“I want to make stories through art music that reflect our current times, using sounds and visuals that connect with how we experience the world today. That means the human and the machine working together.”
— Maria Finkelmeier
[0:01] Brady Walker: All right, today I have with me Maria Finkelmeier from MF Dynamics. Maria is a musician, technologist, and visual creator. Maria, could you give us a brief introduction?
[0:30] Maria Finkelmeier: Sure, thanks for having me. I’m Maria, a classically trained percussionist and composer turned new media artist and public artist. I’m passionate about blending my performance and music composition with new technologies to create large-scale performance pieces in public spaces. Recently, I’ve begun exploring what my digital art can look like and sound like.
Merging Performance, Music, and New Technologies
[1:01] BW: Amazing. It was actually your music that first caught my attention, not your digital art. I didn’t even know you were a visual artist at first. I found your name while researching for a different interview and saw your name as “vibraphonist Maria Finkelmeier” at Dade County Museum. As a vibraphone fan, I immediately listened to your two albums on Spotify and kept them on loop for weeks. We then connected on Twitter and I discovered you also create NFTs. I thought, well, that’s funny.
[1:55] MF: Absolutely, and I love it. Music is my bread and butter, but over the past two years, I’ve begun to see my mallets and drumsticks as paintbrushes. I’ve been working with a team to create code that translates musical movement into gestures. It’s a new and exciting journey to call myself a visual artist or a digital artist. So thank you for diving in.
From Classical Training to Technology and Art
[2:28] BW: It’s interesting how you, as a musician, respond to the digital age differently than many others. While many are focusing on saturating platforms like TikTok, Instagram, or Patreon with demos and such, you’re using technology to enhance your live performance. Can you tell me about your relationship to technology as a composer and performer?
[3:28] MF: That’s a great question. I have a traditional education in percussion, playing in the back of the orchestra, and I did that for a long time. I love it. That experience gave me a strong work ethic and a sense of scale. An orchestra is 80 people on a stage, creating music all at once, which is emotionally empowering to the audience. In my mid-20s, I started questioning how my work was relevant. Who was I playing for? Where was I playing? These questions led me to explore electronics. I started with looping and using Ableton Live, recording and tweaking audio samples. I wondered how I could use today’s tools with my classical training. This was my first relationship with technology.
Being a novice was exciting. There were mistakes, like using the wrong cables and needing help. I think what attracted me to percussion in my early years was the idea that you can play anything. That’s something I think entrepreneurs can relate to. We’re always on the go, always curious.
About ten years ago, I started exploring digital art, projection, and MIDI triggers. I was interested in how I could use tools from the entertainment industry in my live performances. I liked the idea of taking a lot of musicians and putting them in a public space, using a piece of architecture like Fenway Park as a musical instrument or a canvas. To accomplish this, I started learning about projection mapping and MIDI control. The goal was to make the scale emotionally resonate deeper with the audience.
Most recently, I’ve been asking, what is blockchain? What are NFTs? About a year ago, I started a project looking at motion capture technology. I’m not an expert, but I’m curious enough to ask questions and vulnerable enough to admit I don’t know everything. I see technology as integral to making art. It’s more powerful to me. I want to make stories through art music that reflect our current times, using sounds and visuals that connect with how we experience the world today. That means the human and the machine working together.
From Musical Gestures to Visual Webs
[7:30] BW: Can you tell me more about the Melody Figments project? That’s the NFT project, right?
[7:37] MF: Yes, it is. The concept came to me about a year and a half ago. I’ve worked a lot in the public art space and was fascinated by how movements could affect projections, like at the Museum of Science. I started thinking, what if a musician could be a visual painter? What if our gestures could articulate something beyond sound to an audience? I was interested in creating a new language of visualization that was associated with music.
I’m also a passionate improviser and appreciate that no two musical performances are the same. Even world-famous artists like Beyonce or Taylor Swift have performances that differ slightly each night. I wanted to capture those small differences in an abstract, artistic way.
I connected with some technicians at Mad Labs in South Florida. They were excited to help develop this idea. They put me in a motion capture suit to gather data from my performance. It was initially a motion capture mallet, but we went the full route with the suit.
