5 Questions to Silen Wellington and Theo Baer (2021-22 Bouman Fellowship)

The Kinds of Kings Bouman Fellowship is an advocacy, access, and amplification program for historically-marginalized artists in the early stages of their composing careers. Each year, the program commissions talented composers who deserve a more prominent platform and pairs them with a performer or ensemble who are excited by the composers’ works.

The 2021-22 Bouman Fellowship recipients are Silen Wellington and Theo Baer. Silen is working with New York interdisciplinary performance art trio Sputter Box on a new work that will premiere May 28, 2022 at Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. Silen’s works “combine music with other art mediums, be that spoken word, visual art, ritual performance, loud and fiery eye contact, otherworldly and melting trysts, or something else entirely.” Theo is working with violin duo The Furies and is doing a residency at The Anderson Center in Minnesota. His compositions “illustrate an intimate and vulnerable narrative channeled through the manipulation of tape loops, synthesizers, keyboards, and other analog electronic voices.”

Silen: What does being an interdisciplinary artist mean to you, and why is it essential in your work to not limit yourself to a specific medium?

Being an interdisciplinary artist means getting to bring all of myself to my work, giving myself the permission to find liminality, and to explore the generative space of combining artistic mediums in new ways. I’ve always been skeptical of the narrative of a singular passion. When I was getting my undergraduate degree in music composition, I met a lot of musicians who had been told that they shouldn’t pursue music unless they couldn’t live without it, that they must be singularly focused on music or else it meant they weren’t “passionate enough” or they’d never “make it.” This idea always felt uncomfortable for me, mostly because from a young age, I’ve expressed myself through multiple mediums, and different art forms have allowed me to feel things in different ways. These varied interests never felt like a deficit to my art, but a strength in how it was inviting me to understand the world and myself more deeply than if I’d been limited to one medium. When not limiting myself to a specific medium, I can create artistic pieces that honor the many facets of me.

I’m also interested in bringing things not normally classified as “art” into the artistic space to create experiences for audiences that are participatory and transformative in nature. I am always stupefied by a really skillful facilitator, or a really intuitive ritualist, and the ways those skills cultivate community and invite me to explore the mysteries of connection with others. As an interdisciplinary artist, I get to welcome that into my work, combine the many loves I have, and lean into the generative surprise of exploration.

Silen Wellington--Photo courtesy of the artist

Silen Wellington–Photo courtesy of the artist

Theo: In what ways do you find the creation of music healing?

I grew up in a kind of small town in Pennsylvania, where I didn’t always quite fit in. I was an oddity, a Black girl with a trumpet in a scene dominated by white males. That’s to say, I didn’t have many inherently shared experiences with the other musicians around me. Music became a way for me to level up in relation to people. When I was onstage, I wouldn’t necessarily need to explain my problems or differences. At the same time, I didn’t care much about fitting in. Rather, by making music, I could share something with those around me while staying true to myself. This double-edged dimension of making music is one piece of what I find healing. It’s both personal and social, private and public. It helps me in both inward reflection and communication or interaction with others. It can be both arbitrary and seriously straightforward. It can keep me locked in the present moment or act as a complete escape.

By making music, I could share something with those around me while staying true to myself. This double-edged dimension of making music is one piece of what I find healing. It’s both personal and social, private and public.

Silen: What knowledge and skills have your study of psychology imparted to your artistic process?

To be honest, I really struggled through most of my psychology degree. I felt angry about the systemic injustices that would show up in the institution, how I never saw myself as a transgender person represented in research but as late as 2013 had my identities represented as “disorders” in the DSM, and how much research was influenced by the prejudices of culture in ways that were incredibly harmful but rarely named or acknowledged. It wasn’t until I started working in peer support (a movement that envisions mental health support alternatives designed by and for people with lived experience) that I felt my “study” or rather, “practice” of psychology was finding its way into my artistic process. Through peer support work, I have been practicing how to be with people, how to uplift and empower them in being the experts of their own experience, and how to invite them to move towards what they want to be different about life.

When I’m facilitating groups, I feel my creativity stretched to new limits as I practice what feels like the art of community, or maybe, the art of authentic connection. Learning to sit with the discomfort of a trans teen telling me about their suicidal thoughts, and growing my capacity to be in that conversation, is an extension of my apprenticeship to art, a way of learning to be more of the human I want to be in the world. Navigating these uncomfortable conversations is a spiritual challenge akin to some of the challenges I reach for in my musically-oriented art. I aim to create spaces where people can come closer to their authentic selves, and though my methods may be quite different, both my peer support work in mental health and my work as an artist feel aligned with this purpose.

Theo: You state that your work is “the result of a diverse musical upbringing,” and the ListN Up playlist you submitted to I Care If You Listen last year showcased quite the spread of interests. How have these artists, and others, influenced the way you create, perform, and listen to music?

When people hear my music, they might not guess all the different influences behind its sound. While my music often fits under the categories of “ambient,” “experimental,” or even “classical,” I actually draw color from so many different corners of music: J-pop, house, Norwegian space disco, hardcore, big band…The impressions of these seemingly disparate genres and artists emerge throughout my music often in surprising, unconscious ways. Genre is a complex thing, and I’m more curious about what happens when we get rid of certain boundaries. The most exciting music to me comes without any preconceived expectations.

This is obviously a huge question, but overall it comes down to what moves me from day-to-day. I go where my ears take me. The path has never been clear cut, and I try to ignore too much pressure or comparison. I’ve tried to embrace and reclaim what might feel like limitations due to privilege, class, gender, and access in order to shape a unique voice of my own.

Theo Baer--Photo courtesy of the artist

Theo Baer–Photo courtesy of the artist

Both of you are unapologetically authentic and boldly vulnerable in your approaches to creating. How do you envision your commissioned work for the Bouman Fellowship continuing, expanding, or diverging from your past work?

Theo: While writing this piece, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my conceptual process informs content and technique. It’s also an attempt to better converge my approach in my solo work with how I write for other performers. In the past two years I’ve made a small return to notated music, but have realized that traditional methods don’t quite convey my voice in the same way. I’m working to lay out a score and performance setup that holds and displays all the information I’ve generated but still leaves the right amount of room for translation by the players to the audience.

Silen: I have found a lot of power in being unapologetically authentic and boldly vulnerable in my work, but the downside of this is that sometimes I hold myself to the expectation that every work needs to be cataclysmic, intimately vulnerable, or somehow shattering to my previous sense of self. Though sometimes hard for the Scorpio in me to accept, I’ve needed to interrogate this tendency, and recognize that not every piece has to be an initiation, that sometimes, if I reach for that, when it’s not where I’m at, it can actually be inauthentic, or worse, a non-substantive spectacle.

Around the time I got the Bouman Fellowship news, I was working on one of these bold, vulnerable pieces (the authentic, substantive kind), coming out about some experiences/trauma I’ve had with cisgender men that I haven’t spoken about publicly before. It felt big, bold, necessary, and, well… intense. In deciding what I would write as a Bouman Fellow, instead of reaching for bold, I asked myself what I most needed, and started writing a piece that’s less sensational than some of my previous work, but is genuine in its reach for healing, and hopefully, just as internally transformative. I’m grateful for the space to listen deeply enough to find what I authentically needed, rather than trying to endlessly “one-up” myself on how boldly vulnerable my work could be.

I think the result, while it doesn’t come across as bold, is definitely unapologetic and authentic. If my music doesn’t serve me, I can’t expect it to serve anyone else. Though it might be subtler, I’m looking forward to the internal alchemy I could experience at the premiere, and I’m grateful for Sputter Box in bringing this gentle, healing, and cathartic space alive for me.


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