You can search long and hard amongst the Harpists of the world and not find any quite as diverse as Mia Theodoratus. The best description we can find for Mia’s music is beautiful and bold. As an artist there is a true sense of exploration and adventure in her music. As a pioneer, there is a sense of fearlessness. Although, she considers herself a traditionalist, there is no indication of a landlocked performer and she moves effortlessly through musical styles with mastery and even humor at times. When we first saw Mia, her show was billed as an evening of Celtic music. By the end of the set she had us grooving along to Coltrane’s, A Love Supreme. Just a little surfing around the internet will bring you to even more obscure Harpings like “Electric Harp Booty Call” and collaborations with the Soft Focus ensemble. Because you never know what you are going to get, each encounter with Mia is an adventure. It’s what makes her one of our favorite soloists! We were thrilled to have her interview for Local Band and to be able to share it here.
LBFH: Give us a glimpse into what your childhood was like?
MT: I was a dreamy social outcast. I played classical music, so I didn’t fit in with the punks but I was way too weird for the over achievers.
LBFH: How did music come into your life?
MT: I was serious from the starting gate at the ripe old age of 14. I had a lot of catching up to do. My work ethic helped me out in the long run. I always knew I would be playing music.
LBFH: Were you always attracted to harp music and what other music forms have you worked in?
MT: I am a REALLY bad flute player. Wait-It Is To the point of pain. I was a bass player in Austin, TX with a band called Vapid Axe. Even though we were intensely cute mini skirted girls we could clear a room in 10 minutes. Ouch! I sold the bass to a member of the group Glass Eye to move to LA to go to CALARTS.
LBFH: Who were your earlier influences?
MT: I loved Indian culture and Arabic music especially Iranian. My parents and my auntie are cultural anthropologists so I grew up knowing that normal does not exist.
As a teenager I listened to Berio, Stravinsky, the Dead Kennedys, Jesus and Mary Chain and Wagner.
LBFH: When you studied harp theory, there was also an aspect of performance that was included?
MT: Theory was tough. At my first theory class at Peabody the “theory” was disconnected from actual music. My first harp teachers never used the language of music during lessons. I make sure my students don’t have to go through what I did! For example I ask my students to start at the cadence, what is the melody doing here, what key are we in?
Also I had no ear training before college (I had no idea what a 7th chord was and couldn’t identify basic intervals)…..so hitting college was rough. Also I am partial deaf which adds a little kick to figuring out stuff. When I teach I make sure that my kids can go to any key and play the minor chords, major chords and know their intervals. And I make them play trad Irish stuff by ear. This helps them internally learn pieces.
LBFH: Describe making your first CD and what were some of your earlier attempts to become a professional musician/composer?
MT: The first cassette tape I did was with my band Vardo with Dawn McCarthy (Faun Fables), Josh Matthews (Blue Man Group) and Dave Kanenstein (RIP). We recorded at an art loft in 90’s Williamsburg straight to tape. We gigged 2-4 times a week so everything was really tight and went in and hit it. Dawn did vocals separately, but everything was live. No punching in and out, auto tune, or subbing lines. I let my life flow. The music business is a sexist, racist and environment engineered for the pleasure of rich people with rampant nepotism. I choose not to engage. I had to disconnect and forgive while not letting other artists and industry folks use me. Strong words-I am not bitter I just don’t care about it. There are expectations. I played with Ray Chew (American Idol Band Leader) who was one of the most wonderful people and a great song writer/composer. Also Avery Brooks is another who rises above everyone….working in Oedipus at the Acropolis in Greece was transforming. My classical training is the focus to do everything in 1 to 2 takes, free jazz is spontaneous combustion and the trad Irish is melody. Everything together is a bit of a tour de force!
LBFH: Outside of commissioned work, where do you draw your inspirations from?
MT: Irregular sounds from nature that form patterns, North Indian ragas, DRUMS, tambour from an effect…
LBFH: When you approach composing, do you visualize?
MT: I usually have feel that I need to process into sound or I wake up from a dream and know what the notes are. This is not a reliable composition method.
LBFH:Do you put regular hours into working on music and related projects?
MT: When I am composing I have my best ideas at about 10pm -1am. Then I work them out the next day.
LBFH: Can you give us a descriptive tour of your studio/work space?
MT: I live in a Greenpoint walk-through with 14 harps. DAMN! It is a forest of harps here. I have stacks of pedals, Indian drum machines, stools, tube amps, tubes, way too many strings and a parrot. I have no kitchen table. I have 3 plates and 2 forks. I have misplaced a fork somewhere. I don’t really feel like a grown up in my space. But being a grown up is dull.
LBFH: Is “downtime” an important element for your creativity?
MT: I don’t really have downtime. I am not happy or pleasant unless I am working on something.
LBFH: You have many fine examples on YouTube Can you talk about some of the challenges in bringing your music to the stage?
