Harp Attack

"All harpists do not have long blond hair, and they aren't tall and willowy and quiet," declares Boston-based harp virtuoso Deborah Henson-Conant. "Not by a long shot."
Henson-Conant is living proof of this claim. Not only is she a musical innovator, taking the harp where it's never gone before, but she's a performer who breaks down barriers whenever she steps into the spotlight in her usual attire: a leather miniskirt, black tights and hipper-than-classical decolletage. Moreover, she's confident enough in her abilities to shrug off the criticism leveled at her by a handful of peers.

"I've heard that some of the most conservative members of the harp community may be upset about my work," she concedes. "But I don't run into it; I mean, they certainly don't get in my face about it. Besides, a lot of harpists are sick of being in the background and having a certain image that just isn't true. I was talking to a young harpist in Buffalo--this really cool, kind of punky young girl with spiky black hair. And do you know what she had to do for one job? The person who was having her play made her put on a blond wig and wear a stupid, frilly dress. I think that's obscene--not only obscene, but sexist, too."

By contrast, Henson-Conant has refused to reinforce various stereotypes about her ax of choice. For instance, she has never delved into new-age music and says that she's puzzled by the manner in which the harp has been relegated to this genre: "I don't know why that is, but I've never played that way. I play jazz, blues, flamenco, a flat bass--anything I want. The harp can do so much more. One thing that blows my mind is that, in this culture at least, people have only focused on one aspect of the harp, which is sort of pretty, melodic playing. But if you go down to Mexico, the folk harp is like the soul of the rhythm in the band. And in Africa, it's a major rhythm instrument. You can do anything on it."

This truth was one that even Henson-Conant took a while to grasp. She began training on the harp at age ten, but before long, she was ready to take a break. "I always loved music, and I hated music lessons," she notes. "That's it in a nutshell. But fortunately, I had parents who said, 'Screw it. If she doesn't like it, we're not paying for her to go anymore.' They just let me do what I wanted.

"So from the time I was twelve, I wrote music," she continues. "The only problem was, I didn't know how to write it down. I invented it. I played it. Music was my life. Then, when I was nineteen, I wanted to write an opera. But since I didn't know how to write music, I decided I had to go back to school. And what was so wonderful about that was, I was hungry to learn at that point. You couldn't keep me away from those classes."

While looking for ways to pay off her college bills, Henson-Conant took a job stroking her harp in a swanky restaurant for three hours each night. With this much time to fill, she had to choose between rendering the same tunes over and over again or improvising. Because she picked the latter, her music soon took on the jazz character that dominates 1989's On the Rise, the first of three discs she made for GRP, a well-known contemporary-jazz imprint. Before long, however, she decided that even a style as flexible as jazz was too confining for her.

"In the past few years I've quit saying to myself, 'Okay, Deborah, you are a jazz player, so therefore you must do this a certain way, that a certain way and so on,'" she remarks. "Instead, I say, 'Deborah, you are you, and whatever comes into your head, whether it's theater or whether it's music or whether it's singing, it's okay. At this moment, if it works to make what you are doing work better, you can do it.'

"I try to orchestrate my internal universe by using this harp," she goes on. "So if I'm doing a piece about flamenco dancers in a time machine, my harp is going to sound like this big flamenco something-or-other. If I'm doing a piece about a scientific experiment, the harp is my laboratory. The harp has to become what my imagination needs it to be."

By ignoring boundaries, Henson-Conant has been able to move smoothly between the worlds of jazz (she's a regular on the festival circuit) and classical music (the Boston Pops, the Scottish National Chamber Orchestra and the Pittsburgh Symphony Pops have featured her as a guest composer and soloist at concerts, and the Fort Collins Symphony has invited her to perform in January). Her humorous between-song banter has endeared her to listeners outside these arenas as well, and she plans to broaden her appeal further via strenuous marketing efforts that she oversees. Like a plucky Ani DiFranco, Henson-Conant co-produces her music and operates a concert hotline, a distribution company and a national ticket outlet dubbed Lunchmoney. And while she doesn't own a label--she currently records for LAIKA, a German firm--she is involved in every aspect of her recordings. Right now she's supporting this year's Alter Ego, a splendid solo collection, and has already completed Altered Ego, a cheekily titled followup that should be available sometime next year.

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