In April of 2010 I presented a concert of my music for harp and Chamber Ensemble. The project included a brief residency working with two professional harp soloists (Eleanor Turner & Amanda Whiting), my husband Jonathan Wyner (who was conducting), musicians from two professional ensembles (Ensemble Cymru and the Mavron String Quartet), selected students from the Canolfen Gerdd William Mathias Music Center and the CAMAC Harp company, who were co-sponsoring the project.
Journalist Ffion Williams sent interview questions for a local article — here’s the full transcript of what I sent her and my overview of the project itself.
First of all, here’s a description of the genesis of this particular concert:
This concert has two parts to it: in one part I’ll be performing as a soloist — and in the second part, I’ll conduct a Chamber Ensemble as harp soloists from the U.K. perform my original work. So for me, this is an exciting moment, and the culmination of a dream that began many years ago during my last big project.
That project, ‘Invention & Alchemy,” released in 2006, was a DVD/CD of alternate symphonic music for harp, vocals and orchestra, fusing classical and jazz forms with the genres from Flamenco to Blues. It was a huge multi-year project with 80-piece orchestra, taped for TV. To prepare for the final video-shoot, I created Chamber Ensemble versions for each piece. These “miniature” arrangements, for 8 instruments instead of 80, allowed us to practice performing and filming the project on a smaller scale before the huge final recording sessions.
BUT … I fell in love with the ‘miniatures.!’ So even though the full-orchestra versions were very successful, winning a Grammy Nomination and appearing on television throughout the U.S. – I promised myself I would publish the ‘miniatures’ so harpists all over the world could perform them. I’d chosen the orchestration I did: Flute, Clarinet, String Quartet, Bass and Percussion — because it’s very similar to the instrumentation of one of the most famous pieces for harp soloist and chamber ensemble: Ravel’s “Introduction and Allegro.” That means that, once they’re published, these pieces can be programmed along with some of the world’s greatest chamber music for harp – which is very exciting to me as a composer.
There was just one problem: since I’m largely an improviser, it was very difficult to get myself to write out the solo harp parts! So I had a set of beautiful musical miniatures just waiting to be performed, but the solo harp parts were all in my head!
Jakez Francois, president of CAMAC harps, knew of my dilemma, so he and the Wales International Harp Festival invited me to present the European premieres of these pieces with a concert at Caernarfon in April 2010, and to launch publication at that concert. The deadline would force me to finish the harp parts and the concert would be a kind of International “release party” for the first of the new publications.
To make sure I would get the harp parts written, they suggested I work with two wonderful harp soloists from the U.K. By doing that, I’d be forced to write the harp parts for at least two of the pieces which would then become part of the available repertoire for harpists world-wide. For the rest of the program, I would continue to improvise.
Thus was born the idea of this concert: half of which I will perform alone or with the Chamber Ensemble, and the other half of which I will conduct, featuring harp soloists from the U.K. This is all part of my long-term goal as a composer to develop new concert-quality material for harp and chamber ensemble – pieces that can be programmed as new “alternative” repertoire on Classical Chamber Ensemble programs.
It’s been very exciting to work together with the harp soloists over the past months as we prepare the concert: Amanda Whiting and Eleanor Turner. Since many of the techniques I’ve developed are new, and there’s no standard way to notate them, our communications include sheet music, audio track and video tapes, as I show them how to play the techniques and they respond with questions, suggestions and their own videos of the same music so that I can comment on it. It’s like a Cyber-Rehearsal in preparation for our first rehearsal the week before the concert in April.
You’re clearly exceptionally passionate about music. What drives you to keep breaking the boundaries of music and to continue experimenting?
My life seems often to be an exploration of that very question, so I’d probably answer it differently a week from now, but today my answer is this: If I had not been a musician, I might have been a scientist. I see both science and art as passionate inquiry, as exploration. I see music as a voice, which can say things no other voice can. I see my harp as a prosthesis - the voice I was born without. Sometimes I think of it as the prosthetic voice of my soul. I don’t think of myself as experimenting, but rather searching for ways to speak with this voice, to gesture and sing with this part of myself that is both connected and also removable: my instrument.
