Adventures in Holland, part 1: Wageningen ho!

Tomorrow I head to a guest artist position at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. In some ways this is similar to the handful-or-so of other residencies I’ve done: it’s an open-ended project within a defined amount of time, in a new place. In other ways it’s very different: because it’s an invited AIR position, it doesn’t have a staff of artist support or permanent work locations, and there’s only going to be one other artist working while I’m there. More importantly, though, this is a big step away from music and sound-driven art and into making work that sits fully within the visual art world.

This has been accompanied by a lot of thinking on my part.

And what better way to capture that thinking in prose than by adopting the totally-not-at-all-pretentious and sure-to-annoy-no-one technique of the artist self-interview?

Q. Are you not a musician anymore?

CW: Maybe not.

Q. Why did you do music initially?

CW: Lots of reasons, but largely because it was the only thing I did that girls liked in middle school.

Q. Why did you do it for so long, then?

CW: Identity is powerful! When you think of yourself as X, you tend to focus your energy on being “a better X” rather than looking around at whether you should be Y or Z. Which is good tactics on a day-to-day level, where you might wake up one day and not feel like writing or practicing, but it’s good if you do. But on a long-term basis, you can end up continuing down a path just because that’s the path you’re on, because you think of your job as just going down that path as fast as you can, when really you should be re-evaluating.

Second, while I didn’t have anything you’d call a “huge success”, I had enough small successes to feel like I was just around the corner from getting some traction.

Q. What changed?

CW: Well, I think there was a pushing-away and a drawing-toward. The pushing away was realising that I’d spent a huge amount of… soul, for lack of a better thing to call it. (Life? Time?) on getting up to speed on classical piano, only to ultimately realise that the people who can really do this were still light-years ahead of me on so many axes that my ability to eventually learn a piece to that standard didn’t really count for much. There’s also the issue in how classical music is taught, which is a lot about gradually working up the most difficult pieces in the repertoire so that they’re perfect at your One Eventual Recital, and not at all about things like breadth, spontaneity, and wider musicianship, things like: some other people are playing, what would you play along with them? Can you realise, on your instrument or voice, an intuitive sense of harmony with 100 popular songs? 500? 1000? Can you sing with people? Do you understand group dynamics enough to participate in an ensemble? Lead one? None of this sort of thing is even touched on— and I don’t blame my professors! They’re part of this system, they were brought up in it, rose to their positions in it.

Q. So you left classical music, and wrote pop tunes?

CW: Yeah, I wrote these really classical-influenced, kind of nerdy pop tunes. And I had a lot of the same struggles there, where my ear was so attuned to the nuances of piano voicing, the kind of thing you’d see in, like, Schumann or whatever, but I had no sense whatsoever of how a rhythm can activate a texture, or how a vocal melody needs to work. So I found myself fighting these pitched battles over tiny, ultimately inconsequential elements of a piece, while turning a completely blind eye to major elements like vocal delivery or even dynamics.

Q. But isn’t there that Dunning-Kruger thing where everyone who even sort of knows what they’re doing sees the flaws in their output, and the people who are truly clueless assume they’re great?

CW: I mean, “inverse Dunning-Kruger” is most definitely a thing, I guess that’s “impostor syndrome”? And I think a lot about the Ira Glass quote, where he says “your taste is why your work disappoints you”, meaning that people get into a field because of an aptitude for it, leading to strong opinions about how it should be done. But then your opinions outpace your ability at first— you end up comparing yourself to the 5 or 10 best things ever done in that field, rather than looking at whether the thing you just did is better in some way than the thing you did just before that. And I agree with that sentiment and find it inspiring, but the counter to that is that we are just better at some things than others. I mean, if you have The One Thing You Do and that’s all you can imagine yourself doing, well, I envy you! I really do. I’d love to be able to be more focused. But most people who do creative work do a handful of different things at least, and it makes sense unless your career has really hit in a big way to ask yourself: did I accidentally pick one that I’m just OK at? My go-to for this is violin: growing up I was just as serious a violinist as a pianist, and because I lived in the middle of nowhere and didn’t go to school with people who took music at all seriously, I figured I was great at both: concertmaster of school orchestra, win a local piano competition, taught myself enough saxophone in 3 or 4 weeks to play tenor sax in the jazz band. I mean, it wasn’t exactly a bustling hub of culture. But then, in a typical “don’t decide, just do everything” sort of move, I auditioned for my top 5 university choices on both instruments. University auditions are intensely stressful and require a lot of preparation, and I really should’ve picked one— I should have picked piano. I think I knew, somewhere inside, that I had already picked piano, but I didn’t give myself permission to see it, or to just say “you know what, I think I’m a better match for piano”. So I did 10 auditions, 5 on piano and 5 on violin, and I got rejected for violin on every single one. I remember at Rice University they just sort of looked at me like, what are you even doing here. I mean, they were nice. They did it in a nice way. But I could still tell: it wasn’t me having a bad audition, it was me being completely under the standard. And I got in for piano at… well, not Oberlin, I remember that. But most of the rest, I don’t remember exactly. Anyway my point is that I had so much more natural aptitude for piano, and yet it took me ages to realise that and cut my losses on violin.

