Winning Proposal Samples
Some of my earliest memories, and many of my family’s home feature me in the tub bellowing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in a call and response with my mother. Some evenings, she would hum tones and ask me to match her pitch, or at other times, I would burst out in an improvised song after being reminded of the activities the next day would bring. After re-watching some of these videos, I see that my mother, who was never a trained musician herself, recognized my inclination to vocalize simply because the physical action felt good, and encouraged it. For most of my early childhood, I would end each day this way. Growing up my relationship with my mother was natural, but I had a harder time connecting with my father and engaged conversation did not always come easily. If my mother was excitable and open, my father was equally stoic and somewhat distant. However, during Braves baseball games— our shared outing of choice— I was given the opportunity to relate with him through a medium other than speech. During intense and important moments of the game, Braves fans are famous for using a glorified chant to pump up the crowd and players. While standing next to my dad, we would chant along with thousands of other strangers. Oddly enough, it was in this setting where my father seemed to be most at ease— and where I felt closest to him. It was always a bonus if the home team came through with a win, but the focus for me was the connection I felt with my Dad.
I was probably too young to realize it, but the comfort and warmth I felt around my Mom at bath time could only fully be expressed through my joyous bellowing. While singing at the baseball game I felt reassurance that I was loved by my Dad. In neither of these circumstances did I reflect on the sounds I was making or how they might be perceived. Instead, I merely utilized my singing to confirm and express intangible truths that I knew were present around me. I have always understood the world, and my place within it, through my singing voice. Throughout my life it has provided me with an entirely different language through which my most important relationships have been developed and strengthened.
My studies in college as a student of classical voice have been a departure from the language of song I practiced throughout my childhood. Prior to matriculation, the purpose of the college experience is clearly explained to you by family, friends and amicable strangers: to find yourself. Moreover, in the conservatory world, I have been pushed unceasingly by professors to “find the truths” within the pieces I sing and to express them honestly. I see these directives as positive and indeed have found my college experience to be transformative. However, in the process of being encouraged to find my own voice, style, and truths, inevitably I have gotten caught up in the expectations of myself as a performer. Whether in a lesson, a recital, rehearsal or an opera, the truths I have been challenged to uncover have been subjected to feedback that I have been trained to seek and then heed. In short, singing has become an activity steeped in self-consciousness, complicating the search for honest self-expression.
Furthermore, I have learned that listening and awareness are essential components of honest expression— qualities that in some ways are stifled through my conservatory training. At home, I grew up visiting our family farm, a modest plot of land filled with pastures, hills, cow ponds and Georgia pines. In the 1980’s my grandfather built a one-room log cabin out of thick wooden beams from an old local corn mill, and in it my family spent Thanksgivings, Christmases and long weekends. With little more to do on the farm than explore, I became intimate with the smells of each season and the sounds of the cicadas singing in the woods. My favorite activity still is to walk up the big hill, while navigating cow pies and tall grass, to look out across the valley at the faint outline of the Appalachian foothills. On a brisk fall day with blue skies, the scene is unspeakably beautiful. It is here that I learned how to listen. Like a form of breathing, I learned to internalize my surroundings and experiences and then externalize my connection to them through an exhalation of song. Still today, when I go on a walk by myself on the farm, I can hear the land singing to me, and I like to respond in kind. Back at school, in the practice room, I have been taught to listen to myself with a critical ear, adjusting for any inconsistencies and unevenness in my tone— worthy skills for any musician. However, in focusing inwards, I have found myself losing the connection to the actual impetuses for expression. While singing in a conservatory has forced me to think consciously about the relationship between myself and my singing voice in a positive way, and allowed me to utilize my voice more proficiently, a focus on how and when I want to express my own truths has been a key missing element in my education.
Two summers ago, an experience I had while backpacking alone through Europe helped me realize exactly what I valued and gained from singing. Weeks into my trip, having just arrived in Munich, I learned that my recently ex-girlfriend was dating some one else back home. At the time, the overwhelming news was only made worse by the fact that I had no one to talk about it with. Moving from hostel to hostel, with little privacy and few chances to pause, I found myself seeking out phone booths and alleys (so as not to alarm passersby) where I could do what I felt I absolutely needed; to just sing. Not always in time or strictly musical, I recognized my singing vocalizations as essential to my well-being because in this instance, words wouldn’t have felt sufficient to express what needed to be expressed. The realization that the act of singing itself was both the means and the end, freeing, transformative, and rehabilitative shifted my focus significantly and changed the way that I understood what it meant to be a singer. This aspect of song cannot really be taught— it is experienced. Suddenly, the thought of returning to the classical world of practice rooms and rehearsals didn’t feel quite as appealing. From that point, I actively sought other kinds of singing that appeared to arise out of a conviction to express truths that transcended the boundaries of words.
As I learned about various singing communities and traditions, I rediscovered pieces of myself. For example, upon learning about the Sami Joik in Scandinavia, I re-understood the hours spent in the bath singing with my mother as a kind of joik, where the joiker captures the essence of a person, place or moment through improvised vocables. When I discovered recordings of the choir from the island of Rapa, where the 300 full-time residents come together daily to use shared song as their main medium of social connection, I thought of my father at the Braves games. Walks on my farm closely resembled those of Tuvan throat singers who sing to the spirits of the rivers and mountains on the Siberian steppe. While I acknowledge that these forms of song have their own histories and contexts, I have come to understand them as variations of a language I have utilized before.
Embarking on a Watson would allow me to focus on returning to a form of personal expression that has been put on the back burner in my conservatory training. My aim is to spend a year strengthening the relationship with my own voice by experiencing communities where singing is an expressive and communicative language, as opposed to a form of high art limited to concert halls. Put simply, in these communities, singing is a way of life— or at least synonymous with it.
I know that whether or not I am awarded this fellowship, I will continue to express myself through song and I will work to foster musical communities throughout my life. However, a Watson year would allow me to attempt, in a focused and intense manner, to become more myself. While the locations will be different, Lapland as opposed to North Georgia, and the faces and sounds new, a year spent expanding my own expressive pallet through a global vocal journey would feel like a return to something quite familiar. For me, singing is not a choice. It’s a truth. I have always sung— and on my Watson year, I will to do that- plain and simple. Just sing.
This past spring, after finishing Steven Mithen’s book, The Singing Neanderthals, I found myself completely captivated by the implications of the author’s claim that song had not only evolved separately from, but prior to, speech. I thought it an incredibly beautiful idea that the act of singing is as defining of a human feature as just about any other. Furthermore, I could not escape the notion that these two separate entities served distinct functions— and kept asking myself, “Since speech was not sufficient, why do we sing?” While I have my hunches, I suspect there are a near infinite amount of answers that reflect the nearly infinite different ways to sing.
During my Watson year, I aim to become fluent in the singing languages of five communities where song is used as a vital communicative and expressive device alternative to speech. Within indigenous groups in Norway, the Republic of Congo, Tuva and French Polynesia, song is used as a transformative vehicle through which the singing individual is linked to their immediate environment and deeply engaged with others around them. Perhaps most of all, these forms of song articulate an ineffable spiritual element of the human experience. By engaging with these musical traditions firsthand, I hope to explore, converse, and connect in an oft-neglected, yet ancient, form of human expression that lives somewhere within us all.
The first stop of my Watson year will lead me to the Austral Islands in French Polynesia where on the tiny island of Rapa I will experience a culture sustained by its singing. Twice a day, almost all of the island’s 300 full-time residents gather to sing as a choir within the local church. At least 500 km from any other human habitation, Rapa is an example of what music provides to those in extreme isolation. With the help of Ethnomusicologist Pascal Nabet-Meyer, the first to record the choir, I hope to build a relationship with the church there and spend the months of August through October interacting with locals, learning the music and internalizing the island environment— a focus of the choral sound. Although the islanders speak their own language, I am currently studying French which is spoken in the Australs. Finally, at the suggestion of Nabet-Meyer, I will spend the months of October and November making trips to surrounding islands where neighboring choirs, some still un-recorded, are also of great social importance to their communities, and I would be given the rare opportunity of comparing these singing cultures.
