Statement of Purpose

At PechaKucha Boston earlier this week I presented the US premiere of my Statement of Purpose. I primarily think of it as a composition, but you might also call it a performance piece. I suppose “multimedia lecture” might be most accurate. It was written in September 2008 for presentation at PechaKucha Shanghai and thus adheres to the PechaKucha format: 20 slides of 20 seconds each. In Boston as in Shanghai, I think it seemed to go over pretty well.

Statement of Purpose is consciously indebted to John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing, one of the pieces collected in his book Silence, which I first read many years ago. The thing that struck me about these early Cage lectures and essays is that, in many cases, the message is in the form of the work, not the content. Rather than just describing his ideas about rhythmic structure, he demonstrates them; you experience them directly.

So in my piece, which I have described as an update of Lecture on Nothing for the digital era, I’ve adopted a mobile structure, as opposed to a linear lecture format. I take great inspiration from Alexander Calder, because in his mobiles, the individual elements are fixed, but the relationships between them are in constant flux. So here my lecture is arranged topically, around nodes of ideas. The main idea-nodes are

Aspects of Music and Audition
Stasis in Sound
Dynamism and Interactivity
The Current State of Videogames
Non-Linear Structure
The Nature of Multimedia

On each of these topics, I wrote a bunch (around six to ten, I think) of one sentence statements, single ideas that could be presented in any order. Then I wrote a program that generates a script by randomly picking one of these idea-nodes, picking some of the ideas associated with it, picking another idea-node, etc. Pauses are added between each statement to vary the density of the lecture over time (using a random walk, aka a “drunk” function or brown noise), in the same way that a tide or a rainstorm has a changing contour over time. Indications about when to clear my throat, gesture to the screen, take a swig of beer, etc. are also algorithmically scattered throughout the script, as a kind of textural element, subverting the ephemera of a typical lecture scenario.

I also interspersed a purely musical element, consisting of a set of low drones plus a set of brief melodies in a higher register (outlining an A mixolydian scale) all sung on a textless “ooh.” It’s pretty arbitrary; I thought the piece could use it, and I like the texture that results. But it also serves to focus attention on the abstract structure of the piece, rather than the content, and to suggest that the piece as a whole may be considered in musical terms.

There’s another type of behavior, too, statistically less likely to occur. While 16 of the 20 slides use the above formulations, the remaining 4 are shuffled riffs on standard salutations and closing statements: “Hello,” “Good evening,” “My name is Ben Houge,” “Thank you for your attention,” “Good night,” etc. The idea is that through repetition and dislocation, these phrases become formal (rather than syntactical) elements; it’s very similar to what I’m doing with radio broadcasts in Radiospace. Having another type of behavior helps vary and articulate the overall form. I also just think it’s funny, and I sensed that the audience was similarly amused. Humor is like music, in that it plays with audience expectations, as when I end my piece with a cordial, “Hello, everyone.”

The slides were generated using very similar techniques to those I employed in my 29 Giraffes series, but substituting text for little chunks of photographs. The colors, in fact, are algorithmically extracted from the same Nanjing Dong Lu source material I used in my Giraffes. Here again, the emphasis is more on the texture that emerges from all this superimposed text, rather than on the text itself; as with the algorithmically generated script, the slides communicate through form, rather than content.

The whole piece has an audio accompaniment, too, one 20 second audio clip per slide. To create this backdrop, I processed a recording of myself reading the text of the piece using a bunch of custom software I had lying around at the time, programs I had developed for other pieces. You can identify bits of Psalmus, Study for Eventual World Domination (my contribution to The Bike Bin Project), Radiospace, and a granular synthesis demo I did as a videogame audio engine prototype. Looking back, the evocations of these pieces that crop up (as of the Giraffes) provide a nice snapshot of my digital workspace in September 2008, which was part of the idea.

To assemble all of these elements, I selected the 20 slides I wanted to use of the many I had generated, then I wrote a program to shuffle them. Same for the 20-second audio segments I generated. In the end, it’s a combination of arbitrary decisions and procedurally generated bits, which is really how just about any artwork comes together, digital or otherwise.

The result is that ideas come and go, freely floating. I’ve referred to a lot of my pieces as “meditations,” and the term is certainly apt here. Ideas recur, sometimes in different media (text from the slides may pop up again in the spoken presentation or recorded backdrop). They “interpenetrate,” to use one of John Cage’s favorite terms. They reinforce each other, and they add up to a way of thinking, which is very much my way of thinking, a network, a web of ideas, all connected.