Q. And then that relates to your experience writing pop…

CW: Yeah, to get back to the point, there was a similar thing with both writing and performing pop music, where I put in this incredible amount of effort and then just ended up in a place where what I was producing was kind of… fine.

Q. So that was the thing pushing you away. What was pulling you toward visual art?

CW: Yes! That. I’ve always been technical, taught myself BASIC and all that as a kid. When I was composing ‘concert’ music I got more and more into live audio and video processing, working with Max/MSP and so forth, and that’s actually what led me to learn programming, through Processing and openFrameworks and Arduino. And that led to learning iOS development, which opened up a whole career world to me that has been exceptionally rewarding and to which I’m very well-suited. I am really glad that I let myself shift gears into that world.

And I think if I didn’t feel the need to create something, I could just do software contracting until I had $10M in the bank and then just hang out— I love development, and I really enjoy that unlike music it’s decently remunerated. I’m still just so tickled by doing work that has an actual market rate. And yet! Here I am, in the middle of a year where I’m not taking on any paid work at all, about to go to Holland to make this electronic cell colony thing, and I’m ecstatic about it.

Basically what happened is: the technical aspects of my art ended up being the bit I was excited about, and the compositional side felt like something I had to do, but I wasn’t invested in it. So once I started to let go of the idea of myself as “a musician” or “a composer” suddenly I found myself free to imagine pieces that didn’t revolve around sound or performance, they could be games or installations or apps or anything.

And I guess in a way I agree with the sentiment that we should split our idea of music into “music”, which is all the stuff normal people listen to, the kind of thing you could hum the tune to after you heard it, and “sound art” which is experimental stuff that is more focused on exploring possibility than on connecting emotionally. I think this lines up more sanely with how people use the term “music” in general. It completely cuts out the “but is that music?” kind of questions that people often come out with when they first encounter sound art. Admittedly, it cuts those questions out by answering “no”, none of those things are music, but they’re art, in a similar way to visual art. The way we have it now is insane, it’s like if we had no language to distinguish between plays and films, they were all just called plays. But most people see films much more often; films cost a huge amount to make and aim to have even huger profits; they create global stars; they have a huge distribution machinery around them. Plays don’t have any of this but without the linguistic distinction I bet dramatic actors would get the same kind of flustered that new-music people do when trying to explain themselves to someone not familiar with the ins and outs of ‘new music’ vs new music.

Rant aside, I enjoy ‘new music’ more when I experience it as something akin to visual art, I think it has much more to say that way. And I can see a continuity in what I do if I’m moving from a very technically and visually-driven compositional practice to a very technically-driven visual-art practice. I feel that continuity, but it’s hard to describe if you stick to the categories of “I was a musician, now I’m not”.

Q. What do you hope to accomplish in Wageningen?

CW: It’s the most ambitious visual artwork idea I have to date. Since I’ve done a lot of smaller projects involving component skills or techniques, such as coding and PCB design, it is potentially achievable in the 8 weeks I have there. Also, I’ve done a fair amount of prep work in terms of figuring out how the circuit might be designed and how I might source components and assemblies. As long as that doesn’t all get thrown out the window once I’m there, I should be able to iterate quickly toward my dream of an interacting colony of microcontrollers.

Next: Arrival and getting started.