More information is available on the festival website - NB! It's best to register before May 6th, to avoid a late registration fee. Festival artistic director Patrice Fisher has also created a series of engaging podcasts, including one with Deborah, which you can listen to here.
The clichéd image of the harp and harpists will be so familiar to most of Harpblog's readers that I won't describe it again. It's such a cliché that even "I want to dispell the cliché of the beautiful girl playing the harp etc. etc." has become clichéd.
Clichés are a funny mixture. Dulled by over-use, nonetheless they wouldn't exist without some basis in truth. And those who find themselves, like harpists, in particularly cliché-strewn fields, can't just throw them aside either. Whether you want to make use of them - to boost your wedding business, for example - or get away from them, they're hard to ignore.
The German pop harpist and singer (all her songs are in English), MarieMarie, knows about cliché. Her own music is “folctronic”, fusing elements of electronic music, like techno and dubstep, with folk, acoustic instruments and original, thoughtful lyrics. It’s music which is very much her own, for all that isn't as self-evident as it sounds. "The whole reason I started to write songs with the harp was to get away from cliché", she explains. "I started with a standard rock band combination. There's nothing wrong with rock if that's where you find yourself as an artist. But when you're desparate to escape a cliché, simply taking the most opposite direction you can think of isn't, in itself, any better. After a while I thought, this is no good - I don't like harp clichés, but equally I feel like I'm forcing the harp to sound not like a harp for artificial reasons. I might not be acting like a harpist, but I still feel like I'm pretending to be someone else."
Harpblog has been blogging about Deborah Henson-Conant's ongoing tour with Steve Vai since it began across the pond in the summer. We were very happy when the tour reached Europe, as it meant we got to go! Many thanks to Steve, his team and of course to Deborah for letting Harpblog's demon enthusiastic video camera behind the scenes.
Joseph Marie Jacquard is one of the most important figures in the history of computer technology. Yeah, and he was French
At Camac Harps, we're great believers in careful user testing in order to ensure that our products and information work well. When it comes to things like clear guides to electric harps, what we usually do is have Jakez explain it to me, and if I understand, we know we've arrived at a truly idiot-proof description. In this vein, in the spring of last year we published a blue harp dictionary, where you can look up everything from DI Box to splits.
Since we wrote the blue dictionary, we have discovered Ischell microphone systems. They are so good that we currently don't use anything else for our harps - you can use all sorts of microphones, but Ischell is our favourite, and it is Ischell's products that you will find for sale in our online shop. I therefore thought it would be good to explain a bit more about them and the topic of harp amplification in general.
If you want to amplify your harp and are new to the whole topic, an excellent way to start is by reading Deborah Henson-Conant's Gurl's Guide To Amplification (even if you are a guy). This will talk you through all amplification basics, from how electricity works to working with professional systems; troubleshooting; sample tech riders; and even dealing with drunk sound engineers who only speak German. It will give you a great overview, and is clear and very entertaining to read. Once you have digested this, you will have a pretty good idea of how to plug in your harp, at which point you have to decide what to plug it in to. This is where our Ischell recommendations come in.
Know what this does? Nor did I, until Jakez told me last week
Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance has long been an exceptionally innovative and musically open-minded conservatoire, and it was during the Camac Harp Days we held there in 2009 that we met Dominic Murcott, head of composition there. He has been a fantastic creative partner to several harp/electronica projects we have done since then, most notably in the development of Graham Fitkin's MIDI harp concerto. We have never made any secret of the fact that we don't yet know what directions the MIDI harp will take, which is why we've not yet put the harp into commercial production. As a non-harpist specialist in electronic and avant-garde music, Dominic's response to the instrument has been very educative and encouraging. When Gabriella Dall'Olio approached him about the Camac Days, he was initially sceptical: because MIDI technology is so widespread outside the harp world, it had become more or less synonymous for Dominic with "bottom range" electronic music, on cheap synthesisers or basic computer programmes. On seeing the harp, however, he changed his mind, perceiving at once the instrument's potential and suggesting many ideas we would never have thought of without him. All in all, he has been an invaluable source of artistic focus and support.