It’s a good time for me to revisit this piece. Especially in the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning that can be conveyed through pure structure. I think this has come to the fore as I’ve been increasingly active in visual media. In music, we take this for granted; you could say that music traditionally conveys meaning through structure alone. Music is the most abstract of the arts; representation or mimesis in the pre-recording era was by far the exception (think of the timpani evoking thunder in the “Scène aux champs” of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique). In some cases you can say what a piece is “about,” because you know something of the circumstances of its composition, or because of a prefatory note by the composer. But principally, music’s meaning is all in the relationships of different frequencies, rhythms, velocities, timbres, etc., and, more importantly, the calculus of how this all changes over time. You would never say that even as abstract a composition as The Art of the Fugue is meaningless.

So coming, as I do, from a background in music, it’s only natural for me to approach my visual art in the same way, applying the same types of structures that I use in my sound work to visual information, and it’s been surprising to see how the conversation unfolds differently. A prominent arts person (don’t worry, no one you know) came to see my show in Suzhou last fall, and I was kind of amazed when she asked me what my piece was trying to convey. A musician would never think to ask such a question. As Elvis Costello said, if I could have written the song with any other words than the words I used in the song, I would have written a different song, wouldn’t I?

Of course there was a bit of a conscious impulse to poke a hole in the sometimes punctilious proceedings of a standard PechaKucha event (I have my Seattle School cohorts to thank for any vestigial confrontational aesthetic). As when I sneakily built an ambient electronic piece from mildly acrimonious pre-show chatter at Opensound a few weeks ago, I like the idea of snapping people into a different state of awareness with some new or unexpected realization. I also like the pacing of it; PechaKucha is usually about people cramming as much as they can into their 6:40, but my script actually includes indications to pause for as long as 10 seconds. But both times I’ve presented this work, the audience seemed to get it and dig it; it’s not just some avant-garde stunt. The message was conveyed.

Statement of Purpose was my first project after leaving Ubisoft at the end of August 2008. The deadline was tight, less than a month, as I recall, and I liked the idea of doing a new piece completely from scratch to emphasize my new trajectory as a full time, independent artist. I remember staying up all night to get it done, with an urgency that had been missing from my corporate gig for quite a while. I consciously wanted to make a statement about the main issues I was setting out to address in my work, my mission, as I considered it (and still do). Check out some documentation from that performance, and a video excerpt below.

I originally wanted to generate my slides and script in real-time using custom software, which I feel is technically still in keeping with the PechaKucha format, but in Boston as well as in Shanghai, the organizers very understandably wanted to stick to a standard set-up for all speakers. This is still something I want to explore, though, particularly the idea of giving cues to a performer on the fly, exploring the idea of real-time score generation (which is exactly what happens in a music videogame like Guitar Hero, and which I’ve already started to explore in pieces like my Zhujiajiao Drinking Game, more commonly referred to as Beer Hero). I’ve been contemplating a revision of this piece for a long time, to include this real-time score idea, write some new modules, add some Chinese text, incorporate multiple screens of real-time generated imagery, and blow past the 6:40 PechaKucha time limit to create a full, hour-long presentation. If anyone would like to sponsor and/or host such an event, please let me know!

Act Like You Got Some Sense

As many of you, my faithful readers and spambots, already know, I moved out of my Shanghai apartment last December, and since then I’ve been leading a nomadic existence as an international art hobo, first in the US, then in Kenya, back in Shanghai and Suzhou for a bit, and most recently in Germany. I originally expected that at the end of my sojourns I would ultimately find a new flat in Shanghai, and so I carefully packed away every duvet, cocktail shaker, and gaming console. Circumstances have since conspired, however, such that my next “permanent address” (this phrase always makes me giggle) will be in scenic Somerville, MA, USA, a place I’ve never visited, but about which I hear wonderful things. (No, I am not being deported, though I won’t let that stop me from relentlessly plugging my artwork that was confiscated by the Chinese government earlier this year.)

