Electroacoustic harpist Grace Scheele is being trolled online. For the past few weeks, a cherubic avatar called angel bby has taken over Scheele’s Instagram account, posting disparaging comments about her outfits and the type of music the classically-trained musician now plays.
“Every1 knows harpists were born 2 wear femme dresses and play femme music like Mozart,” angel bby wrote on May 19.
Scheele will confront the avatar — the digital embodiment of critics Scheele’s faced as a musician — on June 4. It’s all part of Open Ears Festival of Music and Sound, that’s happening in Kitchener from June 2-5.
The multimedia performance takes place at Catalyst 137, an innovation hub in Kitchener that dovetails with the concept of Scheele’s show. There Scheele and angel bby, the avatar she created, will perform together and re-spin the way harpists are often seen in a show that will explore what happens when your inner critic comes to life.
Scheele said it can sometimes feel overwhelming as a musician who plays the harp because people often expect her to play pretty music and be angelic.
“I play this instrument and its tendency is to sound beautiful, but should I only create beautiful music because that’s what people expect of me?” Scheele said.
(Scheele worked with digital artist Hana to create the angel bby avatar)
The idea for the performance came to Scheele after she got an email in 2019 from someone who didn’t like her promotional photo for an upcoming show. Scheele was wearing ripped jeans and a white tank top and leaning against her harp. The person who sent the email thought she was disrespecting her instrument.
“For me that email was the impetus for articulating how these tropes have affected me and trying to think more critically about why do people always think about heaven when they think of the harp? Why is the harp always such a stereotypically feminine instrument?” said Scheele.
Angel bby embodies those critics who have made Scheele feel like what she does and how she presents herself isn’t good enough. She hopes that by being vulnerable and sharing her own lived experiences as a musician, the audience will identify with parts of the show.
“Not everyone fits a mold,” said Scheele.
Her performance at Open Ears is a love letter to the community she grew up in, but also a chance to do what Open Ears does so well: Take the concert out of the concert hall.
It’s also the first time Scheele has had a budget big enough to think big, thanks to Inter Arts Matrix’s COVE-COVOX pilot project that pairs emerging artists with experienced ones and came with grants from the Ontario Arts Council, the Canada Council for the Arts, and Ontario Trillium Foundation.
The budget meant she could collaborate with website developer Luke Williams, of Useful Parade, to create a website for the avatar. The website features a chat box to talk to angel bby, along with memes and gifs of angels and harps that clutter the page. In one corner there’s a panic button. Scheele wanted the website to mimic how she feels as a harpist often caught up in tropes around an instrument linked to angels and femininity.
“I wanted people to go on the website and feel overwhelmed,” said Scheele.
Along with Scheele’s performance, Open Ears also features sound walks in downtown Kitchener, musical workshops, and performances by Montreal-based quartet Architek Percussion, Vancouver performance trio A Wake of Vultures, radio producer Andrew O’Connor, George Rahi, Carmen Braden, Kite, People Like Us, and Shhh! Ensemble. Some of the events are free, others are available with a festival pass. Check out the full schedule.