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.

1 thought on “My Sabbatical”

  1. Hey Ben —

    Hope you are well. This is an entirely inspiring post. Good luck on your sabbatical. You are lucky to have found a way to connect your tines. I am spending lots of time these days running a technical group at an online publication. When I have time I work on my own intersection-of-interest: that between the descriptive imagination, software and datasets.

    Peace to you in China,

    Matt in Seattle

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