BEHIND THE SCENES with Stephanie Rowden

An interview with Stephanie Rowden

TCF: You worked on this story for almost 10 years! What was it about Wolfgang and his caretakers that kept you coming back?

SR: I started the piece after a year of being really sick, and my expectation then was that I would just make a short audio portrait as a way to get back into the world. At first I kept returning to meet Wolfgang because he was nearly impossible to understand and I thought maybe I just needed to do a better job asking my questions. But the combination of his accent, his being hard of hearing, and his totally digressive sensibility made it nearly impossible to edit any tape. In hindsight, I also think I was still so physically tired that it was just nice to have an excuse to sit in a garden.

Even so, I could feel from the get-go that there was something more there. Wolfgang was someone who I had seen around town and I assumed, for whatever reason, that he did not have anyone in his life. Early on I learned he had no living family. But, through some mysterious mechanism, he had gathered to him a small, really interesting collection of people. I became fascinated thinking about what it is that draws us toward each other, to care for each other beyond the bonds of family, and how we negotiate all the questions and responsibilities that come with that - and eventually those questions are what kept me continuing with the story.

TCF: One of the things I found so touching is that Wolfgang has this voice that is almost indecipherable, but everyone in his orbit - and you, too - is able to understand it perfectly.

SR: Right, in constructing the story I had to figure out how to balance enough of Wolfgang’s voice so we experience his presence, but not so much that listeners get totally lost. So I needed translation from the people surrounding him, and finding those moments where translation happened became really important.

TCF: At what point in the process did you decide that your own story belonged in the piece? How did you negotiate how intimate to get, how many details to include?

SR: After I had spent a really long time trying to make it without me!

For a long time I described this as a story about a circle of friends and caregivers and the unusual figure at the center of that circle. It’s surprising how long it took me to realize that I couldn’t separate my own experience, that this process was, not only about trying to understand his story, but also my own at the same time.

At one point early on, I was connected to the great editor Emily Botein, at WNYC. I sent her an early version of the piece - just about 8 minutes. Emily got on the phone and said, “Yeah, there’s some nice things in there.” Then she paused, and said, “So how much don’t you want to talk about being sick?”

She told me to think about how my story could ‘dance’ with Wolfgang’s. That took me another year and a half to untangle. We only had one conversation, but I came back to it a lot.

I feel like the best personal stories feel very generous, and I definitely wanted the piece to feel generous. But sometimes I would write and then realize - no, that’s too much, we don’t need to know what kind of cancer, that’s not even interesting to me! I did a lot of writing and a lot of drafts of my narration. And then it was a long slow process of speaking them and noticing how it felt in my body to say something out loud. Speaking into the microphone brings up all sorts of existential questions. Like, “Who am I, here?” “Who am I talking to?” “Why do I need to say this?”

In the final stretch I was lucky to work closely with John Biewen (of the Center for Documentary Studies) to tighten and clarify the piece. John has a patient, writerly ear which was incredibly valuable while I wrestled with what kinds of personal details were useful.

TCF: Let’s talk about the music you used - there’s something almost Peter and the Wolf-ish about it, particular sounds for each setting and character. How did you develop it?

SR: I worked with Andrew Bishop who is a composer, jazz musician, and multi-instrumentalist. We talked about developing a woody texture in the instrumental language for piece.

A couple of years ago I brought Andrew into the studio. At that point I didn’t really have a structure for the piece, but I did have an idea of some of the themes. Andrew is a really incredible improviser, and he brought in his clarinet, bass clarinet, his collection of saxophones, and a flute. I brought in a series of verbs that had to do with qualities of motion and movement. I would say, “Ok: ‘floating!’” and he would do 10 20-second improvisations. Each one would be different from the one before it, and they would all be beautiful.

So I came away with this library of improvisations, and they became a way for me to experiment with instrumental passages and then start to rebuild the piece around them. At times I could understand more of what I was trying to say through this process of pairing the music with the words.

As I got closer to the final shape of the piece, Andrew and I were able to talk more specifically about what the various sections needed, and what we could build on from the previous improvisations. Andrew brought in a marimba player and a cellist to improvise in the studio. And then I brought those recordings back into my multitrack session and adjusted the tape accordingly - I really wanted the music and tape and narration to feel like they were of a piece.

TCF: There’s almost a fairy tale quality to the music and the writing. Is that an idea that you worked with?

SR: Yes! I kept coming back to it not only because Wolfgang is a very gnomish character (I say that lovingly and he was very happy to be described that way) but also because I was thinking about all those fairy tales and folk tales where the story starts out with a character or two blithely setting off into the woods and then suddenly they’re enveloped in large, thorny, existential, life and death forces. And of course they get lost. Which is how I felt for a very long time while I was trying to figure out how to weave together the threads in this story.

TCF: You started your career as primarily a visual artist, arriving at audio through installations. Now you teach audio at a primarily visual arts program at the University Michigan. How do your students respond to being introduced to storytelling in sound?

SR: Students in our program at Stamps take a foundation year class in 4-D media: sound, video, performance, and animation. So all the students learn some rudimentary skills in sound. Anyone who’s an artist or designer needs to make a video these days. And we all know that the secret to good video is good sound.

But because of the explosion of podcasts, now there’s way more interest from my students in sound. It’s an amazing shift. Maybe not all the students, but there’s definitely an excited smaller subset… you know, the listening tribe.

The thing I love about teaching sound is that students have very few preconceptions about it as a medium, which is very different than teaching drawing, painting or even video. I never get tired of watching them discover what it’s like to listen closely with a microphone. Or watching a classroom or whole auditorium of students absorbed in listening. That’s a special thing.