Speaking piece

Harry YeffMusician and visual artist Harry Yeff offers insights and workshops about the role of the human voice in art, expression and education. 

By Cherie Hu '17

Despite a career that spans from Barcelona to Atlanta to Taipei and a YouTube audience of more than 40 million views and 125,000 subscribers, Harry Yeff is always searching for new ideas to explore and new frontiers to carve. His creative process resembles what one might find on Harvard’s campus, abounding with a restless, sporadic and futuristic energy.

“I’ve always had this impulsiveness in my performance,” says Yeff, who is also known by the stage name Reeps One. “I love when something is immediate, and I love being present in the moment. There’s something really exciting about always being stimulated by what’s around you and being fluid to change, about constantly reevaluating your own creativity.”

This makes Harvard a perfect, if unconventional, home for Yeff, who is in the middle of a week-long residency at Harvard sponsored by Learning from Performers, Arts @ 29 Garden and KoolKidz Media. Throughout the week, he will be leading free workshops, jam sessions and interactive performances with members of the Harvard community, centered around his work in beatboxing and mixed media.

Among the events are: ADO: Attention. Deficit. Order., a discussion of Yeff’s exhibition about the benefits of mental processes traditionally associated with ADD, 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 26 at Arts @ 29 Garden; and a conversation/workshop on beatboxing at 3 p.m. and interactive performance at 7 p.m. Saturday Oct. 29 at Lowell Lecture Hall. The events are free and open to the public on a first come, first served basis.

In bringing the niche subculture of beatboxing to academic institutions such as Harvard, Yeff is playing a crucial role in reevaluating and reshaping the art form’s reputation and creative potential. Historically, beatboxing was concerned only with providing a backup beat to an MC, even allowing external percussion beyond the voice. In recent years, with the help of Yeff and his peers in the industry, beatboxing has transformed into a versatile outlet for individual expression and experimentation, and a new field of interest for researchers.

“People don’t realize that their voice can make literally hundreds of different sounds, and beatboxers are dedicating their lives to discovering these new sonic and phonetic possibilities that had never been surfaced before,” says Yeff. “There’s a perception of beatboxing as just one instrument, but you can have a beatboxer who's an amazing percussionist and another one who specializes in melodic lines, yet they're using the same medium.”

Hailing from London, Yeff began beatboxing when he was studying violin and percussion at age 13. Since it was difficult to lug his instruments around, he learned how to “speak” his pieces on the move as a convenient, readily available way to practice and internalize his music theory.

“I started to feel a certain freedom that I didn’t quite have with other musical instruments,” he says. “A massive benefit of beatboxing as an art form is that it’s with you all the time. Every single second of my life is a rehearsal studio.”

Yeff points to a wide array of early influences: classical composer Richard Wagner’s soaring melodies, jazz great John Coltrane’s mesmerizing solos and electronic producer Aphex Twin’s purely digital yet unmistakably human tone colors. One of the most important lessons Yeff learned, however, came not from the arts, but from his adjacent experience as a tournament chess player.

“In every game of chess, the board is set, but there’s also an opponent who makes you re-evaluate your strategy,” he says. “It’s extremely intelligent, organized decision-making in the presence of, and in interaction with, this extraneous variable. A lot of artists tend to be very linear in the way they make decisions and go about their work, but I think chess made me embrace the idea of a really present, aware process.”

Translated to beatboxing, this “extra variable” is the surrounding environment – a complex concoction that comprises venue acoustics, the time of day, and the emotional temperature of the crowd. “I start with my fundamental building blocks and aesthetics clearly defined, but I’m also responding in real time to the room,” he says. “It gives the impression of a completely sequential, linear piece of work, planned from beginning to end, but the performance is actually extremely spontaneous.”

Whether in chess or in art, Yeff interprets creative plasticity and hyperactivity as an asset, rather than a handicap. “There's a saying in chess that whenever you succeed, you dip yourself in bronze,” he says. “What this means is that it’s so easy to find just one system that works and become stuck in it. The more successful and confident people think they are, the harder it is for them to change.”

Yeff actively champions this hyper-busy creative mindset in his work, whether through his frantic virtual reality video Does Not Exist (the first-ever VR video to use gyroscopic 3D sound) or through larger-than-life sound

Cymatics vibration with the voice Photo: Harry Yeff and Ben Hopper
installations such as his Polyphonic Playground at Art Basel in Miami. He is particularly passionate about beatboxing’s multidisciplinary nature, frequently looking to fields such as biology, linguistics and physics to help deconstruct and communicate the art form to wider audiences. He has collaborated with neuroscientists at University College London to examine similarities in brain activity among beatboxing, counting and speech. His 2014 exhibit Attention, Deficit, Order incorporated cymatics, the science of visualizing audio frequencies. He has experienced firsthand how beatboxers with a variety of genetic makeups, skull shapes and other anatomical features are capable of making vastly different sounds.

Through his residency at Harvard, Yeff hopes to achieve a similarly diverse reach across otherwise disparate backgrounds and interests. “I feel this responsibility to go beyond simply creating and making art, and to explore what is really unique in my process and what students here can learn from it,” he says. “Even if it's not something that's directly relevant to their own long-term productivity, it might inspire them to try something a little bit different, and to come up with new and innovative ideas, which is what I’m really interested in at the end of the day.”

Harvard also serves as a stepping stone on Yeff’s long-term path to build a stronger bridge between beatboxing and other fields in the arts, as well as to spread awareness of beatboxing as an art form in its own right through similar educational initiatives around the world. “It's so important to deconstruct and re-represent beatboxing through this sort of education and cross-collaboration, because it will help people really appreciate the lengths that these individuals are going to explore the human voice,” Yeff says. “It’s something that this art form, which today is so embedded in entertainment and novelty, really needs to move forward in the future.”