Lisa Harris performing with her theremin. Photo by Jjgfree.
It was really about the raccoons. That’s how we bonded. Lisa Harris and I still laugh and shake our heads at that crazy night. But of course, I had already conjured Li up as the performer—the voice, the being—I needed at the Mount Tremper Arts Residency for The Nubian Word for Flowers. We were pulling the work through from the ethers—the beyond of Pauline Oliveros’s and my unfinished opera, left in suspension after her sudden passing in November 2016—when we learned that one projected cast member was unable to join us. In a moment of inspiration, I grabbed my phone and reached out to Li, whose extraordinary voice I’d heard months earlier during Pauline’s Tuning Meditation at the Park Avenue Armory. I already had a feeling about her.
I found Li at home in Houston—which also happens to be Pauline’s hometown—and, miracle of miracles, she responded to each of the dates I mentioned: “Yes, yes, yes, and yes!” I put her up at my Hudson Valley home, not far from the site of our daily rehearsals up on Mount Tremper. The first night she arrived, Li was sleeping downstairs on the pullout couch near the kitchen when a trio of adolescent raccoons found their way in through the cat door and began noisily helping themselves to copious amounts of cat food. Li had known some raccoons in Houston and rose in warrior mode to the occasion. I felt Pauline chuckling from the spirit realms as I rushed in and rolled her big accordion case up, using it as a barrier to keep the critters from traveling further into our big Victorian house. A good deal of scrambling, shouting, and some raccoon whispering took place before the masked intruders were ushered out into the night.
IONE The way you describe your connection to Nicole Mitchell, the co-creator of your recent album, EarthSeed, has a similar feeling to what I felt bringing you into the cast of The Nubian Word for Flowers.
Lisa Harris Yes! I met Nicole at the New Quorum residency in New Orleans. We were brought together by the residency’s director, Gianna Chachere, who, like you, conjured up this collection of people to work with and recognize each other.
IO There’s something about the intrusion of our raccoon night of wildness into what we consider the normal of our lives that resonates with the prescient messages of Octavia Butler’s extraordinary wake-up call to our country in Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). Butler’s works warned readers early on about the many risks of tyrannical rule, potentially leading to the disintegration of American culture and infrastructure. The Parables are set in a near-future dystopia in which global warming has led to drought and rising sea levels, few people trust the police, and news is delivered in the form of flashy images with witty one-to-two-line messages. The government’s administration writes off science as a new candidate, a religious zealot from Texas, runs on a platform to “Make America great again.”
How did you and Nicole discover your connection to Butler’s work?
LH We were at the residency a few days, and Nicole invited me to share music with her after dinner. She played me her Butler-inspired Xenogenesis Suite (2007), and it reminded me of my own recordings. I kept thinking, Am I listening for myself, or am I listening for what she is sharing with me? But everything that she was sharing with me—I knew the sounds.
I played Nicole some of my sounds too. I’ve been working on an opera called Lilith for a long time, which I put away because it scared me a little bit. There were many parallels to Butler’s Lilith’s Brood. Afterward, we just sat there for a second in the silence. Then Nicole looked at me very wisely and said, “Okay, so we have to … Let’s do something.”
Nicole Mitchell and Lisa Harris. Photo courtesy of the artist.
IO Oh, that’s extraordinary! So it started at the house organically like that?
LH It started at the New Quorum house in 2016. In 2017, Nicole was commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago to make a new work for Cauleen Smith’s exhibition Human_3.0 Reading List. And Nicole invited me to co-compose with her.
We started working over the computer and having conversations like this one. We asked ourselves what most stuck out to us in Butler’s Parables and what we most wanted to honor in our music. And we started this living document, fleshing out the voice of the text with notes about what kind of sonic environment it needed in order to live. We sculpted the body of text as its own instrument, supporting it as a living being, and then orchestrated the other instruments.
IO You mentioned earlier the connection with your opera-in-progress, Lilith, and that working on it scared you. Was going that deep into Butler’s mind also frightening?
LH I had been studying the figure of Lilith a couple years before I read any of Butler’s books. The fear and shock to my body when I read her work was similar to what I felt when I recognized myself in Nicole’s sounds. I started with Kindred and Wild Seed, then Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. By the time I got to Lilith’s Brood, I had already been in this relationship with my research around the historical Lilith since a few years before.
In pre-Sumerian folklore, the archetypal Lilith is revered as the first woman in Creation and Adam’s equal, contrary to the biblical Eve. She is later demonized throughout history where various mythologies portray her broadly, from an evil succubus to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. I cried when I read Lilith’s Brood, Butler’s trilogy about Earth’s destruction and human transformation, because of the parallels in the creation mythologies and the outcomes. Butler’s protagonist was a Black woman named Lilith, who would be the first of a select group of salvaged humans to be reawakened by aliens on a spaceship. Butler’s Lilith is given the task of grooming her fellow Earthlings toward their new life with extraterrestrials, and she is despised for it.