From Rapa and French Polynesia I will travel to the Nouabale-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of the Congo for the months of December through February. In Ndoki and surrounding areas, there are upwards of 3,000 semi-nomadic Bayaka who incorporate communal singing as a practical form of communication within the dense rain forests. Additionally, singing is used as a spiritual medium through which the Bayaka sing to the forest to keep it in balance and harmony. Ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno put me in contact with Tomo Nishihara, an employee of the Wildlife Conservation Society who helps set up research visas necessary to enter the Congo. Mr. Nishihara has agreed to help me visit the Congo and additionally put me in contact with a local who can serve as my translator to the Bayaka. Finally, I have also been in contact with Leslie Nevison, an American who leads independent safari tours in the Ndoki area and will be visiting groups of Bayaka later this year. Nevison has agreed to be in contact, inform me of her travels, and potentially help me upon my arrival. Finally, while Bayaka have been known to welcome outsiders, they reside primarily in small encampments outside the forest, subsisting on bushmeat and traded goods; therefore I would have little to no access to supplies. A trip to visit the Bayaka would push my boundaries as their way of life is perhaps the most far removed from my own culture.
Next, I will travel to Norway to learn the musical culture of the indigenous people of Scandinavia, the Sami. My visit will begin in March, building to Easter time when the town of Karasjok hosts an annual joiking festival. Through the Sami Artist Council I made contact with traditional Sami Joiker Berit Ristin Sara, the current leader of a Sami musicians’ collective, who has agreed to host me. In the capital of Sami life, Karasjok, I hope to learn how the joik is used in daily life as well as to understand how it has been used politically to help create a collective Sami identity in the face of oppression, environmental encroachment and social stigma. My time in Karasjok will be spent learning the art of the joik and understanding its many uses and contexts. Because the joiking community is relatively small, I hope to connect with a number of different Sami singers through Sara. Additionally, a German ethnomusicologist who specializes in Sami music, Thomas Hilder, has directed me to the University of Tromsø, which houses the Center for Sami Studies— another hotspot for joikers. In Norway, I hope to learn to joik in a traditional context but also witness how it has adapted and changed as a political symbol in the present day. Because the style mostly consists of vocables, is not exclusively reliant on the Sami language, I feel that I could realistically learn the language of joik with the help of my English speaking host, Sara.
The final months of my Watson, June and July will be spent in Kyzyl, Russia where with the support of Sean Quirk, the international liaison of the Tuvan Cultural Center, I hope to learn the ancient art of Khöömei, or Throat Singing. In the spring of 2014, the Alash Ensemble, which Quirk managed, visited Lawrence and I was fascinated by the unusual singing style. Singing in Tuva originated out of practical use— because the singing voice can be heard over the steppe better than the speaking one. But throat singing evolved into a conversation with nature— as a kind of meditation on a place. During my time in Tuva I intend to take singing instruction. Many throat singers will give lessons for a fee and are easy to find as someone part of the Friends of Tuva organization explained: “In Tuva everyone rides a horse and everyone is a musician.” Furthermore, in years past there have been annual throat singing festivals in early summer that host singers of all levels that I will look to attend. The effect of Tuva’s landscape on its vocal tradition will make an interesting comparison to those of Africa, Norway and Polynesia and the unfamiliar throat singing aesthetic will stretch my pallet of vocal expression. While I do not speak Tuvan or Russian, in recent years Tuva has hosted many westerners and there are some English speakers in the area.
While I will be required to make different kinds of yodels, groans and grumbles during my journey, the success of my project will depend on my ability to carefully listen. These musical traditions are often spontaneous and improvised, but they are in no way random. The songs of these traditions articulate the ineffable elements of the human experience, but this is a skill entirely reliant on the ability to sit with, and reflect on the present circumstances. In order to be prepared to deeply express and communicate, one must be deeply connected— and listening closely. It is this that perhaps will be the most important skill that I will develop and hone during my Watson year.
As my project spans the globe, a significant portion of my Watson funds will be directed towards travel. I do not see this as a potential hindrance. Because singing is inseparable from these cultures and environments, becoming familiar with the local spirits, traditions, landscapes and daily lives of the people who utilize these musics will be integral to my goal of engaging with the language of singing. With the help of my contacts, I aim to accomplish this by living with as few barriers between myself and the culture as possible by utilizing home stays and avoiding hotels and hostels.
After driving around my hometown of Atlanta, I ponder the consequences of a culture that does not sing. In modern society, song has become a novel activity, relegated to special times and places to be performed by special people. In a city like Atlanta, musical communities are few and far between as the endless sprawl comprised of subdivisions, strip malls, cars and parking lots fosters isolation and limits spontaneous opportunities for personal interaction. Even our forms of communication are becoming more textually focused and less musical. During my Watson year, I will not only focus on my own singing and expressive inclinations, but also look to learn exactly what is at stake as the collective naked human singing voice is drowned out in an increasingly noisy world.
High above the Alaskan wilderness, a blast of solar wind ionizes nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. The night is lit up with a bright red Aurora Borealis. Activity in the local magnetosphere is recorded by the scientific magnetometer station at Kaktovik on the frigid northern coast. Hundreds of miles away, in a small room at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, bell-like sounds tumble down from speakers hidden in the ceiling, joining a chorus of digital sounds representing geological and environmental events across 600,000 square miles of Alaskan wilderness. This is The Place Where You Go to Listen, a work of installation art and computer music by the Alaskan composer John Luther Adams. It is more than a record of the Alaskan landscape. It is a creative work representing John Luther Adams’s personal, powerful connection to Alaska and his love for nature.
Even as composers and artists are increasingly using computers in the creation and performance of their music, computer music (which I define broadly as music which exploits computers for sound synthesis, processing, or transmission) is also being used to express some of the most ancient and fundamental aesthetic experiences: the experience of wonder which comes from seeing and hearing, firsthand, the Earth’s power and beauty. Like photography, computer music is inseparably connected to the time, place, and culture where it is created. By recording and processing the sounds of their environment, composers both document an experience and transcend that record by overlaying it with their own original artistic interpretations. However, unlike photography, computer music creates its own new sense of place. A concert hall, a gallery, a park⎯any location where computer music is performed is transformed into a “soundscape” which mirrors the human experience of a natural soundscape.
My aspiration to understand how ecological concerns influence computer musicians comes from my own early contact with nature. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, in the shadow of dormant volcanoes, I counted the backs of thrashing salmon as they swam up a creek near my house and listened to the quiet rustle of pebbles being pulled back along a beach by the waves. In the same way I was immersed in the unique Northwest environment as a child, I now want to experience some of the most moving natural settings in the world along with the communities and artists who work close this environment. In the process, I would learn more about how I am personally moved by natural phenomena and how nature and my craft could complement each other. During my Watson year, I would explore this unusual synthesis of the ancient and the high-tech, the natural and the synthesized in the form of modern computer music.
I propose to travel to four countries⎯Japan, Australia, Ecuador, and Iceland. In each, I want to immerse myself in the local community of composers, performers, and artists working with computer-assisted concert music and art and learn how nature and local ecological concerns have influenced them as artists. As I learn more about how they have been influenced by ecology and culture, I will also travel to unique environments in each of these countries, experience them first-hand, and explore how I, as a classically trained composer, can channel the experience of nature into my music. I will seek to answer several key questions: How have local computer-music artists responded to their experience of the natural world? How does the firsthand experience of nature influence me personally as an artist? And finally, how can I encourage ecological and environmental awareness and incorporate it into my art without exploitation or cultural piracy?
I would begin my fellowship in Japan in early August, where I would plunge into Tokyo’s computer music scene, one of Asia’s oldest computer music communities. I am eager to see how computer music has developed in this country where art and technology frequently draw on ancient and traditional themes. Leaving the city, I would hike into the Hida Mountains, a landscape evoked in traditional Japanese music by the shakuhachi flute. Camping among these sacred peaks, I would search for my own artistic interpretation of this experience and reflect on the influence nature has had on Japanese music.
