Join us in the studio with MacArthur “Genius” Fellow and Harvard Music Professor, flutist Claire Chase and her collaborator Lisa (Li) E. Harris. Professor Chase commissioned Li to create a musical composition that would be co-written and performed by Harvard freshman students in the fall of 2021 and 2022. The score entitled, A Black Woman Told Me, And I Believe Her: A Movement Still Moving, was performed this morning at the ArtLab. Claire and Li are working in experimental composition to challenge the conventional boundaries of music performance and art. In doing so, Li is also the founder and Creative Director of Studio Enertia, an arts, education, and production studio in Houston, Texas. Both women are dedicated to incorporating education and collaboration as an integral part of their artistic practices and advocacy work. Please join us with ArtLab director, Bree Edwards and co-host Harvard College sophomore Kristian Hardy in discovering these dynamic practices transforming traditional thought and theory of art and composition.
Link to Claire’s residency page on the ArtLab website: https://artlab.harvard.edu/Claire-Chase
Link to Lisa’s residency page on the ArtLab website: https://artlab.harvard.edu/lisa-e-harris
Link to Studio Enertia: https://studioenertia.tumblr.com/
Link to Kristian Hardy’s biography: https://artlab.harvard.edu/people/kristian-hardy
Works in Progress is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab, located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts people, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge. The show is hosted by Bree Edwards and Kristian Hardy, engineered by Kat Nakaji, edited by Jemma Byrne, and produced by the ArtLab at Harvard University with help from Thinkubator Media. Theme music by Kicktracks and Gvidon.
For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artists featured, visit artlab.harvard.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard.
Episode 3 Claire Chase and Li Harris
Bree EDWARDS: Welcome and thank you for joining me for Works in Progress, a podcast about artistic research, inspiration, and collaboration. My name is Bree Edwards, and I'm the Co-host and the Director of the ArtLab. In this podcast, we will speak with contemporary, visual, and performing artists who are grappling with pressing issues, and transforming ideas into action and art.
The ArtLab is helping to create the conditions for the Arts to flourish at Harvard, and Works in Progress brings those artists and their ideas to you. In this episode, we're joined by Harvard music professor, an internationally celebrated flutist, Claire Chase, and Lisa Li Harris, an independent and interdisciplinary artist, and creative soprano.
Claire and Li are working in experimental composition to challenge the conventional boundaries of music performance and art. Both are dedicated to incorporating education and collaboration as an integral part of their artistic practices and advocacy work. Claire's work as a soloist, collaborative artist, educator, and advocate for new and experimental work has not only generated hundreds of new works by a generation of composers, but it has also built and supported a community amongst new musicians and audiences internationally.
Claire was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2012, and Avery Fisher prize in 2017, and an honorary doctorate from Curtis Institute of Music and the Cleveland Institute of Music. Claire is a Harvard Professor of the Practice in the music department. We last worked together in 2019 at the ArtLab as Claire performed for the grand opening with her students.
Li's practice centers on understanding the complex interrelationships between land, body, spirit, and place. She uses a variety of genres and methods of working from the voice to new media as the basis for her work. Li is the Founder and Creative Director of Studio Studio Enertia, an arts, education, and production studio in Houston, Texas. Li is a research fellow at Tulane University's, Center for the Gulf Coast, and was recently named the inaugural fellow for the Center for Art and Social Engagement at the University of Houston.
Li is with us today at the ArtLab. She was commissioned by Professor Chase to create a composition written and performed with freshman students. The score entitled, A Black Woman Told Me, And I Believe Her: A Movement Still Moving, was performed this morning at the ArtLab. You're both so talented, it's impossible to keep the introduction short.
We'll include links to your bios in the show notes so listeners can read more about your incredible careers. It's really lovely to be in the studio with both of you today. Thank you for joining me.
CLAIRE CHASE: Thank you.
LI HARRIS: It's such a pleasure.
BREE EDWARDS: So we are at the ArtLab today because of a really special project that you both are responsible for. The piece is called, A Black Woman Told Me, And I Believe Her: A Movement Still Moving. Can you both talk a little bit about the process for making this work? I know it's a project-- a commissioning project that has spanned over one semester and involved different students at Harvard. I'd love to know how you entered into working together in this project, and what the process is for working with students to create a new work.
