Octavia Reese Creates Work At The Intersection of Art And Technology
Written by Vocalo Radio on September 28, 2023
Octavia Reese finds herself at a “beautiful intersection”, centering her practice in the realms of classical music, visual art, digital strategy and literature.
As a classically trained cellist with nearly four decades of experience under her belt, to say music has played an important role in Octavia Reese’s life would be an understatement. Throughout her career, her music practice has spanned from orchestra to film scores to instrumentals to accompany her own writing, and in recent years has grown to incorporate sound baths.
Noting the emotive and healing nature of scoring films or books, Reese hopes to offer similar meditative experiences for herself and others when conducting a sound bath.
“A sound bath is submerging your whole being into a pool of vibrations,” she said. “It is this wordless emotion, a wordless invocation of energy, of a blessing, of a request, of a lament. It is emotion that doesn’t have words, that comes out through the music.”
Although the cello is undoubtedly her longest practice, Reese is nonetheless a multifaceted and multi-talented artist across several disciplines. In addition to making music and being a mother, Reese is a sci-fi fantasy novelist and a painter, and works at her day job as a consumer digital health strategist. Reese’s knowledge and understanding of technology allows her to delve further into the scientific side of music, and create deep and meaningful compositions.
“I think both combined make me excellent in what I do in both worlds because I understand the science of music and vibrations,” she explained.
For this segment of “This Is What Chicago Sounds Like,” Octavia Reese discusses the links between all of her artistic and professional disciplines, her familial connection to Chicago and her involvement in the Logan Square arts community.
Tell us about yourself!
I have these tattoos, I have two tattoos. It says “abracadabra,” and one is pointing upward and one is pointing downward. And I did some research, “abracadabra” is known as a magic word, but it translates into, “I create as I speak.” And this has always been my reminder that my words have meaning and my words have value. I’ve also heard that’s why we call it “spelling,” because as you spell words, you are casting a spell. And so I’m a very mystical thinker, and this all comes out in my books, too. Like, I love the possibility of fantasy, it’s so great. But it also can shape how you think about reality. And so, just the possibility that spelling and saying words, create something real, I’m going to be hypersensitive about what I put out into the world, and what kind of music I put out into the world and what kind of vibrations and vibes I put out into the world. So pointing upward means that I’m pulling in those good things, and that I’m getting rid of those toxic things because it is a fluid thing. Healing is a continual process, learning new things is a continual process. And this reminds me to do that.
How long have you been playing music?
I’ve played the cello for 37 years, and it’s been a huge part of my life. I am really influenced by film scores. I’ve scored short films before. I love the emotion that you get from film scores and how it can absolutely change your mood, or have a narrative take on a whole different life when you add that music to the background. I started doing sound baths kind of based on my relationship with film scores. As a classically-trained musician, I was always trying to find my sound. I don’t only want to play in orchestras. I like playing in orchestras, it’s also not my full time job. So, like, how do I keep playing the cello and make it meaningful for me in a way that I can share with other people? I want to play my own music, but how do I do that? So I started to explore how to do that.
A friend of mine invited me to do a sound bath for ecstatic dance. And I, at the time, had never really heard of ecstatic dance, or sound baths! And so when I did that, I brought classical music, I brought sheet music, and people enjoyed it. But later I realized that wasn’t really a sound bath, I was still just playing other people’s music. And the more I got into what is sound meditation and vibrational healing and being a practitioner of healing music, I realized that traditional sound baths might be singing bowls, or gongs or things that are just kind of like the vibrations and sounds. But I can do that with a cello.
What is a sound bath?
