Peter Wege.  He’d walked up to me after my first concert with his regional orchestra, the Grand Rapids Symphony, and he said, “What I saw out there on stage, I want the whole world to see.”

Peter Wege and Deborah Henson-Conant

Peter and me

And he meant it.

When he invited me to submit a proposal for a project, I knew this was the chance of a lifetime.  My husband, producer Jonathan Wyner, encouraged me to propose a project that was not just about my music, but about me as a performer, something that could bring the audience into the very middle of my work for electric harp and symphony orchestra.  That meant making a DVD as well as a CD.

Once the project was approved, I spent over a year simply preparing the music, rehearsing and practicing.  And this was after 10 years I’d spent writing, performing and editing the pieces.  Meanwhile, Jonathan, as the producer, was spending all his time putting together the greatest team he could find, watching video after video to find the best lighting designer, the best director, editor, production company and graphic designer he could.  We’d never done a project like this, so were assembling a team from scratch, but he already had ideas of some of the ‘dream people’ he wanted to work with, like multi-Grammy winning audio engineer Tom Bates.

So while Jonathan’s challenge was to assemble the team, my biggest artistic challenge was that I was the composer, the orchestrator and the soloist.  I had a year of work to do as composer and orchestrator – but my performance was what the audience would actually see.  The 3 days of taping (one of which was my birthday) were high stakes: each minute on stage cost over $1000. The key to my being free and focused as a performer in those high-pressure moments —  as well as the key to the crew’s being able to capture it — was to be completely prepared, and for everyone on the team to know the material.

I knew that the best way to do that was to practice the project in miniature as much as we could before the official shooting.  We needed to make what my architect friend Fred calls a “Maquette” – a mockup .

So Jonathan and I created two musical “Maquettes,”  Instead of a 70-piece orchestra, we used a 9-piece ensemble that represented the orchestra.  Instead of a 2,000 seat hall, we used two small local theaters  Instead of a ballet company, my dancer-friend Karen Montanaro created on-the-spot choreography and two volunteers held silk streamers; instead of 7 cameras and a huge editing truck, filmmaker Ian Brownell taped with 3 cameras and edited it himself … and so on.

It meant I had to write the music twice in many cases: once for chamber ensemble, and then for full symphony.  But that was the only way we could test the whole project and see how it would work on stage. It would also create the foundation for chamber music repertoire with harp – another dream of mine – but that’s another story.  We scheduled 2 Maquette performances, with a few months between them, for me to edit or create new material.

So these two Maquettes became part of the scaffolding of the final orchestral project. They allowed us to practice the music and the moves, and the edited videos became reference clips to help the director and lighting designer to envision the final project, since they came in fairly late in the game.

But the Maquettes themselves were real performances, and these ‘miniature’ chamber music versions were as fun and challenging to play as the full-orchestra versions.   And since we had a limit on how much orchestral music we could include in the final release, they also include some music that never made it into the final project.

Now that the final project has been out for a few years, I lan to release the Maquette versions on YouTube as part of my 2011-2011 “Re-DHC” project. In part I want to release them because I love them for what they are – and in part I want people to have the opportunity to compare the two versions, so that students of orchestration can see examples of the same piece in ensemble form and full symphonic form, and so that other performers interesting in learning and programming these pieces, can see how they work in the more economical chamber music versions.

These releases are part of my “Re-DHC” blog project, a year of weekly releases of projects that are sitting on my shelves … some that are “done” and were simply never released, and some that will never be ‘done’ and that I want to share in their ‘final’ sketch-form.

(As soon as I get the first ones up I’ll link them to this blog)

The "Pluck U" T-Shirt Design

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE (Nov. 6, 2011 Event)

Electric Harp Pioneer Trains a new Generation of Rockin’ Harpists – whether you play harp or not!

“I think of it like a cross between test-driving a new Ferrari and bungee-jumping …” (Deborah Henson-Conant)

LINK TO MORE INFO & REGISTRATION HERE


On Sun. Nov. 6 at 6pm, GRAMMY®-Nominated Deborah Henson-Conant: composer, performer, singer, songwriter and electric harpist joins with the Regent Theatre in Arlington, MA to launch the pilot project of her “Pluck University” electric harp training.

