Betsey Biggs—Sensing Wonder
A conversation with Molly Sheridan
April 9, 2008 — 10:30 a.m.
at Biggs’s home in Brooklyn, NY
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Molly Sheridan: When you’re at parties and people ask what you do, do you dread trying to come up with a label for yourself that encompasses the range your work?
Betsey Biggs: Essentially. [laughs]
MS: How do you manage that? Even if it’s an uncomfortable thing to try to explain to another person, how do you think about and categorize the work? Is it ever useful to try?
BB: To me, it’s very natural. To me it’s just an organic way of expressing myself, and, you know, I don’t see sound and image as being apart in any way. I mean, for most people our experience of the world is both of them. Often I’ll just say I’m an artist and a composer. And sort of let it go at that unless they ask what that means. Because often—I’m sure most composers have had this experience—you know, if you say you’re a composer, you’ll get, “What instrument do you write for?”
MS: How do you like to answer that question?
BB: I often say that I make music on my laptop as well as writing for all instruments. That usually either stymies them, or they understand.
MS: Do you usually create all the pieces of a work yourself, or are you more often collaborating with someone else?
BB: I’m more often collaborating with myself, I guess. I’ve actually been doing film and video work for longer than I’ve been composing, so I suppose I’m a little bit of a control freak when it comes to that. I did collaborate with a singer and performer named Melissa Madden-Gray on what was called a not-opera—sort of a combination of dance and singing and video and sound. There was a lot of collaboration in terms of the theatricality and in terms of the choreography for that. And that’s something I’m interested in doing again.
I will say that I’m very excited about an upcoming multimedia project with the flutist Margaret Lancaster. Margaret is a consummate actress and dancer in addition to being an amazing musician, and I’m really looking forward to collaborating with someone on staging and choreography.
I should also point out that although I almost always create the visuals and the score or soundtrack alone, several of my pieces require the performers to make creative choices to a large degree; this is most evident in The dark has its own light, in which the players are given cryptic instructions on how to interpret a set of photographs.
MS: It seems like for a lot of this work there would be a lot of technical knowledge you would have to have to realize it, to master all those different pieces and be able to put them together yourself. What kind of toolbox are you working with then, training-wise, on a very practical level—video skills, audio skills. There’s a lot of technology you’d have to keep up with.
BB: Yeah. I tend to work with pretty low-tech tools, compared to some people. I had gotten interested a couple of years after I graduated from college in working in film and video, and I moved to San Francisco with the idea of working in documentaries. I quickly found out that there were about one-and-a-half paying jobs in that realm, so I worked for a production company that specialized in travel video—shows for the Travel Channel and various other outlets. That was great training; I was in the edit room, like, three days a week, just literally taking B roll of all these beautiful places. I never got to go do the shoots, but there was this gigantic library of travel footage, and I would just sit and try to find the right clips. Then I’d edit them to what I had written for an announcer to read with this imagery going over it. It wasn’t what I ultimately wanted to do, but I learned a lot about video at that point.
This was just before video editing on computers, so when Avid came out, I got really interested in that. I took a class at FAF, San Francisco’s Film Arts Foundation, which has low-cost classes. And then I worked as a video editor, assistant editor actually, on commercials for a while. And just about then was when I decided I wasn’t really that happy with doing all this commercial work. I was starting to do some experimental film, and I went to Mills College to study music. And this was really the year that digital video came to the forefront. So I spent a lot of time at Mills, experimenting, making video art, installations with video and sound. Technically, I mean, I just use Final Cut Pro on my trusty four-year-old Powerbook. And in terms of audio editing, I often write Max patches.
About four years after I started at Mills, I went to Princeton for a Ph.D. That was right about the time that Jitter came out, and so I just leapt into that. I did all the tutorials and quickly became very interested in the notion of combining sound and music and visuals in a way that is sort of provocative, I hope.
MS: The musical training and experience that you had then, was that something that came later in your career or something that you did as a kid and then tacked it back on once you were doing the video and expanding in this A/V direction? How does the music fall in with that trajectory?
BB: I was always really musical as a kid. I sang in a church choir that was actually very good musical training. And I also played piano, you know, sort of semi-classical. There was nothing fancy. In high school, I played in a couple of bands, and in college I played in rock bands and I also played with Steven Scott’s Bowed Piano Ensemble which was also great musical training and sort of turned me onto the world of new music. After that I just kind of dropped music; it’s a very strange thing. I played in a band in L.A. for a year that wasn’t a great experience, and that was about the time that I got interested in making videos and filmmaking. I was also traveling quite a bit. I would freelance and then go travel around for six months and come back. So I feel like what I’m doing now is sort of a culmination of all these different things that I was doing sequentially, in a way.
