Black Composers Open Call: Thomas Harris

Explore Mixed Feelings, a multimedia project created by Sound artist Thomas Harris as part of the British Music Collection's 2022 Black Composers Open Call.

We’re thrilled to share Mixed Feelings, a new work by Thomas Harris. 

Thomas Harris is a Sound artist whose practice revolves around listening and sound. His work as both a live sound engineer and musician/sound artist has fed into each other over time and evolved into broad practice using electronic and acoustic instruments to perform improvisations, responsive to environments.

Exploring bi-racial heritage through a virtual gallery on New Art City, Mixed Feelings grapples with the ebb and flow of racial identity and memory via the personal and public media that influences the ambiguities, paradoxes and complexities of lived experience.

Inside the exhibition, you will find excerpts from books and research papers; transcribed talks from Distinguished speakers; historical maps from Montserrat; Comedy Sketches which humour identity matters and a multi-channel soundscape. Move around the virtual space to experience the music in its multiplicity.

Watch the trailer for Mixed Feelings below, and then head to the online gallery space.

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Vocals by Honey Williams, Music by Tom Harris

This work was created as part of our 2022 nationwide call for new sonic works celebrating Black creators on the British Music Collection – read more about the other selected works here.

Listen to the track produced for the commission below:


Q&A with Thomas and Grace Bailey, Executive Administrator at Sound and Music
Can you start by telling me about yourself? How did you start to make music and what are your inspirations and influences? 

Music has a big place in the heart and has been a life long passion, school, college, uni and still going, best foot forward. I have been through my transformations: when I was younger I was working with hip-hop, sampling etcetera, MCs and singers. I moved into the electronic/ambient world—ironically, I still use the MPC as a centre piece for music production—although I have tried not to, it still sounds great. I began studying music theory when I was 24 and took up the piano, that has been a foundation since then I would say. My professional work has been as a sound engineer mostly, so I worked in various venues from Rock, to Jazz, to contemporary art. This also offered me a lot of exposure and absorption of a wide range of art forms which all have been of influence, and most importantly the people who I have spent time with, past and present, and who have influenced the journey, give thanks for that. 

You were awarded a grant to make this work as part of a specific open call for Black composers and music-creators. How has the project interacted with your experience of identity, history and culture as a Black creator in the UK?

It came at a beautiful time. I have been thinking and interacting with these ideas for some years in various ways, and now felt like a great time to take an individual dive deep. I had my own thoughts/feelings/observations and experiences on the subject of race and identity which I had got to a point of feeling fairly secure within, but thought it would be a good time to see what other people thought on the subject and see if that may influence and expand my own perspective, to not assume that I know it all already and that there is much more I don’t know. I knew Zadie Smith would be a gateway for me, having touched upon her work before and felt the magnetism and gravity of that, she is a master of language and articulates herself with potency and clarity which I love. I spent a lot of time reading: Ta-neshi Coates, Malcolm Gladwell, Zadie Smith, Oliver Sacks, Paul Gilroy, Guilaine Kinouani, Tia-Monique Uzor. It feels like just the beginning—there were a few specific things I found which really sparked my curiosity which perhaps I will be able to dive deeper into in the future, but for now this was a great period of expansion, further being curious about ourselves and the mystery and beauty of that. I also looked into my own heritage a bit further: on the videos you can see maps of Montserrat (where my Grandad is from) that I chopped up like a drum sample.

This work explores biracial identity through mixed media in a virtual space. What effect did this multimedia and virtual reality approach have on your research and practice?

I found formulating the videos to be like writing short essays, I felt like this would be a great way to study or to put forward ideas, this feels like an approach which is really generative. The connections between the ideas were allowed to be visual, allowing you to draw links between things and spark further inquiry. It really was an attempt at a clear analysis even in abstract form, curating snippets of what other people had to say on identity felt poignant using subtitles instead of voice audio, the subtle details in the video excerpts, facial expressions and body language of the speakers became louder in the mix of the whole piece, putting the focus on the embodied experience. I tried to allow my own perspective to be as detached as possible even though I’m right in the centre of the analysis, it felt like a healthy exercise for the ego identity, so I could be enabled to see further than that. Sound and music is a really powerful medium, I love it because it is accessible, and allows you to express the deeper essence of what you feel, your existence which so often is escaped or hindered by words, this felt like an in-between space and worked perfectly with me exploring the ambiguity of biracial identity.

You combined elements of both your personal life and the public media into the space. What kinds of dialogue did you uncover between the personal and the public as you curated the space? Did this influence or change your approach to the accompanying composition? 

My personal life is the micro and the public domain is the macro, so bringing these things together in one space I saw the connections and the universal in that, how they connect and resonate together. It’s all in there, like in everyday life, you just have to have the eyes to see it. I enjoyed linking the work of Dr Nina Krauss, who is a neuroscientist who claims she is ‘most comfortable between boundaries’, stating that this is because she grew up in a biracial way and notes that now influences her in interdisciplinary science practices. When I heard her, something about what she said really made sense to me and made it clear why I am often found doing these kinds of projects, or combining music with different art-forms, dance, visuals, words. And then linking that with Dr Tia-Monique Uzor’s ‘Grounding Practices’, which she has a whole PhD Thesis on, how she connects rooting with ‘Rhizome’—plants which root themselves in a different way—I’ll let you read that bit for yourself.

Honey Williams graced us with some vocals which brought the track together, the lyrics were picked out of a Zadie Smith book which felt in key with everything else. I was determined not to think too much about the composition, I just wanted to allow the music to speak. I always find that whatever I think/feel, whatever I’m experiencing or looking into/learning about, that comes through in the unconscious of the music. I just have to make room and allow it to do what it does, it makes my creative process really instinctive too. I don’t really spend too much time on music anymore unless I’m intentionally trying to learn something new, and if I am spending forever tweaking a sound, I take it as a sign that I’m off track.

What’s next for you, or for this project?

Yes, I would love to expand this work. There’s a mention from Zadie who speaks about ‘disassociation’ and creative practices, how some creative personalities allow their identities to shift or ‘disassociate’ from themselves in order to perform feats of the imagination, like ‘losing yourself’ temporarily. She speaks about how much of a relief that is from ‘carrying around this self’, which I agree with. I would love to explore this idea more, something about it is fascinating—I guess the way I know of ‘dissociation’ I associate it with a negative trait, meaning not being present, but Zadie’s use of the this word in an artistic context looks like a positive—which I had never thought or seen this way before—as long as you can come back ‘home’ to yourself, that is. I also feel the use of New Art City has been great, and this particular presentation can be revised, added to and further developed from here, as and when the need arises. I’m also currently working on a performance using acoustic pianos with ‘movement artist’, Solomon Berrio-Allen which I am really excited about, check for details on the Nottingham New Art Exchange website.

You can find out more about Thomas by heading to his website, or by following him on Instagram, Bandcamp and Soundcloud.

United Kingdom