Ex Pat Files: Dion Workman: New York Noise Sculptor
Author: Emma Philpott
If you are into noise as an artform, as opposed to as ear-piercing heavy metal, the name Dion Workman might ring the faintest of bells. He was one of three in Auckland experimental noise outfit Thela, which released two records on Sonic Youth' Thurston Moore's label in the early '90s. Workman later released work under the moniker White Winged Moth, before fluttering off overseas in 1997 with as little fanfare as his music heralded in the mainstream here.
Now 30, Dion Workman's name appeared recently in international press despatches when he was announced winner of the Max Brand prize for innovative developments in electronic music (a prize worth approx. $10,000). His winning piece was called 'Ching', named in respect of fellow composer Ching-Chiang Liu from whose work Workman took a one second long sample.
Honoured as the best among 200 submissions, NZM thought it would be timely to catch up with the now New York-based Kiwi composer.
Where did you head to from NZ?
Initially I moved to Australia but that was just in order to get together the money to relocate to Europe. Europe is, or has been, the engine room of a lot of the art and ideas that I'm interested in and this had a lot to do with my desire to move there. There were a lot more opportunities for continuing my work as well as a larger community of artists working toward similar things.
Whenever possible I try to spend at least a month in a new place. I'm less interested in tourism than in experiencing the day to day workings of a place. Aimlessly wandering and stumbling across things. To do this it's necessary to stay in one place for a while.
Where has your music taken you?
I've been all over Europe and the US but most of this was touring to play shows, so I would see hardly anything of the places I was in. Still, I would purposefully try and get booked to play in out of the way places just to have a look. One of the strangest shows I've played was in Estonia. I have spent reasonable amounts of time in the Netherlands, Germany, Croatia and Finland.
How long have you been living in the States?
It must be close to two and a half years. I've just moved from the lower east side of Manhattan to Brooklyn. I'm living in an old Italian working class neighbourhood flanked by a Dominican and Puerto Rican neighbourhood on one side and a Polish neighbourhood on the other.
How has your music evolved since the Thela days?
I think about music differently but just because I've had more time to think about it. My time spent playing in Thela definitely laid the groundwork for what I'm doing now. It was as a member of Thela that I realised I was more interested in sound than I was in 'music'. The most obvious difference would be that Thela's music was totally improvised whereas now I am composing. But even so my compositions often contain elements that come about through processes that are more or less improvised.
Does location affect what you compose or record?
The answer is definitely yes, but for possibly more banal reasons than one would expect. Because I make very minimal music I am always struggling against outside noise and often very unconsciously. Last summer I incorporated my neighbour's air conditioner into a composition and was totally unaware that I had done this until the weather cooled down and they switched it off. In my new studio I have to deal with the bass vibrations of trucks and buses and in Rotterdam where I lived in a Turkish neighbourhood it was Turkish pop music that I had to work with - or against. I do suspect that location has an effect on my work on some more profound level as well. Whether that be through contact with other artists in the area or psycho-geographical effects on my state of mind.
Who or what are you making music for at the moment?
I'm currently working on a few collaborative projects. Two are with New York based musicians Okkyung Lee (cello) and Michael Haleta (electronics) and a third with French electronic musician Julien Ottavi. 'Ching' is currently being manufactured and will be released by New York label Antiopic in July. I also have a piece in Antiopic's Allegorical Power MP3 series which will be available from June at www.antiopic.com
Do your works get performed live?
I perform live myself although I do it fairly rarely. Recently all my work has been computer generated so it's a fairly simple matter to perform them on my own. A piece that I'm currently working on is for computer and cello so I will require a cellist to perform with me. I've performed in every imaginable kind of venue. The most common are art galleries, old theatres and experimental music clubs. But I've also performed in an ex-high school gym, lofts, bars, town halls.
What sort of numbers is the 'Ching' recording likely to sell worldwide?
Probably around 1000 copies. This is fairly standard for experimental electronic music. The market is really too small for an artist to live off sales of CDs. The money comes from grants, prizes, performances at festivals etc.
Does music pay the rent?
Rent is rather expensive in New York.
Do you get commissioned to compose pieces?
I've never been paid to write work. I've been asked to write pieces for CD compilations and a couple of experimental films. If I participate it is because I am interested in the project. I'm really not that concerned with making money from my music. If it happens, as with winning the Max Brand prize, it's a nice thing, but I prefer not to have the pressure of having what I love doing tied to my survival. Making art should be about living not surviving. The worst thing imaginable for me is that making art becomes a job.
Do you know why it won the award?
The decision is made by a jury of some seven or eight people. The jury statement claimed that 'Ching' was conceptually rigorous while being musically interesting. I have heard two of the other entries and they were very good. I finished 'Ching' earlier this year but I had been working on it for a good six or seven months. I'm not the most prolific of artists.
Have you developed close ties to any other art forms or particular artists?
In New York I work with a group of people known collectively as New No York. The group consists of musicians, video artists, graphic artists and writers. New No York produces events of experimental music and video as well as publishing critical writings about art. As I also make visual art I have a lot of close friends working in this area. Recently I have been working on a pseudo-documentary with fellow ex-pats Anna Sanderson and Isobel Thom. It's a three hour film called 'New Amsterdam' and should be finished sometime this year.
What musical tools do you use to compose and record with?
I work almost exclusively on a laptop. Occasionally I incorporate field recordings or samples but mostly all the sound is computer generated. My approach is slowness and close listening.
Were you classically trained or tutored in music at any stage?
No. I had a sadistic nun try to teach me piano by cracking me on the knuckles with a cane whenever I made a mistake. I can see advantages to classical training but I don't think its necessary. Many of the composers I most admire were not classically trained and my friends that have been trained seem to spend an awful lot of time trying to unlearn their training.
You were reported in the media as a New Zealander. Do you still consider yourself one?
The only passport that I have says that I am, so I guess I am. I don't really go in for patriotism or even national borders for that matter. Who I am is a result of growing up in New Zealand but there are positive and negative aspects to that. Some of my New Zealandness bugs me and I hope I can slowly change these things but there are other parts of this New Zealandness that I am very grateful for and will hold on to. I will definitely return to New Zealand at some point. I'm not sure if I would want to live there permanently though.