MS: What attracts you now to putting all of this together, as opposed to just making one visual project or an auditory project?
BB: I really feel like in life, you never have one without the other, or very rarely, and it’s sort of like the Cage-ian “there is no real silence.” I think there’s something very interesting for me about putting fragments of things together in a way that forces the listener and the viewer to create a story in their head. And by that, I don’t mean sort of a narrative trajectory in the traditional way, but just that maybe brings up memories or evokes a kind of a feeling. And so they just sort of seem to fit together for me. I have continued to write music that’s just music. I don’t think I’ve ever done any silent video, but I have actually done a lot of video that uses some sort of dreamscape drone in the background. I think that sound, particularly if you’re using ambient sound, creates more of a sense of life and motion. You know, if you look at silent film and especially if you slow it down or something, or if you put some kind of dreamy music to it, it looks very dreamlike; whereas, you can have the most dreamlike video in the world, but if you put it to the sound of somebody on the subway, it doesn’t seem that dreamy.
MS: I was thinking about that, particularly watching the small town triptych piece that you did, how almost emotionally manipulative it is, though not necessarily in a negative way. Using just one media could be that emotionally affecting as well, but somehow it was a faster entry point by having both at once.
BB: I feel like those emotional moments are actually just reenactments of things that actually happened to me, of the way that I felt in that situation, and I wanted to capture it. In a general way, most of my work is like this. So for instance, in Trinidad Triptych, the middle video is of the ceiling of a long passageway with theses fans. That was where I was working. It was in this old department store that according to everybody had been haunted—and you know, frankly, according to me because I was there overnight a lot working. The bathroom was at the end of the hall, and I would just run down it. But there was one morning when I had been there all night getting ready for this exhibition, and I was looking up at it and I just thought it was so beautiful. It had that slow morning feel. So I took video of it and then I didn’t touch it for six months. But when I came back to it, I think the music that I made for it just sort of evoked that feeling I had.
In a way, I think that all of these pieces, or most of them, are sort of reenactments of moments of wonder I’ve had in what could otherwise be seen as sort of mundane settings. And what I hope to do is provoke people into seeing the wonder around them in their worlds.
MS: Is that how the ideas in the work usually come to you? You start with the video?
BB: Well, you know, that’s interesting. I have to think about it because technically the way I work is always with the music first. Or actually, I guess not in that situation, but almost always. I edit to sound when I’m editing. And maybe that one wasn’t that way because there’s no editing. It’s just one clip.
One thing that I was very excited about when Jitter came into play was that I could work with live musicians and they didn’t have to play to a click track. I’d been interested for a long time in combining video with live musical performance, but I really didn’t like the idea that the musicians would be sort of held hostage to the click track of the DVD versus the video working around their musical rhythms.
MS: Can you explain a little bit how that works?
BB: Yeah, absolutely. The way you would traditionally work if you were combining music and a DVD is that you would create the DVD and then you would have very small headphones for the people playing. Or I did do a piece with DVD where they just practiced over and over with the DVD. I’ve actually found out not all musicians are averse to that. Sometimes they prefer it. With Max/MSP and Jitter, which is an audio-visual improvisation set of tools, you have the capability of improvising the video live, just as a musician would improvise live. And so I’m able to the play the video along with the musicians. I can cut right on the beat and be responsive to their musicality rather than the beat of the video just occurring without any flexibility and having musicians have to work around that. I think it creates a slightly more fluid audio-visual performance.
By using live musicians and something like Jitter, I was able to play with the musicians as opposed to them sort of playing over the video or under the video. So in those situations where I work with live musicians, even as I’m scoring it, the music always comes first, and only after I have a score do I start improvising.
I do think of my music and art as sort of being two branches, although they may stem from the same impulse. In some ways I find that they’re fairly different. I do think of Trinidad Triptych as more of an installation and so maybe for me, the visuals play a larger part in that.
MS: What are the two branches?
BB: Oh, I do concert music, live audio-visual improvisation, and so on. That usually is more performance-oriented. I also do artworks. Actually, I do interactive sound installations and also video art which I was doing before I started composing. They used to be more gallery-based and now I’m very interested in both, with the concert music and with the art, bringing everything out into the public sphere. But I would say those are the two branches.
