Nathan Wolek is an audio artist and researcher as well as Associate Professor of Digital Arts and Chair of the Creative Arts Department at Stetson University in DeLand, FL. His technical and research work has recently been featured in the Max Package Manager. I caught up with him to ask a few questions about his artistic and teaching life...
What got you started?
My creative life in music technology started because there was a new course offering during my undergraduate degree called “Computer Music”. Prior to that, I had really never considered that these two words would go together as a field of study. I was immediately intrigued and talked my way into the course even though it was at the 400-level and I was only a sophomore at the time. We worked our way through the Curtis Roads tutorial and used Csound in that class running on an SGI workstation. I was hooked after that. Being able to craft my own sounds at that level of detail was amazing to me.
The next semester (spring 1997), there was a course called “Advanced MIDI Techniques” with the same professor, so I signed up for that one too. We used Max in all its pre-MSP glory. I still have a folder on my hard drive with those projects and amazingly, I can still open those patches in Max 7! I just checked by opening a project from that term with the filename “Algorithmic Composer”.
Can you tell us more about the Mobile Performance Group? How did it get started? Are there any particularly memorable or crazy experiences performing with that collective?
It was the concept of my colleague, Matt Roberts. He had this idea to do audio-visual street performance using our laptops and other technologies. I signed on immediately because I thought it was a good way to give our students experience performing with the tools we were teaching them. Something about having a gig helps to raise the expectation level. Together we were trying to push the limits by capturing sounds and video from a place, then re-working that into material for performance. In 2005, the gear was just starting to allow us to record directly onto digital formats like flash cards. You can lose a lot of time moving a video or audio tape to a digital file on your computer.
So many memories and a huge collection of audio files that I continue to mine occasionally. One thing I will never forget is performing on the streets of San Jose during ISEA 2006. Up walks a guy that offers us some cash like we were busking, which we hadn’t really considered. I mean, who busks with laptops, LCD projectors, and MIDI controllers, right? Then he introduced himself as Scot Gresham-Lancaster! That was an amazing moment to be performing with MPG and have a member of The Hub come up and compliment us on our work, not just with words, but with cash!
I am super proud of the work Matt and I did with our students during that time period. Many of those students have gone on to do some awesome things. Since 2013, Matt and I just decided to go in different directions creatively. He is doing some great work in augmented reality. I’ve been focussing more on on DSP programming and sound art projects.
How does your role as teacher/mentor/educator inform your art? How does your artistic practice inform your role as teacher/mentor/educator?
I think it is important for educators at the college level to be active themselves, practicing whatever it is they teach. You need to model for your students what it looks like to be actively engaged in your topic of expertise. Telling a student that you can’t meet with them that afternoon because you are working on a creative or research project is a healthy thing for them to hear. They need to know that I am being intentional about setting aside time for my work that is separate from the time I spend teaching, because I expect the same from them. Where I teach now really supports a healthy kind of balance between mentoring and research. Stetson calls it the "teacher-scholar” model.
Sometimes it is hard to separate the two, because when teaching is done well, there is an element of performance and artistry to it. And being a musician by training makes me very conscious of timing and duration. The class meeting or the semester are just two types of time duration, so I often find myself organizing them in much the same way I would a composition. Some sections are fixed, some are aleatoric, then I want the class to end a certain way with a culminating project.
How do you know when something you are working on is finished?
Usually because the deadline is near. But seriously, I have always been interested in algorithmic processes that drive the work. So there is not always a need to have a definitive, final version of my work. For that reason, I do a lot of listening. Tweak the patch - listen - tweak the patch - listen - repeat. And sometimes I sit in my office working on other things with a patch on in the background because I want to hear how the results evolve (or don’t) over longer periods of time. When it starts to hold my attention for more than an hour, then I know I am nearing completion.
On the teaching side, I have been revamping my Computer Music course this summer. I should point out that this is the same course that I mentioned in response to the first question, because Stetson is also where I did my undergrad. It’s pretty cool to be charged with teaching the course that got me into music technology. We have long since left Csound and started using Max exclusively in that course, by the way. But this year, I wanted to mix things up again, so I am adding Ableton Live, Max for Live and some analogue synth modules into the course. I am trying a comparative approach, where we will look at something like frequency modulation and then see how to approach that technique with each software and hardware tool. It’s been a lot of work and classes start this week, so I am pretty excited to roll that out to my students. To get ready for that this summer, I have been spending time working on my Ableton Live chops. I have about 20 different projects started and in various stages. My goal was to try out a lot of things and just make sure I am comfortable. I imagine some of those will eventually turn into finished pieces.
On the creative side, I have a few projects slated for this coming year. I will be working with Virgil Moorefield on his next piece for a premiere in late October, then I am doing a sound design for a theatre project here at Stetson early in 2017. I spent a lot of time in 2015 working on "every tree", a large sound installation project where I used Max to algorithmically edit almost 6 hours of binaural audio recordings. I still think there is more to be done with that combination of rapid edits and binaural recordings, so I have some ideas for subjects to tackle with them.
Then of course, there is always work to be done for Jamoma and the LowkeyNW package. Overall, there is never a shortage of interesting work to be done, which is what I love of about this stage of my career! But the trick is not letting the necessary work crowd out the interesting stuff.