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Blog: A culture night trip to bring dangerous harping to Brussels

Tuesday 22nd September 2015 at 3pm

Ursula Burns performing at the Culture Night Belfast celebrations in the Northern Ireland Executive Office Brussels. Image: Ursula Burns performing at the Culture Night Belfast celebrations in the Northern Ireland Executive Office Brussels.

Harpist Ursula Burns and performance poet Alice McCullough were invited to perform at the Culture Night Belfast celebrations in the Northern Ireland Executive Office in Brussels as part of the Brussels Platform. Here Ursula shares her thoughts on the experience.

"This is the First time I been asked to write a blog...after a dyslexic moment of panic I give gratitude for the AI that auto corrects my mistakes.

I have been touring for 20 years with the harp but I always wake up the day I fly with a feeling of severe nerves in my tummy.

The very fragile harp is traveling in an oversized harp box that looks like a coffin and turns every head in the airport. People ask me what is in the box? I say my dead husband. I point to the millions of posters I have put all over the flight case. I put the pictures on so the baggage handlers can see how beautiful and fragile the harp is.

Traveling with the harp is labour intensive, stressful and expensive. Then there is the tuning...heat, cold, movement...everything effects it. 

However it’s worth it for the look on most people’s faces when they see the tiny woman stride with the massive black coffin like box on wheels. Every time I put my hands on the strings at the start of a show, I know that I will never surrender to a travel harp - Art cannot compromise!
I need a lot of notes!

I meet Alice at the air coach in Glengall Street.  Travelling with Alice reminds me of myself, we seem to share the same disgust at the invasion of the machines - eye scanners etc. We both get ungrounded when we travel, sensitive to atmosphere and crowds. It’s comforting to see someone else have similar struggles with basic reality world stuff and we both laugh. We got the harp safely and checked into Thon hotel and headed out into the night to explore and find some dinner.

Next day, after sound check, Corinne and Andrew treat us to lunch at the top of the instrument museum.  I gasp as we walk in the door. I don’t think I noticed any instruments but I could not believe how beautiful the building was! It had an old fashioned glass and metal lift that reflected film noir shadows on the walls. There was also the smell of frankincense, resin or wood finish and the creak of the wood on the floor as we climbed the staircase to the breath taking views and delicious lunch and the first sample of famous Belgium beer of the trip.

Walking through the surreal paintings at the Magritte Museum with Alice was one of the highlights of the trip. She knows everything about art and helps me deepen my understanding of how I feel.

We are short of time as we are in-between sound check and show but we whisk around Alice imparts nuggets of gold – it’s about dreams - its surrealist - the titles are obscure - the clouds are beyond the canvas - he broke the mould - some people were outraged! I love it, I am enchanted.

Alice is good with the map and I am good at retracing my steps. I have an internal sat nav in my brain, I activate it in moments of need to be on time and we arrive to the gig in time to tune, get nervous, warm up and shake the cultural buildings to its roots.

Corinne the lovely lady who booked us is holding on the door with nervous exhaustion that her boss liked it. It was not what they were used to in the cultural buildings. I say that it is healthy to take risks, who wants middle of the road? You need to break the boundaries, address the stereo type, do something new, go outside the box, be honest. All my life has been about breaking the stereo type with the harp and at points I had to enter into the stereo type to address this.

The audience are buzzing they all want to talk to us and take photos and sign CDs. We have Irish stew and drinks and chat into the night no one had quite seen anything like it. Turns out the woman I was enjoying laughing the most, works for the Scottish government. When I told her about my annoyance of AI stealing jobs she said in all fairness the digital revolution had created millions of jobs - there was a shift in the work force. I hadn’t thought of that! Maybe it’s time for me to soften my attitude.

It was an honour to perform at Culture Night but Corinne will never know that the biggest risk she took was not booking us - but leaving us to travel from Belfast to get to the venue on time without sending a responsible adult to keep us on track.  We crammed in as much as we could but we only scratched the surface.

I can’t sleep now as I am still on a high. Sitting on stage seeing people react is the best feeling in the world! The audience were superb and went with us all the way. What a great gig! I will eventually fall asleep to wake at 7 to start lugging that harp box back the other way - it is so worth it - I LOVE MY JOB!"

Ursula Burns