I’ve been very lucky to collaborate for the past two decades, with the CAMAC harp company, who have built the instrument I dreamed of having: a wearable harp, an instrument that simply did not exist when I first started playing. So I am in a unique position of having had an instrument invented specifically for me so that I can develop my particular voice. Part of what drives me is the exploration of this new instrument – to find out what I can say with it.
You first set eyes on the harp at a young age, but didn’t pick it up until a few years later. What is it you enjoy about the instrument itself as well as the music genres you play on it?
My fascination with the harp increases daily. First off, I love it because it is entirely naked. Fingers directly on strings, the sound is immediate and direct. I also love that it is a perfect musical metaphor: I play high, you hear high notes, I play low you hear low notes. I play gentle, you hear gentle. There is a great sense of connection between what the audience sees me doing and what they hear. I find that very satisfying, knowing that the magic of the harp isn’t about hiding anything, but about revealing as much as I can of the instrument.
I play both the lever harp and the pedal harp and find different things about each fascinating:
ON THE PEDAL HARP: The pedal mechanism I find utterly magical. The thousands of moving parts, the synchronism and grace of the mechanical design, the juxtaposition of mechanics and wood, the fact that what looks like an ornate decoration – the column – houses the linkage that shifts the harp from key to key. I love that it’s the only instrument that physically shifts from key center to key center (sorry, I know that’s a little technical).
Most people see the beauty of the wood and the graceful curve of the neck. I see the beauty of the mechanics and the fact that each curve is a metaphor for a musical principle. The neck curve shows how the length of strings affects pitch; the straight line of the column shows that a level of tension must be maintained for the instrument to sound. So I see the physical beauty of it as a machine – a machine with the soul of a music.
ON THE LEVER HARP: I love the choreography of flipping levers to create chromatic notes. I love, when I flip a lever to change the pitch of a note, and especially when I ‘bend’ a lever in the Blues, that the audience sees exactly what it hears. That’s what I mean by ‘physical metaphor’ — and I find that beautiful.
For years I dreamt of a harp I could strap on and play moving around — something that combined ‘harp-ness’ and ‘electric guitar-ness’ and after many years of development and experimentation, the CAMAC harp company has designed a spectacular harp for me, an 11 pound (about 5 Kg) carbon-fibre harp, which has become my signature model: the “DHC Blue-Light”.
The earlier wood-based prototypes of this harp were also great — I made my 2006 DVD/CD project with one — but they were much heavier. This new carbon-fibre model is the first one that can realistically be manufactured for commercial sales – and that is very exciting. It heralds a new age for harp playing.
For me the revolution began years ago in my collaboration with CAMAC harps. Since the first prototype they made for me, the harp has allowed me to completely change my repertoire, my relationship with the instrument and my future with the harp. To be involved in that kind of development is thrilling.
Musically, are you inspired by anyone in particular?
I am inspired by many people, some famous, some obscure – some musicians, some dancers, artists, writers, scientists — and some just ‘everyday people.’ I am constantly inspired by what I see around me, by the struggles of people to create beauty or sense. As for musicians, composers: Debussy, Ravel, Bernstein, Jimi Hendrix, Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck, my mother, a spoken-word artist named Ken Nordine, many street musicians I’ve seen … and so on. I am excited by great performers in any field, in any genre or discipline and I’m excited by anyone who can find a way to tell their truth or experience in a way I can understand it.
What are the differences between your own electronic ‘body harp’ and a conventional harp?
The first thing people will notice is that my harp is smaller, it’s strapped onto me, I’m moving around with it and it’s electric Blue with flames airbrushed on the column. The sound is very clear, harp-like but different than an acoustic harp: there is a pickup on each string, but no ‘sounding box’ — so what people hear is the pure sound of the string, not the sound of resonating wood. This is not better or worse than a conventional harp, it’s just different – and yet still quintessential ‘harp’ sound.
Because each string is amplified separately, effects are audible that are too subtle for a conventional harp to project, especially when playing with an ensemble. So that means the audience in many ways hears more of the harp, and it gives me broader pallet of sounds. These are still ‘acoustic’ sounds, in that I am creating them with the harp and my fingers — but the audience can hear a greater depth of subtlety because of the way the strings are amplified. The electric harp also allows me a huge dynamic range: I can play both much louder — but also much softer and still be heard.
