The first piece Kim Robertson played us on her harp was "She walks through the fair." Then she told us about her life.
It's a life in music, starting with classical piano, young. Many lessons, much practicing. A nervous breakdown as a teenager.
She spoke to the teenage harpists in the audience. "You know how sometimes you get some stage fright. Well, it can be much worse. It was like a computer crash."
When she was up and running again, she had the new information that she could exist on this planet without being a classical pianist.
She started studying classical harp, the kind they play in symphony orchestras, when she was eighteen. All she studied with told her she was too old. Eighteen is very old to start any classical instrument.
But she hung in there and learned harp and got some orchestra work. And also picked up other kinds of harp work, like playing background music.
She started to hear recordings of Celtic harp, from a man who recorded music of Brittany, the Celtic area of France, by the man who played harp with the wildly popular, for folk music, Cheiftains, by a woman.
The sounds on these recordings were like the other side of the nervous breakdown. Like the nervous breakdown is, "I had no idea things could be this off and awful," and the sounds of the hitherto missing music is, "I had no idea something could sound so right, could sound like it's already in my heart beat."
I mean, being sensitive has clear downsides so it's gotta have some upsides sometimes, yes? We hope? For her, finding how much Celtic harp music fit the beauty within her is a big and ongoing upside.
Not that she heard the recordings and instantly converted to playing Celtic harp.
In her endless quest for work, she went to an Irish restaurant with her classical harp and asked the owner if he would like her to do background music.
He said, "Do you have a smaller harp?"
The Celtic harp Kim Robertson plays is 40 pounds lighter and about a foot and a half shorter than a classical harp and made a beautiful polished wood. The Celtic harp is intrinsically easier to play than the classical. You can play classical music on it, but if you play Celtic music, you're playing simpler music.
She learned to play Celtic music on a Celtic harp by playing it in the Irish restaurant four hours a night, six nights a week, for ten years.
The restaurant experience included
*People asking her if she could get them a new fork.
*People asking her where the restroom was.
*People asking her to play "Danny Boy," which she played six to eight times a shift.
*Her learning to play Celtic music without sheet music because the waiters walking by blew the music off her stand.
*The owner refusing to letting her take nights off because he said someday she'd being playing concerts (like she does today) and she's have to go on no matter what.
*The owner building her a little stage so she got fewer questions about forks and restrooms.
*Getting really good at playing this music she loved, at playing this instrument, the one she'd been looking for all the time. Or the instrument that had been looking for her, like the line from a Bonnie Hayes song, "Keep looking till you're found."
Is difficulty, in and of itself, valuable? Stumbling around our society, trying to be a living being, you could easily get the impression that this time and place thinks difficulty is the best and seeks to create it wherever and whenever possible.
On the other hand, there is easy and natural and the breath of relief.
One way Kim Robertson supported herself with music was playing Celtic harp on a cruise ship with a flutist. They played classical music--they were the ship's classical duo. The flutist had hired Kim to be classical with him.
She wanted them to play Celtic music sometimes.
He said, "But that music is so primitive and repititious."
She said, " Yes, isn't that great?"
For her, primitive and repititious are an essential part of the good part of the Celtic harp and its natural music.
Not all humans who prefer difficulty are guys. Not all guys prefer difficulty. However, the idea that it must be worth doing if it difficult to do is a guyish idea.
The usual way to do sharps and flat on a Celtic harp is setting levers at the top of the harp before you play the piece. (A Celtic harp is also called a lever harp.) That works for setting the key of the piece, but some pieces have additional sharps and flats in the middle of the piece beyond the sharps and flats that determine the key.
Setting those one at a time sharps and flats on a Celtic harp would be tricky. A guy in the question and answer period asked Kim Robertson if she avoided pieces like that to avoid the trickiness. (The spirit of "Gotcha!" was not absent from his voice.)
She said she did skip pieces like that. Loyal to the potential of her instrument, she quickly pointed out that many harpist do pieces that are hellacious on the dimension--it happens on the time.
But for her, she said, "If I want to do something complex ,classical harp or classical piano are always there for me. I like to just play."
Playing and messing around and joking and harps and angels hang out together.
Since angels are portrayed playing harps, harpists are victims of the repititive joke syndrome where people see that you are X and make a joke about your being X and act like they are the first one to do so, even though they are perhaps the three hundredth.
Get on an elevator with a harp and someone will say, "Going up? (Ha ha)."
So there's that and then there's the fact that Kim Robertson believes in angels, believes we all are "angels and fairies and lots of other things. . ." She truly ended that statement in a dot-dot-dot king of silence, and therein lies a lot of the world she lives in in addition to or with music.
