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I was born in a small town in China in 1989: a significant year for global political transitions. My working-class parents had lived through the Great Chinese Famine and Cultural Revolution. Like many others in their generation, they had taken an oath to dedicate their youth to the nation’s grand industrialization plan. Soon after my birth, they moved to an underdeveloped fishing village for their state-allocated jobs. I spent my childhood in a small, remote, isolated factory complex of around 3,000 people whose lives were premised on a planned economy, socialist collectivism, and its ideological consequences. The place was so remote that no English teachers could teach there, despite it being a state-mandated subject. My current life, where I oscillate between two languages and cannot anchor myself to one area or discipline, is uncannily foreign to this distant past. Despite uncertainty and placelessness, music and acoustics have continued to act as key axes for me to navigate the world.

From a young age, I began developing an acute sonic sensibility, perceiving the world through the lens of acoustics as (dis)embodiment, narrative, and knowledge. I attribute the beginnings of this sensibility to piano lessons, the radio, and my mother’s predisposition to music. 

Music constituted an impossible profession or hobby for my mother, whose strong love and talent for it did not match her socioeconomic position. Against the odds, however, my family became one of the first to own a piano in our small community. My mother took me to piano lessons every weekend for six years in bigger cities. With no highways then, it took us at least 8 hours round trip on dirt roads to commute to teachers, summer camps, piano competitions, and master classes. At age ten, I passed the highest rank in piano performance and music theory, certified by the Chinese Musicians’ Association.

Although sheltered, I encountered new forms of sound through radio transmission. In the early 90s, my community had no personal computers or internet access. State regulations restricted our access to visual media; television was limited to five state-owned television channels. Luckily, radio was subject to fewer laws than television. In fifth-grade vocational classes (劳动课), I learned how to solder circuits and build shortwave radios with household objects. These skills introduced me to radio plays, international radio stations and western pop music.

At eleven, I moved to Xiamen City alone and studied in a boarding school on Gulangyu Island (known as the Piano Island) because of my musical talents. Xiamen is a peninsular island less than six kilometers from Taiwan. To date, the city’s ban on car horns protects its diverse ecosystems from noise pollution. Due to the city’s proximity to Taiwan and ongoing geopolitical tensions, however, seismic bass frequencies from military maneuvers in the sea and sky enter the bustling everyday streetscape.

Once an international settlement after the first Opium War, Piano Island is a pedestrian-only island off Xiamen’s coast. It is known for its colonial architecture and hosting China’s only piano museum, hinting at the Island’s fondness for European classical music. Speakers are camouflaged as plants play looping Western canon, accompanied by the rich sounds of the Island’s biosphere. 

The aesthetic, ecological, social and political implications of Xiamen’s soundscape epitomize my lived inquiries into acoustics. Through listening to the plural strata of sound, I have spent most of my life reflecting on the embodiments of music and noise, who gets to determine how these concepts are defined, who gets to voice or be muted, and who has access to sounds permitted. Critical listening grounds my work as a person and an artist.

After my studies on Piano Island, I took a break from classical music because my sonic interests no longer aligned with the singular reality afforded by European classical music. I practiced various means of sound-making as I lived through the rise of Chinese countercultures and experimentalism in the late 90s and early 2000s. In my MA thesis at New York University, I analyzed subcultural resistance in experimental music scenes in the context of post-socialist China and globalization during this time. This tendency to interrogate the bio/geopolitics of existing systems remains core in my current practice.

My eight years of work experience in multimedia design and software engineering opened up another dimension for investigating systematic “command and control.” Through computational thinking, (de)coding in my work is a conceptual framework for critical inquiry. And transcoding is a method for intermedia composition. I taught myself Max/MSP, TouchDesigner, Unity, and machine learning in Python. I incorporated them into multi-sensory (textual/visual/sonic/kinetic) installations and performances, employing various sonic-somatic and computational feedbacks between the body and the space.

