Performing for the President

A musical and poetic “prelude” to Claudine Gay’s installation festivities

Students performing dance on stage

Asian American Dance Troupe | PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM HARRISON

On Thursday evening an “Arts Prelude” to President Claudine Gay’s official installation shook Sanders Theatre with a whirlwind of energetic, and sometimes stirringly intimate, performances—from ballet to Haitian compas (a méringue dance music) to lyric poetry to taekwondo. And almost every one was written and performed by students and young alumni.

Woman singing on stage
Eden Girma ’ 18, soloist | PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM HARRISON

Beginning with the very first song, “Ayiti Cheri” (Dear Haiti), composed by singer-songwriter LyLena Estabine ’24, the show felt like a meditation on time and distance, an embrace of origins and journeys. Estabine’s song, adapted from a melody of the same name by Haitian musician Jacques Saveur Jean, was a nod toward Gay’s heritage as the daughter of Haitian immigrants—a heritage that Estabine shares. “My father, who hails from the country of Haiti, used to play this song with my siblings and I growing up,” she told the audience, as the band beside her slid into a moody, percussive rhythm and soloist singer Eden Girma ’18 stepped up to the microphone. Estabine originally composed the piece during her freshman year, for a one-act play titled “Project Haiti”; Thursday’s rendition—layered and richly colorful—was arranged by composer and multi-instrumentalist Yosvany Terry, senior lecturer in music and director of jazz ensenbles, who also accompanied on saxophone (and whose family also has Haitian roots).

Other performances and remarks paid tribute to a diversity of backgrounds—and not just Gay’s. New Zealander Jess Jenkins ’26 considered the famous Māori proverb, “He waka eke noa” (“We are all in this canoe together”), and Branden Hart A.L.M. ’24, of Chickasaw and Cherokee descent, spoke of finding strength in natural world. “May we take this historic moment,” he said, “and remind ourselves that the wisdom of our ancestors—all our ancestors—still resonates within the whispers of the trees, down to the roots, and out into all of nature.” Deaf student Sheila Xu, M.P.P. ’26, signing words that an interpreter spoke out loud, talked about uplift and opportunity and finding her voice. Turning to Gay, seated near the front of the audience, Xu said, “I would like to teach you a phrase in American sign language: ‘Welcome to Harvard.’” Then, as Gay followed along, Xu made the motions: drawing her arms down toward her stomach, and then tracing an imaginary sash across her torso from left to right.

David Johnson Aboge ’25 leaned into the microphone and offered a greeting in Swahili, his first language. “When I first came to Harvard from Kenya, I felt that I was going to be alone,” he said. “I was coming to a place with very different customs and cultures from which I was used to in my life.” But he found a community at Harvard. So did Tia KwanBock ’25, a Chinese American who described the “transformative” effect of discovering artistic communities on a campus where Asian identity is “not only central, but celebrated.”

After she spoke, Harvard’s Asian American Dance Troupe, in simple black skirts and bright red hats, performed a traditional dance that originated with the Di, an ancient ethnic group that lived in northern China. Bits of silver metal sewn into their garments jingled as they swooped and leapt across the stage. In English, the dance number’s title, KwanBock said, translates roughly to, “Drunk with Happiness.”

Man playing violin on stage
Enoch Li ’26, violin | PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM HARRISON

There were moments of pure levity: the Harvard Expressions Dance Company’s bouncy hip hop moves set to Nicki Minaj’s “Barbie World”; the Harvard Taekwondo Demonstration Team’s choreographed fights and whirling spins across the stage to smash wooden boards with their fists and feet. Early in the show, violinist Enoch Li ’26 drew a delighted roar from the audience with his vertiginous sprint through “Funk the String,” a song by Russian-German musician and comedian Aleksey Igudesman that accelerates to a wild finish.

