M.A. Harms is a Los Angeles based composer and performer who is currently exploring the intersections between grief, gender, and sex through a combination of text and sound. They are a firm believer that sound and visual aesthetic are equally significant within performance, and because of this, performance art is rapidly becoming a major component of their work. Margo’s focus is on navigating literal stories and personal life events via sound practice, obscuring them to the point that they begin to bridge the gap between individual and “universal” experiences.
On April 28 at 8:30 pm Boss Witch Productions presents part two of M.A.’s project carnation, lily, lily, rose at Human Resources. lily, rose is an installation and performance at Human Resources Los Angeles that brings to life the world of Kelly Link’s short story through live music and theatrics by M.A. Harms, navigating the woeful and complex reflections of our anti-hero, the story’s main character, as he reflects on his life post-mortem. This project explores periods of sorrow, disgust, humor, and anger through the realization of musical performance, video found footage, white out illustrations, stop motion animation, and mannequin instruments. Writer siri gurudev caught up to ask some questions.
By siri gurudev
sg: How do you describe yourself as an artist?
Harms: That is something I struggle with a lot. I think of myself as a musician and a
percussionist, although I don’t think that a lot of the things that I do come off as what we know as
percussion, as in the group of people that I’ve been training with. Have you heard of ignorant
sg: I have not!
Harms: They’re supposed to look like scratcher tattoos, almost. They look like doodles. They
look like kids could have done them, but they couldn’t be done by kids. They are executed well.
They’re intentionally messy. And I guess I’m thinking of myself as an ignorant style musician.
sg: You have been incorporating performance art into your practice. How is your
relationship with performance?
Harms: It is rooted in my percussion background just because it’s such a visual instrument. And
when you’re studying, half of what they’re talking to you about is how to move your body and
make things look seamless and make things look effortless even when they’re hard. On top of
just being pressured to present femininely, I’ve always thought very heavily about the way I look
when I play, and that’s transferred into trying to extend out into my space. It started with me
wanting to turn my stages into living rooms or bedrooms so that I could have a space that felt
esthetically comfortable and familiar and do things that scared me. I was trying to provide
comfort to myself and my audience in doing it, and it suddenly started to expand more.
Definitely because of the pandemic, too, we were forced to do things at home. I’ve always cared
about visuals, and I don’t know, all of a sudden, it became really important.
sg: I love that, like leaning fully into the embodied part of the practice.
Harms: Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking about my body. And I think it started with me learning
about Charlotte Moorman, a cellist. She’s very famous for being a topless cello player. And she
got arrested for it. She was doing it in the 60s, and she went to jail. And it was a big deal. People
were very upset. It started with me emulating that, too, but thinking more from the perspective of
being nonbinary and being scared about the way my body looked. And instead of hiding it
through lots of fabric and clothes, which I tended to, performing naked and being overly
sg: Speaking of vulnerability, I know it’s a big existential question, but what are some things
that you have learned about life by doing art?
Harms: I’ve learned how to survive. I’ve learned how to be my authentic self, or at least I’ve
learned how to find a path toward that. I’m scared of so many things, but I’m learning. I’m
finding an outlet through it, and I’m finding a community through it. I found so much truth and family through my art practice and collaborating with people. I’ve become way more open-
minded, and I’ve learned patience. I think that I’ve always been an emotional person, and I used
to think that was a bad thing. And I think through art, it helped me find power in my emotional
intensity. If I hadn’t found these outlets, I think I probably wouldn’t be here right now.
sg: That’s beautiful! And I’m curious, what kind of topics do you explore in your art?
Harms: When I was 14, my mom got sick with pancreatic cancer. And for a long time, my whole
identity revolved around taking care of my mom and my family. My dad was also heavily
struggling with alcoholism. My mom passed right before I went to college. She was a teacher
and my hero. So, I was desperately trying to be her and honor her instead of figuring out who I
In my fourth year of undergrad, when I started getting into the women and gender studies
department, I finally started genuinely thinking about me and who I am and getting to explore
myself. Gender identity became a focus for me. And then, right before the pandemic hit, my dad
died, too, from liver failure. I was so angry. And it just resulted in this massive collapse.
I applied to grad school and got into CalArts. At that time, it was just talking and playing and
utilizing text. And the living rooms and bedrooms were there already, but I didn’t really know
why I was doing it. Finally, I realized that grief was the center point of everything. And I knew
I’d been grieving, but I didn’t realize how much it was influencing my practice. I spent my whole
time at CalArts just being extremely vulnerable and giving really personal projects about how
hard I was feeling. Everything was about grief and about learning who I was as a 24-year-old and
finally acknowledging those parts of myself.
sg: Tell me about the Boss Witch project you are developing. Is it connected to your work in
Harms: This project is actually different because while it was important for me to do those things
that I did at CalArts, I was finding that while making it was therapeutic, presenting them was
painful and could make me extremely upset. And while I knew I needed to do it and say it, the
ultra-vulnerability happening all the time was hurting me. I’m really excited about this project
because the short story I’m setting is about those topics, but it’s not my words, and it’s not my
story. And while I have a sentimental attachment to it from thinking about it for so long, and the
people that showed it to me are people I really love, it doesn’t hurt me to share it. It’s a self-care
way to explore the things that make me who I am at this point.
sg: What is the story that you are using for the performance?
