Things I've Learned:
An occasional series of hard-won-wisdoms from the mischief-making, pixie-dust-sprinkling, original-thinking auteurs of the audio world
(c) Jeff Barnett-Winsby
Please supply a short 'official' biography
Phoebe Wang is an award-winning artist, working primarily in sculpture, installation, and sound. Her work has exhibited at galleries and festivals internationally, and aired on shows including Constellations and Short Cuts (Falling Tree Productions for BBC Radio 4). Phoebe was a member of The Heart, and senior producer of The Shadows.
But who are you, really?
Aspirational jack of all trades. Deep introvert; I hide in bathrooms when I need a break from socializing. Most recently, I’ve developed a pie baking obsession.
What are your top tips for making audio pieces?
1. Take care of your body.
This includes protecting your wrist and neck and back, etc., i.e. your non-ear moneymakers.
I got an external mouse after developing all kinds of wrist issues. I spent the first 2.5 years of my career editing on a trackpad, and I actually loved it! But, my wrist did not. I have friends who use the Magic Mouse and like it. Other prefer trackball mice. I tried both, but neither worked particularly well for me. I started using the Wacom Intuos Pro (Medium) tablet and it has been a ~* game changer *~.
If you work off a laptop, it’s also helpful to get a laptop stand and external keyboard, so you’re not hunched over at your desk. (Special thanks to audio doc maker Sarah Geis for her guidance on these matters, when my body went on strike.)
2. Back your stuff up.
Get an external hard drive (preferably two), and a cloud account. I’ve even considered storing an external hard drive at a friend’s house, in case my apartment floods and Dropbox is infected by malware at the same time.
When you upload tape, back it up. When you have a productive work session, back it up. Yes, a hard drive is like $60, but you are protecting your life’s work, and you will sleep better at night.
3. Listen to lots of music and study it.
Note the moments that make you feel something, figure out how it’s achieved, then borrow the technique. For instance, did you get chills from a song’s big payoff moment? Consider what came before the big moment to create tension, and then how the tension was resolved sonically. (Jaye Kranz’s band Brighter Later has a single “Brace”, that has one of the best payoff moments I’ve ever heard.)
4. Everything has meaning.
But is it the meaning you intend? Materials, colors, songs, etc. all have their own histories and connotations. Do your research, and make sure you’re saying what you mean to say, and not what you don’t mean to say.
5. Exercise restraint.
I once told an art critic that I was interested in making very chaotic, material-dense art installations, because the world is messy, and chaos is more true to life. He pointed out that maybe a white room with a small white object is more chaotic than a room piled with junk.
I think about this point often. Chaos doesn’t need to be illustrated through a ridiculously loud, frenetic montage (though I do love a good montage). Exercising restraint will allow the quiets to be quiet and the louds to be loud and the ___(s) to be ___.
6. “Bad” drafts / ideas are prerequisites.
Sometimes I feel paralysed by fear of failure, which I don’t think is an uncommon experience. It helps me to think of sloppy / dead end iterations as prerequisites to finding the final piece. Then when I get stuck, I’ll circle back to an earlier draft and use an idea that suddenly makes sense in the context of draft 10.
7. Ask artists outside of the audio industry for feedback.
I’ve played the same audio piece for visual artists and audio producers / artists, and have gotten wildly different feedback (“too tidy” and “ too abstract”, respectively). In the end, you get to decide where on the art spectrum you want to live, if anywhere.
8. Don’t limit yourself to 2 speakers / channels.
Make a 10 channel, 40 channel, zillion channel piece! Put it in a physical space where you, the artist, can control the listening environment; force your listeners to choose whether or not they want to participate and perhaps implicate themselves in the narrative; rig up a motion sensor hooked to a speaker that releases a witchy shriek when someone enters the space; hide a subwoofer under the floorboards so that people mistake the bass drop for an earthquake. As a bonus, you’ll become a better audio technician.
9. Make pieces where you have the final say.
Own and take responsibility for your creative decisions (the successes and the most spectacular fails), instead of relying on the opinions of others. It will help you develop your unique voice.
10. Consider other mediums.
I’ve always felt a bit like an interloper in the sound world. I started my career as a sculpture and installation artist, because I wanted to surround people in immersive environments. I realised that if I could add sound to my installations, then I could surround people in physical environments AND go inside of them with sound – it felt like I’d cracked the code to creating the ultimate immersive experience. I entered the podcast world to pick up sound tools for my installations, and along the way, fell deeply in love with narrative audio.
That said, I am still very in love with visual art and do not believe that sound is the most visual medium, as some might argue. I believe in color, and I believe in storytelling that shows rather than tells, in the absence of dialogue or narration. I also know that my work in the audio world is incredibly inaccessible to people who are d/Deaf or hard of hearing.
I genuinely love audio and find myself returning to it over and over. This is all to say: sound is not a be-all end-all. Ask yourself whether sound is the best medium to communicate what you are trying to say. Sometimes it is, sometimes it is [with the help of another medium], and sometimes it isn’t.
What's your favourite of all the things you've made and why?
Of my audio pieces, “In Search of the Miraculous (Bas Jan Ader)” holds a special place in my heart. It was the first audio piece I made, that felt true to my voice as an artist. I actually feel like this piece encapsulates who I am, pretty well.
What's your (current) favourite piece of audio by someone else?
I recently listened to Nanna Hauge Kristensen’s “A Channel of Music”, and it really moved me. It just felt so honest and effortless. All of Nanna’s pieces feel like masterclasses in restraint, and I love how the scoring is often built into her recordings.
I also love Rikke Houd’s “A Taxi Stops”. The transitions from moment to moment are so seamless, and the writing so careful...it’s like floating through an experience that feels strangely familiar.
Who are your influences (in any medium)?
Nicole Eisenman, whose “Dear Nemesis” show at the Philly ICA made me fall in love with art. Doreen Garner, who forces people to confront ugly truths. Louise Bourgeois and Mike Kelley, who talked about trauma through art. Kid Koala, who showed me that words can be beats. Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto” (at the Armory), Ragnar Kjartansson’s “The Visitors”, and their use of synced sound and image. Mika Rottenberg, who shoots fog at your eyeball when you look into a tiny pair of lips on the wall. Alicia Keys and Jay-Z at the 2009 World Series. Lucy Liu in Charlie’s Angels. Bnny Rbbt. serpentwithfeet. Korea Town Acid. Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Pushing Daisies. Fleabag. People-creeping at weddings. Maria Dønvang, Jaye Kranz, Katharina Smets, Rikke Houd, Nanna Hauge Kristensen, Phil Smith. Brooklyn.
Please supply a visual representation of your life in audio
When I need to clear my head or blow off steam, I go for early morning runs in the woods. There’s one particular tree hollow that sometimes contains little treasures or dioramic scenes. For a while, the tree housed a small community of fairy dolls. Eventually they moved out, and these tiny rainbow pom poms showed up.
Instagram / Twitter: @feebswang