Around the World with a Watson Fellowship

May 23, 2017

Amanda Nagy

Paulus Van Horne, left, and Kirk Pearson, winners of the 2017 Watson Fellowship
Paulus Van Horne, left, and Kirk Pearson, winners of the 2017 Watson Fellowship. Both are double degree graduates.
Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Double-degree graduates Kirk Pearson and Paulus Van Horne have been awarded the 2017 Watson Fellowship, an extraordinary opportunity that allows them to travel the world in pursuit of an independent project for an entire year.

Pearson received a degree in composition from the Conservatory of Music and a degree in cinema studies and geology from the College of Arts and Sciences. Van Horne received a degree in Technology in Music and the Related Arts from the conservatory and environmental studies from the college.

The Thomas J. Watson Fellowship provides a grant of $30,000. Fellows conceive original projects and execute them outside of the United States for one year. They decide where to go, who to meet, and when to change course. They do not affiliate with academic institutions and may not hold formal employment. The program produces a year of personal insight, perspective, and confidence that shapes the arc of fellows' lives.

Pearson’s fellowship can be summarized as “an odyssey of invented instruments.” He will spend the year in search of like-minded “tinkerers” working to expand our instrumental lexicon. His project will take him to Paraguay, Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, South Korea, Japan. For one to two months per country, he will become immersed in several instrument-inventing communities and explore the context for their production.

Kirk Pearson Watson Fellowship

He plans to research robots that play instruments in ways humans cannot, live with a community that turns gardens into synthesizers, and scout his way though forgotten buildings that are now home to unforgettable sonic installations. He will work closely with inventors in each community, collaborate, and compose original works for their unique invented instruments.

“This Watson proposal is a project that will let me celebrate the many disparate aspects of my personality—I am a musician, technician, avid tinkerer, and follower of cultural-political currents,” says Pearson, a native of New York City. “While I have been lucky enough to direct films, build installations, and publish scientific papers, no project I have done before has let me work so extensively with people who synthesize every one of these aspects in totally innovative ways. The unique and somewhat bizarre experience I have had at Oberlin has given me the perfect set of skills to take this kind of project on.”

Van Horne will take a journalistic approach to exploring “noise and the megacity” by studying the sonic landscape of the world’s megacities—urban centers with a population exceeding 10 million—to learn how residents live with increasing noise.

Van Horne, who grew up in New York City “surrounded by the commotion of three adjacent apartments on top of the noise of traffic and police sirens,” will spend the year interviewing local urban planners about noise pollution, engaging experimental musicians about their artistic uses of noise, and meeting residents and activists who are on the front lines of quieting the din. Through human interactions and sound recordings, Van Horne intends to piece together patterns and portraits of sonic life in today’s megacities with an eye toward the future of the urban metropolis and its health.

Paulus Van Horne Watson Fellowship

Van Horne acquired technical experience in producing news and story-based radio programs through an internship with WGBH Boston’s The World.

“The Watson year will allow me to gather materials for a future radio program about global megacities, about their noise, and by extension about life itself within the city. I will search for stories that might hint at the future of (sonic) life within the megacities of the world. I plan to pitch these stories as segments for The World as well as other public radio stations in other large cities of the world.

“On a more personal level, my quest to is to find out how my fellow megacity residents have learned to live with the noise of urban life. How have they adapted noise for their purposes (such as protest and art)? Have any of these residents been successful in reducing or eliminating urban noise? The world’s largest and fastest growing cities are the best sites for this investigation. They contain high-levels of unintentional noise from markets, trains, and traffic as well as intentional noise from the city’s musicians, activists, and politicians. I can’t wait to hear them.”

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