Anna Tsing defines the assemblage as: “an open-ended entanglement of ways of being… where varied trajectories gain a hold on each other, but indeterminacy matters.” In composing intermedia as an assemblage, my current research and creation intersect my transcultural and interdisciplinary background in sound performance, information technology, media studies and arts.

As Musicworks magazine described my practices in 2020, “much of Ye’s work is concerned with breaking codes — both digital and cultural — and with unlearning certain ways of being.” By embracing improvisation and indeterminacy, the embodied experiences can be unlearnt, detached from set norms controlled by inherited oppressive biopower. Computational hacking-informed strategies, while inextricably entwined with technological conditions, facilitate disentangling the intermodulation of human and/or technological mediations. In the openings that unlearning and unfolding create, interventions or codebreaking can take place.  

Along these lines, more recently, I’ve been studying the poetics and politics of human-machine coupling through the lens of feminist science and technology studies. From the primary entry points of language, speech, voice and code, my works respond to emerging problems in planetary-scale computation. 

The politics and inquiries underlying my practices are also reflected in education and community-oriented initiatives. For instance, I was on the development team of Dark Matters, a Mozilla Foundation-awarded webVR project that spotlights the absence of Black speech in datasets that train voice assistants. Currently, I am an adjunct faculty member in the program of Digital Futures at OCAD university, where I imbue computational media skills with non-eurocentric critical theories situated in intersectional and positional thinking.

Through artistic research, creation, and pedagogy, I will amplify my current focus on the interwoven relationships between sonic somatics and computational media in doctoral studies. I will expand my practices in audiovisual installations and performances by upgrading my technical knowledge and working with outstanding faculty and scholars in top-notch professional facilities on a larger scale. I am particularly interested in researching the embodiment of machine voicing and listening, AI applications such as vocal synthesis, and their problems and implications.

Brown’s MMC program looms large in my mind because of its unique interdisciplinary approach to music and multimedia production, which echoes the methodology in my practices. When I visited the music department and met with Professor Rovan this fall, I was reassured by its openness — how it encourages inter-departmental research with support and facilities shared across the Brown network, including the other Ivy League schools. I also resonate with the local art and music culture fostered by Brown’s longstanding partnership with RISD and the history of noise rock in Providence. The groundbreaking CAVE system at Brown has tremendously inspired my MFA research in digital poetics and multimedia synthesis.

All of these convince me that the MMC program at Brown is the ideal setting for realizing my academic goal to be an artist and educator who deepens their interdisciplinary practices and scholarship in critical sound performance and computational media. 

Should I be admitted to MMC, my practice would benefit significantly from studio courses such as MUSC 1210 Real-Time Systems, MUSC 1260 Advanced Audio Techniques and MUSC 2210 Digital Performance. I want to study real-time performance systems with Prof. Rovan and interactive audiovisual installations and performances with Prof. Todd Winkler. The facilities provided through the Brown Arts Institute, such as the ambisonic studio and Physical Media Lab, would be unprecedented opportunities for me to actualize projects beyond my current imagination.

Theoretical courses such as MUSC 1240S Feminist Sonic Futures and MUSC 2080I The Question of Voice: Sound, Style, Ideology are also integral to my current research. I particularly resonate with Prof. Enongo A Lumumba-Kasongo’s research in the feminist praxis and digital futures concerning AI-driven text generation and voice synthesis. To further my research intersecting with critical technology studies, I also plan to pursue a graduate certificate in science, technology and society.

With the dedicated time, funding and resources, studying in the MMC program will be the catalyzing experience for a fulfilling career in academia and art practices. I am excited by the opportunity to continue my studies at Brown and contribute to the university’s vibrant and dynamic community of artists and scholars. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to apply and look forward to learning and growing as an artist at Brown. Thank you for tuning in.


P.S. My partner and collaborator, Jason Doell, is also applying to the program. Jason is an exceptional and inspiring artist in his own right. While we occasionally collaborate (like this postscript), our applications are for our individual practices. We understand that the program is highly competitive, and should only one of us be selected, it will not impact either of our decisions to attend Brown.