Playing in a motion capture suit, which is like a wetsuit with little dots on it, was an interesting experience. I had to learn what all these data points looked like and what my body looked like performing things I don’t consciously think of. I created sculptures with fabric and wires to visualize how I wanted the data to look. I wanted each musical gesture to be a line and for those lines to create webs over time. These webs became three-dimensional objects that represent a musical performance.
We now have code in Unreal Engine that takes a musical gesture and creates these three-dimensional webs, which I call Melody Figments. It’s been a wonderful journey. I perform the show live using a camera that captures my body and arm movements, which are projected as I perform. This approach brings the audience into the moment more deeply. We also render these performances as digital art pieces that we sell.
[11:09] BW: So the live projection is actually a different input than the mocap suit is providing.
[11:15] MF: Yes, the mocap suit was part of the research and development, and the first collection of NFTs I made were all created in that studio moment. However, I didn’t want to wear a mocap suit live, and the whole room had many infrared cameras. We realized a single Kinect camera, connected to a Windows computer, could track my arm movements. Imagine me drumming, each movement creates a line, which then gets warped in a circular motion, like wind blowing through them. That’s the data we needed. So, the live performance focuses on those data points. Through research, I found that the beauty and nuance weren’t as much in how my feet were moving, but in the arm motions.
[12:27] BW: Have you tried it with a duo?
[12:30] MF: I wasn’t sure what you meant at first. I thought it might be a piece of tech. But yes, we can accommodate a duo. The code does get a bit confused with two bodies, but we can also use multiple Kinect cameras, each tracking a body. We can even create new code that could track multiple bodies. This is really just the tip of the iceberg. I want to explore multiple data points. I’m also discussing with the MIT Immersion Lab about capturing bio data while I perform, like heart rate visualization during a performance. I’m curious to see what other data points we can use to represent a moment more effectively. It’s why I love having conversations about the project; people come up with new suggestions and ideas that push it forward.
[13:45] BW: Why make the jump into NFTs?
[13:49] MF: That’s a good question. It comes from curiosity and maybe a little FOMO. As a creative person, I feel a responsibility to explore current trends. My brain works differently than a computer scientist’s or someone in the financial sector, so I want to understand blockchain, the future of music and art sales, and the concept of ownership. I chose to explore these not just by reading, but by making my own collections and connecting with community members to create meaningful 21st-century art. The idea of music preservation, moment preservation, and blockchain’s transaction permanence really excited me. The first piece I sold was on Codomain, a new marketplace for public artists, then I connected with Pharaoh File, and now with you. It’s artistically interesting to me and feels very ‘now’. This community is exciting to learn from and be a part of.
[15:47] BW: You started a multidisciplinary art firm called MFDynamics. What can you tell me about the firm, and why did you start it instead of working solo?
[16:05] MF: I thrive on community, scale, and the challenge of the unknown. I could sense the energy of colleagues I knew and realized that to achieve my goals – turning stadiums or bridges into instruments, creating NFTs with motion capture – I can’t do that alone. There’s just not enough time, and I don’t want to be an expert in everything. So, launching a creative studio allowed me to have a team to move the art forward. It’s also given my collaborators a sense of support. We don’t get lost in the details, and our creativity flourishes. As we all know, creating art, selling it as an NFT, or producing a massive public art piece involves logistics. Having a team that knows me and how I work has proven invaluable over the years, making things much more efficient.
[17:58] BW: I’m curious about the nuts and bolts of creating your company. How do you get things off the ground?
[18:20] MF: There are two aspects here: how the company functions daily and how we get work. MF Dynamics operates as an LLC. I used to run a nonprofit, but I shut it down to be more nimble, to avoid red tape and bureaucracy. Now, we’re more flexible. We have a studio manager and project manager, Jane, who’s been with us a long time, and other members including Andrew, our technician, Denver, our production assistant, and Kate, our new communications intern.
We meet weekly to discuss what’s in front of us. I lead fundraising and ideation, while Jane handles finances and production management. Andrew reports on technical matters, and Denver assists me with IT projects. Each project you see on our website involves different collaborators, with the studio supporting each person. For example, in one project, we investigated AI and gender bias. The studio takes a cut of project budgets to support insurance and space.
