Monday, January 25, 2016

Guest Blog: Rachel Cantor My First Artists' Colony

It was February 1999. I had finished my creative writing MA at Johns Hopkins nine months earlier, but hadn’t decided what to do next. I’d been a summer intern at a Jewish retreat center, I’d stayed on a friend’s couch in her studio apartment in D.C., I’m sure I spent time visiting my sister and her young family, and I was, by January, staying on the couch of yet another friend, this time in Philly. I was anything but settled. Probably I hadn’t written in months. But I was a writer—I was sure about that, and it wasn’t just my degree that told me so. Still, I hadn’t published even one short story—publication was all but unimaginable! But the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, an artists’ colony located in Amherst, Virginia, didn’t care about that. They invited me for a five-week residency—five weeks! Five weeks during which time—could it be?—I was to do nothing but write. I’d have my own room, with a door! I could unpack a suitcase, finally. Good people would cook me meals. I could meditate, pretend to do yoga. The clicking of my laptop would disturb no one, nor would I be disturbed by toddlers, curious cats, the daily lives of my most generous friends. 

As I arrived, according to my diary, I was even more unsettled. I was organizing a work trip to Rwanda to start just days after the residency. I’d just had emergency dental work—my cheek the night before I traveled was, I wrote, “swole like a pumpkin.” Maybe my back hurt: I was concerned about managing my suitcases through two commuter rail legs and two flights. 

I was soothed, though, by the affable Robert Johnson, longtime driver for VCCA (and fried-chicken chef and poker player and VCCA institution), who picked me up at the airport, and welcomed me with his hard-for-this-Yankee-to-always-understand Virginia accent. And I was charmed by my studio—more specifically, the presence within it of the “La-Z-Boy of my dreams.” Before I’d had five minutes to sit in it, I was coming up with plans: I would be “up at 6, washed by 6:30, stretched and sat by 7:30, breakfasted and off to work by 8,” though I’d never voluntarily gotten up at 6 for any reason, ever. I had so many plans! I would write new work in the morning, revise in the afternoon, and read all night. I named something like a dozen short stories I could rework. According to one plan I mapped out that first night, in addition to all this new work, and this revision, and this reading, I would reread and revise a novel I’d written some years before—easy if I broke it up into pieces, right? Thirty-nine days seemed an endless expanse. Probably I cried at the thought of it. I know I marveled at the gift. 

By lunchtime my first day, I had spent three straight hours revising a story. Still, I wrote that I needed to “resist this feeling (already!) that I'm not being productive.” Again and again in the days to come, I would berate myself for not working hard enough. But I did work hard—harder than I’d ever worked before—and I was productive. One afternoon, I wrote: “The hours just slip away. Have I ever spent so many hours in one day working on a single story (must count: nearly five hours)? Probably not. I want to write all day.” There were dead ends, of course, mostly involving attempts to revive old work, like that early novel. But sitting on my beloved La-Z-Boy, listening to Nirvana on my cassette Walkman (yes!), I drafted or revised five stories I would later publish. 

More than that, however, I set the course for the work I would do for the next decade. “I’d so much like to start a new series,” I wrote that first night after rereading some drafts, “give my writing over the next few weeks some structure, some direction, but of course I can't imagine what that series might be, esp. now that I’m so disillusioned by Shira … To follow a single character through vastly different moments in her life—that would be a good structure …” From this germ came the first “Shira” stories, eight of which I since published in magazines like the Kenyon ReviewOne StoryNew England Review, and Fence. From this germ (and I guess despite my “disillusion”!) also came Good on Paper, a “Shira” story that became my just-now-published second novel. 

My first colony was not just about writing—doing good work and discovering how hard I could work, how much I could write. It was about artistic community. I met composers, I met the accordionist for the Pogues, I met sculptors, and book artists, and a 98-year-old painter. I lit Shabbat candles with an Israeli and a former rebbetzin. I played nickel-ante poker, I heard other writers read, I went to open studios, and, yes, a dance party or two. People asked to read my work! They wanted me to read for them—me! The unpublished writer! How I admired them, those accomplished, dedicated people, those professionals, with their agents and galleries and recordings! How I wanted to be like them. And for five beautiful weeks I was. 

“Write this down,” I wrote during one of those first days, “in case I ever forget it: writing is the best thing. Even revising is wonderful. I can’t believe it’s after 10 already. That's all I needed to say.” I have since had the incredible good fortune to be a fellow at nearly 30 residencies in four countries. Every time, I hope to approach this gift with the wonder and excitement of my first time. 