Sound esoteric?  Well, it is … and it isn’t. Deborah Henson-Conant is ‘THE’ “DHC” behind the world’s fastest-selling electric harp.    Henson-Conant has collaborated with the CAMAC Harp company in France for nearly two decades to develop revolutionary harness-style harps, and now CAMAC has come out with it’s newest carbon-fibre model, and named it after this Boston-area electric harp pioneer, calling it the “DHC Light” the elite racing-bike of the harp world.

In fact, the CAMAC company used racing-bike technology to craft the carbon fibre body of this unusual instrument.

Weighing in at 11 pounds, it’s about a 7th of the size and weight of the 6-foot tall, 75-pound concert harp Henson-Conant played when she got her start as a jazz harpist in the Boston area in the late ’80’s. She went on to sign with one of the counry’s top jazz labels, GRP, and later received a Grammy Nomination for her independent CD, “Invention & Alchemy,” but has continued to make the Boston-area her home.

Now she’s developing a training program for electric harp and is collaborating with the Regent Theatre and the Ultra-Sonic Rock Orchestra to present the first pilot project for that training on Sun. Nov. 6th, in an event called “Pluck University.”

“Hey, I strap this thing on every day and create sounds that make people’s jaws drop, on an instrument that’s like nothing they’ve never seen before,” says Henson-Conant.  “To me it’s an everyday thing. But it’s truly an incredible experience – and I want to give other people the chance to experience that too, because they can!   Unlike the violin or the clarinet, you can actually make great sounds on a harp from the first pluck — and that experience is liberating and inspiring, whether you’re a musician or not. I think of it like a cross between test-driving a new Ferrari and bungee-jumping — you know, both scary and elating — a fantasy-experience to shift you into a new sense of what’s possible”

This unusual training is open to musicians and non-musicians alike and is a chance for people to literally strap on her unique instrument and see what it’s like to strut across the stage with it, bend notes, and give a try at the kind of signature harp ‘wailing’ that has made Henson-Conant a pioneer player. She’s currently the only person in the world to own 3 of these instruments – and all 3 will be with her at the Regent Theatre at the launch of “Pluck U” on Sun. Nov. 6.

The Sunday evening event kicks off a week of open rehearsals that culminate in Henson-Conant’s birthday concert celebration on her birthday, “11-11-11,” Friday Nov. 11th at 8pm.

Line drawing of DHC playing harp (artist name: "Friday")

Line drawing of DHC by audience/artist "Friday"

I got a set of questions from Betsy Chapman, who hosts “The Morning Show” on WPAZ, a tiny station (“with a big heart!”) in Pennsylvania. WPAZ is co-sponsoring my “Fireworks for the Creative Spirit” next week, so Betsy interviewed me on air. But first she sent her questions, starting with the question I most dread and am most often asked.  So I started writing to find out what my  answer would be this time:


Q: So … why the HARP?

A: This is a question I ask myself over and over.  Did I play the harp as avoidance for writing musical theater, which is my first love?  Because it was an incredible physical challenge, a way I could be both an athlete and a musician at the same time?  Is it because it was an underdog instrument?  Is it because it was so identified with women, and so marginalized in the music world, that I felt like I wanted to liberate it in some way?

If someone had told me it is THE traditional storytelling instrument through history, that might have made me choose it.  But I did NOT know that.

If someone had told me it’s the missing link between the piano and the guitar, with all the double-handed dexterity of the piano but the ability to get right in on the strings and bend them and snap them like a guitar – that might have done it.  But I didn’t know that either.

So I honestly don’t know why I STARTED.  But I kept going for many reasons.  First, the challenge.  Practicing the harp completely enveloped my mind.  The dexterity between hands and feet, it calmed my mind and focused me in a way that nothing else did.  I think that my brain and my body needed something to connect them in that way: something complex and intricate, that required huge physical coordination and physical strength.  I found that very satisfying.

I also loved the excuse to get dressed up in long gowns,  high-heels, rhinestones and red-red lipstick, and I loved that I could pay my way through school by playing in dining rooms — PLUS I got free food.

When I started focusing on jazz, then again was the physical challenge I loved, and the understanding that by practicing a structure, I could eventually have huge musical freedom.

Then, later on, I fell in love with the international community of harp builders and players.  Which is good because a few years after that, I developed this idee fixe: the idea that it must be possible to strap on the harp, play it like an electric guitar.  And that was something I couldn’t make happen on my own.