Right now, I’m in hustle mode, applying for commissions, doing requests for qualifications in the public art space. We approach developers or cities, apply to festivals, and reach out to potential partners. Each project has a different avenue of opportunity. For instance, our theatrical piece, Descended, is pitched to traditional presenters and institutions, while our AI and gender bias project is aimed at museums.
Rediscovering Lafcadio Hearn
[21:33] BW: Let’s dive into Descended, a collaboration with Lafcadio Hearn. Can you tell us how that came about and share a little about Lafcadio Hearn? Although I’m aware of him, I know he’s not a household name in the States.
[21:56] MF: I’m glad you’re aware of him! I wasn’t until I was introduced to the project. Hearn’s writing is deep, dark, and strangely inspiring. It provided the foundation for a musical work that allowed me to explore darker themes, which was a contrast to my typically positive and energetic persona. Lafcadio, a somewhat macabre writer from the 1850s to late 1800s, was Greek-born but spent time in the UK, New York, Cincinnati, New Orleans, and eventually Japan.
He’s most well known for bringing Japanese ghost stories into the English language. He was a controversial figure, married a black woman in Cincinnati, wrote Marie Laveau’s obituary — the famous voodoo queen in New Orleans, and married a Japanese woman when he moved to Japan. He’s one of the first writers to discuss Buddhism in English.
Descended started when my then-acquaintance Jean Lorenz, who is a superb trumpet player and vocalist, wanted to create a performance project based on her great-great-grand uncle’s work. We began in 2019, working with various composers, performers, and projectionists. Despite the pandemic, we persisted, leading to Jean commissioning me to compose all the music. She then secured a grant to produce an art film based on Hearn’s work, created by Four10 Media.
It’s an abstract and beautiful representation of transcending into death. We spent the pandemic making this film and an album. Now, we’re preparing to bring it to the stage, with its premiere at the Smithsonian on September 24th. We’ll perform the music live with beautiful visuals by an artist named Juan, acting and reciting Hearn’s work. It’s a darker piece, contrasting with the more vibrant, joyful segments I usually work on.
Music in the Mundane: Exploring Everyday Sounds
[26:04] BW: It’s a balancing act, indeed. I’ve seen the trailer for Descended and am excited for the full piece. Transitioning a bit, I’d like to talk about your Improv a Day project. What did you learn from that experience, considering many digital artists in the web3 space also create daily?
[26:33] MF: Great question. That project was foundational for me and started when Instagram first introduced video capabilities. It was during a creative dip for me, and doing these dailies was a consistent creative push. Every day I had to look at my world differently and with intention, seeking objects or sounds to create music. It turned ordinary outings into sound-seeking explorations, and there were days when I had to hustle to create something. This project taught me that consistent goal-setting is empowering; it forced me to create and share things I would typically obsess over before posting. It pushed me into a space of vulnerability, which I believe is vital for artists.
[28:33] BW: Now that Instagram has expanded its video limit, you could create longer pieces.
[28:38] MF: Absolutely!
[28:41] BW: It reminds me of Hermeto Pascoal, one of my favorite jazz composers. There’s a video where he and his band are in a river, improvising a percussion piece with the water and bottles, even using their bodies and a chair as instruments.
[29:18] MF: That sounds fantastic. I’ve probably seen something like it. If you have the link, I’d love to see the exact piece you’re talking about. We’re surrounded by sound in this world, which often prompts me to ask, “What is music?” It’s organized sound in some way, and finding that resonance is really fun and playful.
Turning Fenway Park into a Percussion Instrument
[29:51] BW: Brian Eno has made a distinction about working within a medium versus working upon a medium. The former involves creating within the existing framework, such as playing or writing a song. The latter involves questioning the very nature of the medium, challenging what a song or a piece of visual art can be. Do you approach creativity in this way, looking for hidden sounds in plain sight? Do you have any mental tricks to keep your creative juices flowing?
