News for North Texas
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What do a 3-D printed harp and racial inequity have in common? Ask Dallas' Jess Garland

 Jess Garland performs.
Ciara Elle Bryant
Jess Garland performs the "Luminescence" show on three harps, one of which is a 3-D printed laser harp made of translucent red resin.

The harp is made of translucent red resin with strings that are laser beams.

At the Wyly Theatre in a recent performance called “Luminescence,” Jess Garland plucked the laser-beam strings of her 3-D printed harp as red lights danced across her hands.

Garland, who wore a vibrant red dress, matched her harp made of translucent red resin. The harp, which was crafted by new media artists Eric Trich and James Talambas, can be programmed to play any sound, from birds chirping to the drums. For Garland’s “Luminescence” performances, she chose the sound of string instruments.

It’s rare to see a 3-D printed harp, let alone one that’s being used in a 90-minute ensemble performance in the Dallas Arts District. But Garland said it’s a way to draw attention to a call to action for the Arts District and the classical music world to move past representation of Black and brown musicians and address deeper issues of equity and access.

“[It’s] about using a type of sound and instrument to dismantle different ideas about who should be playing this instrument and who should be in a symphony orchestra and what their music should sound like,” she said.

Garland leads her own nonprofit, Swan Strings, and is executive director at Girls Rock Dallas. The multi-instrumentalist, who plays the guitar and harp, is no stranger to the Arts District. She has worked in the box office of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and later became a community liaison. In that position, Garland worked on the Southern Dallas Residency and The Kim Noltemy Young Musicians Program. She is also on the board of directors for the Friends of WRR, the city’s classical music station managed by KERA, and is a Young Strings program harp instructor.

 Jess Garland.
Ciara Elle Bryant
Jess Garland sings and plays the harp barefoot as video projections play in the background.

Garland said she and other Black artists have often felt unsafe, underpaid and underappreciated by organizations in the Arts District, dealing with challenges like pay inequity, tone policing and tokenism.

“Luminescence” is her attempt to shine a light on these issues.

“I’m not going to dim my light anymore. I'm not going to fit your narrative. I'm not going to fit into these stereotypes that you have about me and my community. I'm going to show you who I am and what I can be.”

It’s that sentiment that’s invoked throughout the performance with recorded quotes from Nina Simone, Alice Coltrane and Eartha Kitt about love, life and freedom.

Before the performance began, Garland defied convention by taking off her high heels to play barefoot on her looping device. The small act made the concert feel more down to earth, the message more real.

She performed with a guitar, two traditional harps and the 3-D printed harp, looping her music live to play her unique style of avant-garde pop and soul with jazz and classical influences. Five more Black musicians accompanied Garland. Vocalists Audra Scott and Geno Young, with violist Steven Juarez and multi-instrumentalist Brianne Sargent on the cello for performances on Friday and Sunday. Najeeb Sabour performed on the cello Saturday. Behind the artists, a large screen projected shimmering videos created by Eric Trich.

While Garland’s music is more experimental than classical, all of the musicians onstage have been classically trained with several being Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts alumni. Still, she said it’s rare to see five Black musicians with classical training onstage in the Arts District.

That’s rooted in stereotyping in addition to other systemic barriers, Garland said.

“There's a misconception that Black people don't like classical music and it's just not true. That they can't play it, which is also not true,” she said.

Even when Black and brown artists are invited into these spaces, Garland said they’re often made to feel like they’re not good enough.

“This is just an opportunity to kind of really show that I am and so is everyone else on this stage,” she said.

 Musicians on the Wyly Theatre stage.
Ciara Elle Bryant
(Left to right) Audra Scott, Geno Young, Jess Garland, Brianne Sargent and Steven Juarez perform during the "Luminescence" show.

All of the musicians onstage have professional music careers. Audra Scott has sung in opera halls and theaters worldwide. Geno Young was a musical director for Erykah Badu. Brianne Sargent has music in film and songs. Steven Juarez is a member of the Cézanne Quartet. Najeeb Sabour was selected to tour internationally with the American Music Abroad Program funded by the U.S. Department of State.

Garland said she wants her students to see someone who looks like them onstage when they attend classical performances. Less than 2% of musicians in professional and amateur symphony orchestras in the U.S. are Black.

Toward the end of her performance, Garland shifted the mood towards a more hopeful place with her rendition of “Over the Rainbow” and closing out with her single “Glow.”

In the belly of the theater, the haunting, ethereal melodies provided a space to reflect on what needs to happen moving forward.

Garland said she’s grateful for funding from The Elevator Project, which provided the Wyly Theatre performance venue and part of the funding for the production. However, she wants to see more funding and support for performances by Black and brown community-based musicians in the Arts District.

I want people to take away that this is what it can look like, and we can move towards this and it can be more equitable and there can be more funding.”

Arts Access is an arts journalism collaboration powered by The Dallas Morning News and KERA.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Corrected: June 2, 2023 at 11:18 AM CDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Jess Garland volunteers with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s Young Strings program. Garland is a paid contractor with the Young Strings program.
Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.