I already have many contacts in Japan who can help me achieve these goals. During my year in the Netherlands, I had the privilege of meeting internationally renowned Tokyo composer Misato Mochizuki, who would provide me with valuable introductions to Japanese composers, as would my Seattle composition teacher and mentor, Eric Flesher, who has his own links to Japan. Through Lawrence University’s exchange program with Waseda University, I already know many Japanese students. They could help ease my cultural transitio or arrange a homestay. As a native of the Northwest, with its large Asian-heritage population, I would easily be able to arrange to study Japanese intensively before my travels.
November through January I would spend in Australia. The Australian arts scene is buffeted by diverse influences: Australian composers Ron Nagorcka and Nigel Westlake have used recorded Australian birds and insects in their music, while Keith Humble has written music depicting Melbourne’s arcades. Ros Bandt has experimented with recording music in giant reverberant agricultural siloes, while Liza Lim has composed for aboriginal didgeridoo virtuoso, William Barton. In Sydney, I would first establish contact with the Australasian Computer Music Association, and through Australian composers I met during my year abroad in Amsterdam, I would contact local composers and musicians and setup interviews to discuss their experiences of nature and Australian identity in their music. Later, I would travel to Tasmania, which, very unusually for such a rural state, has an internationally renowned community of composers focused around the Tasmanian Composers Collective. But far from being a passive observer, I want to hike out into the bush to experience and record the sounds of Tasmania’s endemic wildlife. I could extend my exploration of Tasmania’s ecology by taking shallow-water scuba diving lessons. With an inexpensive hydrophone, I could record the quiet scurrying sounds of hermit crabs in the kelp forests of Australia’s southern coast or the humanlike vocalizations of Australian fur seals.
Quito, Ecuador, would be my home from February through April. My first experience with the Andean region was in 2010 when I visited Bogotá, Colombia, with two friends. The dramatic rift valleys and volcanic peaks made a deep impact on me, as did the cultural differences and challenges faced by local artists. Artists in many South American countries have struggled to reconcile the use of largely North American or European technology with the region’s bitter colonial past. There, music is often regarded less as a commodity and more as a communal activity, with classical concerts (in my experience) sometimes accompanied by children playing in the aisles between seats. My project would not be complete without experiencing how computer music has developed in this unique setting. The keynote speaker at the first International Congress on Latin American Music at Virginia Tech this spring is a composer from Ecuador. My first steps towards completing my project in Ecuador would be to get in touch with the organizers of this festival and develop a network of contacts in Ecuador. Additionally, friends in Colombia could put me in touch with Ecuadoran students and help with my integration into the community. I would also extend my knowledge of the Spanish language by taking private lessons in Ecuador.
I would spend the final months of my fellowship in Iceland. Iceland is experiencing a computer-music renaissance at the moment. World-famous Icelandic computer music innovators such as Björk and the group múm have drawn on their experience of the natural world by recording and processing environmental sounds in a popular music context. Kjartan Ólafsson, a more experimental voice in Icelandic computer music, has spent many years developing CALMUS, an artificially intelligent system for generating music. Through a colleague, a fellow composer whom I met in Amsterdam, I would seek to interview and collaborate with members of Iceland’s pocket-sized arts community. My visit would coincide with the Reykjavík Arts Festival, which frequently showcases contemporary computer music, and I would plan to attend. My visit would also coincide with the breakup of ice in the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. I would hike out into Vatnajökull National Park and camp by the water, recording the dramatic sounds of glacial calving.
As the technology of computer music is becoming increasingly accessible to more artists around the world, computers are being used to create new forms of expression intimately connected with the culture and personal experiences of composers. My project would take me to cultural and geographical extremes of the earth in search of these new aesthetics and to beautiful and fragile ecosystems that can be recorded and preserved through music. I would like nothing better than to be part of this exhilarating liminal juncture in the development of a young art form.
The MS Nordkapp echoed with a low groan as it crested a massive ocean swell and plunged down the other side. For several seconds, those near the front of the ship were nearly weightless. The thin, steel shell bucked to the side, its lateral motion suddenly checked, as it slammed bow-first into the next wave. Powerful G- forces pressed us into our chairs. The ship’s snub nose plunged through the arctic water. A foaming gush of brine rolled over the bridge, the highest point on the ship’s superstructure. The deafening sound of the water and wind vied with the foghorn as the vessel righted itself; the swamped decks roiled with white water as the ocean poured back out the scuppers ⎯ This was how I spent my winter break in 2010, on a Norwegian freight and passenger ship headed north of the Arctic Circle with a cargo of food, mail, and vital equipment for some of the most remote and isolated villages in Europe. On break from my year abroad in Amsterdam, I took the rare opportunity to experience one of the world’s most threatened ecosystems and the communities who live every day in an uneasy alliance with their environment.
Just months before, I was a studious, nocturnal inhabitant of the practice rooms at a small, Midwestern conservatory. At Lawrence University, my life has revolved around perfecting the art of classical music composition. I have spent countless hours perfecting a craft which I find more fulfilling than anything else I can imagine dedicating my life to. But, as the battered MS Nordkapp returned to the harbor at Bergen under fireworks on the last day of the year 2010, I knew I had experienced something in both the silence and the deafening sound of the Arctic, something I wanted to incorporate into my compositions and which I could never learn in Academia. It was not only the power of the arctic environment that captivated me, but also the many soundscapes that are the music of our natural environment here on Earth. I knew that I had more work to do before I could hope to communicate my wonder at the natural world through my music. In retrospect, my fascination with art and its connection to the natural world started early in my childhood. When I was five years old, I heard Mr. Bach Comes to Call, a children’s story on cassette tape that dramatized the life of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. At the end of the story, the narrator describes the Voyager 1 space probe plunging into deep space carrying its “golden record” with the sights and sounds of planet Earth—and three pieces of music by J. S. Bach. It was an exciting idea, even for a child, that these few pieces of music, along with sounds of the planet itself, were chosen to represent the best of humanity. I began to try to write my own music, first merely imitating the shapes of music notation, and later, as I studied violin, writing music for myself to play.
It wasn’t always clear to me that I would be a composer. At one point I thought I would be a marine biologist. I filled the house with tropical fish tanks and collected a massive library of books about aquatic ecology. Determined to provide my sister and me with the rigorous scientific and classical education which my local school system could not, my parents homeschooled us up until the final years of high school. I received most of my primary education in small groups of friends, taught by scientists and scholars at home and in the field. Because my education was partly self-directed, I had the freedom to explore what really interested me and make connections between disparate subjects. During my university years, this curiosity has led me to pursue an unusual diversity of subjects. I’ve studied philosophy as well as music composition because I believe philosophy provides the intellectual tools to study the connections between different disciplines. My extracurricular interests have been diverse as well. One year, I co-founded a choir to sing Appalachian traditional music. I have also been the organizer of a modern music ensemble on campus, and I founded a student group to discuss issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have benefited greatly from the diversity of experiences I have had at Lawrence University, but nothing in my undergraduate education has influenced my life as much as the year I spent studying abroad at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in 2010. Although it was not my first experience traveling abroad (I had previously traveled in Europe, Colombia, Canada, and the United States), it was my first opportunity to live in a foreign city. To integrate with Dutch culture, I studied the language, collaborated with Dutch musicians, and at one point, co-organized a local modern music concert. One of the highlights for me was working with local saxophone students to write and perform short works for the saxophone, from start to finish, in just twenty-four hours! The compositions were performed in a 15th- century monastery in the heart of the city.
At the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, I studied music composition with Joël Bons, a former student of the great British composer Brian Ferneyhough. Building on my previous electronic music studies at Lawrence, I was also able to study advanced computer music with Dutch composer and multimedia artist, Jorrit Tamminga. My year abroad culminated in two performances of my composition Bright Waves, in which sounds from a live piano are processed by a laptop on stage to create bright, unremitting reverberation⎯an effect inspired by my memories of the Arctic ocean. A version of this piece was recently accepted by and performed at the 2012 national conference of the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. Computer music is a medium that combines many facets of my identity. Like my father⎯a painting conservator who enjoys both the artistic and the scientific challenges of restoring damaged oil paintings⎯my craft blurs the lines between creativity and empiricism. I can imagine myself using the recorded sounds of insects on the Icelandic tundra in a musical collage. I can also imagine myself using real- time data about the movements of GPS-tagged migratory birds to control how electronic sounds move between clusters of speakers in a concert hall or art gallery.