[31:05] MF: That’s an insightful question. Eno’s exploration of the ambient music genre, which he essentially invented, is fascinating. One of my main mantras is that no idea, song, or piece of art is too precious. Often in my work, the end product is vastly different from the initial concept, which sometimes leads to an internal struggle. I remind myself that no melody or rhythm is too sacred to be dismantled or built upon. This mindset has been particularly useful given my background as a classical musician, where there was a strong emphasis on the “right” and “wrong” way to play music.
One of my projects, Wake the Monster, involved turning the backside of Fenway Park, with its hollow steel beams, into a percussion instrument. Initially, I had a completely different concept in mind, but when I tapped the beams and heard the resonance, I knew I had to rethink the entire project. I believe it’s crucial to actively allow yourself to be open to inspiration, which can occur anywhere if you’re receptive to your surroundings.
[34:00] BW: I completely relate to what you’re saying. A writing teacher once suggested that for at least a month each year, we should strive to come up with ten different story ideas every day. This practice may not need to be daily forever, as it could be exhausting, but it does prime the mind to constantly look for ideas. And he says It’s best not to brainstorm all ideas in one sitting; instead, try to gather them throughout the day.
[34:47] MF: That’s a brilliant approach. As artists, we’re supposed to live in the world and then interpret it in some way. You can’t do that just by sitting at a desk; you need to live and allow for moments without constant stimulation. Currently, my main role is being a mom. While I have limited pockets of time, they still allow me to be fully engrossed in activities like playing with Legos, which provides opportunities for creative insights. Before I had kids, I used to work all the time, but now that I allow myself some time to live, I find my ideas are richer and more thoughtful because I have the time to think them through.
[36:09] BW: Absolutely. I find playing with kids, not just random ones, but my two kids, nephews, nieces, and neighbors, really helps me enjoy the creative process more. They don’t stress about the outcome, although my eight-year-old daughter does get frustrated when arranging a play with my five-year-old son and his friends. They don’t seem concerned about creating the perfect scene.
[36:53] MF: That’s true. She’s learning real-world lessons about the nature of collaboration.
The Arcs of Creativity
[37:04] BW: I admit, managing collaborators was never my strong suit. Given that you teach creative entrepreneurship at Berklee College of Music, what are your primary takeaways from teaching this course? Could you consolidate a semester’s content into a TLDR?
[37:28] MF: My main takeaway, as this is a new role for me, is excitement about how the next generation thinks about themselves, their colleagues, and their focus on self-care and supporting their peers. This gives me great hope for the future. The students are inquisitive and dedicated, which is inspiring. I teach two classes – a mindsets class that introduces entrepreneurship and explores the workings of our minds as creatives and entrepreneurs, and a brass-tacks class that covers business fundamentals.
The courses address how we improvise in life and music, how we experiment, face failure, and shape our minds to approach situations creatively and in business terms. I like to keep things dynamic, encouraging students to consider business fundamentals creatively and approach creativity with structure and intention. These classes help them sift through their ideas and ambitions in what can be an overwhelming space for young musicians, entrepreneurs, and artists.
[39:23] BW: An interesting question I often ask is whether there’s a creative process to building a career. Does this process resemble the creative process in other aspects of your life?
[39:53] MF: That’s a fascinating question. I visualize a career’s creative process as a large arc, encompassing smaller project-based arcs within it. The process of creating a career is nonlinear and messy, much like the process of creating a piece of music or a public art piece. Business strategists prefer clear-cut steps, but artists tend to diverge from the plan by the third step, veering into new processes.
Although it’s important to have a direction or strategy, adhering strictly to a process checklist doesn’t represent the creative process. For instance, my career began as a percussionist in a touring ensemble, and over time, I learned what I liked and didn’t like, which prompted me to start a new process and direction. So yes, there is a creative process to a career, but it’s chaotic. Success lies in striking a balance between a methodical approach and embracing the chaos.
Between Method and Mess
[42:53] BW: As a writer, my mind goes to process. One mantra I’ve always kept is ‘always be escalating’. If a scene gets dull, move on to the next and add intensity or change it up. It seems like you’re suggesting something similar, that one thing naturally leads to another, though it’s not always predictable.