VCCA photo: Katey Schultz

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

In Residence: Filmmaker Terence Nance

By his own admission, filmmaker Terence Nance has been working on “5,000 things” while in residence. It’s the nature of the filmmaking beast to have many pots (post-production, editing, filming, pre-production, etc.) bubbling away at once on the stovetop. Keeping on top of them all is a necessary challenge, especially for a young filmmaker. 

Terence’s first feature film, An Oversimplification of Her Beauty premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival as part of its New Frontier program. The film, which uses both live action and animation, garnered a number of accolades: Filmmaker magazine named Terence one of the 25 new faces of independent film. The film also won the 2012 Gotham Award for “Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You.” The film has since been released theatrically in the U.S., U.K., France and South Africa.

On a fellowship funded by the NEA supporting community based, socially engaged visual artists, Terence was joined at VCCA by his collaborators Naima Ramos-Chapman, and Chanelle Aponte Pearson. “When Naima and I first got here,” he says. “We had to finish two films because they are premiering in January. And Nothing Happened is a film Naima Directed and I DP'd and produced. It is a retelling of post-traumatic stress following a sexual assault. It focuses on how PTSD affects banal, quotidian things like how to get out of bed, how to make breakfast, or talk to your family. This film to premiere at the Slamdance Film Festival, which takes place in Park City Utah at the same time as Sundance. Their other film, Swimming in Your Skin, is premiering at Sundance.

After they completed those two films, Terence was able to focus on another collaboration, this time with Ms. Aponte Pearson: a film documenting skin bleaching practices around the world. “We’re putting together footage we shot in Jamaica and writing the script for that part and then just trying to get the transcripts for the pre-interviews from other subjects in other countries. Then we can write a script based on those and get some footage to cut together so we can raise some more money for the shoot in Thailand.” A film like this, with multiple locations in multiple countries, requires a lengthy and costly principle photography period. Funding from ITVS covered the Jamaica filming. They also received partial funding from Tribeca Film Institute. Terence is optimistic about securing other funding once they get the script for the pre-interviews done. “We broke up the principal photography period into little chunks and we’ll be doing that, shooting little chunks, until there’s like a tipping point basically. Total budget for that film is like $900,000, which is not a lot in the film world.

“Fingers crossed, if we get more money we’ll be going to Thailand in November. I also want to go back to Jamaica and be a fly on the wall. Just watch and watch and not ask questions. I want to see what people are talking about and if there’s anything that can be revealed about why they bleach their skin. I want to emulate photographer Sebastião Salgado who really immerses himself in the places he photographs, spending several weeks there before he even gets his camera out.”

Funding films varies depending on the project. Terence has done commissions as well as small, relatively inexpensive out of pocket projects. “How things happen is just random. It’s the nature of being American. In Canada you have the National Film Board, the U.K. has the lottery. We have to piece it together randomly. There’s no one way to deal with the challenge of fundraising for feature films.”

The old model of artists and patrons is still very much alive in the film world. Patrons tend to be in other industries like the tech world. They don’t really care if the work ends up being commercially viable even though it generally is. Films that are increasingly ambitious and conceptually different from mainstream movie are funded by a patron. “Patronage exists outside the formal box and will sustain the bigger ideas.”  Terence says. He’s still trying to figure it out.  “The patronage model doesn’t really exist in the black film and art community,” he says. “We don’t really have that, we don’t have that wealth class. That said i'm open to funding from any patron of any hue.”

Terence makes all kinds of films from music videos to fictionalized stories and non-fiction works. He resists the term documentary to describe his fact-based films preferring subjective non-fiction or invented non-fiction to describe them. This allows for a more fluid, open approach. Terence’s films run the gamut in terms of length from 16 minutes up to a four hour version of a 90 minute film for presentation in a theater setting.

Terence and Chanelle valued VCCA’s open spaces and empty studio walls, a welcome respite from their visually charged and busy lives in Brooklyn. Last year, they spent two months at The Headlands Center for the Arts in Marin County, which provided the same blank slate on which to work and think.

