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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 …

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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)

“Baroque Flamenco” is one of my most fiery & dramatic pieces that’s the dramatic finale of PBS music special “Invention & Alchemy” and the 3rd movement of my concerto “Soñando en Español.” (Read about the piece in this blog).  Now the piece is in the hands of many other harpists …

(Sign up for the next hands-on workshop)


In 2008 I arranged “Baroque Flamenco” for other harpists to play, and instead of just making a single arrangement, I created 3 arrangments: one for beginners, one for intermediate players, and the concert version I play, myself, for advanced players.  All the versions are playable on concert harp, and the beginning & intermediate versions are also playable on the lever harp (also called “Folk Harp” or “Celtic Harp.”  You can see both concerts harps and lever harps – the blue one, and the one I’m playing – in the photo below)

Workshop with DHC

Hands-On Workshop with DHC

So now harpists all over the world are playing this piece.  But to really play the piece – to bring it aliveyou need to not just play the notes, but also play the “character” of the piece — and that’s the kind of thing you can’t pass on via written notes.  

So I created a hands-on workshop specifically for learning how to express the character of the piece  — which is both the simplest, and the hardest part of the music.

To work on that, we use a simplified version of the piece, so that players on all levels, from beginning to advance, can work together at the same time. Interestingly, it’s often the less advanced players who have an easier time connecting with the ‘character’ of the piece, so working together in a multi-level environment is useful to everyone.

For that same reason, I invite any advanced players  to present a brief section of the piece during short “Master Class” interludes, so that the entire class can learn from watching these short one-on-one sessions (which are also a nice break from the playing … well, for everyone except the ones presenting!).

By  the end of the evening, everyone knows how to ‘get this piece across’ to an audience, regardless of their skill level, and they can then take that understanding and apply it to whatever level of the piece they’re working on. They also get my tips on practice techniques for Baroque Flamenco and ideas for developing their own unique performances of the piece.

I love sharing this in person because as a composer I have a limited language through just written notes – but when I can be in the same room with you, and show you exactly what I mean, musically, you’re getting all the music, not just the notes.  You get to literally look over my shoulder.  You get to experience the passion of the piece – you get the living music and then you become part of the life of that piece.

THE NEXT HANDS-ON “BAROQUE FLAMENCO” WORKSHOP:  is Fri. Sept. 30 at Kolacny Music in Denver, CO.   Get more info or sign up here.

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?

It was one of those things where you just blurt out, “I wanna do THAT!” when it’s something you’ve never done before, and have no idea if you can.

I was talking to Regent Theatre manager, Leland Stein, when he said the UltraSonic Rock Orchestra was in residence on a weekend I was home from tour.  The Regent is a few blocks from my house, and what I blurted out was, “Hey, ask them if they want me to play a Hendrix version of ‘Star Spangled Banner’ at the shows.”

Hendrix at Woodstock

High on my own personal Hendrix Experience

If you’re new to this blog, I should say here that I play the harp.  OK, it’s an electric harp and while I have been called the “Hendrix of the harp” — ’til a few weeks ago I’d actually never played any Hendrix, and … forgive me … but I’d never really listened to “Star Spangled Banner” – I mean the Hendrix version.

So I came into it like I do to most popular culture experiences: as an alien.   Which has a lot of advantages.

I found a YouTube video of Hendrix’s “National Anthem” Woodstock performance and started watching.  Instead of trying to write out the notes, I typed up the lyrics – it seemed easier.  Then I watched the video and scribbled onto the lyrics:   small squiggles where Hendrix bent the notes, intense squiggles blots and bursts where that’s how the music sounded. And as my squiggles and blotches filled the page,  the piece came into view and I realized what Hendrix had done was no random distortion of a national symbol, but an emotional, moving tone-poemillustrating, sometimes very literally, the underlying words of the very piece he was playing.*

Far from defiling the song in any way, Hendrix intentionally illustrated the words.

Would I have noticed this if I hadn’t studied Debussy and Mahler, if I hadn’t listened to Wagner or art songs?   Who knows.

But once I realized it was a tone-poem, I knew how to approach playing it, and if you follow the words either listening to my version or the Hendrix version, you’ll hear immediately how the musical ‘departures’ closely illustrate the words.

One of the most moving moment of the piece, for me, comes after the words:  “Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there …”

Translating Hendrix to Harp

At that point, Hendrix plays a haunting reference to “Taps”  — which creates a beautiful musical double-entendre, because not only does “Taps” have a double meaning of ‘nighttime’ and respect for the death of a soldier – but the first notes of Taps are the same as those that follow in the national anthem (“Oh say, does that star spangled banner yet wave…)” — and on “wave” Hendrix flutters the note in a gorgeous combination of synethesia and onomatopœia, making the music sound the way the words say it looked.

I’d call it musical theater – but it almost seems like musical literature.