[43:42] MF: Exactly. There have been instances in composing where a section I’m working on suddenly becomes the end. I may have planned for the process to take me to a certain point, but it ends up taking me somewhere entirely different. One of my longest compositions, ‘No, No,’ is a prime example. I remember struggling with the realization that what was supposed to be the middle section was actually the end. It took leaving the studio for a week to accept it. It’s about letting the process be messy and not conform to your initial vision.
[44:35] BW: Perhaps that’s what the creative process is – letting it be messy, allowing it to evolve as it wants to, unlike the business process which might be more about sticking to the plan.
[44:52] MF: Exactly, the business process often follows a predictable formula like x plus y equals z. But in art, it’s not always that simple. There’s room to breathe, beyond strict boundaries.
[45:13] BW: I’m curious, and I’m sure our listeners are too, how do you create opportunities for yourself? You’ve had performances at Fenway Park and the Hatch Bandshell, and in Cincinnati, you transformed a bridge into an instrument. These are major opportunities. How do you begin that process?
[45:48] MF: Each opportunity has its own story and it’s often messy. Each project you mentioned came from a connection somewhere in my network. Fenway Park, for example, was a series of connections made at an arts brunch in Boston. The bridge was a connection through a family friend who ran the festival.
It’s about sharing your work and understanding that people are behind every major work. People make decisions, they need to be convinced of ideas, or they have visions themselves. The bridge project was a collaborative endeavor between myself, a few other artists, and the Brave Berlin group based in Cincinnati. The Hatch Shell was an organization I had worked with before, and they wanted a celebratory piece.
You just have to put your work and yourself out there. You have to understand what these organizations or festivals need and see how your skill set can meet those needs. Many of these projects are competitive, and for every project in my portfolio, there are many rejections. But it’s important to remember that opportunities come from people and making the right connections at the right time is crucial.
Keys to Successful Collaboration
[49:40] BW: That raises another question. What makes a good collaborator? What do you look for and what red flags do you avoid?
[50:06] MF: Absolutely, that’s an important aspect. Collaboration is tricky, yet essential for me. I thrive in collaboration because it challenges me and I believe my art is better when it’s created with others. Early on in my career, I’ve encountered some disrespectful behaviors that hindered my creativity. So, I look for collaborators who will allow me to be loud, to make mistakes, and to experiment in a vulnerable, slightly messy space. It’s about finding people who can handle that space.
One of my collaborators, Allison Tanenhaus, is a glitch artist. We sample videos and sounds from a neighborhood and create the frequency of that neighborhood through glitching sound and video. It’s not just about the art; it’s about respecting each other’s personal lives and being able to lean on each other. The art is better when it stems from an authentic interpersonal space.
[52:51] BW: That’s insightful. I’m entering into several collaborations now, so this is useful for me.
[53:01] MF: I suggest discussing what might go wrong from the start. In the past, the collaborations that didn’t go well were those where we glossed over potential issues. Discussing problems like budget overruns or personal issues upfront is actually relieving. We’ve never had to use our contingency plans, but having them provides comfort, especially in art where we’re deeply connected to the things we make. It’s a strategy I’ve found useful more recently in my mature creative career.
[54:14] BW: I should probably discuss potential problems with my collaborators, just as you suggested. Speaking of creativity, I recently read an interesting article, albeit a few months old, by music critic Ted Gioia. It was about Jimmy Giuffre, one of my favorite jazz composers known for his unusual ensembles, like a combination of a trombone, drum, and saxophone, or ensembles without a drum or bass, which was quite uncommon in the 50s and 60s. Yet, the sound he produced was amazing. In an interview, when Gioia asked him about his musical intent, Giuffre said he simply collaborated with those he got along with.
[55:20] MF: I completely understand that. I’ve been in situations where the choice of instruments was influenced more by personal liking than musical requirement. As an audience, you might not consciously realize it, but the stage chemistry definitely enriches your experience.
[55:59] BW: Normally, I’d wrap up with this question, but I have a few more afterwards. What’s something you’ve learned recently about creativity, the creative process, or managing a creative career that you wish you could tell yourself five years ago?