I can even imagine working with local linguists to develop more effective speech synthesis software to allow severely disabled speakers of some of South America’s two thousand minority languages to communicate more effectively. My vision of what is possible with computer music goes far beyond the first tentative forays I have made in the medium.
My unique educational history makes me exceptionally well-suited to the rigors of a Wanderjahr abroad. My entire childhood was spent learning how to teach myself, how to be self-reliant, and how to deal with the experience of integrating myself into a community of my more conventionally educated peers. These experiences continue to shape me as an artist and as a person. Drawing on my diverse inspirations, I want to go beyond the historically academic boundaries of classical art music. Given the time and freedom to travel, I would seek out communities of computer-music composers who are working outside of the traditional academic paradigm. By seeing how nature has inspired computer musicians all over the world⎯and by being inspired, myself, by their natural and cultural environment⎯I could begin to integrate the inspiration I find in nature, my interest in science and ecology, and my life’s work as an art music composer. For me, a Watson Fellowship year would be a quest to understand how I fit into the global community as a composer and artist, but no less so, how my diverse interests and experiences will coexist in my life and work. Through exploring how culture and environment shape the lives and music of composers around the world, I would learn more about how my own life experiences can contribute to who I become as a composer and as a person. Like many young composers, I sometimes struggle to understand how my work will relate to the experiences of people from different cultures and backgrounds, and how it is relevant in the digital age. I am convinced, however, that given the chance, I can create music that is a powerful, universal expression of our connection with the Earth.
My perception of music is not the usual one. I can picture a musician who composes for a small troupe of emerging Chinese puppeteers looking for music to accompany their weekly performances in metropolitan grade schools. I can also picture a musician improvising to the creaks and wails of ship yards in the Netherlands then using these improvisations as samples for a recording project. I can see a musician performing an electroacoustic sound sculpture based on the Aboriginal didgeridoo in collaboration with a visual artist for the opening of an exhibition. I can see myself as this musician and I can see myself doing this with the tuba.
Why do I want to do this with the tuba? My instrument is often categorized as a bulky instrument with limited soloing capabilities: this is simply not true. The tuba soloist Oysten Baadsvik has become a world renowned performer and has released two solo CDs. Daniel Perantoni has commissioned virtuosic contemporary tuba works from composers such as Chinary Ung and Anthony Plog. Tuba players like Sam Pilafian and Martin Erickson have made strides in the jazz idiom. However, as much as I applaud the virtuosic feats that have recently been made on the tuba, I instead would like to pursue a more creative, alternative direction. I am also a composer. Creativity is my base in both of these pursuits; in turn, they often go hand in hand. Perceiving music from this standpoint, I do not view music solely as an upheld tradition that is manifested in a concert hall. I also think music can include a more immediate interaction in any environment between artists themselves or artists and their audience; the resulting significance, lasting or not, is itself art.
When confronting the importance I place on the element of interaction, I ask myself what type of interaction would lead to the most creative innovations in music. I realize that the answer is interaction between musicians of different cultures. I want to undertake a Watson Fellowship to become actively involved in innovating music by crossing cultural boundaries. I have recognized that rich innovation through intercultural interaction and the unique re-conception of music’s social implications are particularly strong in three places: Amsterdam, Sydney, and Hong Kong. These three cities are alight with new ideas. Since the 1960’s, Amsterdam has become a center for new music. Composers such as Louis Andriessen and Jacob ter Veldhuis are spearheading an energetic movement that has promoted contemporary music to a new level of popularity outside the music world as well as within. Music festivals such as the Gaudeamus New Music Week draw musicians from around the world to celebrate new developments in music composition. Furthermore, Amsterdam is an ideal hub that provides easy access to other cultural centers in Europe through budget airline and train travel.
The importance of music in the cultural life of Sydney is recognized throughout the world in the sail-like shells of its famous opera house; however, it is little known that popular musicians such as Tom Waits are producing new and creative works for an innovative music theater scene. I have discovered how to make my tuba sound like a didgeridoo; while in Sydney I could refine those skills by studying the proper technique with an Aboriginal musician. As American composer Lou Harrison discovered the traditional music of Bali and Korea for himself and introduced these styles into his compositions, so would I like to discover the new innovations occurring in non-western music. The cities of Sydney and Hong Kong will open the door to this unfamiliar world of contemporary music. In Hong Kong can be found the collision of western and non-western, democratic and communist cultures, a dichotomy that has exploded into one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic metropolises. The resulting artistic community includes numerous dance companies, multiple orchestras, a vibrant film industry, and countless smaller interdisciplinary, intercultural collaboration. For example, the City Contemporary Dance Company is dedicated to creating new Chinese contemporary dance; this organization’s mission is to nurture appreciation for the contemporary arts in Hong Kong through performance and education.
I will initiate my active involvement through three steps. First, I will establish contact with musicians in these cities through my professors and my professors’ colleagues. Through the Chinese-American composer Chen Yi, whom I met when she conducted a guest residency at Lawrence University in 2001, I have already been introduced to Dr. Clarence Mak, the head of the composition department at the Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts. I established contact with Dr. Christopher Coleman when he solicited works for a new music radio program he hosts in Hong Kong; Dr. Coleman is also a professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Through the Australian Music Centre, I have spoken to Dr. Ros Bandt and Dr. Michael Atherton. Dr. Bandt is an internationally acclaimed pioneer in the fields of interactive sound installations, and sound sculpture. Dr. Atherton is Professor of Music at the University of Western Sydney and has recently been appointed to Head of the School of Contemporary Arts, comprising music, fine arts, theater, and dance. Professor Joanne Metcalf, my composition teacher at Lawrence University, has already given me an introduction to Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. I met Mr. Andriessen at the Cincinnati New Music Festival of 2003 in which I was a participant; for my study in Amsterdam, I will reaffirm this contact. I recently met and discussed my plans with Oysten Baadsvik, an internationally acclaimed tuba soloist who resides in Norway. Mr. Baadsvik has introduced me to Oren Marshall who is identified as a leader in the development of the contemporary tuba. Mr. Marshall, who is originally from England, performs throughout Europe; during my time in Amsterdam, I would have the opportunity to work with him. My second step will be to meet other young and emerging musicians and artists though the initial contacts I just described, using international new music festivals as my base of operations. A number of well-known festivals occur in Amsterdam and nearby England in the fall season, including the International Gaudeamus Music Week in Amsterdam September 5 – 11 and the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in England November 18 – 28. In the winter, I would travel to Sydney. The Sydney Festival is held through the month of January, while the Perth International Arts Festival takes place through the month of February. I would finish my study in Hong Kong, where the Hong Kong Arts Festival runs through the month of March and the Asian Composers League Festival is slated for 2006. Here are some examples of the people I would expect to find at these music festivals: I could meet a percussionist who specializes in Indonesian drumming and is looking for other musicians to start a new ensemble, a choreographer who needs music for a dance portraying the construction of Chinese skyscrapers, a sculptor who wants a sound installation made up of clinking metal to accompany a new exhibition of mobiles, or an electronic music composer who is sampling music from artist all over the world to create a symphony of international perspective.
The final step of my methodology would be to initiate both performing and creative activities with these musicians. I would propose to them starting a collaboration: over the course of our work together, we would generate repertoire and establish performances. I could organize a free improvisation ensemble that imitates the sounds of Dutch street life, I could compose music for an animator who has just finished a film about Australian scuba diving, or I could suggest a collaboration that involves mixing music with the recitation of Chinese poetry. Who can I become in this exciting musical melting pot? I can answer this question by speculating who I could be when I return from my Watson Fellowship. As a teacher, I will have the ability to connect my students to different concepts of music from around the world, not only by providing new music for them, but also by introducing them directly to the musicians I have met during my Watson Fellowship. As a performer, I will have developed a unique style of tuba performance based on the interactions I make with other musicians who will themselves have different innovative ideas. As a composer, the vast array of experiences gained over my Watson Fellowship would give me a palette to work from for a lifetime. Furthermore, the collaboration with other musicians I will meet can continue well past the end of my Fellowship. After my Watson year is over, I will be able to add my own complexity to music’s melting pot.