A thing about believing all beings are angel is it adds a different dimension to playing harp in a restaurant and being asked where the john is. (Kim Robertson did not say this--it's my opinion.) Because if everyone is an angel the invisible angels may want some harp music in the restaurant to get through to these folks, to their inner angel, if only for a few notes.
The invisible angels may be saying, "Nope, I don't want you in a concert hall where people got with expectations and pretensions and judgementalness. I want you out where people aren't really thinking about the music, and there, now and then, between the requests for a clean fork, I will do work you'll never know about with the notes you play so well."
Kim Robertson, when I saw her, was finishing up a multi-day gig as the visiting star of the Festival of Harps in the San Francisco Bay Area. Kim Robertson, as she says, still does background music, because "sometimes kitty needs cat food"--and for other reasons, I would guess.
I think we get to choose to serve, or not. After we choose to serve, the service itself, or it's angels, makes choices for us.
All musicians are athletes, and you have to practice to build both your skill and your strength, Kim Robertson said. "The string must be displaced before it is released."
Displaced the right amount. Released at the right time. And all this happens where?
After you choose service, sometimes you are the string and the universe or its local representitives decide you must be displaced before you are released.
The universe, or its local representitives knows the note you have in you and knows where it would best be played, and because you have decided to serve, you are, ready or not, available to be displaced before you are released.
Classical pianist? No, have enough. Classical harpist? Closer, but there are some fairly hard to find recordings that are going to find you. Celtic harpist? Yes, but maybe less with the Danny Boy stuff, which you were tired of years ago anyway.
Kim Robertson talks about the excitement of hearing iPod broadcasts from Nigeria like a person who listens to lots of international iPod broadcasts. It's the next leap. She played us a compostion of her own with a Irish, South American, African sound which was wonderful--pushed my world a little wider.
Then she quickly played what she introduced as her "Thank God" number, as in imagining audience members saying, "Thank God I recognize this."
It was "Danny Boy." She said she was playing in a different manner. I guess so, but it sure wasn't as different as the one that came out of her round the world music listening.
One great thing about professional musicians who play music all the time, in concert hall, living room, restaurant or singing telegram places (Kim Robertson has done all of the above) is that they can truly change any space they are in. They know they can-- they do it all the time.
The other great thing is that they get bored, and they want to change the space in a new and different way--which means world tranformation (scale doesn't matter) is just around the corner.
Kim Robertson whose life was changed by those hard to find recordings of Celtic harp is clearly very happy that world music recordings are everywhere and easy to order on the web and that personal iPodcast abound.
She wants to jam with the immediate world.
She tends to get audiences that want to hear "Danny Boy." Where I saw her was at the last event in the Festival of Harps but I didn't know that when I went. I went because it was a free event in the library and those events range in my experience from good to great and because the quality and imaginativeness of her publicity photograph made me think her presentation would be excellent and because she looked, in her photograph like an intelligent woman.
Black people in the white fifties used to call each other fast if they sighted a black person on TV for they were indeed rare. Intelligent woman at the center of attention taking space and saying what they want are not as rare as black people on TV in the fifties.
Neither are the common. And they aren't yet saying, very loudly, everything they think.
Like, "Isn't this whole set-up kind of silly?" This is something smart women think in many ways and do not say. It leaks out in a sort of very light humor, said softly.
I love to catch this humor because it is so true and so not me.
"Life is real. Life is earnest." Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said it, and I'm with him all the way. Because life is real I must be earnest. They are idiots and their ideas are dumb, but they do kill babies, so I gotta be endlessly sincere to stop them.
There's this way women in the center of attention just lightly imply, "Well, sometimes we do things this way, sometimes we do things that way, and isn't it all really sort of arbitrary? Isn't being hyperserious about this particular form kind of dumb?"
They usually don't imply this very loud because women have not been given minutes on center stage to imply such things.
Much more upholding of the established order is my earnest attack on the established order--my seriousness blends end with the bellowing of the male animals, bellowing to prove that their bellowing matters.
Which is to say Kim Robertson has that kind of humor which is hard to reproduce and must be noted. Einstein says you can't solve a problem on the level on which it was created--you have to move to the next lever. A good way to switch levels might be to look around at how ludicrous this one is and move up with a laugh.
When somebody asked Kim Robertson what her harp strings were made of, she said, "Carbon fiber--that vegan cat gut."
Someone asked her about Celtic harps which are small enough to play on your lap. She made a joke about laptop computers which not one got and she didn't repeat, because this was basically a gathering of folk music types and they are with me and Longfellow on the "Life is real. Life is earnest." dimension.
