Fall arts preview 2015: Harpist Elisa Thorn plays against type

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      Google “Elisa Thorn” and the first thing you’ll see is the local musician’s website, a quiet vision in cream and aquamarine announcing her as a “professional wedding and event harpist”. Caught in a sunlit pose, her eyes closed and her hair tinted ash blond, she looks cool, calm, and collected—an ornament to any elegant occasion.

      That, however, is soon to change. Playing against her instrument’s reputation, and against her own public image, Thorn is poised to emerge as a radical harpist, composer, and interdisciplinary arts innovator. So it’s fitting that when the Straight reaches the 26-year-old performer, she’s attending the Banff Centre’s International Workshop for Jazz and Creative Music, where she’s studying with the likes of tabla master Zakir Hussain.

      “It’s wild,” she enthuses. “It’s actually the coolest musical experience I’ve ever had.”

      Thorn is particularly impressed with Sorey’s conduction classes, which teach a decidedly democratic approach to leading structured improvisation. It’s all a far cry from her introduction to her instrument, some two decades ago.

      “I saw Loreena McKennitt in concert when I was, like, five years old,” she explains. “Actually, I think I got there, saw the harp on-stage, and fell asleep. But that’s where the seed was planted in my mind. And then I watched a lot of Marx Brothers when I was a kid, and that seed grew into a little flower when I saw Harpo Marx do his thing.”

      Classical training and well-paid wedding gigs helped that flower bloom. Her own fertile imagination fuels her work these days. “I’ve always been an adventurous person, and the task I’ve set out for myself is quite interesting. I’m trying to play very unconventional, bizarre, and highly chromatic creative music—and it’s not easy to do that on the harp,” she says.

      At the moment, this “wild, crazy adventure” involves at least four bands, including classical-jazz hybrid Hildegard’s Ghost, at the Emerald on September 30, and cinematic improv unit Gentle Party, which plays the China Cloud on October 16. But what’s most exciting—other than Banff, of course—is that Thorn and her artistic partner Dayna Szyndrowski have been granted one of the Vancouver park board’s field-house residencies.

      “We have McBride Park, which is in Kits,” the harpist reveals. “She’s a tap dancer, and now she’s fusing that with experimental flamenco.”

      Thorn and Szyndrowski premiere Written on the Body at Aberthau Mansion on November 20.