The process used to manufacture a standard toilet seat is called compression molding. A single line consists of twenty die cast molds positioned in an incomplete circle with the gap between die one and die twenty facing the aisle. In the middle of the circle, a hopper suspended from the ceiling feeds a conveyor belt laden boom propped on a single tire with a powder mixture of wood flour and polyurethane resin. The operator of the line stands just to the right of the conveyor; when the first die drops, the operator reaches his or her glove into the five hundred degree metal plates and pulls out the newly baked part. The operator then advances the boom to the next die, which has just dropped with a fume-ridden thud. At the end of the circle, the operator unloads the stack of parts — the first die has dropped, and the process starts over again. Despite my ongoing private joke of being an “artist in chains,” I loved this job and the ample tenacity that it readily provided an eighteen year-old needing to pay for college. So what does factory work have to do with music? Taking part in this type of labor has shaped my perspective. Many musicians are trained with rigorous discipline at an early age to excel at a particular instrument. This training involves hours of practice and attendance at specialized schools. While I have put my hours into the practice room at an exceptional undergraduate conservatory, I have felt a bit too restless to be the disciplined specialized musician of the orchestra. Getting my hands dirty in industry has instead shown me that music is a freedom. I have excelled at music through my excitement of exploring that freedom through creativity.
In fifth grade I asked my parents if I could play the drums. They said “no, drums are too loud,” so I picked up the tuba. Since then, this instrument has taken me to the Wisconsin State Honors Orchestra, the Lawrence University Symphony Orchestra, Jazz Ensemble and Wind Ensemble, and now to a bachelor’s degree of music. There is, however, another side to my tuba playing. Ever since the day that I discovered that I can sing and play the tuba at the same time, I’ve become more and more interested in innovating with my tuba. Another ensemble I am involved with is called the Improvisation Group of Lawrence University. This ensemble creates unique improvisations based on extended instrumental technique for one part of the year, while the other part of the year is spent on learning different improvisation based traditions from American and world cultures. Other techniques that I have explored on my tuba include creating a drum ensemble through contrasting tongue clicks, and different methods of amplifying my tuba. I started composing in seventh grade in a red manuscript book that I purchased myself without telling anybody, an endeavor that I undertook on my own. In high school, the options open to me were a self-designed composition course through my band teacher and a theory class taught across town at a university extension. In my undergraduate education, I have taken up the pursuit of a composition degree in addition to tuba which has lead to the Pi Kappa Lambda Composition Award and the James Ming Scholarship in Composition. I have explored many different ways of expressing my “voice.” I have composed music for brass quintet, incidental music for theater, for flute quartet combined with string quartet, for singers, and a number of other ensembles. I am writing a mass for voices, saxophones, and percussion that I am dedicating to my parents. My composition has undergone a series of conceptual contortions, but I have always been expanding my notion of what music can be.
Through my composition and my tuba performance, I have tried to realize music’s freedom. I, however, ask myself what to do with this freedom; my answer is to celebrate and share it. This is the reason why interaction is important to me as a musician. An interaction between musicians is a celebration of their art with each other. I want to understand how new mediums can draw a group of artists together to create a single, powerful message. How can the communication between artist and artist or artists and audience convey something meaningful? I attempted to realize this perspective at the end of my undergraduate junior year. I organized an interdisciplinary collaboration between music, studio art, theater, and dance students at Lawrence University. This project was a performance entitled The Student; it portrayed the students’ perspective of academia through the medium of different texts, including Plato’s The Republic, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn, and The Basic Writings of Chuang Tzu. The group of musicians that I asked to participate was the Improvisation Group of Lawrence University whose instrumentation included computer, accordion, steel drum, processed voice, trumpet, amplified euphonium, and keyboards. I directed the project by creating musical templates upon which the ensemble could improvise and to which the dancers could choreograph; I then guided the combination of the music, dance, and art though a series of rehearsals. This project was a success. It drew an audience of professors, students and community members who were all able to find some connection with it and enjoyed it.
The highlight of my undergraduate experience was my chance to study abroad in Milan, Italy. Even though I had traveled extensively in the United States and even made it to Ireland, I had always wanted the chance to integrate myself with a foreign culture. The cultural riches and discoveries of Italy helped me flourish as an artist. I was successful in making contact with and joining a Milanese Dixieland ensemble; I will cherish the memories of romping through the Milanese subway, street car, and bus system in order to reach a single gig in a small club in the middle of the city with a tuba strapped to my back. While in Milan, I took composition lessons with Fillipo de Corno, a former student of Luciano Berio, one of the great avant-garde masters. The music that I composed, entitled The Sirens of Odysseus, is based on a dialog between two poems, one by Ugo Foscolo whose work I discovered in Italy, and an original poem that I wrote while in Milan. I consider this composition to be one of my best because I can hear my own voice coming through the color of my foreign experience. I also made a number of important contacts with other musicians in my program. This summer I traveled again, this time by jeep, to Minneapolis where I collaborated with one of these contacts on a recording project.
I had the opportunity to attend two contemporary music concert series during my studies in Milan. One was a festival celebrating the music of Gyorgy Ligeti, a Hungarian composer whose works embody the Eastern-European experience during World War II and the communist revolution. I also had the opportunity to hear the performance of some of the works of Luciano Berio. Berio was famous for breakthroughs in electronic music and mastery of acoustic instruments through a series of solo pieces for various instruments entitled Sequenzas. I made one very important observation about these concerts: the audience was not only made of a few musicians, but with people from all professions in packed theaters. This, unfortunately, is very different from the atmosphere of contemporary music concerts in the United States. The audience is usually made up of a few other musicians or fellow enthusiasts of a particular composer. The realm of contemporary music mainly lies within the academic institution in the United States; virtually all the major new music festivals are connected with a university. In the three cities that I have selected this atmosphere is different: contemporary music is a strong part of the community. Contemporary music is familiar and the strong cultural ties this music has is recognized. With the Watson Fellowship, I can discover the full import that contemporary music can have in the specific places where this music is having the most dynamic impact.
The Watson Fellowship for me would be a celebration of the freedom that can be found in music. For a restless musician like me, the orchestra or institution can not contain the interaction that I deem so important. Working with young and emerging musicians with unique cultural perspective will stretch my creative boundaries. If given the Watson Fellowship, I will make sure to give music’s melting pot a stir.
Interactive entertainment plays an increasingly important role in our society, not only as a leisure activity but also in teaching and sophisticated simulations. In 2007, interactive entertainment earned $41.9 billion in revenue according to Price Waterhouse Cooper, twice as much as the movie and music industries combined. As IE has evolved, it has moved away from the one game/one player model toward entire communities of players who are brought together through the game itself. This has created an international digital community with a unique subculture. It has never progressed beyond a subculture in America, but in other parts of the world—East Asia, most notably—it has exploded into a social phenomenon. My proposal to the Fellowship is to study video game culture where enthusiasts account for a large, highly visible portion of society.
In Japan, South Korea, and China, video games hold a position in mainstream life akin to traditional athletic and social activities, with public venues, clubs, and competitions devoted to their pursuit. Here in the U.S., even highly social video games are played essentially in physical isolation—each player alone in his home, connected to the wider community solely by a computer or game console. In contrast, East Asian gaming activity is focused around physical sites where players exchange ideas and strategies, create social clubs and teams, and compete in tournaments. These venues (internet cafes in China and South Korea, game centers in Japan) are a facet of IE culture which is absent in the United States and other Western countries. My study will explore these public venues and the culture around them, focusing on competition (cyber-athleticism), public displays (cyber-performance), the growth of businesses which manufacture and sell virtual commodities that exist only in video games (cyber-economics), and the negative impact of obsessive play (cyber addiction). These are the areas of sharpest divergence between Eastern and Western video game customs. Both cultures arose among people playing the same games in the same way, yet they developed toward opposite poles of social interaction. Why are East Asian video gamers admired by their society while American gamers like myself are viewed with mild amusement, disapproval, or ridicule?