MT: Most of the pieces on the tube of you are written for the stage. I collaborated with the singer/filmmaker Adam Dugas and we did some drop dead gorgeous work with Ann Magnuson, LifeBall in Vienna , fashion shows and a series called Chaos and Candy (that was basically Adam’s, but I wrote a bunch of instrumentals like Nymphs, Grimoire, and arranged the Stravinsky Rite of Spring for rock band). Geez, I have done so much for performance art in NYC that it is hard to list it all. Good Fun! Also shows like Night of a Thousand Stevies from Jackie 60 have amazing energy. The first time Adam and I played we did Landslide and I glowed inside for about a month. I was in the Citizen Band (to hard to explain here is the linkhttp://thecitizensband.net). The opening music is one of my pieces. I was a member of the backing band. OK, long story short most of the videos are music that I wrote for a particular show or event.
LBFH: You aggressively promote yourself, can you talk a little about this process and what motivates you to grow as an artist?
MT: That is funny! I am always looking to play, to teach and to create. It isn’t really promotion. The regular music industry and PR and go to hell for all I am concerned. I try to say yes more than no and try to bring the harp into people’s lives. Also I look around and see what is around me. Right now there is a world class belly dancer Mimi Fontane at the YMCA 2 blocks from me. So I am taking belly dance and learning more about rhythm from a dancer’s point of view.
LBFH: When you are performing for an audience, what will you do to engage the audience?
MT: When I play composed music I try to do a mix of tunes people know, tunes that are on the fringe (like the Black Page by Zappa or Love Supreme by Coltrane), original music and at least something that I think will really test the audience. Usually older audiences are more mentally limber and will let you explore more than a room full of 20 year olds. And the older audience will buy or bring you cookies J
LBFH:I have seen you take bold risks with your performances, i.e.: banging out a version of A love supreme on the harp and percussionJ. Do you consider your style cross over, or do you primarily see yourself as a traditionalist?
MT: I would say I am a traditionalist because I have taken the time to sit on a bench and play the big tough classical pieces (I have placed 2nd and 3rd in competitions). I am very aware of my heritage as a harpist. Everything I do comes from the musicians before me-and what an amazing group harpists are. As they say, there is nothing new under the sun. I am not something new or crossing over. Jazz harp was a major force in 1950’s NYC and there are a huge slew of over the top fantastic vinyl LPs out there to prove it.
LBFH: Your latest video preview “Electric Harp Booty Call” is excellent and it seems to be a major departure from your other releases. Can you tell us a little about the inspiration for this, and is the new album in this avant-garde vein?
MT: For a long time I have been trying to do booty shaking harp lines. I want to make people dance! Booty Call is the first piece that I think is successful. The full version has the rhythmic force of Michael Evans. The name of the record is “Electric Silver Heartbreak” and it is a collection of work written after a very painful break up. The condensed version is after being with someone for 5 years I said the fatal words “I love you”, and contact stopped. Cold. No fighting, break up email or text. The realization that I just was a distraction and not important was intensely painfully to the brink of nonfunctional.. So I started playing silver strung harp. Some melodies gravitated to electric.
So half of the pieces are played a replica Irish harp from 900 and then the other half are on a 2002 CAMAC electro harp. It is record by Lary Seven of Plasticville Records and was done straight to analog tape. No cuts, no added lines and every song only had 2 takes. Fast and dirty J.
LBFH: You are very involved in the music scene in NY and with teaching. What are some of the more satisfying aspects of teaching music for you?
MT: I love it when someone who is 64 and has always wanted to play harp gets 2-4 tunes under their belt and realize “hey, I am doing it!” Watching kids get their first 2 handed song going is another amazing moment. It never gets old.
LBFH: If you were to give advice to someone looking to enter into the music industry, what things would you say to them?
MT: Don’t. Disengage from the industry and work on yourself as an artist. Always try to learn more about music, step outside of your comfort zone, learn skills from other cultures and live a beautiful life.
LBFH:What is next for you?
MT: Electric Silver Heartbreak is going to be released in early September-it is my best work yet and is really exciting. It will be a LP and a download-I don’t think I am doing CD’s.
Important links for Mia Theodoratus
Soft Focus -featuring Mia on Sahko records
Mia Theodoratus official web
Celtic Songs Irish Harp – Album site
“7 inch of my arrangement of Apache backed by Miserlou (hey I am Greek!) is available through me at firstname.lastname@example.org
After the electronic record comes out I am going to finish my arrangements for acoustic harp. The only one that isn’t by me is the Black Page by Frank Zappa arranged by Brian McKnight.
I have a mailing list on my website www.miatheodoratus.com “
About the interviewer:
Thomas Mangano is a composer and a performer living on Long Island, NY. He is the owner of a production services company that provides music, soundscapes and effects to professionals in film and media industries. He is also the founding member of the Boutcher/Mangano Jazz Trio and currently serves as the Music Director for the Custer Observatory.
To learn more about Thomas, Please visit hi website: Thomasmangano.com