Beatie Wolfe has beamed her music into space, been appointed a UN role model for innovation, and held an acclaimed solo exhibition of her "world first" album designs at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Throughout all of these acheivements, she keeps her acoustic guitar close, and her natural sound is at the core of her innovations. Wolfe pioneers new formats for music that bridge the physical and digital which include a 3D theatre for the palm of your hand, a wearable record jacket (cut by Bowie and Hendrix’s tailor out of fabric woven with Wolfe’s music), and most recently an "anti-stream" from the quietest room on earth. Her latest innovation is an environmental protest piece built using 800,000 years of historic data that will be premiered at the London Design Biennale in 2021. We invited Beatie Wolfe to chat with us about reinventing the experience of music, exploring technology, and how to keep things real.
How did the idea come about to work with astronomer Dr. Robert Wilson to beam your album Raw Space into... space?
While I was working on my anti-stream experience for my third album Raw Space which was launched from the world’s quietest room (the Bell Labs anechoic chamber) Robert Wilson heard about my work and wanted to meet. We met at the Holmdel Horn Antenna as I was fascinated with this historic instrument that had captured the sound at the birth of our universe and proved the validity of the big bang, winning Robert a Nobel Prize. I asked Bob if, in theory, we could use the Antenna to send my record Raw Space into Space and he said that the sound waves wouldn’t make it past the earth’s atmosphere. I thought this was the end of the conversation but a month later I got an email from Bob saying: “Beatie I’ve figured it out! I can do an update on the horn if you still want to do the Space beam.” The Horn Antenna is a National Historic Landmark. I couldn’t believe it and naturally said yes.
Pictured: Beatie Wolfe at the Bell Labs Holmdel Horn
The Taylor 110e is known as your workhorse. What is it about that guitar that you love?
My Taylor 110e was the first instrument that felt like mine. I had taught myself to play on an old cracked nylon string guitar that had belonged to my grandmother and then one Christmas my dad bought me an original Californian Strat, one of the most treasured gifts I’ve ever received. At that stage I had a grunge band so the Strat was my go-to but then the 110e was the first guitar I bought myself and from that point on I played every show for about 10 years on that guitar (I would never sub it out) and it became a part of me in the process. One thing I love about it: it was sold half price because of a superficial discoloration in the neck (which was actually what attracted me to it in the first place).
Pictured: Beatie Wolfe with her Taylor 110e by Patrick Fore
How does playing a Taylor work into your creative process?
I think there is a fine line between what needs to be innovated and what needs to be preserved. So while I’m very innovative on the albums' formats and experiential side, I believe when it comes to music (and art in general) the human touch is everything and we shouldn’t get caught up using technology to iron out the imperfections, which is what makes it feel real and often resonate in the first place, so that part of my work is much more in the vein of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. In this way the raw acoustic sound becomes more important as it’s counterbalanced with these avant-garde and futuristic presentations— so I believe it’s about knowing where and what to augment and where to keep it raw.
Taylor guitars is also known as an innovative company, with the development of their V-Class bracing and Andy Powers’ Builder’s Edition. How has working with Taylor added to or inspired your own creative innovation?
I’ve always loved what Taylor does and stands for and now I’ve spent some time with Bob, I understand why. His intention has infused everything that they do from the guitars’ design, its build right through to the bigger picture (especially on the environmental side, for example the Urban Ash guitar which is sourced from city trees in need of removal) so working with Taylor has allowed me to discover more like-minded people with a shared ethos. We’re currently working on a collaboration around my new environmental protest art piece (built using 800,000 years of historic CO2 data) which links into the story of the Urban Ash and California city tree planting initiatives.
What initiated your interest in blending your music with technology?
When I realized that everything that I had grown up with (and loved) about the physical listening experience had been replaced with an intangible and, to me, unsatisfying one. So instead of rejecting the digital world I wanted to think beyond it and combine the best of the old with the best of the new — presenting something that would exist in its own time and space, that people hadn’t experienced before and that still had tangibility, ceremony, storytelling at its core and as a result still had the ability to imprint.
WIRED magazine called you one of the 22 people changing the world. How would you say you’ve changed, or impacted, how people experience music?