CLAIRE CHASE: Well, it actually spans two years because we began work on a previous iteration of this piece last year in the pandemic when we were all in the Zoom sphere. And let me just say what a joy it was today to not be in the Zoom sphere, to be in one of those physical space, to feel resonance and to just to set the stage for where we are right now. Just be in literally a blazing sun in the middle of November, which Li Harris, I believe, just brought in her suitcase from Houston for the occasion.
So this has been a process that has been going on for quite some time. And I asked Li last-- this was the summer of 2020, if she might consider writing something for and with the freshman class for this seminar that I was teaching. And she's an incredibly busy and in-demand artist, and I was just so honored and touched that she said an enthusiastic yes and came to a few classes.
We began a conversation with the students and did some exercises, some experimenting, some improvising, and then we asked the students to write Li a letter. And you want to take it from there?
LI HARRIS: Yeah, sure. Well, we asked the students to write me a letter. We had a few prompts in the letter last year. Really thinking about asking them what do they do to chill? And I talked to Claire a while about wanting to do something with the kids after-- with the kids-- with the students after talking to them just in this crazy time and being in the Zoom sphere like how can we optimize more relaxation? How can we think about practices of relaxation as well?
And so that's what they wrote me in the first letters-- what they do to chill. And wide array of things, anecdotal, personal, and but then there was a lot of common ground. So I thought, wow, a lot of you-- a lot of us, including myself, we do the same things and we have basic human needs, and experiences, and really human practices that we might think are super unique and at times feel unique to ourselves, but really we share in community.
So how can we verbalize this to expose a sameness within ourselves and in our group that actually will aid in our relaxation experience? And that's how we started.
CLAIRE CHASE: Yeah, and a mutuality--
LI HARRIS: The mutuality.
CLAIRE CHASE: --in this question, which I think caught some people off guard. It's not a question that a guest artist at a class at Harvard would ask a freshman class.
LI HARRIS: Exactly.
CLAIRE CHASE: Well, what do you do to chill?
LI HARRIS: Exactly. They were really like-- one of the things I noticed was it was tough to answer that just without fear, I think. There was an expectation that was assumed that might have-- then maybe I'm assuming was assumed of me or how I would respond to their answers, but these-- this freshman class they're high achievers, they're performers, they perform well.
And not even meaning artistic performance, but just in there just showing up for themselves and their academic careers. So I had to read through the meanings, read through the words and get a little bit to the feeling and the subtext to just expose or comb through more of what do you mean by that? And to get to the next layer of our conversation.
And when we brought it back to the classroom after I read through all their letters, they started to blossom a little bit more when they heard some of the words of their peers. Some students last year when they got the first draft of the score came back and said, actually, I want to revise. I want to say something else. And I was-- I'm totally open to that the entire time up until the end. These are your words, this is your voice, you are collaborative.
I mean, it's composed by me, but like Claire and I were talking about before, it's composed by all of us together, and eventually we'll have a whole list of all of the composers including all of these students-- wonderful students.
Bree EDWARDS: And it sounds like there's also a great degree of trust that they formed with each other, that they formed with you, that they felt amongst themselves a sense of responsibility. And for me, it was interesting to observe how you were teaching. It was hybrid in the sense that they came into the ArtLab for your class Claire, but Lisa was up on the screen via Zoom for many of the classes.
So less virtual than the previous year but you were still finding ways to create, and operate, and pivot, and change that process because of the pandemic. Yeah, and I--
CLAIRE CHASE: For better or for worse, we're all quite adept at that.
LI HARRIS: Exactly.
Bree EDWARDS: And I know you saw a change between the freshman class last year that was fully remote versus this class this year. And there's a lot of different energies right now versus last year or two.
LI HARRIS: Yes. I would say and even saying-- and this is just a quick reflection over from today's performance, which I'm still just in a dream remembering that, remembering how well they all performed. I would say that they're-- this year's freshman class, they're-- I notice a marked level of stability and chill from last year. And that could just be for all of us freshmen to grad school.