My time in China will be split between three cities: Hong Kong, Beijing, and Chengdu. A Chinese visa allows only one-month visits. China is the scene of the most rapid change, so several visits spread over a longer time will be an advantage rather than an obstacle. My journey will begin in Hong Kong to ease my transition into East Asian culture; English is one of the city’s official languages. Hong Kong is the center of a unique economy in which real money is exchanged for goods that exist only inside the video game world. These virtual goods are “manufactured” by workers whose jobs consist of playing games purely to generate virtual commodities. This business thrives even while the government moves to regulate the transactions. I will explore how these “gold farmers” view their jobs and roles in a traditional economic sense, how others both inside and outside the IE community view their occupation, and if possible, how public officials perceive the situation. I have established a contact in Hong Kong who is positioned to introduce me to Hong Kong’s booming IE community and business representatives.
August through December will be devoted to Japan’s game centers, where enthusiasts gather to participate in games and to watch others play. The most accomplished players draw crowds of onlookers and admirers. This is a fundamentally different style of video gaming than is practiced in the United States or other East Asian internet cafes. Players compete against both the computer and the previous player in what might be called video game performance art. I will explore the motivations of those who perform and those who come to watch this unique style of entertainment. What drew them to this type of performance, and what keeps them at it? How much time and energy do they spend in practice? How does their “star status” affect their lives with families, schoolmates, employers, and other video game performers? Japan is also home to three of the largest interactive entertainment publishers: Nintendo, Sony, and Sega. With corporate support, the tournaments and conventions in Japan have grown larger than those anywhere else in the world. The Tokyo Game Show drew nearly 200,000 attendees in 2008, and national tournaments play out over extensive “seasons” of regional qualifiers culminating in championships in Tokyo. My visit will coincide with the qualifying rounds and championship of the Tougeki tournament as well as the Tokyo Game Show. In addition to interviewing attendees, I will use these tournaments and expos to explore the future of the community through meetings with developers, executives, and company representatives. I would be assisted in this by a contact in Tokyo who can set up meetings with industry professionals and journalists, help to bridge the language gap, and arrange reasonably priced housing or a home stay.
January will be spent in Beijing, which is home to the only state-sponsored video game addiction recovery center in the world. The Internet Addiction Treatment Center in Daxing, a southern suburb of Beijing, helps people whose attachment to video games is near dependence levels. While in Beijing, I can meet the doctors who treat these patients, their families, and the video gamers themselves to explore how their addiction grew and affected their life and family, and what led them to counseling. February through June will be spent in Korea examining specialized internet cafes, PC Bang, and the phenomenon of cyber athletes. Online discussions with a South Korean gamer first made me aware of the wide divergence between gaming cultures around the world, and it’s here that video gaming has extended its roots most deeply into society. I’ll explore why people visit cafes rather than playing at home, how the activity impacts their lives, and what it means to them to be a part of a wide video game community. I will observe participants in nationally televised competitions and compare how people outside the community interact with those inside it. 2010 will be pivotal in South Korean video gaming because the most popular competitive game, Starcraft, will release a new version for the first time in 11 years. Everyone involved in South Korea’s highly competitive tournaments, which are televised and offer prize purses as high as $500,000, will need to learn this new game to remain competitive. Starcraft’s re-release is scheduled to happen during my time in Korea. The effect of this shakeup on champion players, challengers, and their fans will be a fascinating study.
July will be spent in Chengdu, a model for the developing Chinese city with an atypical (for China) emphasis on web-based businesses and interactive entertainment. Chengdu will host the World Cyber Games in 2009, the IE equivalent of the Olympics. Here I can see the interplay of traditional southern Chinese culture and IE as nowhere else. Chengdu has not experienced the westernizing of Hong Kong and is not a cosmopolitan center like Beijing. Of the three Chinese cities on my itinerary, Chengdu is the most traditional. Its collision and merger with state-of-the-art IE will be a telling testament to the phenomenon of merging cultures. Understanding how interactive entertainment has transformed, and been transformed by, traditional culture requires understanding those traditions. Interviews will provide direct analysis of the modern gaming perspective, but the foundations for those perspectives come from social traditions. Though I will be staying near major metropolitan centers and focusing on the hubs of video gaming, I will also visit heritage sites and rural towns to determine what role video games have. I would arrange home stays wherever possible in order to deepen my understanding of the roots that sprouted this social gaming phenomenon and its differences from my Western background.
Equipment for this study is minimal. One-on-one and group interviews will be my main tool. Most of the popular games are produced in either English or Japanese and many Asian players are conversant in both, diminishing language challenges. Furthermore, I look forward to preparing with an intensive Japanese language class, something I have wanted to tackle since being exposed to Seattle’s rich Japanese influence. That would prepare me for the basics: finding my way around and casual interactions. Some interviews may require interpreters, who will be hired affordably through contacts. Even before leaving the U.S., I can use the online gaming networks to establish ties and relationships that will help bridge the language and cultural gap. Video gaming is creating its own, unique traditions every day. Chief among them is a social, cultural network that circles the globe without regard for national boundaries or languages. The interactive entertainment industry is poised to change the world as profoundly as the internet. We stand on the brink of a cultural revolution, and now is the perfect time to study this infant culture. Introspection on Identity as a Video Gamer
Alex Winter I was in 9th grade in 2002 when the computer game Counterstrike reached the height of its popularity. I would play the game online with my school friends every day before homework. We were familiar with the regular players on our servers, so when a player named Sandman came along, we were surprised and a little curious. It was obvious after just a few games that he was a much better player, so to save face and be a good sport, I sent a note congratulating him on his skillful play. I noted that we’d never seen his name before and asked him whether he usually played on different servers. He messaged back that his name was Ho-Joon Koh, he was a student in Korea, and he typically played on Korean and Japanese servers but wanted to try a few games with Americans. Ho-Joon Koh asked whether all American players were as reserved as the ones on this server. On his Asian servers, people spent as much time talking about their lives and what they’d done that day as they spent playing. What he told me about himself in those few minutes was volumes more than I knew about anyone I’d played with for the last three years, except my school friends. Ho-Joon and I stopped playing the game entirely and began talking; he was interested in what my home and school were like, what I thought of America and Korea—life questions that never came up with American gamers.
Shortly after, Ho-Joon decided he was done with American servers; he didn’t like the environment. He felt isolated, which “was not why he played games.” That statement was a revelation to me. I never learned anything personal about other players. The “familiarity” on my server was the kind you have for someone you see frequently but to whom you never speak. Even my best friends were sitting alone in their houses while we played. My brief experience with Ho-Joon was the most open social interaction I’d had online and prompted me to ask myself some deep questions. I was playing these games “with” other people, but if I never saw them or interacted with them outside of the electronic screen, how was that different from playing purely against the computer? Were my games a form of social interaction or just solitary entertainment? I was connected to a gaming community, but was that connection real if I didn’t actually know the people? The online games I was playing were powerful experiences; there was exhilaration, fear, adrenaline, a thrilling sense of accomplishment when I won and palpable defeat when I lost. A small form of camaraderie developed when I played multiple sessions with the same people, but they were still just faceless pseudonyms on a glowing screen. I had no sense of where they lived, how old they were, whether they were short or tall, boy or girl, happy or unhappy. All I knew was how well they played the game, and that was all they knew about me. What was my identity within the gaming community with whom I felt so connected and yet had so little connection? Who was I as a person and as a gamer? Interactive entertainment can be a powerful vehicle for artistic expression and self-discovery. The artistic components of a video game—visual imagery, sound and music, and story—are familiar from movies. But a movie is passive entertainment. We watch a movie; we see a painting; we listen to music; we are told a story. Video games demand involvement that no other art form can replicate, which is the manipulation of art by the observer. The audience is directly engaged in fulfilling the game’s artistic potential. I’m not speaking of manipulating a joystick. All art is inert without an audience: a symphony needs listeners, a book needs readers, and a painting needs observers. A symphony, a book, a painting, or a performance is completed by the artist who creates it. Video games need participation. Today’s video games require decisions from players which materially alter the plot, up to and including its moral tone.