I hope to have impacted the way people see music (and art) in this digital age and to remind people why it’s so important to us all. I want people to know they can still have deeper, more ceremonial experiences around music today and that music goes way beyond entertainment as something core to us all as sentient beings as one of life’s ultimate connectors.
Technological innovations have, in a way, taken away from some of the intimate experiences we used to have with music. How have you used technology to bridge that gap?
Because I love music and albums so much and listening to records is the one experience that imprinted on me the most as a kid, I have used technology (perhaps contradictorily) to re-present a more tangible, ceremonial and old school listening experience but in a way that facilitates a sense of magic and makes people feel like they’re seeing music in a new way.
Throughout your career, why has it remained important to you to continue to fuse your creative process and music creation with technology?
Well technology for me has provided a way of re-presenting the familiar, the traditional, the tangible. Tech is just the magic dust that transforms a phone into an 80s viewfinder, an album cover into a musical jacket, a physical record stream into a Fantasia experience. It’s not about the technology but what it facilitates, for example, making the new feel nostalgic, and the familiar feel magical. And it’s also about being as inclusive as possible so that everyone from a child to a grandparent intuitively knows how to interact with it.
Pictured: Beatie Wolfe’s Raw Space Chamber at London’s V&A museum by Ivalyo Getov
How has your creative process and work developed in tandem with advancements in technology?
I’ve always viewed technology as a tool to facilitate the vision and it just so happens that each of my album designs has been a first of its kind. So it was more about inventing ways to realize the vision, which in turn led to advancements in technology, for example with Raw Space — the world's first live 360 Augemnted Reality experience.
Of all of the groundbreaking interactive formats you’ve developed with which people can experience your music, what’s been your favorite project you’ve worked on?
I’m proud of every creation but more importantly, perhaps, the body of work as a whole. I think for me it was never about one definitive idea but the exploration itself. So getting to exhibit my work in a solo exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum with the ‘Bowie Is’ curatorial team was an absolute life highlight. It was the first time I could show people how these innovations, while seemingly very different in design or output — for example, a woven Record Jacket, a theatre for the palm of your hand, an intelligent deck of cards, a Mylar-wrapped Space Chamber — were all connected by a continued exploration of the same thinking and intention.
Beyond your cutting-edge designs for music you’ve also led the way in the research behind music as medicine? Tell us about that.
After experiencing the incredible impact of music for family members living with dementia, I began the ‘Power of Music and Dementia’ research project in 2014 with the Utley Foundation. The project got picked up by some of the world’s top research institutes and went onto establish the charity Music For Dementia, which is now actively getting music in all care homes in the UK. It’s been an incredible journey so far, which has reaffirmed a lot of what I know to be true about the power of music and how deep it really goes. I recently gave a TEDMED talk about it which comes out in September.
What areas of technology do you hope to dive into next?
My current project From Green to Red is an environmental protest piece built using 800,000 years of NASA’s historic data to create a stirring visualization of the CO2 concentration in the Earth’s atmosphere that is simultaneously a protest song, timeline of the planet, and reimagining of the music video format. From Green to Red uses the power of art and music to represent data in a way that people can relate to (so we can get a sense of where we are right now) and it will be first physically exhibited at the London Design Biennale in 2021.
Can you shed light on any of your upcoming projects apart from ‘From Green to Red’?
I’m currently working with the cosmic being Mark Mothersbaugh on a post project called Postcards for Democracy that combines our love of the tangible artform (and everything it represents) with the current threat posed to our democracy.
Pictured: Beatie Wolfe and Mark Mothersbaugh at Mutato by Ross Harris
What do you think we might learn about the role and value of music and art as a result of Covid-19?
I think people are seeing that while there are a number of aspects where technology can further enable an experience and help to connect us, there are equally as many where technology can disconnect us and limit other experiences. I think live socially distanced performances are a great example of this with the sound and ceremonial aspect often being hugely compromised. This is also true for events in general where so much of the magic of sharing physical space with people is down to those unplanned, serendipitous encounters which cannot be factored into a zoom call. So I think we’re re-learning what is valuable about music and art right now and how much the human touch makes something sing. On the flip side however, the more we can adapt to travelling/consuming less, reducing our footprint, thinking more divergently and ultimately redefining what is meaningful in our lives has to be a great step forward for humanity and this beautiful planet which has really been struggling.
Keep up with Beatie Wolfe at www.beatiewolfe.com.