Studio Visit: Shirley Meyer Blankenship
Studio visit is a Q&A with a local artist. Here, Melissa Merli visits with Shirley Meyer Blankenship of Champaign, a musician, composer and actress.
Q: I read that you were the first woman to receive a doctorate of musical arts degree in music composition from the University of Illinois. When did that happen?
A: In 1975. I didn't think anything about it at the time. I was just going to school and wasn't necessarily trying to be a pioneer.
It's one of the reasons, though, I'm focusing on composition today because I want to encourage women to really go after that and pursue it.
Q: Tell me about your Harp Legacy Project.
A: Over the years, I've played many harp scores and have come to realize many composers don't have a good grasp of this instrument. The tendency of many composers is to write for harp as if it's a piano. The harp is a very unique instrument. It can do many of the things other instruments can't do.
Many composers desperately need the assistance of a harpist. The mission of my Harp Legacy Project is to work with composers in the creation of accessible, idiomatic and viable notations for the harp, and these could be new notations. I have been working with (local composer) Mark Enslin on new notations.
Another cool thing about my legacy is that the Sousa Archives and Center for American Music (at the UI) are archiving my life's work. I'm working with an audio engineer, Paul Weston, to get all my recordings in good shape: I've been recording, mostly live, since 1953.
I'm also working with Michael Miller, a composer and an engraver, and he is wonderful. He takes my notations and puts them into printed form.
I also have been in contact with (harpist and producer) Victoria Jordanova of ArpaNova (a Los Angeles-based independent record label). They want to release a recording of everything I've ever written for the harp, and they want to publish all my scores for anything I write in the future for the harp and any pieces I write for instruments including the harp. She heard a recording of me playing "Metaphysical Waltz."
Q: Is that your signature composition?
A: I hate to put a label on it, but it is, in a sense, because it was innovative for the harp. One of my influences was (the late) Herbert Bruin's "Non-Sequitur VI," which had a computer-generated harp score. I'm the only person in the world so far who's played "Non-Sequitur VI."
Q: How long have you played the harp?
A: Sixty years. I started on the piano when I was 4. I was a virtuoso player on harp, piano and violin by the time I was 18.
Q: What's your primary instrument?
A: I'm primarily an artist musician, so that each of those things are manifestations of that. I've played the harp a lot but it's been refreshing to play the piano, and that's a lot of what I've been doing recently.
Over the last 10 years, I've also worked with Robert Martin to record more than 100 of his piano pieces that are part of his "Mount Fuji" collection. I also recorded in 2008 in the Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts his piece "The Owl and the Pussycat" for harp and flute. It's on the album "Metamorphosis."
I no longer play with ensembles and orchestras, but to this day, I love to practice. In the last two weeks, I've learned 15 piano pieces — they're not long ones, though.
Q: As a harpist, you've played with every orchestra in the area. What other things have you done, musically?
A: As a violinist, I have performed with the Danville, Quincy, Kankakee and Springfield symphonies, and as a harpist, with the Decatur Symphony. I worked at the Sunshine Dinner Theatre for many years as an accompanist, music director and actress.
I have performed for the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company, the Artists' Repertory Theatre Company, Little Theatre on The Square in Sullivan, the Parkland Theatre and the UI theater, with (the late) Tom Schleis.
Q: How did your Indiegogo campaign go for raising money for your Harp Legacy Project?
A: I didn't make my goal, but after the (online) campaign ended, I pretty much came awfully close to making my $7,500 goal. I went to my mailbox and found a check for $4,000 from a woman I met only twice. She had heard me play "Metaphysical Waltz."
Editor's note: For more, visit http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/legacy—20.