Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Chapter 158: A Musical Interlude

My life is like an onion. I don't enjoy peeling back the layers. I am private, introverted and risk-averse by nature. Yet there is this little devil inside that drives me on outside of my comfort zone, exposed. Social media accounts and this blog over the past couple of years bear witness to that. So when I say "I don't know what possessed me" when my friend Carolyn invited me to play the harp at the 15th anniversary show at her art gallery, Oliver Contemporary, actually I do: it was this mischievous circus sprite, full of Barnum bravado. You can pull this off, you know, she whispered. 

Learning the harp is a dream that I have had for decades, even saving up for a smaller clarsach at university (only to find lessons were beyond my budget, cue violin), but I only started a couple of years ago, when my daughter was drawn to my sister-in-law's harp. My daughter had glue ear at the time and couldn't hear very well, and I wondered if it was the sensation of the vibrations she enjoyed, as much as hearing the music. So we started learning together on a 28-string lever harp (where the key is changed with levers as opposed to foot pedals) but my practice has been inversely correlated to the amount of time spent training, writing or watching circus. Tellingly the make of my harp is "Dusty Strings". It sounds rather like a burlesque act with cobwebs, the thought of which always makes me smile. The Kiss of the Spider Woman is my game (see Chapter 7 - click here ). Or rather El Beso de la Mujer Araña, because the only melodies I play are all Latin American, notes of tango, salsa, zamba, habaneras, composed by the Paraguayan harpist Alfredo Rolando Ortiz.

Kate Boxer's "Dancing Cowboys"
If that all sounds quite dreamy, please understand that at the time of agreeing to play I really was not very good at all. Mum's reaction when she heard the news says it all. There was a long, tactful pause, and then, as gently as possible,  "But Lucy, has Carolyn actually ever heard you play? ... And does your harp teacher think this is a good idea?!" But here's the thing, I knew I could do this for Carolyn, given half a chance. I was in part banking on the fact that I was not there to give a recital, but for ambient background noise, and as long as the notes were not discordant or down right offensive, it would fine. I was also banking on the fact that people in general love a harp, and what I've learned about any performance through clowning workshops is that if you can gain an audience's goodwill, they will follow you anywhere. And learning circus skills has taught me that if you are prepared to focus and put in the hours required, anything is possible. So for the past month or so I took time, and lessons learned, out of my circus bank and deposited them into my harp, and it paid dividends. I practiced for two to three hours a day, and took up daily meditation to help steady the nerves. I'm sure it helped.

I arrived at the gallery frazzled, with only ten minutes before the proverbial curtain up, delayed by kids out late from school and traffic on the run home. I hadn't even had time to tune my harp. In fact, in the past I had always relied on my teacher for that, but Lisa was away that week. Luckily there is an app for everything, and thanks to her recommendation of the Cleartune app, I was able to work through note by slippery note. Tuning a harp was like being stuck in a pond trying to catch eels with inflatable mittens. I imagine. Well, I did feel like I was on some sort of sadomasochistic Japanese gameshow facing an impossible task ahead, with the clock ticking... Deep breath. It was then I learned something else about performance. I wanted to give up and leg it, but, well, it was too late now to back out and the show must go on. Just as the final note scored a green arrow on the app, the first clients walked through the door. "Ah, a harp! I haven't played mine since that concert in Tokyo", said one, delighted. My heart sank like a stone. So much for the art of humbug charming the crowds, here was someone who knew what to listen for. 

Pulse racing, thighs trembling, fingers fluttery, I began to play the harp gently at first, furtively, tentatively brushing the strings, releasing a whisper of a melody. But like the golden harp in Jack and the Beanstalk, the moment I touched it, it seemed to wake up, call attention to itself and shriek loudly that something was very wrong. I was horrified. This was a living nightmare. Then I realised that the Cleartune app was precise, the harp was fine and in tune, it was actually that I had been practicing on it out-of-tune recently and my over-sensitive ear had some readjusting to do. I forced myself to carry on, and relax. My harp teacher says that a glass of champagne does wonders for performance, and wasn't I lucky that on such an evening it was in no short supply. As I was brought glass after glass I felt a warm glow spread throughout my body to the very tips of my fingers, and soon I was confidently serenading the dancing gauchos (pictured), stationed opposite, and, lost in my own little world, I ended up playing pretty much for about four hours. The gallery was packed out and steamy, perfect for Latin American melodies wafting through the air, all brought together to celebrate 15 years, an amazing achievement when you think about all the independent cultural enterprises that have had to shut up shop in recent times. Kate Boxer, Gillian Beckles, Mary Ford, Liz Hough, Ursula Leach, Clare Ireland, Keith Purser, Charlie Baird, Matthew Batt, Simeon Stafford... thanks to Carolyn, these artists are now part of my cultural landscape, and have enriched my life and those of many others. People travelled in from far and wide - testimony to Carolyn and her vision - and it was a real joy to be there juggling arpeggios across the tightwires. So here's to friendship and harping on about art, and circus everywhere, cheers!

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