A woman asked her how much a Celtic harp would cost. She was interested because she wanted to put one in her living room for its looks, which are, no kidding, outstanding.
Robertson answered her by saying you can get a Celtic harp made out of cardboard for a little over a hundred dollars, and it sounds like a harp. Note: this harp sounds like a harp, which wouldn't matter for the piece of decor the woman was interested in, and it would be totally inappropriate as a piece of decor. Then Robertson said a Celtic harp such as she was playing would cost between $400 and $6000.
Now having Celtic harps hanging out in living rooms being beautiful could actually help in making Kim Robertson's dream of harp-playing-common-like-guitar-playing come true.
For Robertson to play at the Michigan Women's Music Festival would also help with that.
She says learning to play this kind of harp is easy, especially if you know how to play piano at all. She didn't say what it takes to get as good as she is. I suspect it's like the game Go--easy to learn and then you're hooked and forever won't be long enough to master it.
Envision of world where lots of people know how to play harp and lots of people have them in their living room looking good. The player drops by, sees the harps and away you go.
At the Michigan Women's Music Festival all kinds of music is played by all kinds of women. Women like me, who like to see intelligent women take up space.
Since there are tons of musicians at the Michigan Women's Music Festival, they would understand what she's doing when she blends her heart and the music of the world on her Celtic harp. They'd ask for Danny Boy less than the audiences she's used to. And when they went home and thought of forming and aucoustic band, they'd think of the Celtic harp--they would have tried hers.
Celtic stories show that Celtic harps never really bought the idea of being inanimate objects. They choose their people and their place as much as many people do--more than some people do. They don't just sit back and let the story happen to them--they are playing with the story as people play them.
When I walked into the Koret Auditorium where I have often seen good programs and learned good things, I was surprised by the seven or eight Celtic harps on stage. Beautiful, smooth, polished wood sculptures with strings and with lots of prescence.
They were there because a Bay Area youth harp group, all young women, played before Kim Robertson played. That was a good plan. First we heard what Celtic harps sound like and then we heard what a Celtic harp sounds like when played superbly.
I think about those harps of stage, almost shocking with their beauty, and what will become of them. Some resold maybe, when the young woman moves onto to something else, some in storage, some gorgeous and rarely played in the living.
But at least one of those young women will, I think, play hers almost every day for years--a development all the harps seemed very ready for. Someone who knows this woman in future years will walk into a room and think that she's in the room--but it will be her harp. Their presences will polish and form each other as she walks through the fair that is her life.
The only song that Kim Robertson sang in her gig at the San Francisco Public Library was one she wrote herself called "Angels in Disguise."
The first line says, in essence, "I hope that someday I get to find out what this being alive thing was all about."
Yes. I think really logical last words would be, "What was that?"
Life, so beautiful, so viscious, and all the really long boring parts. What kind of fair is it?
What do I see at the fair? What do I hear? What do I bring? What is it my assignment to bring? What will dig through rock to find me as I wander through meadows to find it?
I am of the opinion that everyone has something that is for them what the Celtic harp is for Kim Robertson--something that makes their trip through the fair of life make sense by the intensity of the connection it offers.
Bjork, the musician, talked in an interview with Drew Daniel about spending time with her sculptor friends back home in Iceland.
"I've been hanging out with them a lot more for some reason, and it was kind of hilarious to see the world through their eyes. Like you got into a restaurant and they knock on the table to see what it's made of, try to break the fork, look at the ceiling and wonder how it is made, and then go to the cinema. I would meet them afterwards and they'd just be talking about the floorboards in the loo. They could watch a totally rubbish horror movie and talk for hours about how the special effects were done, because it's just about the materials, you know."
(The interview was in the November 2005 SOMA magazine. Theme: Obsessions.)
There's being obsessions with materials and with labeled fields, like sculpture and music, and there's the adventure of being born to do activities that our society as a whole doesn't believe, doesn't think it wants.
Subtlety. This calls and subtlety and mental strength. Say I work on strenghtening some ineffable connection for good outcome, some connection that my society wouldn't see as a connection. One outcome possible is that nothing apparently happens, so I have the option of feeling like a weird jerk who is wasting my time.
Another outcome possible is that I seem to have been part of making something good happen in a way that all my outside training says can't happen. The string has been displaced by me, as per my intuition, the note has sounded, things are better and I feel weird. I don't feel like a jerk, but weird.
I used to wonder, "If I say no, will there be anyplace to go?" That is, if I basically disagree with the built brutality of the set up, can I still live around here in some way?
Now, my question is more like, "If I say yes to something different, and it works and I indeed help create something different and better, do I have to courage to hang in with that?"