UPDATE OCT. 2011 – I’ll be reprising this in my 11-11-11 show at the Regent Theatre, so I searched through my pile for my ‘transcription.’ Here it is (click on it to see it larger):

Hendrix "Transcription"

Hendrix SSB "Transcription"

DHC & first protoype of "DHC Blue Light" harp

Solo Concert  – Wed. Mar. 30th, 2011 – 7:30 pm
“The Shedd Institute for the Arts” in Eugene, OR

Read the full release, including info on the special Hands-On Arranging Workshop for Musicians Tue. Mar. 29 from 7-10pm

She strides onto stage like a rock-star, with an electric blue triangle wired with 32 multi-color strings. She plays, she sings, she tells tall tales about her life. She’s the harpist your parents never warned you about: the electric harpist.

Henson-Conant is a one-woman orchestra, using a “looper-pedal” to layer sounds from her harp in real time, then weaving solo lines and vocals above it. Forget the demure harpist – Henson-Conant is a showman, entertainer and solid musician who’s been compared to artist-performers from Leonard Bernstein to Elvis Presley and Van Halen.  She’s been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, The Today Show and NPRs Weekend Edition, and has starred in two full-length PBS music specials.

Her signature instrument was invented and named for her (the “DHC Blue-Light”). It weighs 11 lbs, has 32 strings and is made of carbon fibre. Created for her by the CAMAC Harp Company in France, it’s now one of the fastest-selling new harp models in the world.

Henson-Conant’s voice is compared to Carly Simon and Joan Baez; her playing to Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix; and her humor to musical comedian Victor Borge. The shows are tied together by powerful, funny, affirming stories and universal humor. Her website, HipHarp.com and YouTube channel, YouTube.com/HipHarpist give a good overview of what you can expect at the show.

She’ll perform a solo show Wed. Mar. 30, 2011 at 7:30 and an open workshop called “Arrange It” on the art and skill of arranging – for all musicians, all levels on Tue. Mar. 29, 2011 from 7-10pm . Both events are at The Shedd – 868 High St. – Eugene, OR 97440.

More …

Wired for Love

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 love & romance – including a special LIVE “Wired for Love” show on Sat. Feb. 12 at the Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA.

(Please join my mailing list for monthly updates & live show info)

NOTE: This blog includes an audio file related to the story – if you want to listen while you’re reading, you can find the file at the end of the post.



When I was 13, my friend Melinda Johnson in Pfafftown, NC would save a seat for me on the bus.  She was the shortest kid in the class.  Smart like crazy.  She taught me to hunt crawdads.  Her family had an entire pipe organ dismantled in their basement. And she would tell me stories about boys.  Long drawn out stories about closets and shadows and whispering hands and eyes, and every story would end with  “And then …” followed by a long pause, “and then … he kissed me.”

It was the same punchline every time and it surprised and scandalized me every time she said it.

When I was in my 30’s I signed with the GRP jazz label, and recorded three albums with some of the greatest contemporary jazz players of the time.  I always felt awkward and out of place, because that group of players was like a boy’s club of amazing musicians – and here I was, the girl with the harp.So even though I was the ‘artist’ and they were theoretically supporting my album, I always felt like I was the kid sister trying to hang around with the big guys.

Sometimes I never even got to meet the incredible players who ‘backed me up’ on my own albums, but by the third album, I was allowed into the clubhouse a little more.  And on that album, was a great percussionist, among others,  whose name I think was “Cafe” – and forgive me if I have the wrong guy, but I was like a deer in the headlights during these recording sessions – it’s amazing I remember anything.

So, we were recording a kind of Bluesy tune of mine called “And then he kissed me…” in memory of Melinda Johnson, and while we were listening back to the take, this percussionist and I started joking around in the sound booth, talking as if we’d just been on a date, only he was speaking French, which I didn’t understand – and I was responding in English and clearly misunderstanding everything he said.  And he had the most gorgeous voice and the most beautiful …

But now … here, you have to understand that I’m a huge – I mean HUGE – fan of Ken Nordine, who is the original “Word Jazz” creator, mixing jazz and spoken word.  So I’m listening to this French-English thing mixing with this Bluesy music and I suddenly think, “This is GREAT!!! This is so… so Nordine! We have to record this!” And in my one moment of courage I said, “Please can we get this on tape?  We can always erase it later if the company doesn’t like it.”

So we did.  He and I walked into the studio and got onto two mics – which was when I noticed how absolutely gorgeous he was — and as I realized we were really going to do what I wanted … I froze. I couldn’t think of a thing to say, even though I’d been being so brilliant in the sound booth.   I was so dazzled by this guy that after awhile I just sort of sighed and giggled.  Forgive me, oh strong in-control woman I wish I were…

And the upshot is that the company agreed to release the album with this wacked-out conversation on it.

And that was great.  It was fun.  And the tune had a little notariety, which was cool.

So fast forward 5 or 10 years and I’m in France. I’m in an interview with a French journalist, and he starts rattling off the speech from this cut and nearly falling on the floor laughing.  And I look at him, and I realize that it had never occurred to me that people in France would be listening to this cut and how funny people who actually understood what the guy was saying might think it was.

And the moral of the story is … well … there is no moral.  It’s just a story.  So here’s to Melinda Johnson and the romance of the French language … which is just as beautiful whether you understand it or not.

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