Everybody from 2020 to 2021 we're more stable, we're kinda a little bit more-- we don't know what's going on, but we're still-- we found our legs. So I saw today the students exponentially changing their performance from our rehearsal this morning to our run through, to our soundcheck into the performance. I saw them make leaps and bounds. So that's really something that's really fascinating to me. Time isn't always the same.
CLAIRE CHASE: Well, speaking to this idea of time which you so beautifully opened for us and also just reflecting on what you said bringing about trust, I think that the invitation you made, the question you asked to the class, what do you do to chill? Seems like a simple question.
Could be interpreted as a surface level question, could absolutely be considered a question that is not appropriate to ask a freshman class at Harvard or any class at Harvard. Well, how is the scholarship? How is this research? How is this performance? What is this doing to-- but the space that that opened up for these young people to consider their well-being, to consider one another's well-being, to consider the big questions we're asking in this class about what we are going to do, not what we're going to speculate about doing.
What are we going to actually do to transform this world so it is a place that we want to live and work in? That question opened up a space for them to consider their own and one another's well-being, the kinds of communities, the kinds of intersectional communities that they are building and imagining. And in that, they went deep.
They talked about their family histories, they went back generations, they talked about their wildest dreams for a better world. And they also discovered themselves as composers, and improvisers, and composers in collectivity, and makers and shapers of things rather than just interpreters and students of things. And you also-- I mean, talk of the generosity of that radical invitation. You invited them all to be co-creators with you in this process.
And that wasn't just lip service, you demonstrated that from the moment you walked in to that first Zoom room. We felt that this morning in the warm up exercises that you did. And so that trust that we felt so palpably in the performance was built over all of these thousands, tens of thousands of small interactions. And that really, I mean, we're just so indebted to you for bringing all of that.
LI HARRIS: I appreciate that. I'm just smiling and so emotional actually from-- I'm so proud of them. I feel this sense of pride too. And I saw-- we talked about how-- we witnessed the students being proud of each other, being proud of themselves and letting their voices ring out, finding their sounds in the space and finding their sound outside.
I was really moved to hear the increases in volume and then finding their resonances, and seeing them light up with joy or try something different like, oh, I didn't see-- you've never done that before. And that-- well, what we know is improvisers-- Claire, and what you're teaching them in your class and your experience as a master improviser is just being in the moment, but also I don't want to say seizing the moment because it's not about a kind of capturing, but really exploring the whole totality of the moment and enjoying it.
And I saw them doing that. It made the time wider, broader. We made time. We made space, which that's something that we've collectively been talking about. And as we're all universally trying to raise our vibration and trying to increase our emotional intelligence so that we can live on this planet together everybody in harmony, we talk a lot about making space for this and making space for that, but we're making space but we're always under a deadline or a timeline, and that is a balance that logically or theoretically doesn't seem to really make sense.
How can we make sense out of making one and and detracting from another? But in this way, I saw them actually making time for themselves and for their own happiness.
BREE EDWARDS: That's beautiful. Just picking up on those themes of mutual aid, and solidarity, and chill maybe too, I wanted to ask how the pandemic is shaping how you're working, the way you're responding either during the pandemic or after. Claire, I know that you're a co-founder of The New Music Foundation, a solidarity group that was providing funding to freelance musicians during the pandemic when musicians couldn't be touring and working.
And, Li, I know that you took a stance in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and I just-- I'm just curious about your own personal practices and how in the past year, you've responded and also bonded with your fellow musicians.
LI HARRIS: Definitely, I mean, 2020 we'll go back there to the beginning of our new beginning. For me, I did-- I took a stance on particularly when it comes to performing live online, which I knew we had to make a shift. And we were making a shift. We've all made the shift and we've learned-- we've explored the virtual reality and we're adapting.
But there was such an urgency that was being asked, not just of myself, or other Black artists, or white artists, or all artist, but-- or our students, and teachers, and health care professionals, and parents, and people that don't have-- that are not practice with just regular iPhone devices or anything. There was a huge urgency that really upped the ante for everyone to change immediately.
And that I thought was critically dangerous. I felt that it was unjust in itself. And I also felt in that a resistance. I didn't want to do it. And I wanted to just say that's a way, but here's another way. I don't want to perform online while there's death performance of Black people online all the time. I'm watching videos of Black people being killed online and it's traumatizing not just to me, but to the entire world.