NEXT BLOG:  “WHY ELECTRIC HARP?

ON SEPT. 30, 2011 – Denver, CO:  I’m presenting a hands-on workshop for harpists on “Baroque Flamenco” on Friday, Sept. 30 at Kolacny Music in Denver, CO.


Baroque Flamenco is one of my most famous and fiery pieces. But it wasn’t always.

The first time I heard the melody, it was in a  Minuet by Jean-Jacques Rousseau  (pictured below – quite fetchingly, I think).

I found it in one of my first harp books (“Medieval to Modern, Vol. 1″ by Samuel Milligan) under the title “Minuet in A Minor.”

I fell in love with the melody and started improvising on it, first in a Baroque style, and then over time, I started adding rhythm to the variations.

Little by little the piece became a conversation of styles: the melody was Baroque, but the variations took on a Latin rhythmic character (a lot like the rhythm of Bernstein’s “America.”)

Then, one day, packing up my gear in a rock club in Berlin, and hearing Ottmar Liebert’s “Nuevo Flamenco” on the house sound system, I had a revelation: “Wait a minute!” I yelled at myself over the music, “The harp … the HARP … is just a big GUITAR!”

By which I meant: there’s a whole other instrument here, not just the strings, but the sound box as well.

I started experimenting, and created a cadenza for the piece that included my best imitation of a flamenco troupe, from strums and slaps to foot stomps – all created on the strings and soundboard of the harp.

DHC Playing Baroque Flamenco with the Grand Rapids Symphony

Me playing "Baroque Flamenco" with the Grand Rapids Symphony

Thus was born, “Baroque Flamenco,” which morphed from a sweet, haunting minuet into a fiery tour-de-force that was the dramatic finale of my PBS music special “Invention and Alchemy”, and later became the 3rd movement of my  concerto “Soñando en Español.”  You can see a video of the performance of “Baroque Flamenco” from the DVD (and GRAMMY-Nominated CD) “Invention & Alchemy” here:


SEPT. 30, 2011: I’m presenting a hands-on workshop for harpists on “Baroque Flamenco” on Friday, Sept. 30 at Kolacny Music in Denver, Colorado – for all levels of harpists.



NEXT: Hand to Hand: Passing on Baroque Flamenco…




In the next 7 days I’m doing two very cool things in the Boston Area and  I hope you can be there! Here’s what’s happening:

Ultra-Sonic Rock orchestra cameo appearance this weekend (including a FREE open rehearsal tonight!) and the launch of my summer Street-Harp Project next Thursday, June 9th, with a FREE concert at South Station in Boston.

With the URO (Ultra-Sonic Rock Orchestra) I’m doing my Jimi Hendrix version of “Star Spangled Banner” (I’ll try to get  video) …

And the FREE CONCERT June 9th at South Station is the kick-off for my summer project, “Street-Harp.” From 11:30 – 1:30 Thu. June 9th, I’ll be smack-dab in the middle of one of the world’s Ten Coolest Train Stations!. This is the hub of the hub: subways, Amtrack, busses all converge here, so you CAN get there from here — from practically anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard — by public transportation!

This great new stuff all happened like this: the weather was just starting to get better, so I decided to promote my last concert by dragging  my  harp into the streets, playing with one hand and handing out flyers with the other …. (well, sort of). As so often happens to me, what started out as a fun, quirky promotional idea turned into something much deeper.

Part of why that happened, I think, is that I gave myself some guidelines before I went out: I wasn’t going to worry about getting big crowds, or holding their attention if it got it.  I wanted to focus on one-to-one connections with people, give myself permission to ‘lose’ potential listeners by really engaging with others, and let myself simply stop playing and just talk to people, or even let them try playing the harp themselves.  I didn’t want to feel like I was obligated to play or that I was trying to ‘get’ people to listen.  I just wanted to be out there.

What I didn’t expect was how much street-playing affected my chops — an hour playing on the streets made me feel stronger as a player than the same hour at home practicing.  Surprise.  The second surprise was that I found myself creating new tunes right on the street, almost as if I were inventing a sound-track for the experience I was having at the moment.

