Boston Artist-in-Residence: Code Listen

Big update: I am now partially-embedded in the Boston Police Department as an Artist-in-Residence (AIR) with the City of Boston!

My project, Code Listen, seeks to prototype ways that music can support healing and dialogue on topics of gun violence, race and law enforcement practices. I will collaborate with the Boston Police Department, Teen Empowerment, and other community organizations to bring police officers and teens together to share their personal experiences through songwriting and collaborative music-making. I will also work with Officer Marivelle Crespo, victims/witness resource officer in the Homicide Unit to offer music performances to families affected by gun violence, for memorials, vigils, and to raise public awareness of the toll of gun violence.

Feels incredible to have this honor and opportunity, given the fantastic and inspiring ten proposals that were presented January 23. I am really excited to be in the first AIR cohort with L'Merchie Frazier and Georgie Friedman, two artists I admire greatly.

It's been quite a whirlwind journey to get here - through a fall of workshops with City employees, several weeks of agonizing creative soul-searching, and barely squeaking past a sense of failure and throwing in the towel right before my proposal deadline...

I'm grateful for the many many friends who listened generously and gave me support and feedback so I could create a proposal I believed in!


The Company You Keep

This is an early draft of an essay I am writing as reflection on my role as Artist-Ethnographer for Boston Creates, Boston's cultural planning process, from July - November 2015.


Reflections on my time as a Boston Creates Artist-Ethnographer

What is an artist but someone who has been authorized to live in the cracks, to explore the spaces between and around conventional identities, roles and occupations?

While others working for Boston Creates had more task-specific, delineated roles, my directive as Artist-Ethnographer was open-ended: to “reflect and interpret” the community engagement process.

My three months as one of the City’s Artist-Ethnographers was full of new experiences: the long, challenging arc of an open-ended creative process paired with rock-solid support of a cohort of artists; unique insight into a citywide planning process; the opportunity to expand my own artistic practice to include breadmaking parties and a visual art installation; and the chance to tap into my diverse networks of fellow artists, across disciplines.

The process was whirlwind, full of potential, scary, and exciting. I loved being a part of an intimate cohort of brilliant artists, co-creating a safe space to explore ideas, probe, question, and receive and give constructive feedback. Kate, Maria, Heather and Leo were inspiring with their different perspectives, and provided an anchor community for a project that could have otherwise overwhelmed with its open-endedness.

I developed a citywide perspective. My experiences in Mattapan and Dorchester, and the all-city youth meeting, led me to deeply question the racial and economic disparities of our city, and the class privilege that informs my own ability to be a free-lance artist and classically-trained violinist. On the other hand, taking on a citywide perspective also validated the role of the individual artist for me in a new way. While non-famous or unaffiliated working artists may struggle as individuals for financial stability, and recognition, it became clear to me that from a citywide view, having a strong community of working artists is essential to any city’s cultural life. For the first time in my life, I felt a bit proud to be a non-famous working artist!

However, I was also drinking up the benefits of City affiliation, and enjoying the doors this opened. And as one of just five artists being paid to be a part of the process, I was eager to leverage this privilege to help bring more artists into this process.

At Boston Creates meetings in Dorchester, Mattapan, Jamaica Plain, I was inspired by the people who came – many hardworking folks from community and arts organizations – but I was also curious and concerned about the folks who were not at the meetings.

I wanted to make sure that individual freelance artists, as well as seniors, veterans, and the homeless community (to name just a few) were being informed of, and included in, this process.

My first act of “interpretation” was a re-interpretation of the community engagement meetings, reshaping them as 1) concerts interwoven with conversation for seniors and members of the homeless community, and 2) a series of breadmaking parties for artists.

Artistically, I was interested in how different contexts could encourage conversation and influence who was in the room. By billing gatherings as parties or concerts, would different people show up than the usual characters who would attend a “meeting”? Could the power of artistic engagement – fun, physical and creative activity – enliven the output of the conversation?

I tested these questions in two ways. First, in community concerts with Guatemalan guitarist and singer Cesar del Cid and myself on violin, I interwove the planning questions between songs in concerts at a Jamaica Plain senior housing complex and a South End homeless center. The power of Cesar’s music and his gorgeous voice, with songs from all over Latin America, brought instant smiles, sing-alongs, and dancing sways to the audience. With the ice broken, we found folks excited to talk and share with us their ideas.

Next, I curated “What Artists Knead”, a series of five breadmaking parties in five different neighborhoods to encourage local artists to gather, make bread, and talk about their visions for a better creative Boston. Gifted my first sourdough starter in July, I was delighted by the exponential growth and sharing possibilities of a little wild yeast and flour. This passion cross-fertilized with my concern about the racial and cultural segregation of our city. Could breadmaking help bridge some of these divides?