Lisa Harris performing with her theremin. Photo courtesy of the artist.
IOYour new album, EarthSeed, includes your wonderful theremin solo at the end of the song “Ownness.” Can you speak of what this instrument means to you?
LHI call it my sonic witness. I use it alone in my studio and with my students to free up the body and the voice. I’m interested in the way it responds to movement. Its tone can be louder or softer depending on how you’re expressing through your body and through your aura. The dance is what leads the music. It composes it.
I also love that the theremin only responds to a certain spatial threshold—up to four feet. Now that we are socially distancing, we are learning space. People don’t know what six feet of distance feels like. Even with the little feet on the floor of the grocery store and the stickers on the sidewalk, they still don’t understand space or boundaries. But we need that awareness. The theremin has taught me that, because I have to enter into its threshold in order for it to sound. So it is not just hearing me; it’s feeling me, acknowledging me in space.
IO The album is named after a Darwinian religion invented by Butler, which is based on the idea that “God is change.” Does that resonate with you?
LH Yes. It’s an activator. It’s more than active! Change is transformative.
IO In a matriarchal context, when I hear “God is change,” I hear “God is a woman.” And the mind drops out these little words, so I often get “God change” … “change God.”
LH Please! That’s so funny, IO. Sometimes when I see something crazy online, I might say, “Girl!” to myself or to anybody that’s in my mind—as in, “Look at this,” or “Look at that, girl!” Or I’ll say, “Jesus!” But lately I’ve been saying, “Girl, Jesus!” I say “girl Jesus” all the time. They go together.
IO Jesus is a girl! It reminds me of Pauline’s postcard theater piece Beethoven Was a Lesbian.
Lisa Harris and IONE. Photo courtesy of the artist.
IOThe music that you and Nicole made evokes a depth of experience, and there’s a knowing community in it. I feel that Butler knew so much; and as frightening as it is to contemplate, she was gazing into our future. I feel like we are living parts of that future now.
Are you experiencing things in your present life in Houston that resonate with the Parables and the making of this music?
LH The Parables resonate with our current situation now more than ever before. Lauren Oya Olamina, the protagonist, created ways to sustain and protect her chosen community. She had to reimagine doctrine, education, and surveillance as means of surviving the frightening reality that she and others were destined to endure. In Houston, the idea of micro-community is becoming more present as the pandemic rages on, and like Olamina’s reality in the Parables, more people are growing and sharing food with neighbors, hiking and biking, preferring trails and roads over large interstate highways for shorter distances.
The media is using words such as essential and non-essential when it comes to labor, but those words have been resonating with me as far as who is an essential or non-essential connection. I’m often discerning who is an essential connection, who I need to see and be in physical space with right now. There is something special about the meetings I choose to have, and a conscious reconsideration before those events happen. It’s like a form of prayer when we engage. During this hard time the question is: Can we find these micro-spaces of time before acting in order to consecrate our actions?
IO Do you think that, in a way, you’re living Butler’s Earthseed philosophy?
LH I love the philosophy of the Earthseed. When I first read the Parables, it resonated with me so clearly as a true alternative. While it may seem abstract to some people, for me it seems more factual, based on the fact that chaos exists. We have to lean into the things that we know, and there is still space for dreams.
I grew up in a Christian church, and I love sermon. I love spiritual assembly and orators who tell stories and cite them through other books and passageways. But there’s something in the history and the use of religion in this country that has been fictitious, that is painting a picture that isn’t relatable. I think Houston is a grounding bed for this new kind of megachurch, like the Church of Joel Osteen or Kanye West. Butler talks about the society in which megachurches would be normal. It’s parallel to this dictatorial leadership that she describes; there’s the same audience.
IO Yes, indeed.
LH EarthSeed also reminds me of growth potential. It’s an idea that I often think about in performance (a “pre-formance” or “pre-formation”): that all of the information to be an oak tree is stored in the acorn. And it’s not an oak tree that just grows as its scale adjusts; it also transforms. But all of the information is already there.
I see that in the making of the album EarthSeed with our great musicians and how we trusted them. We gave them fixed information, and where we didn’t have a lot of rehearsal time as an ensemble, what we did have time for was a “pre-formance,” creating the seeds of the performance. It’s not only about the information that was given to them but also what they are bringing to the piece. We need everyone to fully be there to make the whole, to get us to the end.
EarthSeed by Lisa E. Harris and Nicole Mitchell is now available everywhere on FPE Records.