But in the immortal words of Big Boi, “Greyhound don’t float on water.” Experience has taught me that when you make a big move, you have your choice of three options for losing money: lose money by shipping your junk, lose money by storing your junk indefinitely (e.g., to date, the upwards of five grand for storing I don’t even remember what, some old Duran Duran records and a djembe, I think, in Seattle), or lose money by giving your junk away at a small fraction of what you paid for it. Dear friends and spambots, I have chosen the third option. To wit…

Ben Houge’s 35th Annual “New Year, New Address” Fire Sale

I am selling the following items at the following rock bottom prices. I’m attempting to sell things as bundles, to try to get rid of as much stuff as quickly as possible. Prices are negotiable, everything must go!

Oven: 500 RMB
Was over 1000 RMB new. I’d been holding this for some dufus who, two weeks after he told me he’d pick it up, called to say he didn’t want it after all. So if you’re one of the several other folks who inquired, feel free to inquire again; it’s still available! Relatively sizeable for a standalone, tabletop unit, big enough for roasting chickens and ducks (sequentially) or Beef Wellington, but doesn’t take up too much space, also handy for bruschetta, etc.

This oven could be yours!
This oven could be yours!

Box o’ DVD’s: 300 RMB
It’s a medium sized box, mostly full of DVD’s in absolutely no order. Over six years of Shanghai DVD hoarding has resulted in a substantial collection. The catch: it’s all or nothing; if you want ‘em, you gotta buy the whole box. I don’t know what all’s in there, but it skews a bit towards European and Chinese “art films.” That means you take the Antonioni and Bergman along with the Die Hard and Rambo. The Police Story pentalogy and Infernal Affairs trilogy are included, plus I think both Hulk films, House of Flying Daggers (x2, I think), Curse of the Golden Flower, you get the idea… All cinema, no TV series. Act now, and I’ll throw in Monty Python’s Flying Circus!

These DVD's could be yours!
These DVD

1000 Watt Step Down Voltage Converter (220V to 110V): 250 RMB
Bought this, works fine, except 1000 watts was insufficient for my vast array of US synthesizers and music gear!

This amp and transformer could be yours!
This amp and transformer could be yours!

TV Stand: 200 RMB
Sleek, small, but sturdy, glass and metal, supported a 50” TV (not included) for the past four years, ably and with aplomb. Two open shelves underneath used to house a big amp/receiver, an Xbox 360, an Xbox, a PS2, and a Game Cube (not included).

This TV stand could be yours (glass top not pictured)!
This TV stand could be yours!

One Big Black Bookshelf: 200 RMB
Classic square design, 3 shelves, pretty darned convenient.

This bookshelf could be yours!
This bookshelf could be yours!

Two Big Black Tables: 100 RMB each
Before I met Jutta, I also tried my hand at furniture design: I had these custom made for my studio equipment (who knows when I’ll ever set that all up again, sigh) about five years ago, still in pretty good shape. Very simple design, very versatile, somewhat idiosyncratic design (long and narrow) and a little bit low, designed to be ergonomic for typing and/or playing a keyboard (i.e., elbows at 90 degrees, no awkward wrist bending).

These custom tables could be yours!
These custom tables could be yours!

Black, Wooden, Two-Drawer File Cabinet: 100 RMB
Also my original design. The drawers have runners along the inside, fits standard Ikea hanging folders. The ornate brass-ish handle on the lower drawer has come off, but that’s easily repaired!

This file cabinet could be yours!
This file cabinet could be yours!

White Hanging Drawer Thing: 120 RMB
This was Jutta’s, so you know it’s classy. It’s like got these suspended cloth drawer things, six of them, arranged vertically, about a meter and a half tall, lots of storage taking up relatively little floor space. On wheels! Kinda like this, but with six drawers instead of four, and already assembled!

This suspended drawer thing could be yours!
This suspended drawer thing could be yours!

PS2 + Xbox: 1200 RMB SOLD!
If you want only the Xbox, we can talk, but if you only want the PS2, sorry, chump, you gotta buy both! That’s the deal! Comes with 2 controllers for each and a handful of games (more for Xbox than PS2, including Crimson Skies, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, and Jade Empire), and 2 Sing Star mics (for the PS2)! The PS2 has a rare and exquisite metallic light blue finish, and the Xbox is some kind of limited edition crystal something or other (i.e., clear case).

Two Squash Rackets and Balls: 200 RMB SOLD!
Nice ones, from Decathlon, barely used (like 3x), to my chagrin.

This squash paraphernalia could be yours!
This squash paraphernalia could be yours!