So I started getting excited about doing a lot more street-playing, maybe even going to specific locations and seeing what they inspired for me, then recording and releasing those tunes in an album called “Street.”  And the minute I’d decided to do that, the folks from South Station (one of the worlds “Ten Coolest Train Stations” no less) called to ask if I want to do a free concert June 9th right in the station itself.  That, I couldn’t pass up, and so I decided I’d make that concert the launch of a my summer Street-Harp project.  And – boom — that means the project starts next Thursday!

So I hope I see you for my Hendrix cameo with the URO this weekend or next week at South Station.  If you can’t get to the Boston area, check out my TOUR PAGE for other shows and workshops coming up.


 

p.s. About these images — they’re actually the front and back of a BOOKMARK! Bea (my lovely assistant) and I went down to check out the South Station and we were blown away!  Along with the usual pizza and sandwich shop was a gem of a bookstore, sitting right in the middle of the station. I was drawn into it immediately, where I discovered a fellow-composer was one of the booksellers. So on the spot we decided to make a bookmark, which, as of this afternoon, “Barbara’s Booksellers” will pass out with each book sold. You can see both the front and the back of the bookmark here on this page (don’t tell me if you find any typos – they’ve already gone to the printer).

And, to all my Facebook Fans who helped me edit the bookmark – THANK YOU! Those comments completely changed the design in wonderful ways!

HEY BOSTON FANS!!!! We have a handful of tickets to my show THIS Saturday, May 7 – 8pm at The Regent in Arlington. If you can definitely attend, please email your name and phone number to us at info@hipharp.com and use the subject header “REGENT TICKET GIVE-AWAY”.

On Thursday at noon we will pick the winners at random and contact them via email. Once all the winners are confirmed, we will announce them on Deborah’s Facebook Fan Page.

For more info on the show, click the image above.  See you there!

Bea, Deborah, Catharine, Cosita & the HipHarp.com gang….


Using the clock to force ideas out of hiding


A blog about artistic process – creating “Electra’s Lyre” for May 7 Mother’s Day Eve performance at Regent Theatre (Boston-Area).


Earlier this week at the “Rethink Music” conference in Boston, Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman and friends created a 6-song album from start to finish – including writing the songs – in 12 hours.  The project was called 8in8 since the original plan was to create 8 songs in 8 hours.

The result was an album of roughly mixed songs which were inspired by sometimes haiku-like Twitter responses to tweeted questions by Neil Gaiman. It was rough, but it was a “thing” – meaning, by the end of the project something existed that hadn’t existed before, and it’s likely that at least one of the songs invented during the night will go on to have a longer life in another album or project.

"Honey, I Shrunk the Harp" - quickly created in November 2010

This is a form of creativity I call “CAPTURE” — versus “CRAFTING.”  It uses time constraints to flush the muse out of hiding instead of painstakingly courting her. I think of it as the difference between a hunter-type artistic model and a builder-type model.  Ultimately I think the two can work together, but that means accepting the rough gem for awhile.

This idea of forcing oneself into an artistic corner in order to capture art is something I’ve always been interested in, and experiment with a lot, especially in my last two mini-one-woman-show projects.  My own process is to start with a title, publicize the show and then write and rehearse the piece in about 3 weeks.  The first was called “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” which I performed in November, and the 2nd is called “Electra’s Lyre” which I’ll perform this Saturday at the Regent Theater in Arlington.

This way of working creates a special relationship with the audience, since they become part of the birthing of a piece. When I present a new work like this, I like to keep it to about 15 or 20 minutes, and present it in the context of a full show, so that the audience gets to really see the difference between new, rough, works — and polished pieces I’ve been performing for years.  That experience is important – it’s part of the value of live performance – that rawness and insight into the process.

For me, the artist, there are other advantages.  The format forces me to go with my first impulse, which is often the strongest. It forces me to stretch out of my comfort zone as a performer — and maybe most importantly for me personally – it forces me to reach out to other artists for coaching and collaboration.   In “Honey, I Shrunk the Harp!” in which I literally shrunk the harp on stage during the show, I got huge help from mime-dancer Karen Montanaro,  physical comedian Alex Feldman and composer-colleague Steve Murray.  For “Electra’s Lyre” I’ve been working with Alex Feldman again, and with dramaturg Mary-Ann Greanier.  And I meet monthly for critique sessions with the ‘Advanced Writer’s Lab” of the “New Opera and Musical Theater Initiative” (NOMTI).


