Elisa Thorn — Harpist
I meet Elisa Thorn at Prado Cafe on Fraser Street’s rapidly developing 25th Avenue corridor. When I arrive, I spot her by the window. She looks deadly serious. How Elisa looks like on the outside, however, is not usually how Elisa is on the inside.
“How are you?” I ask, expecting an answer laced with stress and worry.
She smiles and her eyes become bright. “So awesome.”
I am becoming accustomed to being surprised by the contents of Elisa.
Our introduction to one another came at the Western Front in the 2016 Vancouver Pro Musica Sonic Boom Festival, where she and her trio closed an evening of performances with She Was Always Late, a piece from her Painting Project which features music inspired by her father’s abstract works. Nothing in that beautiful performance fit easily into boxes of any kind.
Just like Elisa.
Our conversation starts out sensibly enough, diving into Vancouver’s performance spaces, audiences, and arts funding, but it somehow devolves into abstract goofiness — as conversations with Elisa often do — and we lay plans for founding a colony of anarchist jet ski artists on Gambier Island, where we will run regular raids on the Strata complexes cropping up all over the island. But we don’t linger here long. Her passion for her work gradually outweighs fantasy and we shelve our nonsense plans for later.
“It would just be really exiting to play for new people,” she says, “and Vancouver’s music scene has real issues connecting performers with audiences. It stands out, too, because you can compare Vancouver’s music scene with Vancouver’s dance scene, which is really strong. If you look at Ballet BC, for example, they’re killing it all the time. They have packed houses, their shows cover a huge range of material, and their ticket prices are accessible. They really have the marketing figured out so they reach the people who want to come see them. There’s something to be learned there.”
“Yes, but also format. They usually have multiple intermissions and that gets people engaging with each other about what they’re seeing. It’s important to structure performances with the audience in mind. It’s so easy to ask simple questions like, ‘If the venue entrance isn’t super obvious, have we made sure people can find it?’ or ‘If there are no chairs, will people realize they’re free to sit wherever they want?’ or ‘Have we given them an opportunity to talk to each other? A break in the content?’ They’re simple considerations and they often get overlooked because we’re all so used to playing for other musicians who know the format, know the etiquette, know the venues. Etiquette barriers for audience members are a real thing and they can be intimidating, especially in less conventional venues. They can keep people away. I think as performers, we can be more considerate of that. Let people know what kind of environment they’re entering into and try to structure the event so it gives them the best possible experience.”
We delve deeper into the city’s less conventional venues and the discussion turns to spaces, a topic that is second only to that of affordability when the subject is Vancouver. Even though we work together and our professional circles overlap, our lists of favored venues contain several different names. The Gold Saucer, located in the eclectic and historic Dominion building, the Toast Collective, and Red Gate Arts Society are all new to me, but others are familiar. “There are a few places in town that are really doing it right,” she says. “Guilt & Co. have music every night and they pay their musicians. To be able to do that, you need to really have something figured out. There’s also Frankie’s for Jazz. They work with the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society to get local and international performers in. I’ve had some really exciting conversations with some of the people who run these spaces. People in positions to make changes. I think we can make Vancouver a better place to be a performer, but it’s going to take work.”
I think this, too, and come away from our meeting inspired to find out more about what organizations like Ballet BC and venues like Guilt & Co. are doing to create a vibrant, healthy vehicle for both performers and audiences. This enthusiasm snags several hours later, however, when Elisa sends me a link to a Facebook post from the Red Gate Arts Society, announcing it’s being forced to close due to development.
“It’s like you can’t have roots here,” she says later. “This city just doesn’t treat its spaces with care.” She slaps a hand on the table in mock seriousness. “Maybe where the future is, Zoë, is to bring back small towns. We need to get a bunch of us together and move out to some small town and make it our own.” And just like that, she leaps out of another box and I realize we’re back on our jet skis, closing in on Gambier Island.
On Friday, April 6th, Elisa Thorn and her frequent collaborator, Dayna Szyndrowski, are hosting Wild With Blueness at the Aberthau Mansion as a part of their Vancouver Parks Board Fieldhouse residency. The evening features music and dance duets performed by musicians Peggy Lee, Marin Patenaude, Emma Postl, Róisín Adams, and Elisa Thorn and dancers Vanessa Goodman, Renee Sigouin, Andrea Williams, Kylie Miller, and Dayna Szyndrowski. Get tickets here.
For more information on Elisa’s many projects, visit her website.