Inspired by the work of the Mobile Bread House, I reached out to local partners and co-hosts in each of the five neighborhoods, and created a physical chain of dough travelling across the city, with parallel batches of dough being mixed at one party, kneaded at another, shaped at a third, and baked and eaten on the fourth.

This physical bread link was a reflection of, and metaphor for my hope that artists from around the city could connect with, support and learn from fellow artists in other neighborhoods.

From recent college graduates to budding chefs to established senior working artists, five eclectic groups of self-identified artists and bread afficianados gathered for five consecutive days in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Mattapan, Roslindale, and Roxbury. From cozy kitchens to the neighborhood café, to corner lot and backyard brick ovens (which we built for two events, following the guidelines of the Community Bread Oven project!), we convened in intimate gatherings of 12 to 25, washed our hands, and got floury.

Photo by Leonardo March

Photo by Leonardo March

Primed with excitement about making bread, the gatherings were energetic, fun, and connecting: distinct from just sitting in a room and talking. Some of the conversations felt like much-need support circles for isolated individual artists, others sparked lively debate about the role the City should play to support artists, but in all cases I suspect the hot-buttered bread greased the wheels of the conversations.

I loved working with Mattapan Cultural Arts, the Haley House Cafe, the amazing artists at the Cornerstone in Dorchester, and woodworker/community-builder, Beth Ireland in Roslindale. It was exciting to start a tiny network of artists, and foment connections and conversations. In looking for partnerships in neighborhoods new to me, I also experienced important pushback and skepticism, which helped me to understand the history of distrust between residents and the city in some of Boston’s underserved neighborhoods.

In the second stage of my Boston Creates work, I reflected on one of the most compelling concerns that emerged from the breadmaking parties and other conversations: the need for affordable housing and artist space (for studios, rehearsal, gallery, performance) in Boston. How can our city foster a vibrant community of artists without sufficient affordable housing and arts spaces? How can artists negotiate contributing to a dynamic cultural life and the potential role of being the “first wave of gentrification”?

Photo by Melony Swasey

Photo by Melony Swasey

To amplify these questions, I curated my first large-scale, visual art installation: an interactive paper house titled “What Makes a House Our Home?” The paper house, 10 feet long by 10 feet wide and 14 feet tall, had walls composed of hanging strands of smaller paper houses, internally-lit by LED lights. These smaller houses were shaped from poster sheets of handwritten ideas, the physical record from dozens of community meetings, and painstakingly folded with the help of a dozen volunteers, and the counsel of origami artist Michael LaFoss and visual artist Janet Kawada.

The installation was an interactive experience for attendees to the November 2nd Boston Creates Town Hall meeting. To enter the meeting, attendees had to pass through the installation and answer the question, “What Makes a House our Home?” by choosing which of the three doors to enter the house: “safety”, “affordability” or “community”. (Some circled back and voted more than once). Their votes were tallied during the meeting, and afterwards as attendees exited the Town Hall, they saw the results visually displayed as a whimsical crepe-paper “pie chart” roof.

Photo by Melony Swasey

Photo by Melony Swasey

The repurposing of the handwritten posters in this installation felt meaningful to honor the time, thought, and trust so many people volunteered in attending and sharing ideas at over 100 meetings across Boston. However, I learned a lot about efficiency after investing hundreds of person-hours, for an installation that only existed for a couple hours. (I also have no idea what to do with hundreds of paper houses now). The learning curve is steep for beginners!

            Three months after the project ended, when I struggled to clarify my ideas for a new artistic project, I knew exactly who I needed to call to my dining room table for help and feedback: Kate, Maria, Heather and Leo. That is the most incredible and lasting gift of this project – the relationships forged in challenging and exciting times will continue to feed our work as artist-citizens. When you work in the cracks, it is essential to have company! There is no other way to sustain this interstitial life.

"Peace is a Woman in a House" World Premiere this weekend

Filled with gratitude after an astounding performance by the phenomenal musicians of the Lorelei Ensemble and Chinese calligrapher Mike Mei last night of my new composition, "Peace is a Woman in House".

It has been a very intense two weeks of rehearsals, problem-solving, and many extra hours to pull together this extremely ambitious project, which asks all the performers to go way beyond their comfort zones - improvising large sections of the piece, performing with complex movement and staging, memorizing so much music. How lucky I am to have had the trust and collaboration of these amazing artists!

I am especially indebted to Beth Willer, artistic director, for pulling out all the stops to help realize my vision for this composition. The performance was truly collaborative - these musicians co-created the piece with me, from the music to the movement and the timing -  and I am in awe of the experience they created last night.

Excited for tonight's concert at Lowell Lecture Hall, Harvard University!
8pm, Saturday May 23
17 Kirkland St. at Oxford St (behind Sanders Theatre, enter on Oxford St)

This pre-concert write-up in the Globe gives a really nice preview:

Water Graffiti

The last two months were an incredible whirlwind of activity with my first official public art project: Water Graffiti for Peace.

