In the collision between our bodies and the world, we rely on a robust meaning-making toolkit. We filter our daily experiences through our senses differently depending on our perspective—the combination of our prior experiences, our mood, and our motives. My research on reflexivity in artistic practice weighs the effects of revealing artist perspective within works of art. I carry out this research in two main ways. First, I create works for responsive media that foreground participant attention. Second, I develop strategies for artists to unearth their perspective-in-creating.
A prior project saw the creation of four compositions that document various aspects of life in urban Angola by processing recordings from 15-months of fieldwork. Awakening is based on a soundscape recording in the Bairro Popular of Luanda, asking a clarinetist to perform a semi-structured improvisation in response to the sounds of traffic, my neighbors, and the calls of vendors who walk the morning streets. In Tilt/Shift featuring Socorro, I perform with Gourdo—a digital instrument of my own design—to temporally reorganize the harmonic material in a recording of the Angolan singer/songwriter performing informally at his home. When the water returns features the sounds of me re-filling reserve containers after a week-long water outage. In performance, synthesized bell sounds drawn from a real-time analysis of the recording mingle with the water sounds and are distributed through the concert hall on a hybrid ambisonic/wave field synthesis sound system. In Ombela I use Gourdo to control a vocoder-inspired filter that allows me to compare sounds of the rains in Huambo with recordings of Portuguese and Umbundu speech.
Combining environmental recordings with improvised performance, the works create a new genre: soundscape music for live performance. Soundscape techniques are demystified when performed publicly. As audiences observe the choices a composer-performer makes on stage, they realize that the listening process is more important to the output than sound manipulation techniques. With their listening guided by a performer, audiences gain a tangible understanding that there is choice in experience.
The compositions are accompanied by a written dissertation that introduces “compositional reflection,” a reflexive writing method for artistic practice. Organized into three major sections, the first proposes a method intended to aid analysis of individual compositions. In developing compositional reflection, I draw on reflexive ethnographic techniques, applying them to explicate the conditions of practice during the creation of specific musical works. The second and third sections demonstrate the method with the four dissertation compositions. The second section provides an example of compositional reflection based on the broader context leading to the compositional works. The third section presents a compositional reflection centered on the situated phenomenal experiences in which the works themselves emerged.
Presenting the works alongside the compositional reflections yields two primary benefits. First, the reflections exteriorize a composer’s artistic strategies, making her experimental techniques more available to colleagues for theorization, for use in related arts, and for use in the everyday world. Second, they allow a listener to make comparisons between her experience of the sounds and those of the composer. A composer, sharing their phenomenal experiences during creation, opens avenues within the work for a listener to exercise agency in the experience of the work. Duly empowered, listeners encounter the creativity they employ in listening as they envision alternate paths a composer may have taken in the piece but didn’t.
My next creative project is a set of compositions and media installations for participants to contemplate the real and perceived challenges of balancing interdependence with self-determinism though the experience of sound spatializations. The new works draw on soundscapes recorded in Bartoseland/Western Province, Zambia layered with synthesized sounds and direct-source recordings in a complex multichannel field. In these works, focused sounds coalesce and emerge as definitive, localizable objects before dissolving to amorphous components of the broader whole. Different listening positions produce different experiences of the spatialization and the installations will encourage a participant to explore the soundfield. The works provide a visceral experience of the blurry lines between individuals and collectives while encouraging participants contemplate the challenges of agency when individual actions generate group phenomena.
This work is accompanied by a writing project on intercultural artistic exchange that will combine my reflections on the development of the work with those of my Zambian collaborators. It will pay special attention to how different participants conceive of the audiences for the project with interest in revealing how each intends to benefit from the work. The writing will be contextualized by research on current debates over cultural appropriation, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. It will contribute a concrete example of creative collaboration to scholarship on the power dynamics of commercial exchange between the Global North and Global South.
With an interest in how our perspective influences our perception, my dual-practice points to a need for attending to the way the world shapes us as we shape it. This begins with compositions that cultivate awareness in audience members that their experience in an encounter generated through a situated interaction with the piece. Creative output is supported by scholarship aimed at making the conditions of the work more accessible. Combined, the two provide models for infusing reflexivity into the generation and reception of human creativity.