An interview conducted by fellow harpist Meghan Collins for Bay Area harp magazine Harpbeat:
PROFILE OF DIANA ROWAN
by Meghan Collins
“Everything aligned,” says Diana Rowan, speaking of the pivotal concert where she first heard historical harp and saw some of the people who would be important in her music life later on. A friend had persuaded her to go to a performance of Kitka and the Ensemble Alcatraz. It was a meditative concert, with no applause. The musicians sat in the center of a circle, with the audience surrounding them. The whole experience was a revelation for classically trained Diana. The Balkan music of Kitka, then directed by Bon Singer, brought nostalgia for Diana’s early youth, living on Cyprus. Ensemble Alcatraz, with Shira Kammen on vielle, Peter Maund as percussionist, and Cheryl Ann Fulton playing her Bunker harp, captured Diana completely.
A winding road led to Diana’s being in Berkeley for this concert. The oldest of five children, she was born in Ireland to parents who were from Belfast, but who were in Dublin at the time, among the first Catholic students to be admitted to the traditionally Protestant Trinity College (the Harvard or Oxford of Ireland). Diana’s father became a diplomat for the Irish Republic, and a life of travel began for the family. From Washington DC to Brussels, back to Ireland, then to the Greek island of Cyprus. Diana’s father had actually been posted to Beirut, but it was too dangerous for the family, so they made a base on Cyprus. When her father was sent to Baghdad, Diana stayed on Cyprus to go to high school. She lived with a Greek family from a small village, where she was able to learn modern Greek and was also immersed in the music of the region.
It was when she happened to see a film of the Bay area in the time of the flower children, with their tie-dyed T-shirts and carnival spirit, that she announced her determination to go to UC Berkeley, not even knowing whether it was a good school. Her decision brought dismay to family and friends, who had expected her to have university training in Europe. Her father, after his two long “hardship posts” was able to arrange a transfer to San Francisco, which he told her he chose because of the restaurants, not because he wanted to fulfill his eldest daughter’s wish to go there. Right. So the family moved to the US.
Diana had began to study the piano at the age of eight, and grew up in the striving mode of competitions and public recitals. By the time she finished high school, that life of dog eat dog competitiveness, so alien to her spirit, had given her a severe case of performance anxiety. So much so that when she got to Berkeley, she majored in women’s studies instead of music, and did not touch a piano during her undergraduate years. She missed it so much, though, that hearing piano music even in an elevator, made her weep.
After graduation, in a conversation with her mother, she confessed how much she longed to return to music study, but that she knew she was too old now, and had missed the boat. Her mother observed that hope was not over at the age of 21, and persuaded her to follow her heart’s desire. Diana decided that she would, but on her own terms. She already had a teaching certificate, and began to take pupils. She also began to study piano with Amelie Mel de Fontenay, a kind, nurturing teacher who was just what she needed in her vulnerable state.
Mme.de Fontenay encouraged Diana to go back to school for her master’s degree. Holy Names College was offering a master’s degree in piano performance, and Diana decided to go for that. Her teacher warned her there would be one very tough examiner on the entrance panel. After her audition, this man asked the others on the panel to leave the room. Diana quailed, expecting a critical blast, but what he told her was that he wanted her to be his student. This was the noted Bay area concert pianist Roy Bogas, who did become her teacher and mentor over the coming years.
After the fateful Kitka concert, a piano student of Diana’s lent her a lap harp, on which she was able to play the Balkan and Middle Eastern music she loved that did not suit the piano. She began to study harp with Maureen Brennan, who opened for her the concept of enjoyment and flexibility in playing. “It was so different from my classical training that at first I could hardly take in what Maureen offered.” When Maureen took a hiatus from teaching, Diana studied with Cheryl Ann Fulton during the time Cheryl was working with John Westling to develop the Cithara Nova harps, one of which Diana is thankful to own.
As she worked to finish her master’s degree, Diana moved more strongly back into piano, acquiring 50 students. After graduation, she was able to take up the harp again, focusing on Sephardic and Balkan music. Then, one summer at Lark Camp, she met Bon Singer,the former director of Kitka, who now heads a new group called Ya Elah. The two women were standing in line for the bathroom and Diana introduced herself to Bon. “We are neighbors in Berkeley, and I want to tell you that I love what you do.” The two are now dear friends and colleagues.