My general process is this:


•    Title: I come up with a title that I think is funny or intriguing
•    Research: I start working that title – either researching it on the web or just playing with the ideas
•    Costume: I go to my local costume shop and get something, anything, to help me create the character
•    Script format: I FORCE myself to make my amorphous idea into a document that looks like a script – meaning it’s in script format, so even if you didn’t read the content, it would appear to be a script, with dialog, stage directions, songs – all in standard formats.  This idea of making it ‘look’ like a script I learned from the book “How to Write a Movie in 21 Days.”
•    Get help: I FORCE myself to give that script to someone who will be coaching me and let them read it, even though I’m cringing the whole time.
•    Get more help: I take the script to the Advanced Writer’s Lab at NOMTI, and, as embarrassed as I am, I read it and/or act it out for them.  They follow with a critique session which is always illuminating and often leads to big changes in the script or the idea as a whole
•    Get even more help: This time I’m even in a more serious collaborative relationship, since I’m working on the show with dramaturg Mary-Ann Greanier, so we’re in contact daily, as she reads each draft, comments, questions and suggests ideas.
•    Write blurbs & publicize: Meanwhile, I publicize the show, write press releases, create posters and postings about the show — and creating those “blurbs” often helps me focus what the show is truly about
•    Make sets: I FORCE myself into my studio to build some kind of set that will bring the show alive for me
•    Get Direction: I beg my director-friends to spend time with me working through the show – even if it’s just a half-hour –  either in person or on the phone
•    Rehearse: I rehearse it in the theater (and videotape it), thanks to the kindness of the Regent Theatre in letting me rehearse the week before the show
•    Chronicle: I videotape and review as much of my work as possible, from the first ideas to the show itself
•    Ask people I love and trust to run tech: Both in “Honey I Shrunk the Harp” and “Electra’s Lyre” my step-son and husband are involved in running tech.  Having them involved, knowing they’re ‘watching my back’ lets me relax that part of my brain on stage.
•    Kick myself:  There’s always a point where I think, “What was I THINKING???  How did I get myself into this??? I’m going to TOTALLY HUMILIATE myself this time for sure.”
•    Walk onto stage: I take a deep breath, go on stage and perform it

In the end, I have a mini-one-woman-musical.  It’s a new piece of work, which I’ve performed and videotaped and will then take to a director.  Rough? Yes.  A real, new, never-before-existed thing?  Yes.

And what amazes me most about the process is that in each case I started with a fairly arbitrary title – yet as I research and develop the piece over this short period of time, there comes a moment when I realize the subject has a profound meaning for me. I’ve built a trap to capture the art – but the art captures and releases something in me.  


Electra’s Lyre will be featured on my Mother’s Day Eve show at the Regent Theatre in Arlington.  More information & tickets here.

The harp, the artist & the company that made it happen.

PARIS, FRANCE – Nov. 4, 2010 – From CAMAC Harp’s harp log:

The “DHC Blue Light” is Camac Harp’s  latest collaboration with strap-on-harp-legend Deborah Henson-Conant. Made of super-light, mega-strong carbon fibre, it weighs just 11lbs, boasts a new lever design, and comes in 34- or 36-string models. Even Deborah herself can’t get a back-up model right now because of the length of the waiting list.

Ingeniously, Camac collaborated with bicycle manufacturers to make it happen,

Deborah began working with Joel Garnier in the early 1990’s , while she was on the hunt for a lever harp she could harness to her body and move about on stage with.

DEBORAH’S STORY:

“I had wanted a harness harp for years. Some harp makers built quick prototypes (such as John Hoare of Pilgrim), but finally, I got a small Rubarth lap harp, covered it with red-and-silver contact paper, put a pickup in it, made a rudimentary harness for it, took it on tour and played it for Joel.  He said, “Ah, Deborah, now I see what you mean,” and the next time I saw him (it seemed like 4-6 months later, but was maybe more), he handed me the prototype of the Baby Blue. I still have that very first prototype!

I built a new harness (the prototype for what we’re all using now), a friend modified the harp (which was wood, so fairly easy to modify) it so it could attach to a bogen camera-tripod as a stand, and I started touring with it, wrote orchestral pieces for it, and learned about amplification.   For awhile I always shipped the harp in a bicycle box, as It fit perfectly and I could often get it on a plane free that way.