Harms: The first one from a book of short stories called Stranger Things Have Happened by
Kelly Link. It’s such a fantastic story. It’s about a guy who wakes up in purgatory in the form of a
beachside hotel, but he’s the only person there. And he knows he’s dead, and he knows his wife is
alive. And he’s writing these letters to her, trying to hash out what happens leading up to him
dying. And he tells the same four stories several times and gives you more and more details to
realize how terrible of a person he was.
sg: And finally, tell me more about what we can expect to see!
Hams: Part of the commission went to Rainey Chevako, an experimental animator and
filmmaker. She did these phenomenal animations and video collages. And I’ve been making
instruments out of mannequins. I got a few of my friends to record parts for the fixed media
component of it: Mason Moy, Daniel Newman-Lessler, and Nicholas Deyoe. Next up, we’re
going to be at Human Resources on April 28. And I’m going to do a solo show telling the story.
I’m going to be the talking percussionist that I came to LA to be but in my own way. It’s all
percussion to me, but there are going to be mannequin guitars being played and bowing clocks
and jacking off dildos with bells. I’m excited to wear a strap-on. It’s going to be a retelling of the
story with fixed media components and projected material. It will be the mannequins, a desk, a
carpet, and me. I’m thinking of it as an opera. It’s a musical telling of a cohesive story from start
to finish. That’s what’s coming up next.
carnation, lily, lily, rose is a two-part project presented by LA-based artist M.A. Harms including an interactive installation at Coaxial Arts March 24–26 (carnation, lily) followed by an installation and performance at Human Resources Los Angeles on April 28 (lily, rose). This work is co-presented by Boss Witch Productions, Coaxial Arts, and Human Resources Los Angeles, and is developed with support from a 2022–23 Boss Witch Productions Commission.
Odeya Nini is an experimental vocalist and composer. At the locus of her interests are textural harmony, gesture, tonal animation, and the illumination of minute sounds, in works spanning chamber music to vocal pieces and collages of musique concrète. Her solo vocal work extends the dimension and expression of the voice and body, creating a sonic and physical panorama of silence to noise and tenderness to grandeur. Odeya’s work has been presented Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, Odessa, Mongolia and Vietnam.
This Friday, Odeya performs music from A Solo Voice, an investigation of extended vocal techniques, resonance and pure expression, exploring the relationship between mind and body and the various landscapes it can yield. The work is a series of malleable compositions and improvisations that include field recordings and theatrical elements, aiming to disassociate the voice from its traditional attributes and create a new logic of song that is not only heard but seen through movement. We caught up with Odeya to discuss her work.
First up, what’s on the show at Human Resources this week?
Yes, the show this Friday is a double bill with members of the Southland Ensemble – they will be performing works by Cassia Streb, Eric KM Clark, Manfred Werder and Taku Sugimoto. I will be performing a 40 minute set of solo vocal compositions and improvisation with movement and theatrical elements I call A Solo Voice. This work has evolved over the last 4 years, always morphing, into something new under the same title. In this iteration I include some pieces from my albumVougheauxyice (Voice) which was released exactly a year ago.
Your music as a vocalist deals with the body in a very direct way. While of course most singers are aware that their body is their instrument, you take it farther with the voice and movement workshops, voice bath meditations, and incorporating yoga, movement, and your whole body into your work. Did those interests (voice and the body) develop separately and you’ve found a way to combine them over time, or were they always intertwined for you?
My path and intentions as a vocalist began in a very different place from where they are now. I began as a theater major in high school singing in musicals, followed by a life as a singer songwriter performing around NY with my guitar, which led me to the New School for Jazz and Contemporary music where I later discovered free jazz and new music. During those years of song singing I was always challenged by my voice. I didn’t have enough air, I was told my vocal chords didn’t close completely while I sang, I wouldn’t be able to hit certain notes comfortably and phrased the way the song asked for. There were numerous things I was dealing with vocally. When I started free improvising I began to find my comfort zone by realizing that I could make any sound by changing the shape of my mouth, that I could dictate my own rhythm and phrasing, and let my singing be dictated by my body, senses, and pure expression. It was during that time that I began to feel I could own my voice and discovered it in new ways.
