In my early teens I began to experience a severe anxiety of getting sick in public—a fear that I would never be able to live down the embarrassment, unsee the prying eyes, or worse, that I wouldn’t be able to physically make it through the moment without something horrible, and unsettlingly vague, befalling me.

Though I’ve worked for years to lessen this anxiety in many triggering scenarios, one that continues to prove perilous is performing, or even listening to a piece of mine being performed. In the audience, I fidget uncontrollably in my chair, dizzyingly nauseas, sweating profusely, clutching the program so tightly that by the end of the concert it is just a crumple of unreadable pages. I am petrified that I might throw up in my seat, or faint, or something equally embarrassing. When I perform, my anxiety only amplifies. I think that everyone is watching me in the audience; I know that everyone is watching me on stage.

In graduate school, somewhat unexpectedly, I became enthralled by performing data-driven instruments. As I realized that I wanted this type of performance to play a bigger and bigger role in my life, my performance anxiety didn’t wane but began to be matched by excitement. Conversely, the excitement gave me renewed energy to face my anxiety head-on. I decided to do so, in part, through my music—through performing.

Talk-back is such an attempt. The piece is a performance of a small panic-attack. Using recordings of both my real anxiety-statements (triggering thoughts) and talk-backs (short, positive mantras that I can think or say to dispute my irrational thoughts) the piece shows how my anxiety builds in performance situations and how I work to lessen my worries through cognitive restructuring. The work is divided into three continuous sections. In the first, three anxiety-statements trigger maelstroms of anxious thoughts, each explosion of worries more virulent than the last. In the second, waves of drones (extremely stretched-out recordings of my talk-backs) dissipate the chaos, calming me down. In the third, I play a series of the pre-recorded talk-backs, now intelligibly. Though their messages are heartening, I awkwardly “scrub” through the recordings, fighting to say each phrase fully, creating a sense of uncertainty. Am I really going to be okay?


Re-heard is a work for fixed media on loop written to accompany visual artist Tiffany Hokanson’s M.F.A. Thesis Show, Re-seen, exhibited at Indiana University’s Grunwald Gallery of Art in the spring of 2021. In Re-seen, Hokanson uses salvaged materials from forests fires in southern Oregon and a demolition site in Bloomington, Indiana to create sculptures and prints that, as Hokanson writes in her thesis statement, “[reject] the stigma of ‘ruination,’” and instead present “an alternative method for appreciating matter in its present state of being.” Re-heard is my sonic and thematic response to Hokanson’s art.

Over the course of twenty-two minutes, Re-heard ebbs and flows between the real and the abstract. For long stretches, the piece presents minimally edited field recordings captured by Hokanson at the demolition site in Bloomington. These recordings place the listener in the site—among hulking constructions of gnarled rebar and splintered concrete, within earshot of jackhammers punching through rock and excavators sifting through rubble. Then, gradually, these recordings metamorphose into softer, harmonious, incandescent sounds, gesturing at a wholeness that radiates from within the rough-hewn and “ruined” objects. The quieter sections then give way to the raw field recordings and the cycle starts over again. 

To give the sense that these sound worlds emanate directly from the materials used in Re-seen, during the debut exhibition Re-heard was played back on speakers hidden within one of the show’s sculptures, Pile, an assemblage of steel, concrete, gravel and dirt on the gallery floor. (Image courtesy of Tiffany Hokanson).

Tiffany Hokanson’s Website

Virtual Tour of MFA Thesis Exhibitions, March 2021 (Re-seen is in the first room)

Clock, Lightning Bolt, Volume, I Love You So Much

The last thing I do every night, before I sleep, is check my phone. Have I set my alarms? Is my phone plugged in and charging? Is the phone volume all the way up, so that my alarms will wrench me out of sleep in the morning?

First, I look for the clock icon in the upper-right-hand corner of the phone’s home screen: my alarms are set. Next, I look for the lightning bolt that appears over the battery icon: my phone is charging. I press down the volume button. A white bar appears on the left side of the screen: my phone is at its maximum volume. Last, I look at the photo on my home-screen, a picture of my partner.

I stare at each image intently— the clock, the lightning bolt, the volume bar, then my partner—and I recite the corresponding words: clock, lightning bolt, volume, I love you so much. I repeat this litany many times with many variations. Clock, lightning bolt, volume, I love you so much, so much, so much. Clock, lightning bolt, volume, volume, volume, I love you so, so, so, so, so, much. I continue until I feel that I’ve performed the ritual correctly. Then, finally, I fall asleep.

I am glad to report that this routine is just a vestige of an obsessive-compulsive disorder that cropped up in my teens. I’ve gotten a handle on my compulsions and I can now shrug off many triggers that used to send me into spirals. I have gained a distance from these compulsions, and even though they lurk just off-stage, I’ve begun to appreciate their absurdity. As much as they can be agonizing, they are also weirdly compelling.

Clock, Lightning Bolt, Volume, I Love You So Much is a performance of my nighttime ritual. After the opening section, in which I manipulate a recording of myself speaking the titular phrase, the piece ceases to be strictly programmatic. Instead, it is an abstract representation of my dual experience of how these rituals can hold me in their grip. It’s ironic to experience something while, at the same time, standing outside of that experience—of being in something, but not of it. It is painful, strange, quirky, and even funny, to say the least.