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."