It’s one thing to be an innovative musician working the confines of your chosen genre; it’s quite another to reinvent the instrument you’ve mastered and revolutionize the way it is played. Grammy- nominated harpist Deborah Henson-Conant has accomplished this and more.
An inveterate lover of music and former resident of Eugene, Henson-Conant has given the concert harp a complete and total makeover.
“I fell in love with the harp because of how it was built,” she says. “I started playing in restaurants, then I started touring, and I realized I had to change it. The thing was six-feet tall and 75 pounds.”
So Henson-Conant set about designing her own harp. She wanted something that traveled easily, but also an instrument that would completely revamp traditional perceptions of the harp. “I wanted something I could strap on and move with, and I wanted it to have a pick-up on every string,” she says.
After landing on the original design and then struggling to find someone to bring her blueprint to life, Henson-Conant finally struck gold. “I took it to France, to a French Harp Company called Camac,” she says.
At Camac, the visionary harp builder Joel Garnier constructed Henson-Conant her first harness-harp. But it was his protégé Jakez Françios who continued to work on the designs, going on to create the DHC Light, a sleek chrome harness harp made from the same material as French racing bikes. It is an instrument that did not exist before Françios built it. A lightweight electric harp — the sort of thing you’d imagine Jimi Hendrix playing in heaven.
“Take a guitar and put it on steroids. It weighs 11 pounds, I’ve got 32 strings to play with and the thing looks like a Stratocaster,” Henson-Conant says.
And because it is built like a guitar, Henson-Conant can play it like a guitar. Incorporating looping systems and distortion pedals, the harp presents a physicality that is more or less antithetical to the traditional role of the harp. And Henson-Conant is very aware of the paradigm shift her innovation catalyzed.
“The harp has traditionally been seen as a woman’s instrument, relegated to the back of the orchestra,” she says. “And I always felt that that relegated women. I wanted to take the instrument and make it strong, powerful and loud.”
Strong, powerful and loud is exactly what Henson-Conant continues to do.
Deborah Henson-Conant plays 7:30 pm Wednesday, March 7, at The Shedd; prices vary.