I also use two “effects pedals” at certain times in the show that I migrated over from guitar: a distortion pedal and a looper. The looper allows me to set up “loops” of sound, rhythmic beds that I can improvise over. The distortion pedal is like what you hear with electric guitar: it distorts the sound, but it also extends each pitch, so I can play longer, more singer-like lines that soar and bend.
In Caernarfon, since the festival is sponsored by CAMAC Harps, I will also be playing both my signature “body harp” — and also an acoustic-electric concert harp, a 75-pound instrument I don’t play so much simply because it’s difficult to travel with. This looks more like a conventional harp and is a hybrid, with pickups on every string — but an acoustic soundboard, which is also amplified. This instrument is exciting, in part, because of the percussive possibilities of the amplified soundboard. One of my favorite pieces which I’ll play in Caernafon, “Baroque Flamenco,” combines a very Classical melody with Flamenco strumming harp techniques and harp-percussion. In that piece the acoustic-electric concert harp acts almost like a huge, 47-string Flamenco guitar. Very exciting. I think there may be some YouTube video of me playing this piece.
What are you most looking forward to at the Harp Festival, and what type of an experience can your audience expect?
The concert in Caernarfon is unusual and exciting for me, both as a performer and as a composer. I’ll be playing solo pieces, but there will be a small chamber ensemble (Flute, Clarinet, String Quartet, Bass and percussion) – so the music will at times be a kind of crossover, using a classical format, but more contemporary musical genres, from Blues to Flamenco.
It’s particularly meaningful to me because it’s the debut concert of a new phase of career as a composer: For the first time, I will not only be performing, but will also be conducting 3 of my original pieces with harp soloists. These pieces are unique in that they combine stories, music and some unconventional harp techniques. I’m really looking forward to that!
What the audience will experience is a new side of the harp, but in ways that will seem both familiar and completely unique. In other words: at some moments, it will sound and seem as though they are watching a classical concert; at other times they will be seeing me solo on an instrument that is a cross between harp and electric guitar. So this particular concert is a very unique opportunity for the audience, the performers – and me!
For people who’ve never seen my harp or my style, I encourage them to visit my website, HipHarp.com — and click the YouTube link on the home-page.
In addition to my own concert I’m excited about the workshops I’ll be doing — and also the chance to see so many other great harpists, and to meet with builders, players, composers — in other words, to “commune with the harp world” — and since Wales is one of the most vibrant and important countries vis-a-vis the harp, that’s particularly exciting for me.
Now on to the work you will be doing with young people when you come over to Wales. Do you do a lot of this type of work with young musicians? What do you enjoy about it, what do they learn from it and why do you think it’s important for them to have this type of opportunity?
I have started doing a lot more work with young people in the past few years. I think it’s essential that young musicians have a chance to work with living composers, and with musicians who use their instruments in new ways. It’s also important that young musicians get a broader concept of what a ‘composer’ looks and acts like, that young women musicians can see a woman composer at work — and that every young musician can see that an instrument even as “classical” as the harp can speak with a very contemporary voice — that’s it’s up to the players to find new ways to make the instruments speak.
I also think that, in this age of technological advances, it’s great for young people to understand that the instrument I play is made possible because of technological changes — and because of the collaboration between an artist (me) and a manufacturer (the CAMAC harp company). It’s important for them to know that their own experience and feedback is part of the technological revolution and that technoogy can give them artistic freedom — in addition to the internet and social media! It’s also important for them to know that, even with new, hip, uses of technology, the same principles of practice apply: I still have to use a metronome when I practice; I still have to practice scales. In other words, my development as a musician still goes through the same phases, and must be as intense and focused as someone playing a centuries-old violin.
There’s something beautiful about that: that regardless of how the instruments change, we as musicians, still must train our bodies with the same combination of regimented practice and creative freedom as musicians of any epoch. This is how we learn to speak through our instruments.
Deborah Henson-Conant / Ffion Williams – April 2010
All photos by Jakez Francois (CAMAC Harps) – at the concert at Caernarfon in Wales