My journey as a yoga teacher developed during this time as well, except I was in search of different things to strengthen and heal, which kept the two worlds separate. It took about 5 years for me to integrate yoga and music, and although I felt a profound growth in both of them, I still didn’t quite connect that music was completely in the body. As a vocalist you cannot separate the body from the voice, they are interconnected from your heels to your finger tips to the crown of your head and of course to your emotions and imaginations. After years of developing this understanding and finding a new way of vocalizing that was truly a full body experience I began to share this with others. The workshops and lessons I teach often take on a therapeutic nature, since one really needs to peel layers, release, find strength, meditate, and have deep awareness towards an inner and outer self to be able to work this incredible instrument. We all have the potential to allow our voice to reveal things to us and others and I am trying to spread that good vibration in my way.
Your identify as both vocalist and composer. I’ve heard a bit of your chamber music, and seen you perform, and it seems like your music is very different depending on which of those contexts it’s for.
It’s true that my instrumental music is different from my vocal music. A main difference is that I write vocal music only for my own voice, and instrumental music only for others. Another main difference is that you can jump and roll on the ground while singing, but you can’t quite do that with an instrument. My vocal work has a strong performative practice. I write for my body and voice and for the tension that is held when I look into the audience’s eyes, its a completely different quality of communication. There is also an inherent drama in the voice: it’s human, and shares a collective history with every other person. My instrumental music is a world that is already in interaction with itself, in harmony, inviting the audience to enter and travel as another layer of the tapestry. Chamber music is for an audience to lose themselves in while solo voice is for them to see themselves as.
I am currently working on a piece that brings both those worlds together, which I began during a residency at the Banff Centre in February.
And when you write for your own voice, how do you balance improvisation and being-in-the-moment-and-space against pre-composed material? Is that assumed divide even a useful way of approaching your work?
The balance is very organic, and actually where I feel that yoga really comes in to my experimental contemporary work. At jazz school they taught us that improvisation is composition in real time. When you are in a state of commitment and focus, a flood of very clear ideas that flow from one to the next come through intuitively. I think a lot about the pieces I write, I spend a lot of time writing text about them, their meaning, why and how I am performing them. I have some pieces that are graphically written movement to movement, and some that are words, descriptions and concepts. Before a performance I usually meditate for a while, I meditate on my day, on where I am on what I want to express and perform those piece from that point. I let everything channel through me organically. Its funny but when I perform for artists, dancers, and other non musicians, some of the first comments are – “you’re so brave”. With classical musicians it’s usually – “How much of that was improvised?” When they discover in disbelief that it was about 80 percent, that’s when I start gaining their respect 🙂
What are you working on now? What’s coming up after this show?
I did a lot of traveling in the last few months performing A Solo Voice, so I feel I am at a brewing point. I just want to settle and let new inspiration come though. With that said, I am working on this piece for voice and chamber ensemble, a monodrama of sorts, I also have some shows in Europe in June and I am performing and composing music for a new theater piece which is based on a traditional Korean Shaman ceremony which will be presented in August.
Full details on Odeya’s concert at Human Resources are up at facebook.com/events/1586249551630860. Her debut album, Vougheauxyice, for solo voice, was released in April of 2014 and is available at odeyanini.com.
Southland Ensemble and guest duelist Jake Rosenzweig as we explore the work of Pauline Oliveros on Tuesday September 9th at Human Resources!! From tape pieces to a duel for Double Basses (with referee), these are some very beautiful and odd pieces by the wonderful Pauline Oliveros.
Ticket price: $12
Double Basses at Twenty Paces
Bye Bye Butterfly
Song for Margrit
For those of you who like your metal drone-y and minimal, these guys are not to be missed.
Synchromy returns in 2014 with re: Launch, a concert of 21st Century chamber music at Occidental College’s historic Bird Studio in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles. The program includes the works of Jason Barabba, Tom Flaherty, John Frantzen, Vera Ivanova, Shaun Naidoo, Nick Norton, Ben Phelps and Mark Robson.
Synchromy is proud to be partnering with Brightwork newmusic, a recently-formed sextet of world class instrumentalists on reLaunch. Brightwork will be bringing Shaun Naidoo’s Ararat to the program, as well as participating in several other works, marking the beginning of a long-term collaboration between the two organizations. Brightwork newmusic is Sara Andon, Aron Kallay, Roger Lebow, Tereza Stanislav, Nick Terry and Brian Walsh.
Free parking is available in the structure, entrance on Campus Road, one half block up the hill from Bird Road on Campus Road.
Following his success choreographing for the 2014 Sochi Olympics opening ceremonies, Daniel Ezralow brings his LA based Ezralow Dance to the Ford, featuring a commissioned premiere with live music by contemporary music collective wild Up. “Unforgettably gutsy” (NY Times) and hailed as “One of the best American dancer-choreographers now working on an international scale” (Chicago Tribune), Ezralow has created choreography and aerial choreography for theatre, film, opera and television around the world. He choreographed The Beatles LOVE by Cirque du Soleil, Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, the film Across the Universe and for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Batsheva Dance Company and Paris Opera Ballet among others. Ezralow is a co-founder of ISO Dance and an original dancer/choreographer of MOMIX.