Probably, but it's a whole big challenge. Building the fair on the next level, booth by confusing and surprising booth.
C.S. Lewis wrote a short book called "The Great Divorce," about Heaven and Hell.
Hell is a huge industrial city that is mostly empty because people can't stand to live near other people.
When Kim Robertson was interviewed for Angel Times by Unita Belk, she said she really likes this quote:
We are each of us angels with one wing, and we can only fly by meeting each other.
--Luciano de Crescenzo
The people in Lewis' Hell are the opposite of that. The city they exist in is infinitely large, so everyone gets their isolation amid dingy rundowness.
Buses leave Hell for Heaven every day. The buses are mostly empty.
Heaven is gorgeous, green, great trees, a Heaven imagined by a man who loved to take long walks in rural England.
But for someone fresh from Hell it's a hard place to be. People newly arrived from Hell look semi-transparent in Heaven's sun, and the grass hurts their feet because they grass is so much realler than they are. It goes right into their feet.
Long time Heaven residents are around saying if you stay it it gets better. You get real like the grass, like the sun, you're beautiful, you feel great.
Most people get on the bus and go back to Hell.
C.S. Lewis was a dedicated Christian. and that is a good presentation of the idea of Purgatory, a process that purges your unrealness til your ready for the realest place of all.
I am not a Christian, but I feel the call to be realler and to be brave enough and patient enough to live inside getting what I want, which is a better, fairer, more gorgeous, more delightful world for everyone.
In theory, I'm a string ever ready to be displaced for the greater good. In practice, when I'm displaced and I know top to bottom it's for everyone's good, including mine, I still go, but what is the note going to be like on release and what 's the whole tune, and tell me the plot of the musical, start to finish.
I want all those answers up front even though I know that since I've spent so much of my life in Hell, I wouldn't be able to understand the answer to all those questions, even if it were offered.
Sometimes I've been to the next level, I think, where a lot of our current problems are eliminated by change of venue. It feels good. I have to leave theory building behind and just be there. Then maybe when I bounce back here some of there will show a little and seem and help make people ready to really move.
Elaine May, writer, director, actress, started out as a genius, with Mike Nichols, in improvisational comedy.
She said that two situations that never work in improv, that must always be avoided, are buying and selling and having an argument.
If I start my day with news, I am presented with the news, much of which is an unarmed or armed argument, and the arguments are all surrounded by buying and selling.
Which means this whole thing I use to frame my day with is going nowhere.
One reason Nichols and May broke up at the height of their success was that when they were a huge hit, filling Carnegie Hall, she still wanted to do real improve, to really start with stuff that neither of them knew where it was going. He couldn't stand doing that at that level, with that pressure with those ticket prices.
She wanted to be alive in the moment and say words to each other they hadn't said before and see what happened. He wanted to do routines that they had developed in front of audiences in that very way that were now known to work. Old words, new words, they broke up that that particular sardonic ironic surprising angel with a total of two people and a total of two wings didn't fly anymore.
One thing Nichols and May were good at was fast. Like you think you're listening to a couple of spies talk and suddenly realized they are a long married couple with a really screwy relationship.
Shakespeare, being a better writer than Nichols and May is even better at fast. He sets up the audience and the characters with a certain rhythm of how things happen--clip, clop, clip--and lets the audience and the characters assume that that pace is a firm, unchangeable deal.
Then one character says one line, and whoosh, everything changes. The audience and the characters are five hundred miles from anywhere they ever expected to be. The rules haven't changed--the rules are gone. The audience and characters are wondering how they got there and trying to figure out how to be there at the same time.
If the Shakespeare play is a tragedy, we all realize that things are much worse than the awful way we imagined them to be.If it's a comedy then everyone resumes their usual gender and clothing and is matched up with the perfect person, after all the confusion.
Amid much confusion, I walk through the fair and notice things getting better. Better? What's up with that? Growing up the promise of the ultimate human tragedy of cleverness, large scale nuclear war, not much life left, I am faced, surrounded, stroked by things being quite good, astonishingly different. Better in a way I could not have imagined, but all I have to do is not imagine but notice.
What am I to do? Learn to say yes, learn to live yes. Learn to here the music that gives someone's else's life meaning and therefore mine. Learn to pay attention. Learn to accept the gift and say thank you very much.
I'm a string that has been moved and is being held.
I'm waiting to be released at the right moment. I'm pretty sure that the note created in that moment will be a great note. I'm not sure the ears I'm used to using will be able to hear it.
I'm ready to learn to hear a new sound in a new world I help to make with the best of me, played differently.
How difficult is it?
How easy can I stand for it to be?
The sound I haven't heard yet is where I'm going to live