People are stunned in their tracks, what are we watching? But also manipulated to watch. And then in the next second of free space, or ad space, or whatever kind of virtual space, there's an opportunity to take up space to put something in there. And I know that there's-- we're very innocent species and we are actually collectively, I think, very naive still.
I think there's that intrinsic need to want to balance out like, oh, OK, well, this is-- we lost something, so let's give back. We lost them-- and that is also like an adrenal response. That's a trauma response over and over again. So myself I had already gone through complete neurological fatigue and personal health challenges at the beginning of the pandemic. I was already in the space of oh my gosh, that is how you brake yourself. That's how you brake yourself, so let's not do that. Let's just say no and wait.
And then there's tons of opportunities after when I felt comfortable, when I felt like it was a safe space to perform online. And that was-- yeah, it was just that urgency that I felt we needed to pump the brakes on.
CLAIRE CHASE: That's so beautiful to hear you describe this, Li. And as I'm listening to you, I'm thinking about something that Viktor Frankl said, that between the stimulus and the response is a space, and in that space lies your freedom. And as artists, that's a very serious charge--
LI HARRIS: Absolutely.
CLAIRE CHASE: --question and call to a action that is not performative, that is not reactive, that's truly responsive. And I really appreciate also the resistance-- your resistance to say it was this time or this time. There's such a pressure, I think, on artists to say, well, this was the time of the great slowdown, or this was the time of great reflection, or this was a time of great action.
Time doesn't work that way and trauma doesn't work that way, and we have all been moving at many, many different speeds simultaneously. And your statement-- your incredibly powerful statement that you made very early in the pandemic-- I want to say it was May of 2020-- we looked at that in the classes that I was teaching and we read it again in the freshman seminar last fall, and it was tremendously powerful.
We stopped-- I think anybody who read that in their tracks. And so I just I thank you for your courage in that. And as you were doing that, I think it's also important to say that you were making a huge amount of work.
LI HARRIS: Right.
CLAIRE CHASE: I mean, you were saying, no, I'm not going to put my Black life online.
LI HARRIS: Right.
CLAIRE CHASE: But the work that you were making, our project was just one of how many things that you were creating and generating during that time. I just-- I have deep respect for that too.
LI HARRIS: Thank you.
CLAIRE CHASE: One of the questions that the freshman class is going to be wrestling with over these next few weeks off of the experience-- the marvel experience they had with you today is this question of what their imagined musical communities would look like and sound like.
LI HARRIS: It's a great question.
CLAIRE CHASE: And Georgina Born, the musicologist, has this wonderful, wonderful question about music animating and conjuring up imagined communities that has been an ancient function of music. So what does that mean to the freshman class at Harvard in the fall of 2021? What will animate and conjure up imagined communities? What musics? What musical formations? What collaborations? What questions?
LI HARRIS: What instruments? What audience collaboration? Just that. One of the students this-- in the performance this morning in her letter wrote and said, wow, I learned so much about my classmates in today's Zoom than I knew about them because we just really haven't talked that much about each other. And another student-- and with respect to their anonymity-- also said, sometimes I'm in my academic classes-- outside of your class, Claire-- I'm in my academic classes and I'm surrounded by this-- the world's top valedictorians.
I'm surrounded by the world class presidents, and valedictorians, and the highest achievers, and I'm thinking why-- what am I doing here? And so that, oh my gosh, it just spoke to me so much. I'm like, but you're here. We're all here. You're here because you're here and that's enough. To imagine-- I'm excited. I want to follow their journeys to see what they're imagining, what their musical imaginations and futures look like. Is there really-- they're on to something.
CLAIRE CHASE: They've got amazing ideas. I mean, I read-- this morning before we came over here, I read the first drafts of the responses to that prompt, which will be their final creative project. And they have total freedom, I mean, some of them will write the blueprint for a non-profit organization, some of them will write a composition, some of them will create an album, some of them will start a festival, one of them is working on a school.
LI HARRIS: Yes.
CLAIRE CHASE: So yeah. You lit a lot of imaginations on fire today.
LI HARRIS: That was so good.