 

The evening’s more contemplative moments were galvanizing in their own way, and often strikingly profound. With only spare string accompaniment, bass-baritone Davóne Tines ’09 mined the depths of “Lift Ev’ry Voice,” often called the black national anthem, moving slowly and searchingly through the verses, his voice rising and falling with breathtaking precision and beauty. Meanwhile, Joi Gonzales ’25, Zia Pollis M.Div. ’24, Lana Reeves ’23, and Mia Word ’24 performed “All Sing,” a poem they co-wrote in four voices with musical accompaniment. By turns mournful, observant, questioning, and celebratory, it speaks of love and memory and connection and loss: “Why do we all sing when one sings?” the poem asks. And in another line: “Nothing we touch, / not even ourselves, is ever ours alone.” In introducing the poets—all of them her students and former students—Tracy K. Smith, professor of English and of African and African American studies, described “All Sing” as “a poem that contemplates the behavior of time, and by that I mean how we can feel ourselves living in this present moment, the here and now of our own lives, while also feeling profoundly accompanied by lives from times that have come before: family members, ancestors, figures from history and those whose names we don't know, but whose presence here continues to echo, and also I believe to make our living possible.” [Update Oct 2, 2023:All Sing is reprinted in full below, at the end of this article.]

A group of people dancing on stage
Harvard Expressions Dance Company | PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM HARRISON

Later, flutist Claire Chase, professor of the practice of music, played “Fast is the Century,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Du Yun, Ph.D. ’06, a song based on a poem of the same name by Macedonian writer Nikola Madzirov. Chase first received the piece as a “sonic postcard” from Yun amid the dark days of the pandemic, she explained in an interview earlier this week. The “medieval-looking notation” was “ripe for embellishment and variation,” she said. During the past three years, Chase has performed the song as a solo, layering her live performances over recordings to give it an eerie yet futuristic feeling. She played her five-and-a-half-foot-tall contrabass flute (named “Big Bertha”), and on Thursday was accompanied by a Mai Nguyen ’24 and Jessica Shand ’22 on alto flutes, who wound through the crowd before joining her on stage.

One of the concert’s most poignant moments came near the end, when Estabine returned to the stage with the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College to perform “i live,” a song from her album “where my brothers and sisters have been,” written as a musical reflection on the 2022 report on Harvard and the legacy of slavery. Among the report’s findings was the revelation that University leaders and staff had once enslaved more than 70 people. An appendix lists those who were in bondage, and in many cases, their names and identities are not known: the list includes entries like “Unnamed ‘Negro servant’” and “a little boy.”

People in the audience enjoying performance
President Claudine Gay enjoying the concert | PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM HARRISON

Estabine told the audience that reading the report, she began thinking about “the names—or I should say the lack of names—of the many black women and men who have passed these halls, many of whom have gone for so long unmarked.” In “i live,” she draws connections between those enslaved individuals and illustrious African American alumni like W.E.B. Du Bois, A.B. 1890, Ph.D. 1895, and Alberta V. Scott, the first black graduate of Radcliffe College (who earned her degree in 1898). And then Estabine extends the connection even further, to her own friends and classmates now at Harvard. In the song, as the names of people from all three categories are chanted—slaves, graduates, classmates—she sings: “History is not confined to what’s on the page / We’re living right now / We’re living right now.” During Thursday’s performance, when the music stopped, Estabine recited one more name: Claudine.

 

In the end, the concert was not only an exploration of history and diversity, or a celebration of togetherness: it was also an impassioned defense of the arts. The event was produced by Jack Megan, director of Harvard’s Office for the Arts, and it was directed by Diane Paulus, Bloom artistic director of the American Repertory Theater at Harvard. As stage hands were setting up the finale—a song involving more than 50 performers—Paulus rose from her seat in the front row and turned to face the audience. After thanking everyone who had helped put the show together, she noted the commitments to excellence and impact that Gay had cited earlier in the week as important values for the University. “I know how these commitments show up on our campus in so many ways, but what I've experienced, and what I hope you've experienced tonight, is how these commitments are expressed through the arts,” she said. “You have students on stage here tonight who are neuroscience majors, statistics majors, math majors, history, government, everything, but they pursue their creativity and their artistry with a commitment to excellence and a dedication to craft.”

Ballet dancer on stage
Harvard Ballet Company | PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM HARRISON

Paulus continued, “This entire performance tonight has been borne out of collaboration, a spirit of coming together and really making something that no one person could do on their own. The arts are not a pastime. They're not a hobby. They are critical to how our hearts beat and to how we live our lives fully together.”

