HotAIR - COMING EVENTS -- Lab Coats, Goggles, and a Strapless Evening Dress


Lab Coats, Goggles, and a Strapless Evening Dress -- Feb 10

A world premiere musical event

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, AIR staff

The book containing the essay that inspired the orchestral piece

1. For a review of the concert see the February 12, 2001 Springfield (Massachusetts) Union-News.
2. For the story behind the music see below.

The world is about to see the premiere of the full orchestral version of "Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Dress." The performance is looking for a bold professor, scientist, or lab to generously (or surreptitiously) loan some lab coats and safety goggles for a very special evening.

She Has a Strapless Evening Dress

Deborah Henson-Conant, the renowned jazz harpist, composer, singer, and writer, has based this work on Charles Siem's classic 1956 essay "Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Dress." This is an expanded version of the scientifico-musical delight that Henson-Conant has been composing and performing for the past several years in jazz clubs and with smaller orchestras. This, this, will be the full blown, full blast REAL THING.

Henson-Conant, wearing a strapless evening dress, will perform the work with the 70-piece Springfield Symphony, all of whose members will be clad in lab coats. Clad in lab coats, that is, if some kind person or entity will loan them 70 lab coats for the evening.

Will You Loan 70 Lab Coats and Safety Goggles for One Evening?

If you, your school, your lab, or your couturier are able and willing to loan 70 lab coats and 70 pair of safety goggles for the evening, please get in touch -- RIGHT AWAY -- with Deborah Henson Conant. You can reach her c/o the Annals of Improbable Research, by telephone at 617-491-4437 or email at

Where and When

Here are details of the performance.

WHEN: Sat, Feb. 10, 2001 - - 8:00PM

WHERE: Springfield Symphony - Springfield, Massachusetts

TICKETS: / Prices: $9 - $39



Most Highly Recommended

The editors of the Annals of Improbable Research have attended performances of early versions of this work. We give it our highest and most enthusiastic recommendation.

And here is the story behind the music...


Anyone who's seen one of my concerts has probably heard me perform "The Danger Zone" (you know, the one where I damp the harp with my leg in the middle of the piece?) but many people don't realize "The Danger Zone" is the middle movement of a larger suite called "Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown."

Like most suites, each movement of "Stress Analysis" is based on a different dance step, and there are five movements all-together, with interludes between them. The first movement is a 5/4 waltz ("to get this rhythm, imagine the Sugarplum Fairy meets Dave Brubeck on the dance floor"), the second movement is a tango, the third a delicate samba, the fourth an upbeat, brassy blues, and the last, a swift, off-balanced triple-waltz.

IT ALL STARTED ten years ago when Marc Abrahams, editor of the "Annals of Improbable Research" visited my kitchen for a photo shoot of the "Museum of Burnt Food" for the cover of his magazine. Marc immediately noticed my interest in science and soon afterwards sent me a manuscript of "Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown," written in 1956 by a scientist named Charles E. Siem. "I think you should put this to music," said the accompanying note.

I agreed. I wrote an improvisatory version of the piece and premiered it with the "Really Eclectic String Quartet," at a jazz club in the early 90's. A few years later it was choreographed and performed in Boston, but musically it still remained an improvisation for harp and strings, leading a cult life of jazz club performances until 1995 when the Boston Pops asked me to arrange the fourth movement, "Danger Zone" for a U.S. tour. That movement was so much fun that I kept hoping to complete orchestration of the rest of the piece, but couldn't find an orchestra brave enough to program the whole thing -- until the Springfield Symphony called last year.

LATE NIGHTS: So for the past two months I've basically been locked in my studio night and day finishing the orchestration on the other four movements so that now, for the first time, the complete Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown is playable by full symphony orchestra. Cowabunga!
One of the most challenging parts of writing this piece was figuring out how to notate quasi-musical events that accompany the text (how do you notate the sound of "bungy jumping" for solo violin? Is the famous "carbonated bubble solo" notated with trills or not? Should I use the term "Obesely" to describe how the Tuba and Trombone should play their duet? How else could I get the exact sense of heaviness that is called for at the moment?)

PHILOSOPHIZING: Of course, writing the piece means thinking about the philosophical concepts behind it and talking about them ad infinitum with anyone who will listen. I myself, have encountered a great deal of stress wearing a Strapless Evening gown, but each person has their own impression of their stresses. My boyfriend wanted to know whether strapless evening gowns were ever intended as articles of clothing or whether they were invented to impress people as magic tricks: "slight of dress," perhaps?

Musically, the piece is a delicate balance between comedy, science and art (or is it a collision of the three?) which I find sometimes moving, sometimes thrilling and sometimes just plain fun to play. There's humor in both the music and in the text, but what starts out tongue-in-cheek ends up for me as a sense of wonder and appreciation.

For the first movement "Waltz," I wanted to set the scene. But is the scene a scientific laboratory or a Viennese Ballroom? I decided it's both: so I started with a prickly pizzicato underscoring which erupts into a voluptuous, romantic waltz.

The second movement, a tango, illustrates the forces which hold the world up ("Tension" -- the force by which things hang, and "Compression" the force upon which things sit).

That's followed by "Gossamer," a samba about the ephemeral quality of the fabric of life.
"Danger Zone" is fourth with a fabulous trombone solo and of course the famous "harp string as zipper" episode.

And finally, the eternal question, "How DO they stay up?" is answered by the last movement, named "Curves."

The piece will be premiered two days from now. Right now I'm just practicing my own part, meeting with the conductor and having nightmares about notes I might have left out of the written scores. But in two days, this maelstrom of musical ideas will dance like mad in the air at Springfield's Symphony hall -- on my cue to conductor Steven Lipsitt: "Professor -- let the experiment begin!"

YOU CAN PREVIEW THE PIECE in the Boston area (or on the web at <>)if you listen to Public RadioWBUR's "Here & Now" on Friday, February 9th between 12:15 and 12:45 when Deborah's interview with host Bruce Gellerman is scheduled to be aired.

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