Dominic Murcott and Jakez working with the MIDI harp. Photo: Yvonne White
There is now another exciting piece of news from Trinity's composition department. Maria Christina, the avant-garde Greek harpist who won the pop harp competition at the Wales International Festival in 2010, is now based in London and this year has begun a PhD with Dominic. As part of this, she is collaborating with composers to write new music for the harp - "and to write really for the harp", MC explains, "not for something somewhere between a piano and a guitar".
Maria Christina's commissioning process started last summer. The works will be for pedal harp, sometimes amplified, sometimes not, often exploring the tension between the nature of acoustic and processed sound. We can look forward to a new work from Rhodri Davies, and last week we also sent a blue harp to London for MC to work on with Dominic, who is writing a piece for her himself. The music will explore feedback, and the extent to which we can control sound waves.
While the blue harp was in London, Maria Christina also gave a workshop about it to the Trinity harp class. The more opportunity there is for conservatoires to hold such workshops, the better, as the harp cannot enter the electronic music scene without instruments that are capable of participating fully, and harpists knowing how to use them. We're really looking forward to the results of Maria Christina's work with Dominic at Trinity. It's wonderful to see artists we at first encountered at one-off events going on to collaborate so richly and substantially.
La Machine is a French organisation specialising in fabulous mechanised installations and shows. They work with harpist Rachel Gladwin and we have lent harps for their performances on more than one occasion.
La princesse, La Machine's fifty-foot mechanical spider commissioned by the City of Liverpool in 2008. Photo: Matthew Andrews
Rachel and her musician colleagues following La Princess through Liverpool in moving cherry-pickers
Recently, La Machine have been using the harp again, as part of a bulldozer ballet in La Roche-sur-Yon on September 1st. This is the first chapter in an "Animaux de la place" series commissioned by the town.
In the video below, you can see the bulldozers dancing, bashing a hole in the Place Napoléon, and lowering the first animal, a giant crocodile, into the space. There is also another video on the town website, which I can't embed here, but where you can hear more of the accompanying music.
The musicians rehearsing for the show
And here's something we should have done when lightening blew apart the roof of our factory last year - it is even possible to win a paving stone excavated from the Place Napoléon! Details on the town's excellent blog.
Deborah Henson-Conant needs little introduction to the harp world. She was one of Harpblog's first ever interview subjects, and we are very proud of how we have been able to work with her, developing our range of electric lever harps. Our DHC Blue Light, named after her, is the most recent of these (you can read Deborah's own account of her association with Camac here).
But that's enough about us. Deborah is currently playing an amazing tour, the like of which has never happened to the harp world before. Deborah is...on tour with the legendary rock guitarist Steve Vai. In the rock world, Vai is known both as one of the ultimate 'shredders' (think 'lots of notes') and as one of the most sophisticated rock musicians. He’s also unique in being a rock starinstrumentalist. In her blog "How to Enjoy a Steve Vai show if you’re not a Rock Music Fan," Deborah described him thus: "Think Pagannini in the 21st century with an electric guitar and you start to get the picture."
There is not much harp (yet) in rock, although there are some noble exceptions, like Lena Woods, another artist we love. It is music Deborah always wanted to explore: "I’ve always believed the harp has an important voice for rock music - and I’ve explored that voice, using distortion and altered harp techniques, in my one-woman shows and in the music I write for harp solo and orchestra. but I don’t come from a rock background and to find that voice for the harp I’ve always known I’d need to go into the belly of the beast, as it were – to take the harp right inside rock. Though I had no idea how I’d do that."
"About a year ago I got an email with the subject-header 'Steve Vai here.' It showed up in my inbox along with a moving invitation from the heir to a Saudi fortune, and the exciting results of a lottery in which I’d won over a million dollars."...Deborah gives an entertaining account of how she met Steve Vai in her extensive blog about the tour, "the rock harp diaries".
Check out Deborah's solo at 1'39!
I'll never forget the time I went to a shared concert by the conservatoire in question's classical and jazz departments. After a while, the classical professor leading the project got up and said to one of the jazz students "so, how did you cope, working with such complicated music for the first time?". It takes just as long to become a good jazz musician as it does to become a good classical one, and the same is true of rock. Moreover, Deborah isn't working with a normal rock musician. She's working with one of the most brilliant virtuosi that genre has ever seen.