A sound bath is, the same way that you would think about bathing yourself and submerging your physical body in a pool of water, a sound bath is submerging your whole being into a pool of vibrations. It is this wordless emotion, a wordless invocation of energy, of a blessing, of a request, of a lament. It is emotion that doesn’t have words, that comes out through the music. I took all of these things with me to my artist residency. I spent about three and a half weeks in France in May of 2023. I applied for the residency as kind of a triple threat artist: I also write books, I write sci-fi fantasy, I also paint my own cover art, and I write book scores. When I write my books, it’s like I’m watching the movie in my mind, and I’m just taking notes. I’m just writing down this adventure that’s happening in my head. But I also hear the music that goes with it. So when I perform, or I do book readings, I read sections from the book, the excerpts, and then I’ll also play with it or have a recording of the book score that goes with the chapter. It’s like this whole immersive experience.
What do you do other than music and writing?
So I also do have a day job, which is in consumer digital health. I don’t use my more scientific and technical side to supplement my art. I’ve always been kind of split right down the middle. I’ve always been both-brained, where one isn’t the excuse for the other. I think both combined make me excellent at what I do, in both worlds. Because I understand the science of music and vibrations and the physics of how my cello functions, the engineering of the tension that I need in place A to make place B work. But then also I can take what I’ve learned in orchestra and from playing the cello for almost 40 years and overlay that into a data analytics situation. And I understand how different parts of music can combine together to make something work. I see data in that way, too. So anyway, I’m in a very, I would like to say beautiful intersection between art and technology.
Meanwhile, spending more time in my Logan Square community with all of these artists. And the more I was doing sound baths, I came back and I was really in demand for sound baths, and my friend Olivia Love. And we’re called Olivia and the Lovers, I’m one of the Lovers. Olivia is also a carpenter! And she has this thing that she also does out in the suburbs called Do It Your Shelf, where she teaches people how to make shelves, and then go home and mount them. And, why should she have to go to the suburbs to do that? Let’s do that together.
So then I started thinking, let’s build this collective, let’s build a cooperative where other artists and craftspeople are sharing this space that is healing, that is therapeutic, that is creative, that is vibrant and full of life, and we’re also supporting each other, where maybe somebody will come in to Do It Your Shelf, and then they’ll stay for a sound bath. It’s Logan Square Immersive Arts Cooperative.
Where are you from?
Originally I’m from Detroit. I think it’s really funny that my dad was actually born here. My dad is from Chicago. He passed away in 2004. But my dad was a musician and a DJ, and he wanted a career in broadcast journalism and music in Chicago. And it wasn’t happening for him. He was an older dad for me, he was born in 1931. And so if you think about maybe him being in his 20s or so, this is like, what the ’50s? So 1950s, for a Black man in Chicago, I can’t even imagine what that world was like or could have been like, but for him, he did not feel comfortable here. He wasn’t flourishing here. I know he just felt that it was not set up for him to succeed. And he went to Detroit. And that’s where he met my mom. And that’s where I was born, until now, full circle.
But me coming back to Chicago, for a long time, I felt like I was letting him down. Even though he had passed away, he passed away before I got married. He never met any of my children. But I felt like being here was almost an insult to him trying to get away to have a new life. And so for a long time, I felt like I was stifled, and I was carrying on some kind of family curse that I can’t get my footing in Chicago, because, “We were never supposed to be here, and my dad wanted to leave, my dad ran away from it. And then I came back to it.”
But now that I’m here, and now that I’m really invested and connected to the Logan Square community, I feel like I’m almost putting bookends on his story, that I’m being able to step into and do something that he wasn’t able to do. But that legacy now lives on through me, through the music that I write, there are ways that he has shown up as a ghost dad in my life, that has shown up in my books or in my music. And so instead of it feeling like a curse, I feel like I’m fulfilling something that is like a generational healing.
Since 2016, we have been profiling people who give their all to Chicago and enrich us socially and culturally by virtue of their artistry, social justice work and community-building. Take a listen. Read their words. Become inspired.
Interview and audio production by Ari Meija
Photography by Ari Mejia, edited by Blake Hall
Written introduction by Blake Hall and Morgan Ciocca
Transcription by Morgan Ciocca
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