Success has not changed Terence. “Now I have a longer resume... more work, but nobody threw a party as a result, nothing happened, I'm just constantly reminded that I need more work in order to galvanize the resources to make more conceptually ambitious projects. Work that requires period costumes, 40 extras, or whatever.” One hopes that the patronage is forthcoming that will see the ambitions of this very interesting up and coming filmmaker come to fruition.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Acousmatic and Electroacoustic Composer John Nichols III's Exploration of the Yamaha Disklavier

Composer John Nichols III was busy at work on his doctoral dissertation in music composition (from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign) while at VCCA. The dissertation includes two lecture presentations on Nichols' research analyzing the Yamaha Disklavier’s abilities and limitations, a large scale composition for the Disklavier (VCCA’s resides in C3) and electroacoustic sounds, and a paper documenting his research. As a composer, he focuses on acousmatic and electroacoustic music composition. 

The Disklavier is a computerized "hybrid" piano that features an acoustic piano with an electromagnetic mechanism that gives users the ability to record and play back performances note-for-note, with the piano keys, hammers and pedals moving up and down, like an old fashioned player piano. Introduced to the U.S. in 1987, the Disklavier was originally conceived of as an aid for education and recording virtuoso performances. In recent years Disklaviers have been embraced by composers like John as stand alone instruments.

“When I started working with the Disklavier, I thought it was a miracle instrument that could do anything. The first piece I wrote for the Disklavier, The Pillar (which won the Conlon Competition and was performed at the Gaudeamus Muziekweek in the Netherlands) was written pianistically. I was thinking of the work in terms of two hands. Then I realized what this instrument could do; as a composer in the 21st century one doesn’t have to think of composing for two hands anymore. We can think of it in some other terms that we don’t even know yet, because we haven’t discovered the full potential of the Disklavier. It’s exciting. One of the passages in my composition features an upwards cascade of notes evoking raindrops lifting off a roof, or evaporation. I never would have written that for a human being because it is physically impossible."

John soon discovered that while mostly miraculous, the Disklavier presented some problems. John’s compositions are incredibly complex featuring a wide diversity of sonic phenomena melded into a profoundly expressive form. The work is bold, loud and ornate with cascading arpeggios, crashing chords and extremes of timbre from deep bass to fragile tinkling of notes at the upper register. It is the number of notes and rapidity in which they are played that causes problems. According to Yamaha, the instrument is capable of playing 16 notes simultaneously, for example. But when John tried to do this, it caused the Disklavier to crash. “I discovered that if one exceeds six notes simultaneously playing at a certain speed things start to malfunction. I wanted to figure out how fast can one repeat 16-note sonorities. Ten note clusters are too many notes, but it shouldn’t be because the instrument is supposed to accommodate 16.” John’s complex paper explains how to work within the limitations of the Disklavier to accomplish the desired effect.

In addition to the Disklavier, John uses the Digital Instrument for Sound Synthesis and Composition: DISSCO (created by his advisor Dr. Sever Tipei) to generate sounds. John also records sounds in the studio and use a lot of field recordings.

According to John, acousmatic music does not have any visual stimuli associated with it. There are no active human performers on stage; the music is written for loud speakers and is sometimes performed in the dark. During performances the loud speakers are arranged in a configuration around the audience. Many times it’s eight loudspeakers, but it can be more. Last year, John won the ASCAP/SEAMUS Student Composer's Commission Competition that was presented this year at Virginia Tech’s Cube, an electronic marvel boasting over 100 loudspeakers on four different levels.

John’s focus on electronic music was a gradual evolution. He began at age 12 with compositions for the trombone, his first instrument. He turned his attention to the piano “rather late”, at age 16, and started composing for that.

He then composed for orchestral instruments, in addition to a high school rock band and jazz ensembles. “I’ve written compositions for every orchestral instrument. Gradually, I began experimenting with electronics, although they were always an influence. I had experimented with cassette tape early on doing overdubs and things of this nature, but I was very focused on the theatrical aspect of what’s happening onstage—human beings performing. I would request that the performers do outrageous things like whipping the flute around wildly, or screaming into the instrument. Drawing the audience in through visual stimuli. Eventually I realized the visual stimuli was not giving me what I wanted, because what I wanted was sound and composition, sonic composition.”

His focus became to expand the timbre palette of the instrument. When he realized the potential for electroacoustic sound design, it became the logical next step. “When you stop to consider what the instruments of our time are, it’s clear, they’re loudspeakers. We can make so many different types of sound. These are sounds that would be entirely impossible with instruments, and most wouldn’t be imaginable even 30 years ago." 

