Q and A with Elisa Thorn

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Vancouver harpist Elisa Thorn came onto our radar when we noticed a writeup about her a few weeks ago in the Vancouver Sun. Thorn has just released “Hue,” an improvisational recording based on the paintings of her father, Bruce Thorn. Thorn was drawn to creative music, composition, and improvisation after deciding classical music was “incompatible” with her personality. Obviously, we needed to find out more! We caught up with Thorn to find out about her latest project…

What is the Painting Project?

The Painting Project is a trio (harp, bass and drums) that uses the abstract paintings of my father, Bruce Thorn, as a basis for composition and improvisation. As Bruce explains in his own artist statement, he is
“working to create a vision that is improvisational, intuitive, contemporary & universal,” using “abstraction as a mode to reflect upon social and natural environments to create a journey of exploration and invention rather than a predetermined statement.” In line with his vision, I created music that explores colour, movement and abstraction. The intimate trio setting leaves space to highlight the intricate and diverse sonic possibilities of the harp.

“Reds” is one painting in the set by Bruce Thorn that inspired the Painting Project.

Q: Where can people go to see the artwork behind the music?

You can see the art alongside the music on my website at www.elisathorn.com/hue

Q: You had a release concert on January 14—how did that go?

It was great! I had someone doing live projections using the painting as content —moving through and manipulating the images in real time to the music. The music went well, we played some new material, and have a very attentive, supportive full house!

Q: How would you describe your music?

I always find this the hardest question to answer! I like to say lower-case “j” jazz—I like to think of ‘jazz’ as a descriptor of process rather than necessarily a stylistic result. This music has a large improv component to it and a lot of it is built around elements of jazz harmony and form. There are also elements of experimental and new music.

Q: Would you call yourself a composer or an improviser?

Both! There are large elements of both composition and improvisation in this music, and most music I create explores the relationship between the two. For me, the two are inseparable.

Q: How did you find your band members? What’s their reaction to playing with a harpist?

I’ve been involved in the creative music scene in Vancouver for five or six years, so by now I know and/or have played with most of them —so the harp is no surprise anymore. I like to play music with people I enjoy spending time with, so there’s definitely a personal element to it. Justin Devries, the drummer, is a very dear friend and so we end up playing together in many different capacities—we first met a few years ago playing in a different jazz project called Hildegard’s Ghost, and since then he’s become my ‘go-to’ guy. James Meger is one of my favourite bass players in town and his musical sensitivity and improv sensibilities made him the perfect fit for this project.
It’s always a little bit of challenge finding how the harp fits in a ‘band’ setting and requires care and attention as much from the harpist as from other players. These guys are both amazing listeners and I feel so lucky to have them playing my music!

Q: Give us some history: when did you start harp, did you start as a classical harpist, when did you branch away from that, etc.?

I started harp when I was 9 years old, and was in the classical stream all the way through the end of my bachelors degree in harp performance. Part way through university, I started to become more and more aware of how incompatible classical music was with my personality, but didn’t really know how to branch out for a while. Eventually I was introduced to the creative music scene, and started playing free improv with as many other players as I could. This helped me discover a lot about myself and the instrument —part of what is so great about free improv is I feel like you uncover a bit of your musical DNA, so to speak. Or, you play it just as much as it plays you. In 2014 I was awarded a grant from the British Columbia Arts Council for a year-long mentorship with jazz pianist Dr. Lisa Cay Miller to study composition, and after that I attended the International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music at the Banff Centre. Both of those things helped me find my feet as a composer and start to put together how improvisation would fit into the music I write.

Q: Tell us about some of your other projects.

I’m in a experimental-pop chamber group called Gentle Party with harp, cello, violin and voice—we’re releasing an album this March. I have a trio called Star Triptych with voice and guitar, that has elements of jazz, ambient, and folk music. I’m also in a feminist free-improv group called Jazz Bras Dot Com. I also have a long-time collaboration with a percussive dancer named Dayna Szyndrowski. We have a project called Written on the Body, which is currently in it’s second year of a three year residency with the Vancouver Parks Board, exploring the intersection between music & dance and improvisation and composition.

Q: When you’re not creating, what do you do?

Writing emails to facilitate creating, haha! When I do have a spare moment…I love running, spinning, yoga, baking, and all things outdoors.

Q: What’s next on your list?

As I mentioned, my band Gentle Party will be releasing an album this March under the Phonometrograph label. I already have material for another album with my trio, so I’ll be working on getting that recorded this spring as well. I just purchased a Camac DHC a few days ago (hurray!), so I’m also trying to work out some solo material I can play with that. I’m also currently working on a video project for my Written on the Body residency, creating music and video to highlight some of Vancouver’s amazing natural spaces and the communities tied to them.

Read more about Elisa Thorn and her projects at www.elisathorn.com.

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About Author

Kimberly Rowe is co-founder of Harp Column and served as Editor of the print edition from 1993–2013. She now serves as Web Editor. Kimberly performs and teaches in the mid-Atlantic region of the US. She is co-founder of the Young Artist’s Harp Seminar, and on the faculty at Temple University, in Philadelphia.

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