The culmination of the Baby Blue was “Invention & Alchemy,” when I got to really show what the instrument could do both as a solo instrument as a feature with orchestra.  The end of the era came soon after at the Arles harp festival about 3-4 years ago, when I came without my Baby Blue and played a modern model.

Technical improvements had made the model so heavy that it was too much to wear, even for me, someone pretty big and used to it. It was painfully (literally) clear that that model had no future commercially as a harness harp.  It was that ‘failure’ that forced Jakez and me to sit down and talk about the future of the instrument.  It seemed like the idea was either going to die and I’d be one of a few people left in the world playing the original model, or the next model needed to be revolutionarily different.

Jakez decided to go ahead with the expense and time investment of a completely new model, and asked me for input on what changes we needed.  That investment was huge on many levels:  there was no way to know that this investment would pay off financially; I don’t think there was a huge interest in harnessable harps at that point — something which seems to have changed — but he would know more about than I.  In retrospect, I’m awed at the leap he took, both financially and creatively.

Jakez tells me that I had been going on at him for so long to work with bicycle manufacturers to develop a harp with a truly light carbon-fibre frame, that finally he did. It wasn’t as simple as copying their manufacturing processes, however. The main problem in designing a lighter harness harp was the cost of producing a mould for the body of the harp. This was prohibitive, because it is a technology which is designed either for companies who don’t care about costs (competition bicycles), or who count on big quantities (mass production). As a harp maker, Camac was neither of these. Another technical problem we faced was that the harp needed wooden parts (for the tuning pins and levers, for example) inserted inside the carbon fibre skin of the body, which does not happen with bicycles because they only have foam.

In the end, the idea of a mold was dropped entirely, and Camac chose to produce the harps the same way cycle manufacturers produce their prototypes – by hand, one by one. The inside parts are produced in the Camac workshops, the foam parts and wooden inserts are cut out, the bodies are assembled and then the harps are sent to the bike company, who has the knowledge to cover them with the carbon fiber skin with a special “bag” and a vacuum system.

My First Concert wtih First Version "DHC Blue-Light"

The new carbon fibre harp was a huge success for me from the moment I put it on. I remember that moment – all of us:  Jakez, Jonathan (my husband/producer) and I – noticed that it was as if my body and my hands had just been waiting for this instrument.  The low C string (just 2 more strings than I’d had before) was revolutionary in terms of my playing — it suddenly gave me a range and heft I hadn’t realized was missing — suddenly this was a hugely viable solo instrument.

That was a magical moment. Not because something “unusual” happened, but because, after years of working with Joel and Jakez on the harp, and with Jonathan on how to project that sound best in both concert and recording situations — suddenly everything clicked into place.  We’d reached – not the end – but the true beginning of this instrument.

About a year after that, at Jonathan’s suggestion, I  started experimenting with a looper pedal — and with the convergence of those two technological changes: the expanded, improved instrument and the addition of the looper, suddenly my shows and my way of composing expanded.  I’m still right at the beginning of that development, so I feel like a hungry gourmand whose just sat down to a splendid table.

The DHC Blue-Light trumps the Baby Blue in pretty much every way. The sound is more even, it’s nearly half the weight, with more strings, better levers*, visually it seems to really capture the imagination of the harp-playing audience.  Everything just seems to have ‘clicked’ with this model, from what I can tell.  And now it’s a matter of improving little things (like an anchor pin for the harness; a better, lighter stand that allows for removing the harp more easily; a simple holding stand for touring, etc.), which are often the responsibility of the user to develop, but the fundamental instrument is IT — the instrument I dreamed of, what I see as the crossover instrument of the 21st century.”

Off to explore the world, harp on my back!

And Jakez Francois, CEO of CAMAC Harps adds: “I think there is an additional reason why more people want a DHC Blue-Light: it is more than 10 years that harpists see what Deborah does with that harp, most of the younger generation don’t even know that there was a time when portable harps did not exist, and they find just normal to have one if they want to play non conventional music. Step by step, the harp made a big step.”

Flute & Harp for Christmas

Flute & Harp for Christmas

In the mid-’80’s, when I still played a big acoustic concert harp, a quiet-spoken flutist called one day and asked me to improvise a meditation recording with him.

He said his name was Schawkie Roth. (“Give me a break,” I thought. “‘Schawkie Roth??? What? Some Jewish kid makes up a wacky first name to sound mystical?”) I was a musical snob so I told him to go work with someone else.