Johnson Amp: 50 RMB SOLD!
Small and super cheap, but perfect if you’re a beginner guitarist or maybe into chip bending.

Dish Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Big plates, little plates, some bowls, mostly of Ikea provenance.

Glassware Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Water glasses, some odd wine glasses, a bunch of martini glasses, some mugs, a cocktail shaker and strainer.

Cutlery Bundle: 100 RMB SOLD!
Two full sets of cutlery, in fact, including chopsticks and cutting boards and a handy little tray in which to store it all.

Toaster 50 RMB SOLD!
It is green.

Rice Cooker: 50 RMB SOLD!
It cooks rice. Might have two of these, actually.

And I would be a poor salesperson (or a much more successful artist than I am) if I neglected to remind you that I still have an ample supply of my own CD’s available for sale: Radiospace (40 RMB) and 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies (20 RMB), plus my new one, Chingachgook(s) (50 RMB, come on, I made them by hand!). Tell you what: if you buy something, I’ll give you 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies for free!

I have lots of high quality digital art prints for sale as well, the fruits of my art hobo year! Check out Study for Insomnia, Transportation Is Getting a New Look, Shanghai Traces, and 29 Giraffes. You can talk to me or to the galleries that have presented these works; contact me, and I’ll point you in the right direction.

Please forward this list to friends!

P.S. Don’t worry about me not having a PS2 or Xbox anymore; I’ve got another set in storage in Seattle. (Um, why?)

P.P.S. I just saw that Wikipedia defines “fire sale” as “the sale of goods at extremely discounted prices, typically when the seller faces bankruptcy or other impending distress.” Apt indeed.

Words of Wisdom from the Chairman

[9/18/09 One more added paragraph!]
[7/13/09 Updated with two bonus paragraphs!  Can you find them all?]

Before I left for China in August 2004, I went down to the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle’s Pioneer Square district and, on the recommendation of my good friend and former fellow Lemur Celia Chavez, bought a nice, hand bound journal.  I’d always thought that, in the course of my life’s many sojourns, it’s kind of a shame I’ve never kept a journal to record my experiences, and I vowed to make amends on this subsequent venture.

When I first arrived I wrote fairly diligently, documenting my acclimation to life in China.  That lasted about a month.  Entries grew further and further apart, culminating in the lengthy gap between November 22, 2004, and April 9, 2005, before breaking off altogether.

When I started studying Chinese characters a while later, I realized that the only way these things were going to stick in my head was if I wrote with them regularly, and the journal effort recommenced, this time in Mandarin.  Since June 4, 2006 I’ve been keeping a Chinese journal, with much greater success than the English version.  There have been a few dips in frequency, especially earlier this year, as I focused on trying to read my first Chinese book (Lang Lang’s 郎朗 autobiography, and boy, will I have a lot to say about that when I finally finish it!), but now I’m back up to about once per week.  One of my simple pleasures is to go hang out in a bar on an off night, or occasionally one of those all you can eat sushi joints, find a quiet corner, and catch up on my journal for an hour or two.

It’s good for reinforcing characters, but there are drawbacks to a Chinese journal.  It lacks the immediacy of writing in my mother tongue, and my means of expression are drastically reduced to more or less recounting the bare facts.  I write less, I write more slowly, and I hardly ever go back and skim over what I’ve already written (one of the primary joys of journaling, I believe), since I read so slowly.  And due to its personal nature, I rarely have anyone proofreading it, so I tend to reinforce the same dumb mistakes over and over.

So I’d been wanting to write for a while about Mike and Liza Min’s recent honeymoon visit to Shanghai, but I eventually realized it simply wasn’t journal material.  Therefore I have decided to take it to the blog and get all gushy on you for a minute.

As Mike put it on the webpage for the Bike Bin Project, I’ve known him for forever and a half.  That would put our first meeting at the Bauhaus Café in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, where he, me, Korby Sears, and Erik Aho had arranged to go see Harry Partch acolyte Phillip Arnautoff’s homemade string instruments in just intonation.  From there, Mike joined me, Korby, and Geoff Ogle to found the Sound Currents concert series, and Mike assembled the Seattle School composers collective (him, me, Korby, Erik, and Guy Whitmore at its inception) to perform Mike’s piece “Folding” at the first Sound Currents show.  Seattle School went on to conquer the Seattle new music scene with confounding, confrontational pieces, culminating in the hugely successful Iron Composer songwriting competition/obstacle course/drinking game/audience participation/performance extravaganza (in which Mike went by the moniker “Chairman Min”).  I’m not going to tell the whole, crazy story; you can read about it on the Seattle School web site (though even that doesn’t really do it justice).

