Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Electric harpist promises to be a new kind of guest soloist for the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra

Deborah Henson-Conant turns the sedate harp into an instrument beyond cliches. The trailblazing musician, with decades of experience behind her,  puts her iconoclasm about the harp directly into her act.

She has a song called "I Wanna Sing the Blues" that indicates a struggle with her parents about the harp's genteel image and how uncomfortable that made her as a girl. Is that song autobiographical? "Yes and no," was Henson-Conant's response in a phone interview Oct. 23.

The harpist will play and sing with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra Saturday, Nov. 9, at  the Athenaeum Theatre, 401 E. Michigan St. Music director Kirk Trevor will conduct. Here's how the ICO is marketing the event on video. And here: 

She explains that she started with the ukulele, accompanying her folk-singing. Her musically minded parents (her mother was an opera singer) tried to get lessons to work with her, but she kept changing instruments, moving to guitar and piano without success. The harp she rejected as well: "The problem was I didn't like lessons."

Left alone, the young Californian turned to musical theater: "I love the combination of music and words in any way," she told me. In her early 20s, she took up the harp again as a classical instrument, overcoming her aversion to lessons, but retaining her resistance to the instrument's perceived confines. "I love experimenting with the instrument," she says, "pushing it virtuosically and (discovering) what kind of beautiful sounds it can make."

Harpist Deborah Henson-Conant in full cry.
Her wide range of musical taste and her turn toward the electric instrument (designed by a French company, CAMAC) forced upon her the need to learn how to arrange for the ensembles she collaborates with, including symphony orchestras. "I’m constantly looking at music as an orchestrator,"she said, "looking at it as a former musical theater performer and using  classical, flamenco and jazz styles."

Along the way, "I got a book called 'How to Orchestrate,' and that taught me how to orchestrate badly," she recalled with refreshing candor. "Then I got with a coach and into the system where I'd bring the players into my kitchen and say, 'This  is what I meant, and this is what I wrote.'  And they would look at it, then tell me how to write what I meant."

In the meantime, she has been the beneficiary of CAMAC's interest in her career to get updated instruments, including a new one of carbon-fiber construction that's named for her. In form and size, the history of her instrument "goes back to the Scottish,Welsh and Celtic harps — the bards wore them,"she said. "People weren't wearing them when I got into harp study." The electronics for her wearable harp developed as it became obvious that "it would be important to match the volume of an orchestra," Henson-Conant added, admitting unabashedly: "I also love bombast."

Listening to other instruments, bombastic or not, is a continual learning process for Henson-Conant as she tries to adapt what she hears in order to expand the capacity of the harp.  She compares that to the wide expressive range of the human voice.  "I love the sound of the human voice in every realm,"  she says. "It expresses everything so well, and the instrument can expand upon that. It's a prosthetic that can allow my voice to reach further than it otherwise would."

Putting her voice and her harp into different contexts is meat and drink to Henson-Conant. "Playing the same pieces in different situations gives me insight into the music overall," she said. "I got that idea from Mahler, who had these song cycles and made them into symphonies. Same with Ravel, going from piano to orchestra.

"That's how I got it into my head that a piece of music is just a structure:  You can re-create in an infinite number of ways," she said. "It's a plant of flowers that can bloom in a completely different shape each time, and that's exciting."