MS: Has the audience’s reaction to your work changed now that so many people are kind of obsessed with making their own movies, whether it’s a YouTube thing or making short videos for their blogs? Have you noticed any changes as the amateur, everyday way of making these video records of life has become more accessible to people?
BB: That’s interesting. I mean, no one has mentioned it to me. I think it’s great that a 14-year old can just go out and make this experimental movie about their day and then distribute it all within, like, two hours. That was certainly not the case when I was a kid. I don’t know; I’ve never discussed it with anyone. I think that there is sort of an interest in the quotidian, and I think I walk a fine line because for a long time I was, I think, fighting this impulse. Just going back to something you said before, I was fighting this impulse to have this kind of emotional manipulation. It’s not something I do on purpose, actually, it’s just sort of what comes out. I’m a huge fan of the New York School and Cage and this idea of letting things be the way they are, but obviously that’s somewhat at odds with something that’s so strongly emotional that you feel pulled into it right away.
I think what I try to do is having the building blocks of my work be this sort of everyday work. I don’t use a video camera to shoot or very rarely do I use a video camera to shoot. I usually use just this small little $150 digital camera that I got at J & R. The nice thing about that is I always have it with me and I can capture whatever freakish or poetic or whatever thing that happens to me that I find noteworthy. Then, of course, most of those things don’t end up in any pieces, but you know sometimes I’ll just make that a centerpiece and I’ll sort of replay that magical moment I had with the stick on the sewer grate or, you know, the stars or the driving around and around in a circle in the parking lot in rural Colorado. Whatever it is.
MS: You use those memories and you speak about them as memories, but the music is not just some ambient soundtrack. Even listening to the walk on Grand Street. There are some really jarring things about it. You know, I read the title, that it’s a “park bench cinema”, and I thought it was going to be a sort of nostalgia trip. But there’s none of that. The visual content and the musical content—does it need to match up in some way? What are the connectors that you’re drawing out there?
BB: I think, to me, it lines up with where I was emotionally and the way the experience was for me. Although, particularly with that walk, I think I was trying to do something a little different. I walked around Williamsburg a lot without recording. I was trying to find a good route. I probably would have chosen more tiny little streets and so on, but I was constrained by the fact that I knew people would be potentially lost when they were walking. Then I made several video recordings. And then I have this little digital flash recorder, and I just tried to walk at the same pace and did the walk that way like ten times, and collected all the sounds. Then I edited them all on the computer.
I’ve become very interested in my discomfort between this sort of emotional dream state and these kind of Cage-ian, “finding the beauty in every day life” kind of ideas. I’ve been very interested with these outdoor pieces in creating ruptures between those two worlds. So for instance, in the walk on Grand Street, I’ll sort of go off on a tangent of some emotional feeling I had—and in this case, sometimes it’s just purely visual, you know. There was some store called Mermaid-something, and I had some fragment from Debussy which I manipulated and threw in there. It will be very dreamlike and then I’ll try to have something really loud come and wake you out of it. To me, that’s a little bit like the idea of the Zen crack on the back. You know, in Zen meditation, when they’re meditating the master will sometimes come along and crack someone who seems to be drifting off hard enough to give them just a little jolt. I think that in some ways, I was trying to do that. My experience, too, is like that. I mean, when I’m having my little moment in the parking lot or whatever it is, then all of the sudden the phone will ring or someone will be behind me beeping, or, you know, real life will intrude. So I think increasingly, I’m interested in exploring those kinds of ruptures. I guess my hope is that somehow by getting people to shuttle back and forth between those, they’ll start to listen more to the world around them and notice these moments of wonder. Rather than making the artistic experience be something they put off in a separate place that’s, you know, “Oh, that was this beautiful thing and now here I am on the sidewalk again.” No. I want people to be on the sidewalk and find that great little rock or whatever it is.
MS: You’ve mentioned wanting your audience to have a sense of wonder. Are there other motivations when you’re creating work that you’re trying to get out of your audience?