And then, the singers and musicians stepped onto the stage behind her to perform “It Started Here,” a grand, theatrical song written and music-directed by Veronica Leahy ’23, with lyrics by Andrew Van Camp ’23. It was a song, Leahy said in an interview this week, that tried to capture “the feeling of hope,” and which she and her fellow artists had spent 12-hour days rehearsing. “This is just a prelude,” the soloists sang again and again, their voices overlapping as the final moments of the last performance of the night wound to a close. “This is just a prelude.”

 

“All Sing”

A poem for four voices, “All Sing” was written and performed by Joi Gonzales ’25; Zia Pollis, M.Div. ’24; Lana Reeves ’23; and Mia Word ’24. Musical accompaniment was composed by Toussaint Miller ’25, and performed by Peirce Ellis ’25 (viola), Lucas Gazianis ’24 (piano), Raghav Mehrotra ’26 (percussion), Miller (trumpet), and Eugene Ye ’25 (cello). 

A memory embodied. I,
I walked to the ledge
to feel,
To remember,

A memory embodied
Her
As I walk on cobblestone streets
I’m reminded of a time

I was met by the sound of cars along the half-done zipper
of Massachusetts Avenue

All sing when one sings
I was met by four flights of merciless stairs to a common room of Adams House
And, turning on the landing, met a face that could’ve been my cousin’s, kind, shoulders wide as
the stairwell,

All love ever rendered on the earth is still here
offering an extra set of hands
As i help my now sister take down her hair,
We make a festival in the meeting between us
Why do we all sing when one sings? [slower]


Nothing we touch,
not even ourselves, is ever ours alone

my Grandfather's stories
My mother’s prayers
Remembered

There are people who have loved me into being, pulled me up from the void by the cord of
connection.

In the deep hum
I heard my Grandfather's stories

Ocean breeze danced in her strands
Songs of how memories of the sea connect us
of rice seeds braided before ships

We are the webbed threads
of grandmothers and grandfathers interlocking over generations

the patchwork, the linen
we call present

I was met by tradition and I answered with laughter
and what is our present but
future and past separated
by a breath

by the songs my mother sings cleaning the kitchen
All sing when one sings
Her singing in my ear

Telling me I walk where she did
By the weeds greening the red brick in living wounds
that I walk over
a little taller, a little slower
In the voice of my grandmother


[theme]


When did you learn you were worth being remembered?
Some part of me will haunt here
[theme]
my body
layers of sediment

[theme]
my body
the clashing of cymbals
songs of triumph sung by my Father

[theme]
my body
the prayer of ancestors whispered into a wet pillow
Their unmet dreams
offer themselves up as brick and bedrock for this moment

To dance in a light she never got to [slower]


I meet my surprised face glinting back through industrial windows
A memory embodied
I meet myself
In a light she never got to.
Dance

[hold chord]


carrying future in your feet
the steps of your dance
are guided by the direction
of this collective joy [slower]


Meet the many people and paths there before you
Even now the fossil of some long dead laughter
Her singing in my ear
leaves its shadow gesture
in the stone face of history


Meet what’s above you, those rich trees that know
what it means to be a sibling of all breathing things.
The rhythm

our breath and the ocean
the same hushing

Her singing in my ear


Meet what’s after you:
the face
the strands
the steps
the cobblestone streets in living wounds
the dust
the embroidery

the tradition
[choked cymbal]
dance in a light she never got to [slower]


When did you learn you were worth being remembered? [slower]


As she knew this
she stepped back—
Survived.
Her legacy
A bloodline resolution

Made stronger by each burying


I space live for her [all slower]
For spa joy
For my body
To dance in a light she never got to

the same hushing (*whispered*)
In the dimness of the untold
the same hushing (*whispered*)
In the remembrance of the told

 

Check back later today for coverage of the installation academic symposiums and of the afternoon installation exercises.

 

Additional reporting was contributed by Max J. Krupnick.

Read more articles by: Lydialyle Gibson
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