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Jan Harmon at work composing a song
So, bravely dream while oak tree branches hold the sky above
dark winter's journey.
Jan Harmon wrote this, poetic verse of her lullaby "Oak Tree," as a birthday gift for fellow musician Gordon Bok in 1989. Now it, and a wealth of Harmon's other musical gifts, are ready for listening on So Bravely Dream, a new recording by the Quasimodal Chorus. "We made this tape to honor Jan," says chorus member Will Brown. "We wanted to get her music out for everyone to hear."
There couldn't be a group more appropriate to honor Jan Harmon, who died of leukemia in 1993 at age 53; than the Quasimodal Chorus, an ensemble which she was largely responsible for bringing together nearly 10 years ago. Harmon, a poet, artist and prolific composer, had a special talent for writing choral music, but for a long time had no chorus to try it out on. Then soon after moving to Camden in about 1985 from California where her soft-sculpture creations were widely exhibited at museums and galleries she met a group of musicians who gathered frequently at the Camden Harbour Inn and many of whom were working with Gordon Bok on a series of recordings called the "February Tapes." When Harmon was invited in 1987 to perform at the Rockport Folk Festival, she decided to ask this group to join her; it was then that the Quasimodal Chorus was born. Each week the dozen or so singers met at Jan's house to rehearse, warmed b her hearty soups and homemade bread ("she made the best soup in the whole world," remembers one chorus member), and it was her own compositions they sang. "The music just kept coming out of her," says Brown. "Every week we would come and there would be something new for us to sing." And, adds Penelope Ray, "Jan could hear all the different choral parts as the music went through her head -- she was really amazing. She had a gift for music, one which she shared happily with others."
Not only did Harmon write a rich quantity of words and music, she also covered a wide variety of subjects in her lyrics and worked with many different musical styles. In addition to choral music, she liked to compose rounds ballads, musicals and instrumental pieces; in 1988 she wrote and directed the chorus in A Fire Called Sun, an opera inspired by a Czechoslovakian folktale. "It is difficult to categorize Jan's music," says Brown. "It is contemporary and easy to listen to; some of the harmonies are jazzy, but you wouldn't call her music jazz. It is definitely unique."
While many of Harmon's songs are light and humorous -- "Ma Bell Boogie," which recounts her experience dealing with AT&T when she first moved to Camden and opened a bed and breakfast, is a great example -- others tell stories of people she has known or of her own rich life experiences. Some songs will make you laugh; others, such as "Good Wish," one of two pieces recorded at the 1987 Folk Festival and sung by Jan herself on So Bravely Dream, may move, you to tears; but all of them engage the listener in a special way. "Jan was a very perceptive person," says Penelope Ray. "She used to say how she liked the word 'notice,' that she wanted other people to notice things too. She often wrote about political and controversial issues, but in a way that would bring people together, not split them apart." One poignant example of this is Harmon's song "The Logger and the Spotted Owl," which begins:
The next verse continues:
The song goes on to include a verse spoken by the forest ("I've lived with this land for centuries ...") and leaves the listener with a complete and compassionate view of this complicated subject.
To Quasimodal Chorus members, as well as many others who knew Harmon, her music embodies her warm, caring personality as well as her insight and wit. "It was easy to feel I knew Jan after just a short time," says John Pincince. "She endeared people to her quickly." According to Penelope Ray, a few other musicians had recorded some of Harmon's songs in the past, but little of her choral music had ever been put on tape. "We felt it was our responsibility to get this music out," says Ray, And, she adds, recording So Bravely Dream has been an important part of the healing process for chorus members, who now number 24, since Harmon's death. "This was a very powerful thing for us to do after Jan died," says Ray. "It is a way of honoring her memory and working through our loss."
The chorus began recording in August 1994, in a woodshop at the Camden home of member Susan Shaw and her husband, Paul Cartwright. "We tried out the acoustics in several places, and this one was the best," says Brown, adding that their main challenge in using such a studio was dealing with interruptions from outside noises such as lawnmowers. Engineer Sonny True came to help them with the recording, mastering was done by Bruce Bogie of Northport, and now the tapes and CDs are being finished by a company in southern Maine.
Though the recording process has been long and at times grueling, singer Thomas Michaels says he is impressed with the group's dedication and commitment to getting the project done. "We have become a much tighter group, technically and in our ability to work together." And, says Brown, "not everyone in the group is a professional musician, but they've all done their part; the talent that has gone into making this tape is remarkable."
And what will the Quasimodal Chorus do now that their project is finished? "In the beginning, we gathered at Jan's house ..." read the introductory notes to So Bravely Dream. "We loved singing; we loved being together, we loved Jan; and now, although she is dead, we still meet regularly and sing as a chorus, by consensus, quasimodally."