But he came back — again and again. And finally he wore me down. So I agreed to one recording.

For payment, he offered me either a modest fee or an honorarium plus royalty on each album. He tried to convince me the smaller fee and royalty was a better deal, but I scoffed and went for the sure money.

The cuts were all improvised, either on themes or on ideas, and he wanted me to play in what I considered a very ‘harpistic’ style — exactly the style I was trying to move away from. I made sure he knew I wasn’t really that  kind of harpist — but the truth was that, when I let down my facade, I really enjoyed the relaxed playfulness and collaboration of working with Schawkie.

Schawkie was one of the first new age instrumentalists on the scene (I don’t even think the term “New Age” existed then), and the first independent musician/entreprenuer I ever met. As a business-person, Schawkie’s unique – for example, he’s always insisted that any contract fit on a single page and be written in plain English.

Schawkie Roth on "Flute & Harp for Christmas"

Schawkie Roth on "Flute & Harp for Christmas"

He’s is exactly the person his music paints him to be: deeply spiritual, impeccably honest, and very straightforward. 

As it turns out, “You Are the Ocean” became something of an early New Age hit and if I’d gone for the modest fee and percentage I would have seen more money than I ever had to that point in my life as a musician. The price of hipper-than-thou.

On the next album Schawkie let me change my deal, with only the tiniest “I told you so” giggle.  We made three more recordings, culminating in a beautiful album of flute/harp improvisations on Christmas Carols called, “Flute & Harp for Christmas.”

So, fast forward a couple of decades — last year when I joined “Topspin Media,” giving me the ability to sell digital download collections Direct-to-Fans, I knew I wanted to offer “Flute and Harp for Christmas.” And finally just about a week ago — we got it to happen.

So for the first time in my catalog, I’m proud to offer the digital download collection of “Flute & Harp for Christmas” — separately or bundled together with my own solo holiday album “The Gift.”

It’s great to know this album can have a new, digital life. And it’s really fun to hear the cuts again – and especially fun to compare the same tunes from one album to the other (check out the difference between each album’s version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” – and you’ll hear a slice of my metamorphosis as a player within a few seconds).

And by the way — I was wrong on all counts. The name Schawkie –well, I recently asked him to remind me how that came about.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Yes,  my father named me Schawkie which is a Swiss nickname, but it roots back to the French name, Jacque, which means “handyman around the farm”  which I changed to mean “handyman around the farm of consciousness” hence my company name, Heavenly Music, and the publishing name Heavenly Musicians Music.

“We recorded this album at the same time we did HYMNS FOR ALL SEASONS (all hymns), and you suggested that we make an album of just Christmas traditional hymns, so I said, show me what you do and how you improvise on traditional Christmas music, and you did, and it just blew my mind how loose and free you got on arranging and improvising on these tunes, so you just wrote out a few intros, we rehearsed some sections for improvisation and some of the tunes, and BOOM in two days the album was recorded and shortly afterwards mixed and mastered along with HYMNS FOR ALL SEASONS. 

You joked it should be titled “HERS FOR ALL SEASONS”

“…Anyway, this was around 1986-1987, and it was around the time of I saw harp players like you and Joel Andrews as “ANGELS”  YEA!  ANGELS!!!! So we played these hymns like we were channeling the angels in heaven–oh it’s so corny– but it was fun and EFFORTLESS…

Deborah Henson-Conant on "Flute & Harp for Christmas"

Deborah Henson-Conant on "Flute & Harp for Christmas"

“And together with YOU ARE THE OCEAN I and II I was able to save up enough money while raising Maelani (born in 1983) to buy my home in Woodacre, which was the best investment of my life, other than creating music recordings.

“Furthermore, sweet Deborah, all three recordings should eventually be made available to your fans, because there are no others like them and you shine equally in all three albums.  So, think about that.

“Since I’m not so much into technology as a marketing passion, these great albums could sink into the closet of obscurity...so, if someone out there actually HEARS a piece of music with total focused absorption, and is TRANSPORTED, then the music lives, and , if not, back to the closet, baby, for another hundred years…

”

One other thing Schawkie taught me:  don’t be a musical snob.  These albums I made with him are beautiful, totally different from anything else I’ve ever done, and it’s wonderful to know I’ll be able to offer them all from my website soon — starting with this Christmas present, “Flute & Harp for Christmas.”

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