Deborah therefore undertook a huge amount of preparation. From taking a twelve-week online course in Steve Vai's guitar techniques to transforming her lever technique to accomodate super-fast changes (and using a whammy pedal to get through some chromatic shifts); from coming up with memorisation tricks to buying an iPad, you can read all about it in her diaries. Deborah's track now playing on camac-harps.com is from this preparatory period, as she was experimenting with a wah wah pedal.
The tour is called The Story of Light
Reading Deborah's blog, I've realised that one of the best things about blogging in general is that it happens in real time. The rock harp diaries is not a PR exercise presenting the final triumphant results: it's a real behind-the-scenes, work-in-progress account of Deborah, herself already a world-famous harpist who was signed to a jazz label in the 90s, and who then received a Grammy Nomination for her classical crossover work with symphony in the last decade, now plunging into completely new musical territory, and basically starting over from scratch. That makes it even more exciting to read, for we don't know the outcome. Nor does Deborah know, and the honesty with which she chronicles her adventures is courageous and hugely encouraging to read. You see, it's not just you that sometimes has a hard time in the practice room. Everyone, including the biggest stars, knows how you feel.
"I keep wishing my jazz-intensive students could see me experiencing this kind of shell-shocked disconnect, because it’s exactly what I see them experience when they first begin studying with me – a sense of getting nowhere, flailing, demoralized, idiocy – that sense of “My God! Did I ever actually think I was a functioning musician???”
All of which I am experiencing.
When I see my students experiencing it, I know it’s just their brain shifting from an old way of knowing music to a new way, and that the deep sense of disorientation and uncoordination is part of making that shift. I know that the things that seem obvious to me, are often completely invisible to them until the structures finally become clear in their minds.
Until then, it’s like trying to build a box out of fog."
As the tour draws nearer, you read about the final rehearsals, find out what's most essential to take on a tour bus, and celebrate at least two personal victories for Deborah - one, finding a real ladies' lavatory, and two, the box emerging out of the fog. As the show progresses, Deborah's role in it is even growing - now with her own solo, and duets with the bass player and guitarist.
"WEEPING CHINA DOLL is one of the most challenging pieces from Steve’s new album, The Story of Light. Simply to remember the lever changes on this piece I took a workshop in memorization (no joke!).
The piece is epic and cinematic, and my part is very much like an orchestral harp part: broad sweeps, coloristic, with sounds that range from bell-like harp arpeggios to sounds like a Koto.
To execute some of the harmonic changes in this piece I use a Whammy pedal to shift my whole instrument down a half-step (to make that shift ‘by hand’ on my lever-harp you’d need to change 32-levers). So I worked like crazy on this piece with my coach,Marta Cook, and when we rehearsed it today, I poured all of that into it.
And when we were done, Steve put his guitar down, walked across the stage and hugged me.
And I didn’t even burst into tears."
Bravo to Rossitza Milevska and the Milevska Trio, who have added another jazz prize to their 2012 collection! In addition to their success at the Mont-Saint-Michel "tremplin" competition, they have also won first prize in the Auvernier Jazz Contest 2012 in Switzerland.
The Auvernier Festival site has published a nice (French) video interview with the group (embedded below), where they talk particularly about their experience of the harp in jazz.
This photo is of Deborah Henson-Conant with her DHC Blue Light Harp, lit up for her upcoming appearances with Steve Vai on The Story of Light tour! This tour will be running from August to October, 2012, and the dates are beginning to be released - keep your eyes on Deborah's schedulefor more details.
For your Understatement of the Week - this is a pretty big moment for the harp in rock. We even have the chance to have a unique behind-the-scenes view through Deborah's tour rehearsal blog, which she's writing at the moment. Not only is Deborah going to be touring with one of the world's biggest rockstars, she's also plunging into a new musical universe. Her fascinating account of this journey documents everything from how she prepared before the rehearsals, to how she and the whole band are working with the electric harp, to what she's discovered - expected, and unexpected; musical, artistic and philosophical.
Meanwhile, we're all busy explaining to our accounts department why "Story of Light, 2 Tix" are an essential professional expense.