The project was an exciting collaboration around Chinese calligraphy, public engagement, and conversations about peace, with Chinese calligrapher Mike Mei, the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, and five Boston teen artist-researchers.

Over 500 people participated in 7 public sessions between August and September in Boston Chinatown and Downtown Boston.

In May 2015, the Lorelei Ensemble will premiere a new composition of mine based on this public research!


Wow, what an amazing and intense 10-day collaboration at Blue Sky Project with choreographer Rodney Veal and painter Katherine Mann! More to come, including some awesome video. Thanks to photographer Jan Underwood for this incredible photo. More photos here.

"2,3,4" Collaboration with visual artist Katherine Mann, dancer/choreographer Rodney Veal, and violinist/composer Shaw Pong Liu exploring dimensions of space/time and the relationship of humans to contemporary technology. A performance exploring sculptural cut-paper paintings, composed and improvised sound and dance, live painting, and interactions with pre-recorded sound triggered by bodies on stage using Kinect infrared sensors, in collaboration with engineers from the University of Dayton, musicians and singers from the Dayton Philharmonic, and dancers from the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. August 2012.

"Nothing Without Joy"

There is nothing like a 48-hour stretch of inspiration, intellectual provocation, and intense, joyous learning to make the world new again.

"Nothing without joy" said Loris Malaguzzi. This idea was one of the many beautiful touchstones of a truly remarkable gathering of people at "The Arts and Passion-Driven Learning", an institute run by the Silk Road Project and Harvard University School of Education.

I was fortunate to be a part of an incredible community of musicians, teaching artists, and educators in a weekend devoted to talking about and exploring the idea of learning that is driven by deep emotions, and how the artistic process is a powerful learning model through which other disciplines can be explored.

I don't even know where to begin - so many powerful ideas, so many personally revelatory moments.  I just know that my whole world view has taken a re-orientation, and I am startled by the force of this new mental order. One major idea is that the approach to learning that artists can inspire and share (of constantly higher standards and constructive critique) is one that could fuel both a stronger educational model (see Expeditionary Learning - amazing!!) and create a wiser, more sensitive, more empathetic world.

I can't explain succinctly how this has exploded the rather limited (albeit personally important) sidebar in which I previously viewed the role of arts education as distinct from the "essential" subjects, but it is a major mind-shift. Arts-integration no longer sounds to me like a nice idyllic dream for those with the privilege - it sounds like a crucial approach that could both save the kids who can't multiply, and lift humanity into our next higher level of evolution.

As with everything the Silk Road does, a magical space of open-ness, experimentation, and inclusivity permeated the institute. Yo Yo and others talked about how passion inspires generosity - people want to share the things they are excited about - and I felt the passion, generosity, and concern for community intensely all weekend. The over-arching themes: Engagement, Connection, Collaboration and Community, were delved into in deep and diverse ways.

Admittedly, I went into the weekend thinking of it as more of a gig - I would go teach my workshop on music and storytelling, see some friends, and then duck out to get back to the other work I need to squeeze in. However, once I stepped into the faculty meeting on Friday afternoon, a circle of chairs for some 25 people, and heard Steve Seidel speak, I knew this was not just a job or a gig: this was another world - one of passionate, generous, intellectually-provocative sharing - that was a beautiful model for the rest of the real world. I gladly shuffled my weekend so that I could be at the whole institute and drink of this community. What a gift!

99% String Quartet Debut Performance

The 99% String Quartet ("of, by and for the 99%") performed a noontime concert at Occupy Boston today, forming a little musical bridge between the farmers' market and encampment worlds. With my awesome friends Sharon Cohen (violin), Sarah Darling (viola) and Michael Unterman (cello).

It was a blast! We were blessed with sunny weather, great crowds, and a gracious farmers' market organizer who supplied us with a tent for shade.

It felt really amazing to share gorgeous music, our passion and our love to this movement.

Musicians are the 99% (as are each and every one of you who are reading this)!!

If you want to know more...

There are only so many web-updating hours in a day, and these days, my project blog is where I'm spending that time.. Creating, directing and producing Translations with a team of eight musicians, seven dancers, ten crew members, plus guest birders, guest iPhones, and guest singers was an incredible experience!

I invite you to read more at my blog:! Photos to be posted soon, and I'm embarking on the video editing today (a multi-week adventure)!

Crazy Art-Making in Dayton OH!

I'm excited to be back with Blue Sky Project for a third summer, this time with a residency as a Community Artist-Investigator (Instigator!).

It's a very open-ended residency, and I'm thrilled to be here with this uniquely supportive and stimulating community of professional artists and teenage collaborators.

It's an amazing program, and Blue Sky feels like a creative home to me.