BB: I think the sense of wonder is sort of a smaller part of just wanting them to be engaged in some active way. I imagine most artists of any kind want the audience to become engaged. But I’m very interested in the idea of the audience participating in some way. And so, for example, a lot of my works are these sort of narrative fragments that don’t necessarily make any sense when lined up next to each other. And they sort of require the audience to decode them. Obviously a very post-modern idea, but one that I think is really important. I think I’m increasingly interested in requiring even more active participation. So for instance, with the walks, obviously they have to do the walk in order to have the experience of the synchronicities and the falling into sort of a dream state and then being slapped out of it or whatever. So I would say that a sense of active engagement is something that I’m really looking for from the audience and a sense of wonder. I mean, I don’t want to be fascistic and say “the experience you should have is that when you come away, you should have a sense of wonder.” But I hope that they’ll be encouraged to listen more.
Pauline Oliveros was really my first composition teacher and I’ve done some listening training with her since then. And I think that her core idea of just listening to the world around you has been very influential in my work.
MS: Obviously, there are a lot of advantages to being able to combine all these different media into one piece. As you said, it’s how we experience life. But are there any dangers or weaknesses or gimmicks that you have to watch out for? Is there anything you feel you need to conscientiously avoid?
BB: Sure, sure. Yeah, I mean, for one thing the emotional manipulation that you talked about is something that, while I don’t feel I need to throw it out and I’ve realized it’s sort of part of who I am, I think that there is a danger there. It can be very easy to create something that’s just kind of nostalgic or sentimental, and obviously I would like to challenge the audience in a way. So that’s one danger.
I also think, to be honest, quite often there’s just too much going on. Particularly when you have live musicians on stage. It can be very jarring to not know what to look at. Are you supposed to be looking at the musicians? But then you’re missing the video. But then if you look at the video, you’re not seeing the musicians. You know, particularly if you’re working with musicians that are fun to watch: I did a piece called Fear of Flying with So Percussion, and, I mean, you want to watch them. They do fun stuff. They’re moving around different instruments, and they’re hitting things. The way I approached that, and I’m not sure it was a hundred percent successful, but I was actually able to work with a lighting designer. They were also doing a piece of Dan Trueman’s, and he had hired this lighting designer, so we lit the ensemble in similar colors to the color in the piece in Fear of Flying. The video was all live improvisation in that piece, and it was very monochromatic. So, one part was sort of sepia, one part was sort of deep blue, etc. By matching the lighting, I tried to minimize that jarring effect, but I think it’s a real danger for anyone doing multimedia.
Obviously the sort of godmother of all of this is Meredith Monk. She just does such an amazing job weaving everything together with her direction and her lighting and video and choreography and singing and everything, and it comes together in a very organic way. I’ve never felt that sense of being pulled away one from or the other. And so I think that thinking sort of theatrically and also looking at the dance world is really the way to go. And it’s something I’m still learning about.
MS: Is it something you’re pursuing in your work right now?
BB: Well, there are two projects I’m thinking about doing that aren’t in the works yet, and they both have to do with pop culture. One is possibly deconstructing Smile. I had the idea before Brian Wilson came back with it, although I’m very glad he did because it’s a beautiful album. But I’ve been kind of interested in exploring the iconicity of California, the lightness and the darkness. And I’m also trying to create a piece based on a short video I took with my digital camera of a street person doing karaoke to the song “Heartbreaker” by the Stones.
Anyway. I’ve been working on a lot of sort of pop music deconstructions over the past several years. I’ve become interested in—I didn’t really grow up with MTV, but watching MTV in high school and so on—if that form of the music video has had an effect on my art, if that’s something that has effected me. Because for me, pop music has been really important in my life. And these fragments of memories, you know, quite often if I hear a song, I’ll remember exactly where I was when I first heard that song. I’m very interested in the sense of memory, the relationship between sound and image on the one hand, which can be sort of technical and contrapuntal, and the relationship between sound and memory on the other hand, which I think has these sort of resonances of memory that it stirs inside of you, and having those come together in the relationship between sound and place.
MS: Can the musical tracks that you make for these pieces stand on their own?
BB: I think so. I think it depends. I think with the music pieces, the more musical performance pieces, they can. I think that with the art pieces they cannot. So for instance, they’ll give someone an idea of what I’m doing, but I don’t think that the park bench cinema pieces stand on their own. The same thing with the Trinidad Triptych. It’s up to any audience member—if they listen to it and like it, that’s fine. But I think that with the pieces that are more art, they tend to stand less well on their own; whereas, most of the pieces that are musical, I wrote the score before I did the video. And so I think it adds something, but I’m not sure that it absolutely needs to be there. And I’m not sure if I’m shooting myself in the foot by saying that.