Unquestionably, my Seattle School cohorts are what I’ve missed the most about Seattle (well, them and good beer).  So when Mike announced that he was marrying Liza Keckler (whom I’d had the pleasure to meet on my last visit to Seattle in 2006), and that they were stopping by Shanghai on their honeymoon, I was ecstatic.  They were here for just 3 days, about a month ago, and it was so awesome to see them that I didn’t even want to waste time Twittering about it.  Jutta and I picked them up at the airport in a car with champagne and fresh fruit, and did our best to show them the best of our fair city of Shanghai in the limited time they had.

It went by super fast; it felt like there wasn’t nearly enough time to talk about all the important stuff, the kind of things that Mike, Korby, and I would stay up late drinking bourbon and dissecting, the inscrutable calculus of composer, performer, audience, expectation, sympathy, structure, innovation, tradition, all the factors that are at the core of any serious art.  I realized that in some ways we’d grown in different directions, but in the important ways, those directions were pretty much parallel. 

I consider Mike one of the wisest people I know, and in retrospect, I realized that I was kind of looking for Mike’s approval on my work and activities in the five years since I left Seattle, and especially in this last year, as my sabbatical is starting to wind to a close.  So the day after they left, I took out a sheet of paper and tried to capture all of Mike’s morsels of admonition.  My memory’s already going fuzzy on the details, but here were the salient points as I captured them then.

Chairman Min says:

I should find a theater guy to consult/collaborate with me on shows.
I can do a lot in two months (approximately what remains of my sabbatical)
I’m getting upset about the wrong things (I think he meant when I’m complaining about loops and peoples’ misapprehension of non-linear or algorithmic structures)
Prebound” is “sweet,” but “口口口口口口口口” should be the single for my new album.
I should curate my own art show; I know enough people to pull it off, and it would be incredible, or amazing, or awesome, I forget which.
When I said I don’t like most people (I think I actually said “anyone”), he said, “Yes you do; you’re just a big Ben bear.”
He digs my three big non-linear spectacle ideas: the opera, the symphony, and the restaurant piece (must get these realized, stay tuned!).
Again I said I didn’t really like anything, and he said that probably the problem was that, like him, I’ve been so overwhelmed by something truly excellent in the past that I’m disappointed when things fall short of that standard.
In the current economic climate, I should feel no remorse whatsoever about selling my downtown Seattle condo when I moved to China (which I had previously described as one of the big regrets of my life).  Mike has an MBA, so I trust him on such things.  What a relief!

Mike also completely disagreed with my frequent observation about how artists have an obligation to know their materials. I’m still thinking it over, but I trot that one out less frequently these days.

Another conversation stuck with me.  I mentioned a poet friend of mine that Jutta and I had gone bowling with a few weeks prior.  She’s since left Shanghai to pursue a graduate degree, which involves picking a new language to learn (you need four).  So we got to talking about career prospects for poets, and thinking about what poets really want out of life.  Mike said, “I think poets just want to be left alone.  Like composers!” 

So true.  That’s all I’m looking for.  I wish I could set my Facebook “looking for” field to “solitude.”  Perhaps as a composer I fetishize time a bit, but it’s really the only thing I need to do good work; I’ve got everything else.  My original plan for this sabbatical year was to move to another city where I didn’t know anybody and just be a hermit, focusing on my work.  As my sabbatical is starting to wind down (less than 2 months remaining!) I’m starting to think that wouldn’t have been such a bad idea.  I mean, I’ve gotten a fair amount done, but I always feel like I could be doing more.  So many opportunities in Shanghai, but, oh, so many distractions…

Other things I observed about Mike, which I think have always been pretty much true, and which I should really take to heart and emulate.

Mike is empathetic; he’s not over eager to talk about his own stuff, but is very receptive to what other people have to say.
Mike keeps his cool.
Mike doesn’t get hung up on insignificant details.
Mike seems to drink a bit less than he used to.
He looks a little older (a reminder that I’m sure I look much older than I did when I moved here), but he looks really happy. I mean, it’s his honeymoon and all, so I’d hope so, but in general he seems really happy with where he is in life.