[56:40] MF: That’s an excellent question. What’s a recent insight I wish I could have told myself five years ago, which, after all, isn’t that long ago?
[56:53] BW: I’m looking for something fresh on the brain.
[56:55] MF: I get it. I’ve been immersing myself in learning new technology lately, like motion capture, Unreal Engine, and trying to comprehend the concepts of Web 3.0. Despite not being an expert, I find the learning process powerful. But in recent months, I’ve been trying to reconnect with what excites me and reminds me of my skills. I’ve been so engrossed in coding and dealing with frustrations when things don’t go right, that I’ve somewhat lost sight of my talents, like playing the marimba or drums. If I could go back five years, I wouldn’t change the decisions I’ve made or the projects I’ve undertaken. But I would remind myself not to overlook my skills and talents in the overwhelming newness. So, my recent learning is to remain proud of my achievements and not let the excitement of learning new things diminish that pride.
[59:03] BW: That’s a very valuable lesson. I could use that reminder as well. Now, onto my next question, which is more of a personal curiosity. What are you currently listening to?
[59:24] MF: Interesting question. As a mother, I’ve been listening to a lot of toddler tunes lately. But in my personal time, I have a perpetual love affair with Caroline Shaw’s music. I’m fortunate to have connected with her and presented her work in the past. It’s exciting to see such a talented, young composer flourish. Her music, rhythmic, tonal, moving, and emotional, resonates with the contemporary listener, yet carries profound thoughtfulness in its forms and melodies. She strikes the perfect balance between pushing boundaries and keeping the listener comfortable. I often play her “Partita for 8 Voices” for my kids.
It’s such a wonderful piece to have playing in our house. You might be doing something else, like cooking dinner, and suddenly you’re captured by a particular moment in the music.
[1:01:25] BW: Totally. I just made a playlist for a couple of upcoming family road trips. I want to expose my kid to as many different types of music as possible, and the first section of “Partita for 8 Voices” is on there. It’s entertaining — all those shifts.
[1:01:55] MF: Absolutely, it’s brilliant. I’ve used it in my classes at Berklee College when we discuss experimentation in my mindset course. Even though it might not initially strike the ear as experimental, the way Caroline Shaw uses voice and various techniques is indeed a form of experimentation. It’s pleasing yet forward-thinking, and that combination sparks excitement both for me and my students.
[1:02:33] BW: I love listening to that piece. When I first heard it, it struck me as somewhat similar to a Philip Glass piece, like how the vocalists perform. But then it’s way more polyphonic and when all those close harmonies come in, game over. It’s amazing.
[1:02:55] MF: Have you ever seen Roomful of Teeth perform live? Their performances are extremely powerful. The first concert I took my now husband to was one of theirs, and he was utterly taken aback by it, just as I was. They excel at incorporating various traditions of vocal practice into a unified performance, and experiencing it live is incredibly captivating.
[1:03:31] BW: What’s next for MF Dynamics? I understand you’re not currently working on a commissioned project.
[1:03:44] MF: Well, after saying that, I remembered I have a show in about two and a half weeks. It felt like I had a whole month, a month dedicated to family. But then I remembered I have to prepare for a show on August 5. I’m traveling up to Portland, Maine. There’s this great organization, Chroma two four, they’re partnering with Transform It, a fabric structure company, to create a pop-up immersive art experience. I’ll perform with my Melody Figments on Rumba while they project onto beautiful forms created by Cindy Thompson of Transform It. People will also have the chance to interact with the installation, playing instruments, and their movements will be transformed into Melody Figment webs. The installation is called ‘Encounters’ and it’s up for the whole month of August. Additionally, I’ll be performing an opera composed by Tod Machover, head of the MIT Media Lab, by the end of next month. Furthermore, I’m working on a large-scale, immersive outdoor symphony about adoption. This will draw inspiration from my personal experiences as an adoptee. This piece will hopefully premiere next spring, assuming everything goes according to plan. On top of that, we’re touring with Descended, which will be performed at the Smithsonian in September. And I’m also planning a tour for Melody Figments. So yes, there’s a lot happening despite it being July and me spending a lot of time at the pool with my kids.