BREE EDWARDS: Well, and I love this utopian impulse, this drive to create beyond what is now. And one of the things, Claire, that's always interested me about your practice and your MacArthur was that it was in entrepreneurship. And I think that that's a really interesting-- it's just so interesting to me. I wanted to back up to 2001 in terms of this conversation that we're having about creating the world you want to live. And in this utopian impulse to say, I like this, but we can do something slightly different.
I want to ask you what was the driving force? What was that imagined future that you were imagining when you created ICE in 2001?
CLAIRE CHASE: Yeah, well, it's so interesting. The word entrepreneur is such a problematic one for me and I think it is for a lot of artists. And it's interesting that the MacArthur Foundation is still using that term for--
BREE EDWARDS: Am I right that it was?
CLAIRE CHASE: Yeah.
BREE EDWARDS: OK.
CLAIRE CHASE: But that's the word that they chose and they're still using that word to describe artists, not just musicians, but artists in many different practices who have what I see as a community organizing practice, not alongside, not as an extra, but as an integral part of who they are as artists and as human beings, and what they feel-- what we feel our responsibility is to society.
And to not make a separation between the art form and the society that contains it or the other way around. So I prefer to talk about that impulse to organize around the essential and ancient act of making music as a form of community organizing. I mean, certainly it was important to me when I was starting out and it is still important to me to talk about the economics of artistic communities.
I mean, we have to be upfront about it and we have to look at alternative models, we have to create those models, we have to create our own economies. And so in a sense when I started International Contemporary Ensemble in the early aughts, I dreamed about a musical community of a whole generation of musicians who could support one another, who would not rely on institutions and traditional funding opportunities, and certainly not rely on traditional organizational structures to be able to nourish and fortify a music that is their music.
The music of their generation. The music for which we didn't and still don't have a name. Music that defies classifications and genres. And to do that, we needed a completely different organizational form and we needed a completely different intersectional community. And so for me, that was the driving force. I did imagine that the organization would be large, and porous, and have many, many tentacles all over the world.
I had that dream in the beginning and it was really interesting in talking with the freshman class about their final projects in which they're invited to imagine their organizational futures in community. I shared with them a piece of advice that was given to me when I was first starting out, which was totally-- I actually didn't appreciate the advice at the time because I thought I had a really huge idea and I thought I was being smacked down by a friend who said, all of this is-- all this talk about changing the world of music is great, but what if you just talked about this as a garage band?
You're making a little garage band and you're going to do a show next Thursday. What if you just get the thing started? I don't doubt that you can do this, but how about just a show next Thursday? And I was like, yeah, why not? Why don't we just start putting things on? And so there is really something to be said for, OK,
we've got one microphone, a little tiny amp, a ladder, a light bulb, and five people, and we're going to make a flyer and we're going to do a show. And that really was the organizational strategy of International Contemporary Ensemble from the beginning. Now the group has commissioned almost 1,000 artists-- mostly artists in our generation-- predominantly women and artists of color over the last 20 years.
The group does about 165 concerts a year and now has $2 million budget and employs artists. We still work in an artist staff mutual community. So there isn't a division. The organization has matured a lot but there isn't a division-- a traditional division between staff employment and artist employment. We are a cooperative and a collective in the true sense of that word.
But the process really has been very much like the process we've been going through with these students. So we have an idea, we form it, we put it up in front of a few people today, we are changed by that. And all of that energy metabolizes goes back into the work and we put something up next week. And so that Troubadour spirit to me has always been really, really important.
Of course I love theorizing, and thinking, and talking, and writing about this, but nothing as a musician, nothing beats getting together being in a room and sharing this ancient art form in the newest way that we can imagine it.
BREE EDWARDS: That resonates with me even in terms of starting up the ArtLab. The ArtLab is relatively new and it was promised as a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And my feeling was that we had to start where there was energy and people that wanted to try things, and then other people would come in and see what they were doing and say, oh, I think I get it more now.
And the more we show a wide range of creative activity, the more people begin to actually understand and feel comfortable with what this new-- not necessarily new music, but this new art form is. This emerging art form. So I want to ask one last question about influence because I had heard on another podcast, Claire, that you were 13 when you heard the work 21.5.