So anyway, thanks to Mike and Liza for stopping by; your presence here was a tremendous joy and encouragement to me.  Accept my heartiest congratulations on your nuptials, and may you have every success with your impending projects (like that iPhone app).  Sorry for sending you to the beach with cupping bruises on your backs.  I love you guys.  You’re welcome back anytime.

The Most Relaxing Blog Post…Ever!

I visited my favorite massage parlor, 龍之道, yesterday. I’m not sure I want to publicize the address, as I generally prefer to be the only bloated foreigner in the joint, but they provide rigorous Chinese massage, medically sound, with skilled practitioners, and the whole array of treatments (incl. hot cups) available as necessary, none of this froofy Dragonfly shizznit.

The only problem was the music. I think they must hand out a complimentary CD of English language adult contemporary dreck when you pick up your business license in Shanghai. Those who have been here a while can fill in this list on their own, but all the classics were in full effect during our hour and a half visit:

The Eagles, Hotel California
Phil Collins, Another Day in Paradise
Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love You
Celine Dion, The Power of Love
Simon & Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence [actually, I like this one]
Michael Bolton, When a Man Loves a Woman
Bryan Adams, Everything I Do (I Do It for You)

We made a little game of guessing the next tune, and I was afraid I’d lose until they played Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” as we walked out. (I never heard “My Heart Will Go On,” but I did doze off for a bit.)

I’ve long thought that a massage parlor is an ideal place to implement some of my ideas for indefinitely continuing music (just like in a videogame), totally ambient (no pre-rendered dramatic climaxes), non-looping, real-time deployed. It’s still a back burner project, but I’ve been hoarding ideas for Project Dragonfly for at least a year now. Stay tuned; it’s gonna be absolutely, unequivocally gorgeous.

Compiling this list reminded me that way back when I did that interview with Morgan for SmartShanghai, I shared my Chinese experimental music starter kit, which didn’t make the final edit of the already exhaustively comprehensive interview (I’m still so impressed that Morgan took the time to transcribe all that babbling).

So here ya go, my Chinese underground/experimental music starter kit (which admittedly betrays a marked ambient bent):

Li Jianhong 李剑鸿 + 10, See You New World (2Pi)
718, An (Kwanyin)
Lin Zhiying 林志英, [I actually can’t tell what the title of this thing is; might be “II,” and the label might be “21 Floor;” album art is B&W photo of a lot of people going over a bridge with umbrellas and a TV in a vacant lot]
Wang Changcun 王长存, Parallel Universe (Post-Concrete)
AITAR II, B6 and MHP (Isolation Music)
V.A., Music for Shopping Malls (Kwanyin) [featuring Zafka, Yan Jun 颜峻, and 718, and Eric Satie]
V.A., Landscape 2 (Shanshui)
V.A., The Sound of Silence Project (Reconfiguration)
And one of Torturing Nurse’s 9,382,521 CD’s; I’ve given out the one they did with Tokyo-based Polish noise artist Zbigniew Karkowski and Hong Kong-based Dickson Dee a few times as gifts, “Penetration” (PACrec)

Now the bad news: last time I was at Sugar Jar in Beijing, I wanted to pick a bunch of these up as a gift for a friend of mine (the fine composer Kevin Siegfried), and most of them are now out of print. So if you ever see ‘em, snag ‘em!

BTW, when I read that SmartShanghai interview for the first time, I had a mad impulse to annotate and expand and fill in some of the gaps, but I resisted, seeking to preserve the integrity of the barroom ramble it was. Now that some time has elapsed, in an effort to wring more mileage out of it in the time-honored tradition of the director’s cut, I would offer the following additional comments:

I got distracted by some other idea and totally skirted the question about being proud of my work on EndWar, but yes, I am quite proud of my work on that game. I think it’s a great game, and I think it includes some technological innovations in the sound department that hold great relevance for the industry at large. Hurrah for EndWar!

I started to answer the question about what exactly I was doing at Ubisoft with a long answer about how my previous roles led up to my most recent role, but then I got lost my train of thought. But the short answer would be that I was the lead audio guy on the project, and my job was to convey and support the primary vision for the game in sound. Read all about it here.

I might have clarified that the original lead singer of Petra, Greg Hough, lasted only one and a half albums, soon to be replaced by Greg X. Volz.

