Hold Still

live art & electronics, 2015

A multimedia self-portrait, 2015. Pencil, copper, and Arduino on paper, poetry and video in Max/MSP/Jitter. Drawings anchor my memories far better than photographs; poetry tells my stories better than prose. This piece is more true to me than I am to myself.

Context

Hold Still was composed in Spring 2015 as part of an independent study with Dr. Mark Snyder, and was premiered at UMW's 2015 Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium. What started as a half-baked drawing-and-Arduino concept became an electroacostic piece that combines spoken word, sketching, live video, and graphite on paper as a custom MIDI controller. It's been performed at least twenty times at this point, and will be released on the Music from SEAMUS, vol. 26 album in August 2017.

I walked into my independent study holding a Christmas-gifted Arduino, and told Mark, "I know I want this to be a MIDI controller, because the internet says it's doable, but I don't know how I want it to work just yet." Fair enough - it was a start, at least. He asked me to start a weekly blog, to document my progress.

I kept looking online, and happened upon a few articles talking about using graphite with an Arduino - now that's something! Eventually, I figure out how to make it work, and I can show it off, but having something technically functioning means I need to start working on the hard part - the piece itself.

Initial difficulties quickly turned into stalling. I tried hunting for some good public domain audio to use, but I was also faced with with trying to write a piece in Max for the first time; the blank canvas syndrome hit me hard. So I looked around, and wasted time, until a link popped up on Facebook for a spoken word poem: "The Period Poem" by Dominique Christina. It's bold and addictive, and of course there's more, so I kept following related links.

In the process of watching nearly every Button Poetry video had ever posted, I land on "Montauk" by Sarah Kay. Its simplicity grabs me - in a genre full of explosive, emotional poetry, "Montauk" is almost like a campfire story. It's the sweetness of childhood, and the softness of nostalgia. It's a wry smile in a room full of bared teeth. It made me realize that I needed to take my piece in a similar direction; tell an interesting story about art, don't make it over-emotional, but do make it personal. The art will come best when it comes from you.

I wrote most of the poem that night (or morning, it's hard to say), and briefly attempted to stitch together the words from words in other videos; when that didn't work, I tried recording it hours later. It took me another week to complete the poem and re-record it, along with the doubles and secondary voices. In the middle of the night, in an empty lab, I made an initial mix of it, and left better, but still afraid.

When I first let Mark listen to it, I was shaking; I had no idea if it would work, or if it was any good, because it seemed so different in comparison to the music I was used to hearing at festivals. Halfway through the piece, he mumbled "this is incredible," and I felt the anxiety drop off me in a heap. There were a few additions/edits after, but the fixed media part is relatively unchanged.

Once I had the piece, wrangling Max was much easier. I knew almost immediately that I'd be drawing a face, and that I'd greenscreen out the drawn-in areas for other videos to use as texture. Each run of the piece uses a different piece of paper, and I still have them all. See below for the full list.

Hold Still was definitely where I found my voice. I still get waves of impostor syndrome all the time, but now my attitude is that the thing you are afraid of writing is the thing you probably need to be writing. Fear makes my choices for me, by making clear which idea is the one that scares me the most.

Written by Becky on Sunday November 27, 2016

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