In another alignment, Diana began to play with Ya Elah, and feels that Bon’s spiritual approach inspired her to go deeper with her own music, allowing her to reconcile darker and more frightening things, as well as to tap into an expression of soul.
Then, two years ago, she was at an American Harp Society conference with Ken Durling, a classical and jazz composer and musician on saxophone and piano, and one of Diana’s lifetime close friends. He had been telling her about a former girlfriend, Alice Giles, a harpist from Australia who was to play at the concert. “She was what I call a ‘mainliner’,’” says Diana. ”The energy just goes straight through her. When I heard her, I burst into tears because I knew she was the one I have been waiting for, and she has been my teacher ever since. She is like Roy Bogas, generous, musical and intellectual. No drama—she just wants to share.”
How can that work, you may wonder, to have a teacher in Australia? When Alice was on the east coast for two weeks, Diana flew east and took daily lessons, which she recorded to work with at home. She has been to Australia once, and will return there this September. Besides another intensive round of lessons, Alice wants the lever harp to be represented at the Australian harp festival, so Diana will perform in that.
Meanwhile, Ken Durling was tragically killed in an automobile accident, which has been horrific for Diana. “But when he died, I realized I don’t have time for the things that were holding me back. He lived so intuitively, and I feel the lack of his guidance. I also have come to appreciate the people around me more. I’ve learned that it is very important who you surround yourself with.”
With her manifold interests and activities, Diana has to be disciplined about her agenda. Besides life with friends and family, practice is her first priority. She says she doesn’t really cook any more—she’s too focused on music. She plays frequently for weddings and funerals, and finds it can be quite moving to be part of the intimate times of people’s lives. She has cut back teaching (mostly piano) to one day a week. She is always studying, and next on her list is Scottish pipe ornaments, kora techniques, and Latin American harp techniques.
Although much of her reading has to do with harp study, she also makes time for other reading, citing Karen Armstrong, Thich Nat Hanh and Sun magazine as favorites, and she is a big fan of the TV series “Frasier”.
She has been working with Deepak Ram, master of the bansuri (the Indian bamboo flute), who introduced her to Hindustani music. She learned the raga form from him. They made an East coast concert tour together last spring, and will play as a duo at this year’s Festival of Harps.
When asked how she would characterize her music, Diana replied that world music with a spiritual aspect is what draws her most. For example, a quotation from St. Catherine of Siena: “Live without thought of dying”, has long been a deep inspiration. She has written a song with that title for her upcoming album, The Bright Knowledge. It is sung by Bon Singer and Lily Storm. Diana has been working with Lily, another Kitka alumna, on the “Lullaby roject”. They have given concerts together and are in the process of recording the project, with voice, harmonium and harp. Also featured on The Bright Knowledge CD is percussionist Peter Maund, who was playing at the original Kitka/Ensemble Alcatraz concert that was such a milestone.
No one could see Diana without noticing her striking pre-Raphaelite beauty and style of dress. She says that her clothes reflect her interest in mixing the past and the future. In music, she likes to mingle ancient melodies with new techniques. For instance, she is at present interested in the the kora (an African harp) and also the mbira, the African thumb piano, because they both use contrapuntal techniques that she studied in her classical piano training. For Diana, it’s all about taking techniques from the past and putting the music into a new context. Balkan, Middle Eastern music, and Debussy are also strong influences. But once again, she emphasized the spiritual aspect of music, “and all the people surrounding that. Relations with people are so important to me. Not necessarily musicians, but people with a spiritual approach to life. I seek them out because I know I need to learn from people who are here to teach.”
Upcoming projects are a November concert with Diana Stork’s group Triskela, which will also include duets with Diana Stork, and solo playing. She plays regularly with a group called San Francisco Renaissance Voices, who will be performing several Bay area concerts in August, performing Hildegard von Bingen’s work “Ordo Virtutum”, which has been called the first opera.
For details of these performances, the release of The Bright Knowledge CD, and announcements of the music and storytelling salon which Diana holds at her home at various times, check her website, http://www.sirenharp.com