This is a radical rule breaking composition for solo flute that you are still grappling with. To me, that was like mind-blowing. Could you talk a little bit about the significance about this composition and how it shaped the work you're doing today?
CLAIRE CHASE: Yeah, thank you. So this piece, Density 21.5 by Edgard Várese, was a before and after moment for my instrument. This little tube of metal. But it's not just a little tube of metal, it is our most ancient instrument and it has been a tube of bare bone 43,000 years old. It has been a tube of bamboo, of every substance. You can make a flute out of anything.
So this is-- although I'm speaking about my particular field, which is contemporary music, I really think of it in a long thousands and thousands of years old tradition of a flute playing, of some of the earliest music that was made. So this particular piece in my imagination [LAUGHTER] completely changed the identity in the capacity, and the expressive ability of this instrument catapulted it into the future.
I mean, it's just 4 and 1/2 minutes long this piece, but it is so tremendously powerful. It was so powerful for me personally when I heard it for the first time when I was 13, and it has been a kind of an anthem for me. As a classically trained player, it is on my music stand with the great works of Solo Bach and all of my other desert island pieces. And so a few years ago, I started a project that was also prompted by a question, what will the density of the 21st century be?
What will this piece that was written in 1936-- what will that metabolize into in our time? And how could I participate in fueling that, in feeding it, and nourishing it? And so that question transformed into a project that is 24 years in length. I'm in year eight now and I build each year a new body of repertory for this little tube, [LAUGHTER] sometimes of metal, sometimes of wood, who knows what the flute of the year 2036 may be. It may be made entirely of air. We don't know.
LI HARRIS: Right, exactly.
CLAIRE CHASE: And so all told at this point in the project eight years in, it's about 10 hours of material. It will be somewhere between 24 and 30 hours of material in 2036. So I'm building an archive and working with artists from all kinds of different musics. It's very important to me that this project is not centralized in the Western classical tradition.
And one of the really beautiful things about what we get to do in classical music-- and I will define classical music in an aspirational way, the way that I think about it. I'm curious what you think about this, Li. But classical music if it's defined as a music that outlasts it's maker, a tradition that supersedes itself, then of course what we consider a Western classical music is just one little tiny, tiny, tiny sliver of this vast tradition that is about being with the dead.
It is about being in community with people, and spirits, and ideas, and imaginations from thousands of years ago, and finding meaning in those ideas, transforming them into something that is new, yes, but who cares? No, it's just alive right now.
And so the Density 2036 project for me is very much about that and it's a-- yes, it ends in 2036, but what's so interesting to me is what will-- what I don't know what will happen with this archive. And already young flutists are playing this repertoire. They're playing it so beautifully, so much better than I can, so differently.
And what will they do with it? What projects will be born from their interpretations of these pieces? And that excites me. I mean, of course the work itself excites me, but what I don't know about it and the things that it will give life to long after I have any curatorial control of it. That really excites me. And so I'm learning how to build an archive too and I want to do it in a very, very different way than it has traditionally been done in my field, and I want it to be open.
And essentially, we're building an ecosystem for a new way of making new music in community. So that's a little bit about Density 2036, but I'm curious--
LI HARRIS: I love it.
CLAIRE CHASE: I'm curious what you think about the classical questions. Do you get this all the time with your varied trainings?
LI HARRIS: I like your definition of it though that out lasts-- music that out last-- an art form that outlasts its makers. I think that's actually a very generous definition. And when you say that, it makes me think about that juxtapose contemporary where we are with the time of the making and with the time of the maker. So classical is outside of that and it's with what time or what time is contemporary.
CLAIRE CHASE: Or with what times? It's circling back to the first part of the conversation--
LI HARRIS: Exactly.
CLAIRE CHASE: --because of the meaning of the word contemporary is happening, existing, living, coming into being in the present moment.
LI HARRIS: Right.
CLAIRE CHASE: And that can mean slow time, tick time, accelerated time, all the times.
LI HARRIS: All the times.
BREE EDWARDS: Well, that's a great place to end. It's been such a joy to sit and talk with you. It is only second best to watching you both perform. You are both such amazing performers, athletic, and transformational. I mean, that is the drawback of a podcast that we can't see you and experience you perform, but it has been such a joy to sit and talk with you today. Thank you so much.