My best video game experiences have revolved around interactions with other players. Conversations and shared experiences with others who enjoy games as much as I do is my passion. It’s similar to what I enjoy most about my time abroad: being immersed in a new culture, learning fresh ways of communicating with a unique community, becoming a part of it. My global video game community is no less a unique culture, ripe for exploration. Traveling in Europe introduced me to the exhilaration of leaving the familiar and immersed me in a foreign culture. While studying in London, I gave myself the goal of experiencing something new every day, and I engaged the places and people around me in ways I never had before: keeping a journal, sketching, and introducing myself to the locals. England was the perfect beginning on a journey of international self-discovery thanks to our shared heritage and language. The next step, Western Europe, was challenging while still familiar. Now I’m eager to face a new challenge, exploring a region with entirely different cultures: Asia.
I was led to Japanese culture and language by video games, but I have developed an interest in it for its own merits. Japanese culture is an interesting mix of Eastern and Western tradition, resulting in a distinct personality. This blending is increasingly prevalent in the other East Asian countries I would visit during a Watson year abroad, a “perfect storm” of my major interests; the fusion of the modern interactive entertainment community with East Asian heritage. Although Asian traditions are different from mine, I share a connection with hundreds of thousands of people from that part of the world—a literal, electronic connection through video games. This connection is embodied in the unique way gamers communicate in a language all their own, one in which I am fluent. “They nerfed shammy in the last patch d00ds.’ ‘QQ more, L2p newb’ ‘kk, zerg the mobs’ ‘Cowman the Barbarian fears no mobs! Leroooy Jenkiiins!” It’s a kind of thieves cant, amalgamated from pop culture, computer science, literature, text messaging, and games. All of these things, learned while plumbing the dark recesses of the internet, are integral to a video gamer’s identity, and they transcend language and nation. Discovering how to communicate with this community is like exploring a mystery; you slowly uncover a parallel culture which thrives behind the recognizable internet of Wikipedia and Google. As you peel away the top layers of the internet and connect the pixels beneath, you learn how to communicate with other gamers. I relish every second of it.
But my love of gaming and the community around it has a dark side. US culture has generated negative stereotypes of gamers, and I’ve perceived a subtle shift in the way I’m treated when people find out I enthusiastically play video games. As a result, I’ve felt compelled to hide my true gamer self from some people. In fact, I’ve internalized the same isolating tendencies Ho-Joon identified among US players: a large part of me—one of the things I enjoy most—remains hidden from family, friends, and other peers. How different would I be in a society that embraces the video game subculture into the mainstream, where a person can achieve rock star-like status for the way he or she plays a game? Though video gaming is more accepted in the US than in years past, the West is a long way from making celebrities of its gamers. A Halo t-shirt won’t get the same reaction as a Packers jersey on a US street. The possibilities for learning about and embracing my gamer self in a country that lauds its players are exciting and endless.
My proposal may seem like a radical departure from the study of biochemistry, but I see it as an extension … with a twist. A background in biological science is fundamentally an education in methodical parsing of cause and effect. Human culture can be examined as a complex system with confounding factors. My background in science gives me a scaffold on which to build this study and dig into the new sociological frontier presented by East Asian gaming. Above all, my experience as part of the greater gaming community makes me particularly qualified and acclimated to examine this aspect of game culture which is not present in America.
What I will learn about the influences and distinctions that gave birth to such different cultural reactions to the same stimulus—video games—will teach me even more about the conflict within myself. I believe that when the yin and yang of who I am can peacefully coexist in the sharp light of day, every day, I will be a truer friend, a better scientist, and a happier, more complete and productive person.
Jhumpa Lahiri is one of the few authors whose books can make me cry. Her poignant stories about Indians in America make me nostalgic for home, yet glad to live in the States. Lahiri’s fiction is so moving because it acts as a window into the heart of Indian-ness, even though—or perhaps because—it is set hundreds of miles away from India. The familiar sights and sounds of India emerging from an alien landscape are incredibly powerful, especially to the members of the Indian diaspora. However, it is an unfortunate fact that the bulk of this sort of diaspora-focused literature is geographically polarized, set in either the United States or England. There is no disputing the fact that America and England are two of the top destinations for Indian emigrants, but they are far from the only ones. In this ever-flattening world, Indians are found all over the world, but the literature written about them hardly does justice to their presence. Their stories have heretofore largely gone untold, and it is this task that I want to undertake during my Watson year.
I would like to travel to four countries—South Africa, Tanzania, Malaysia and Fiji. Immersing myself in the culture and daily life of each, I want to write the stories of their Indian populations. As a writer and a social scientist, I have a fascination with people, cultures and identity, and I would like to combine my two passions to produce a book of short stories about the lives of Indians around the world. There are several questions that I would like to answer through these stories: Do these people identify themselves as Indian? What Indian customs do they still cling to? What new customs have they embraced? How do they walk the line between being Indian and being, say, Fijian or Tanzanian? As an Indian who has lived in America for three years, these questions are of immense importance to me, and it is precisely because of the personal nature of my project that I choose to write stories, rather than conduct a psychological survey. Social science deals with groups, with overall trends in behavior. Fiction, in contrast, deals with individuals, delving deep into their hearts and minds. Writing these stories will allow me to understand the unique and multifaceted identities of the Indian diaspora, helping me to develop my own transcontinental identity as a woman from India, a student in America, and a citizen of the world.
I would like to begin my Watson year in Fiji, spending August through October here. Fiji is sometimes called “Little India,” because of its large Indian population and the prevalence of Indian festivals and traditions; however, ethnic Indians have also been harassed, and Fiji is currently faced with a disturbingly high Indian emigration rate. I believe that the rapidly thinning Indian population in “Little India” will make the perfect backdrop for my stories. I will make contact with the Indian Cultural Centre in Lautoka (where I would like to live) and I will seek their help in finding suitable accommodation and a language instructor in Fijian. Though English is an official language of Fiji, knowing the local language will help me better integrate into the community. I would like to spend the next three months in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which has had contact with Indians for centuries. Indians came to Malaysia in three waves—first in the 15th century as traders, then in the 19th century under the British Raj, and now in the 21st century as businessmen and professionals. These three waves of immigrants have influenced Malaysian culture in diverse ways. For example, the Malay language has several words with Tamil roots, and Thaipusam—a Hindu festival—is one of the most popular in Malaysia. It is celebrated near Kuala Lumpur in the month of January, and I would like to be present for it. I have made contact with Manoj Menon, an Indian living in Malaysia, and he is willing to help me find a homestay and a Malay language instructor. I have also been in touch with a young Indo-Malaysian writer, Sharanya Manivannan, who is currently living in Chennai, but will be visiting at the time, and she has consented to talk with me about being a writer and an Indo-Malaysian.
I would then like to travel to South Africa in February, and spend the following three months in Durban. Indians in South Africa had a vastly different assimilation process from those in Fiji or Malaysia, and I believe this contrast will make my stories even richer. South Africa was the setting for apartheid and Gandhi’s now-famous “passive resistance.” Gandhi set up the Phoenix Settlement just outside of Durban for Indians who wanted to peacefully resist oppression, and the remains of the settlement will provide a historical as well as a physical context for my stories. Durban is also the location of the Indian Cultural Centre, where I will make contacts concerning accommodation and Indian life. In addition, I am in touch with Alan Mabin, a professor at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and he says he is able to set me up with contacts in Durban. Finally, during the months of May, June and July, I would like to travel to Tanzania. In complete contrast to South Africa, Tanzania completely sidestepped the issue of ethnic strife, due to the equal laws that Julius Nyerere established after the country’s independence. Traveling directly from South Africa to Tanzania will allow me to more vividly capture how a history of ethnic violence versus one of peace and cooperation affects the daily lives and the identities of its Indian people. Moreover, Tanzania has two distinct Indian populations—the Indians who have been born and brought up there, and the Indians that have recently arrived. There is a distinct divide between them (the former, in fact, have a half-derogatory name for the latter) and it is this inter-Indian tension that I would like to explore in my stories. Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania, has one of the largest Indian populations in the country and while I am there, I will be staying with Mrs. and Mr. Chauhan, the parents of a friend of mine at Lawrence University. At the end of the year, I will return to the United States, having been able to experience and depict Indian life and identity in a way that I never dreamed possible before.