For someone whose interest is electroacoustic music, John is exactly where he should be as the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign  is known throughout the world for their experimental music program with electronic music studios that date to 1956.

John commenced his new composition for Disklavier and electroacoustic sounds here at VCCA when he was in residence for a month in the spring. “When I came back in the fall I continued. I got so much music done. I also started the electroacoustic part. In fact, the entire electroacoustic part was done here and the great majority of the sounds were all recorded and created at VCCA. I made over 400 recordings on the grounds and around VCCA, Sweet Briar College and on the highway.” John is scheduled to defend his thesis in February.

John has received international recognition for his electroacoustic works and has had compositions performed at Gaudeamus Muziekweek, International Computer Music Conference, and Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States –among others. Nichols' compositions are honored with accolades such as Grand Luigi Russolo Prize and 1st Luigi Russolo Prize in the XXVIII Luigi Russolo International Sound Art Competition (2014, France, Spain), First Prize Absolute in the “Città di Udine” International Composition Competition (2014, Italy), First Prize in the ASCAP/SEAMUS Student Commission Competition (2014, USA), First Prize in the WOCMAT International Phil Winsor Young Composers Competition (2013, Taiwan), Winner of the Second International Conlon Music Prize for Disklavier Plus (2013, Netherlands), and Winner of the Fourteenth Annual 21st Century Piano Commission Competition (2012, Illinois). His compositions are published on Musique & Recherches, SEAMUS, Monochrome Vision, and ABLAZE Records.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Guest Blog: Lucinda Bliss

A week after returning home from Paris, I packed up the car for a three-week residency at VCCA. On route down, I spontaneously veered off track to see the Antietam National Battlefield, in Sharpsburg, Maryland. Getting to know the land and the echoes it carries is part of my creative practice, and I drove south filled with questions about how the history of the country would feel different, and be held differently, from the southern perspective, particularly in a period in our history when we (once again) seem to be growing increasingly divisive.

With 23,000 soldiers killed or wounded, Antietam was the bloodiest one-day battle in American history. Though the September 17, 1862 battle was supposedly not won by either side (the guide at the welcome center was emphatic about this), it was claimed as a Union victory and inspired Lincoln’s strategic Emancipation Proclamation.
I had just returned from Paris a few weeks before my trip to Virginia and hadn’t really begun to process my experience of the November 13 attacks (The  Runner’s Glance in Paris). As I navigated the Antietam grounds, it felt right to be reminded of the deeper history of human violence, particularly as I prepared to enter the protected creative space at VCCA that would allow me to begin to translate my recent experiences through creative process.

After a few days of settling in and meeting the exceptional group of writers, composers, and artists at the residency, I set off to run the Monticello Holiday Classic 5k on the historic site where Thomas Jefferson built his home. I left on a frosty morning before dawn, arriving on the site as the sun was rising. Chatting up runners at local races is a great way to learn about a place, in addition to getting a tactile experience of the land. Since my days studying Art History at Skidmore College, I’d been curious about Thomas Jefferson, impressed with his inventions, progressive values, and commitment to creative enterprise, and disgusted by his lifelong racism and misogyny. I was eager to see how the complicated man would be represented at the national historic site.
In the early hours of the morning, runners warmed up through the hilltop gardens, preparing for the starting gun. The race itself was rough–the air chilled my lungs and the course was filled with twists and turns. Still, I placed 2nd in my age group, which earned me a free ticket for a guided tour of the main house.

Thankfully, our guide spoke about the darker side of Jefferson’s narrative and incorporated stories of the lives of a few of the many slaves who worked at Monticello during the President’s lifetime. The architecture, design of the garden and grounds, and the natural site are spectacular. As our tour concluded, the guide instructed us to head over to the fish pond (where fish had been kept in “storage” during Jefferson’s time) for the iconic reflection shot. As I continued to meander the grounds, I started thinking about classical models of architecture and design–how that application of proportion relative to the human body works, literally works, vibrating through the body with a balance of form, light, and negative space. At the same time, the authority signified by that very kind of structure points to the darker history of domination and oppression. I remain in awe of Monticello and fascinated by the contradictions it embodies. I’m holding in mind the more than 200 slaves that lived, worked, gave birth, and died in service of one man’s brilliant, complicated interpretation of classical and humanist ideals.

These are the kinds of contradictions that I try to hold onto when I return from a research exploration, and in the studio I attempt to build a mark-making vocabulary that can speak to multiple perceptions, in response to my experience of place.