LI HARRIS: Thank you, Bree. Thank you, Claire.
CLAIRE CHASE: Thank you, Li.
Bree EDWARDS: After this short break, we'll be joined by Harvard College student and co-host, Kristian Hardy.
KRISTIAN HARDY: So hello, everybody. This is Kristian, I am a sophomore at Harvard College studying Theater, Dance, & Media and African-American studies. And today I am so excited to be here with Li Harris to discuss her artistic journey, and process, and all of those beautiful things. So thank you so much for joining us today.
LI HARRIS: Thank you for having me. I'm super excited too.
KRISTIAN HARDY: OK, so I just want to jump right into it. You are an artist that's focused a lot on healing, and rest, and peace, and a lot of restorative concepts that I find really beautiful. And I think that practicing self-preservation is a very radical notion for Black people, and especially for Black women and femmes. And as a Black femme artist, what led you to create works that incorporate your multiple identities while also focusing specifically on healing and rest?
LI HARRIS: That's excellent question. I think my environment probably is the number one inspiration for this journey. I grew up in Houston, Texas, and amongst other things, it has lots of industries but it also has a huge medical center. And I grew up three miles from the Medical Center which is internationally known.
Even our school programs-- like our school system planning programs-- one of the magnet high schools was a high school for health professions-- so they're kind of gearing kids to go into those professions-- and the other magnet program was high school for performing and visual arts. And I went to the performing and visual arts school, but I shared a bus with the kids that went to the health profession school.
So we all kind of had this general idea of medicine happening. I think later on in my journey and being more sensitive to sounds and everything, paying attention to the world around me and not just the sometimes seemingly chaotic experience of growing up, but when I started to expand my viewpoint and look around and see what people were doing, I always wanted to know more about the healing journey for myself.
And being-- having a weaker disposition as a child, I was always a little-- I was very sensitive to my environment emotionally, and physically, and semantically, and so I always was learning folk medicine from my grandmother and just-- oh, but also very familiar with the health industry in Houston and it just-- and then I became a singer. So I think that's the main part-- the main answer to your question. I became a singer.
And because of my practice as a vocal musician, health jumped to the top of my priorities because as being a human being, whenever you're like affected in any kind of way, you have a cold or anything like most of our problems are respiratory or having to do with the voice, so singers I think already get a 101 and in self-care.
KRISTIAN HARDY: So have you found it challenging to center healing in your art form in this ways, I think especially because the creative industries are very taxing and almost the exact opposite of the values that you hold so close to you, or has it been more liberating and freeing?
LI HARRIS: It definitely has been-- it has become super liberating-- and you're exactly right-- and intuiting that and knowing that this industry performing is all about output, output, output, which is exactly the opposite of the healing work that I tried to encourage, which is like input, input, input. And it became that way.
I think I just had to make that shift because of us to survive actually. I would tour and be on the road a lot and really have to self-regulate, which we're learning more about I think collectively during the pandemic and what that looks like, self-regulating, making decisions for yourself. But as a young person in such a high-paced, fun, also risky environment with like-- I don't know.
Yeah, risky is the word too, but also just party environment. There's entertainment, there's alcohol, there's everything too and it's nightlife. So all of these things went against me being well rested. But I had youth on my side, so it was just barreling through and having so much fun, which I think has its own experience.
I'm really grateful to have had all that experience because now as it evolved I'm like, oh, it's-- now I'm in a different chapter and what does it look like to invert that output? How does that-- how can I-- it can be just as gratisfying to invert that and bring it in.
KRISTIAN HARDY: Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I feel like I'm in the first stage, but also not because it's like everything is so overwhelming.
LI HARRIS: Yes.
KRISTIAN HARDY: And it's like--
LI HARRIS: Yes.
KRISTIAN HARDY: But maybe when I'm older I'll look back and be like, oh, yeah, that was fun I guess.
LI HARRIS: Right. I had a little fun in there.
KRISTIAN HARDY: A little bit.
So your artistic work, whether it's an album or an art installation, defies all sense of what we have like conceived to be just as genre and boundaries when it comes to different artistic categories, and it's highly experimental and improvisational-- that's the word for that. And so when creating this very new experimental works, what role does research play in your creative process?