Had I considered the question a little more closely, I probably would have said that classical music is the midpoint between Christian rock and Torturing Nurse, rather than INXS, and then I would have blabbed on about extracting the creative impulse from its varying manifestations and achieving some kind of enlightenment that encompasses all sound as music or some such drivel. I also feel bad that I didn’t give Depeche Mode appropriate props as an influence in this interview, and perhaps also Michael W. Smith.

And I flubbed the details of my frustration with those damn Elvis Costello reissues. The first reissues (of all the pre-Warner Bros. stuff, during which time he was handled differently in the UK and the US) were done by Rykodisc, as single disks with bonus tracks appended. Then Rhino did 2 CD remastered editions (which also included his Warner Bros. releases), and now Universal is re-re-re-releasing all the pre-Warners stuff. I have This Year’s Model on cassette, LP, and Rykodisc CD, not to mention the Warner Bros. release of All This Useless Beauty as well as the Rhino reissue. In general all the bonus material consists of rough demos, too, which in most cases only tarnish the final versions. There are not nearly enough rare B-sides, especially from Mighty Like a Rose. And can you even get “A Drunken Man’s Praise of Sobriety” anywhere anymore? Although I would love to get my hands on that short, live, promotional EP he did with the Brodsky Quartet following The Juliet Letters, which had a Beach Boys tune and some Tom Waits, I believe. What was the question again?

My Sabbatical

There are many ways to lead a life in music, and life is probably too short to experientially determine which works best. The one I’ve kind of fallen into is what could be labeled the “commercial” route. I’ve spent the last 12 years designing audio for videogames full time, squeezing in more “personal” or “artistic” projects wherever I could around the edges.

Early on, I would sometimes experience anxiety, worrying that I was prostituting my art in the crass and commercial games business, and accusative looks would occasionally be directed my way from other, more artistic quarters as well. But as my understanding of the medium grew, I came to realize what a fascinating world I had stumbled into.

When I started out in games, I had the idea that it might serve as a stepping stone into film down the road, but now I would consider that a step in the wrong direction. Whereas film is codified and calcified and highly competitive, games are full of fresh challenges and opportunities as technology evolves, genres proliferate and diversify, and the very language of the medium continues to be defined.

Not only that, but working in a high-tech corporate environment provided unwitting training in other less glamorous yet useful skills, such as team management, scheduling, budgeting, and general IT savvy, not to mention the invaluable experience of contributing to successful, long-term projects that require lots of people to work together. So I’m not knocking the games industry.

Nonetheless, from early on I had the idea that working a regular day job in the videogame trenches would at some point reward me by providing the wherewithal to take some time off and devote myself exclusively to my own projects. And as my artistic pursuits grew ever more closely in line with my professional pursuits (non-linear structures, algorithmic processes, real-time sound synthesis, etc.), I longed for a period of pure research, during which I could explore these ideas freely, without time constraints, competing tasks, or other practical considerations.

So during the inordinately long time I spent on my last game (Tom Clancy’s EndWar, which I served as audio director for the past 3.5 years), as the side projects piled up, I began to formulate a more concrete exit plan. About two years ago I started laying some extra cash aside, with the idea that I would leave Ubisoft after EndWar was completed and spend a sabbatical year in China devoted exclusively to developing my own work.

And now that EndWar is finished, I have actuated my plan. Though I’ll continue to take on small tasks here and there (doing more freelance writing, maybe a bit of consulting), I’ve freed up the bulk of my time for personal, artistic pursuits. Welcome to my sabbatical!

I’ve formulated a mission statement to guide my activities this year: to apply the techniques I’ve been developing to structure non-linear sound for videogames over the past 12 years in a broader cultural context. I’m convinced there’s some vital work to do at the nexus of videogames, music composition, sound installation, and digital art, so I plan to poke around this area and see what connections I can find. The goal is to try out new ideas, with the agility to iterate rapidly and follow up on the good ones, while developing relevant skills to help me better tackle problems as they emerge, all of the things a good sabbatical should be about.

When the year is up, I’ll reevaluate and see what makes sense as a next step. I may go back to doing the kind of work I was doing before with renewed vigor, enthusiasm, and perspective. Or I might continue trying to push at these ideas from the non-commercial side for a while. It might even be possible that the virgin soil of gaming is receptive to a new kind of organism that wouldn’t force the choice, but could represent a new, viable structure for the dissemination of serious art. I’ll let you know in a year.