The success of my project depends on one all-important thing: being able to integrate myself into the community and become part of the national tapestry. I will need to make contacts with as many people as possible, and I plan on doing so in the following ways. Firstly, I will try my best to live with a family, as part of a homestay, rather than at a hostel or an apartment. This will give me an opportunity to experience and take part in the daily life of that particular country. Secondly, I will arrange to take lessons in the predominant native language of each country—Malay in Malaysia, Fijian in Fiji and Swahili in Tanzania. As I have already noted, I believe that at least a basic grasp of the native language will allow me to feel more “at home” and will also lend my stories authenticity. My third avenue of integration will be the Indian Cultural Centres in each country, which often organize Indian cultural programs such as dance or music performances. I will attend and offer to help in organizing these programs, meeting several Indians in the process. Finally, I hope to connect with writers in each of these communities. I will identify cafés and libraries—such as the Indie Scene Café in Kuala Lumpur—that hold readings by local authors. Connecting with writers will allow me to gain a new perspective, as well as feedback, on my stories. Finally, I will need to gain a thorough sense of the landscape of each country, which is why I will be traveling extensively during my three months in each place. By talking to individuals, taking part in their lives, intimately knowing the streets and alleyways, and understanding their language, I will be able to build my stories and to depict what it means to be an Indian in another country. When novelist Salman Rushdie visited Lawrence University in the spring of 2006, I had the chance to eat lunch with him. Someone at the table asked him how he chose the subject for his novels, and he said, “Well, you write about what you know.” I know about being an Indian in America, but that’s not what I want to write about. I want to write about countries I have never visited, about people I’ve never met. So, I am going to take Mr. Rushdie’s quote and turn it on its head for my Watson project. Instead of writing about what I know, I want to travel the world and get to know that about which I want to write.
Personal Statement “Germany.”
“Um…Argentina.” “You already said Argentina! Pick another one!”
The plane to Chicago was thirty minutes late, and the Indian father and his seven-year-old son sitting behind me in the Heathrow lounge had begun a game, one that seemed to consist of naming every country in the world. Occasionally, they would address each other in Tamil, and I half-listened to them with an indulgent enjoyment even as I read my book. Presently they grew tired of it and stopped. Then, abruptly, in Tamil: “Appa, where is that lady from?”
I knew, without knowing how, that the boy was talking about me. After a pause, his father casually replied in my mother tongue, “I don’t know.” The question and response came back to me as I was drifting in and out of sleep over the Atlantic, inspiring in me a sudden weightlessness that had nothing to do with the altitude. Three years in America had wrought changes in me that I knew were obvious, but in spite of them, I had never stopped thinking of myself as identifiably and unquestionably Indian. Yet here was an Indian—a Tamilian, no less—who could not claim me as a countryman with confidence. On that day I realized that the simple facts of shared skin colour and features were no longer enough to claim a kinship with Indians around the world.
And I began to wonder what was. ****************************
I never had occasion to think about India before I left it. It was only after I came to Lawrence University in the fall of 2005 that I even thought about why I did some of the things I did—why, for example, did I call the parents of my Indian friends “Uncle” or “Aunty,” when I clearly was unrelated to them? Why did I think that “joblessness” was a perfectly acceptable way to describe boredom? Why did I always refuse to handle money with my left hand? I had answers for some of these questions; for others, I was stumped. I did and said these things simply because I had been brought up to do so—they were a part of me, as surely as my accent and my name. I thought these things were unchangeable. I was wrong. Three years later, I have an unmistakable Wisconsin twang and everyone on campus knows me only as “Mads.” I have abandoned certain aspects of my own culture, sometimes without even being aware of it. ‘Favour’ has become ‘favor,’ a mysterious hard ‘c’ has appeared in the word ‘schedule,’ and I have to think twice before I can remember the Tamil word for almost anything. There have also been changes at a deeper level. I have been exposed to new ideas and practices, and I have incorporated many of them into my own life. These changes do not upset me, but they make me wonder at the ease with which I have adapted to life in a nation that is so foreign to my own. There is no doubt that my identity is transforming along with my accent, and it is my personal experience of bi-nationalism that convinces me of the fact that, given one year, $28,000 and a free rein, I would like nothing better than to tell the stories of people like myself. People displaced from their native country, living in a vastly different one, and continuously forging an identity that must inevitably come to terms with a double-history, a double-life.
So why choose the medium of fiction? Because, as an English major and an avid reader, I learned long ago to respect fiction’s immense power to move, persuade, inform, disturb and delight. I have crafted stories at almost every stage of my life, most of which I wrote with a child’s impulsive candour. There are stories about vampires, animals, battles and boyfriends, scribbled down in a diary or saved as a neat Word document. The high point of my youthful writing career came when I took “Creative Writing” during the fall term of my sophomore year. I spent many sleepless nights working on my final story, pounding away at my keyboard, agonizing over my uncooperative characters, thinking up metaphors by the dozen. And then I got my first sweet taste of professional accolade. “This is a fine piece of writing,” my professor wrote at the beginning of his critique. He then went on to point out the dozen places that I had gone wrong, but I was nevertheless transported with joy and a desire to create fiction. In addition, as a Psychology major, I have been trained to ask the kinds of questions that will help me write the stories that I am proposing. I am especially interested in social psychology, which is a way of carefully observing the world, taking nothing for granted, and then formulating theories about the ways in which people think about each other. In essence, it is exactly what I do as a writer, and I believe that my training in psychology and my love for writing combine to make me extremely well-equipped for my proposed project.
Writing, however, is only one part of this multifaceted project. There are innumerable other components that enter into the equation, and I know that I have the skills and experiences to undertake them. Since I have lived away from India and my family for two years at a stretch, I know that I possess the independence and endurance required for a year of consistent travel in foreign countries. I learned to deal with personal tragedy from a distance when my grandfather, and then my uncle, passed away in India while I was in America. These experiences strengthened me and will continue to do so when things are not going well in an unfamiliar land, and the temptation to run home is strong. Having traveled to a number of countries, such as the United Kingdom, Italy and El Salvador, I have developed an ability to quickly recognize and respect the customs of different nations. I am also able to integrate myself into the local landscape and make lasting personal connections. When I was in Canterbury, for instance, I located a badminton club (I used to play professional badminton) and immediately asked if I could play with them. By the end of my month-long stay, I was a firm part of the group. I went to the pub with them twice a week, and during these conversations, I got a firsthand and very strong impression of the British sensibility. It is exactly this sort of personal connection that I will need to make in each country to which I travel for the Watson, and I believe that I am capable of and confident enough to seek out these connections.
It is hard to overstate the personal benefits of such a project. If I were given the chance to travel to these countries, it would be the largest and most concerted attempt at writing that I have ever undertaken, and it would help me answer the question, Is this what I want to do with my life? I have shared my cherished but secret ambition to be a writer with almost nobody; I rarely admit it to myself. My reluctance stems from the seed of self-doubt that plagues all aspiring writers—do I have stories worth telling? And do I have the words with which to tell them? All said and done, however, I stubbornly believe that I do and I want to prove it. In the process, I will also discover invaluable lessons about my own multivalent identity as an Indian woman, an American student and a citizen of the world. A Watson Fellowship would allow me to embark on a journey that can be termed nothing other than self-discovery, because I will know, at the end of the year, what my next step in life should be. And, just as importantly, I will be better equipped to answer the question, first spoken aloud by a piping, seven-year-old voice:
“Where is that lady from?”