LI HARRIS: Great question. Research, I would say, some-- it's definitely a key component. I wouldn't-- I don't say-- I can't say that it's always at the beginning that I started my research or that I know that I'm actually researching at the beginning. Sometimes I'm just experimenting and which is more active or forward like just doing, and then the reflective part that happens after that I consider research. But now saying this to you, there is actually research in the doing in the actual activating. So does that make sense?
KRISTIAN HARDY: Yes. Yes.
I definitely agreed when you said that sometimes you don't know if in the moment what you are doing is research because the reason that I'm here-- a part of this project-- is because I was a research fellow over the summer, and a lot of the work that I was doing I didn't necessarily consider it research or school maybe wouldn't have told me it was research.
But I'm like it is helping me create this final product, so it definitely counts as research. I wonder how has your process-- your creative process evolved when approaching a project solely as the performer and as the creator versus as an educator or a guide like you have done with this current project with Claire Chase and the freshman seminar.
LI HARRIS: That's so funny. It's funny because a few years ago I did a project as a performer only. And usually-- and it was a singing performance film project where I was in a movie that was an opera movie which I have been making for myself for 10 or 11 years now, and also working with my long term collaborator for the amount of time, so that's like a safe space. That's like a home base. But I went and met new collaborators who I'd never met before, went to London and made a film with them as a singer and it was so hard.
KRISTIAN HARDY: Really?
LI HARRIS: It was so hard. And I went because I thought it was going to be so fun. I was like, oh my God, yes, I only get to perform and it's going to be great.
KRISTIAN HARDY: So when looking at your past projects and as I was reading like different interviews, and articles, and things that you've been involved with and a lot of the things that motivate you, I think it's pretty safe to say that you are very much like a student of life. And I think that you take in a lot of your surroundings and what goes on in the world and constantly learning and growing.
And I was wondering how does one transition to that place after leaving your undergrad experience or your conservatory experiences, because I think especially at a school like Harvard it is very much very strict. I'm making hand motions and they cannot see my hand motions.
LI HARRIS: She's making hand motions as I go straight infront of her.
KRISTIAN HARDY: --straight and narrow. And the things that you should learn or absorb are almost handed to you--
LI HARRIS: Absolutely.
KRISTIAN HARDY: --and so I was curious to know how do you transition into that place and how do you think that quality has served you on your artistic journey?
LI HARRIS: Great. I mean, you're-- just amazing questions. The thing--
KRISTIAN HARDY: Thank you.
LI HARRIS: --really amazing questions. And the thing in my artistic process that has been revelatory for me and even-- and especially as an educator is learning that questions are really the food of it all. To be able to ask a good question is like a door-- and a never-- a revolving door in life in possibility. So even practicing that-- so I'm telling you that as a admiration, I think your questions are fantastic.
But the question itself-- and that is at the foot of being a student of life is asking the questions. That would just hand in hand with curiosity. Curiosity is so-- it takes you so far, but then asking the questions, forming the questions, having-- hearing the questions even if you don't say it yourself. For all of the students at Harvard and declaring your study and declaring your field of study, you are here to do your work on this particular path, but it's all forward moving.
And when you get to a crossroads, look around and ask yourself some questions like what are you interested in? Also, I think the importance of following, and believing in, and being open to what you like, what you're generally attracted to, I think is a joy and it usually won't lead you in the wrong direction.
KRISTIAN HARDY: That's beautiful. I'm very excited to continue to follow along in your journey and see all the wonderful things you create. And thank you so much.
LI HARRIS: Thank you. I'm so excited to meet you and follow your journey too. I will be following your journey so--
KRISTIAN HARDY: Thank you.
Bree EDWARDS: Thank you for listening to Works in Progress as production of the ArtLab at Harvard University, located on the traditional territory of the Massachusetts people, the original inhabitants of what is now known as Boston and Cambridge.
This podcast is recorded and produced in the Mead Production Lab. For more information about the show, the ArtLab, and the artist featured, visit artlab.harvard.edu. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram by searching ArtLab at Harvard. I hope you'll join us for the next episode.