To celebrate the release of So Bravely Dream, the Quasimodal Chorus will gather on Sunday, October 8, at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational Church in Camden. Open to the public free of charge (though donations will. be accepted), the evening will feature the music, stories and poems of Jan Harmon. Tapes and CDs will be available for purchase that evening and are also for sale in area stores and from the Quasimodal Chorus, P.O. Box 996, Rockport, ME 04856. The chorus will also be performing on Saturday, September 30, at the Windfall Fair at Merryspring Park in Camden.
-- Story by Sheila Polson
--from: Camden Herald, Page 8 - April 25, 1985
by Beth Crichlow
While gloom-and-doom headlines on the 6 o'clock news may prompt some of us to reach for a stiff drink, Camden songwriter Jan Harmon is more likely to reach for her guitar and tape recorder. With titles like "In Case of Nuclear Attack," "Ma Bell Boogie" and "A John Deere Letter," Harmon's tuneful satires poke gentle (but serious) fun at issues that usually offer little to sing about.
Jan Harmon strums her "ladies' guitar," a diminutive version of the conventional acoustic guitar. Debby Smith
"I'm not interested in propagandizing," said the softspoken Harmon, "and the songs are rarely just negative. I try to find the irony and ridiculousness in these subjects." A recent set of EPA directives was the inspiration for "In Case of Nuclear Attack," which contains such tongue in cheek advice as, "Cancel your American Express at the hint of nuclear mania/ For you may be vaporized on Chicago's South Side/ But your card could still turn up in Lithuania."
Harmon's tape recorder comes in handy because her songs - words and music both - "often emerge whole in the middle of the night, as though they had composed themselves." Thanks to a music theory course she took last year, Harmon can now read and write music, and her upright piano is covered with sheet music, sharpened pencils and the makings of several four-part choral works. But she still prefers a tape recorder when her 2 a.m. muse calls. "Otherwise," she laughed, "the tune will be gone by morning."
Harmon (she has recently stopped using Skorodinsky, her married name) moved to Camden in 1981, following up on a 20-year-old hunch. During a 1960s visit to Vermont, Harmon (who was born in Michigan) was seized by the notion that "right over the next hill was home. In a way, I moved here to dispel that illusion, but when I got here it became obvious that this was the place." She even claims to like the winters: "I get more work done."
In between Michigan and Maine, she touched down at various points of the compass. She grew up singing and making up songs ("I even sang myself to sleep"), but it was a year spent living with a friend's family in rural Missouri shortly after high school that really hooked her. "It was the first time I was exposed to truly local music, and it just caught me. My friend's grandmother would tell me to 'sing it like the wind.' When you listen to Appalachian music, you realize that nasal sound came straight out of nature."
Harmon later settled in California, where she combined her music with a second love, working with children. Working first with recently emigrated Mexican children and later with autistic children, she discovered that music was often the best way to reach withdrawn, mistrustful pupils. "Music is so non-invasive," she explained. "Often saying something in a song is less scary than saying it aloud."
One particularly novel method she hit upon was to sit at a spinning wheel with an autistic child in her lap. While Harmon pumped the treadle, together they would make up songs to the rhythm of the wheel, "and when we finished, it was as though the song was a part of the soft ball of yarn we'd just spun."
Harmon also used fanciful hats, mask and large soft sculpture dolls she'd made to help draw children out. Today her home (a visitor would not be blamed for confusing it with Santa's workshop) is filled with colorful, meticulously crafted personalities like Muscles Merman, a hairy-chested cross between a circus strong man and a mermaid, and the slightly brazen-looking Clarissa, whom Harmon describes as her alter ego. Locally, she has taught songwriting at the Riley School in Glen Cove, where one of her first lessons is that "there's nothing mysterious about writing a song. Most of u have the skill already - it's just a matter of pulling it up."
Another important step is learning to listen: ."To write a song, you have to be a good listener," Harmon wrote in a recent school newsletter. "You listen to people' ideas, you listen to the wind singing, you listen to the land, you listen to your own feet walking ... and if you listen carefully enough, you'll learn a song." She reports that former students have been known to approach her in French and Brawn humming snatches of their latest work-in-progress.
But for all the music she's made with children, it's only the past year that Harmon has "gone public," copyrighting over 80 original songs, rehearsing with a partner, Nancy Mattila, and fighting off a mild case of stage fright prior to her local debut at a Memorial Day benefit concert for Oxfam at the Rockport Opera House. Area musician have begun performing her material and she recently got a phone call from an excited friend in California who'd just heard one of her songs on the radio.
"But you know, the more I do, the less possessive I feel about the songs," Harmon said reflectively. "It's almost as if they have a life of their own, and just come out through me."