April 8, 2009

Student Artist Spotlight: Jon Wong '08

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With all the talk these days of what qualifies a pop star (Pussycat Dolls anyone?), Cornell’s own alumnus Jonathan Wong ’08 has returned to his alma mater to show us how it’s done. Wong was awarded the Cornell Council for the Arts Undergraduate Artist Award, which goes to an individual who demonstrates talent in multiple fields. Wong is currently living in Hong Kong where he is working on a pop album to be released this summer; in conjunction with the album, he is also choreographing his own routines and writing his own songs. Jon Wong sat down with the Sun to speak about his time here on the hill and his future as a dancer, singer and performer.
Sun: You double majored in psychology and dance here at Cornell. How did your time here help to develop your artistic and life values?
Jonathan Wong: A lot of people assume that psychology and dance are not that related and that they’re a strange pairing, but it makes a lot of sense to me. One of the biggest things I took away from psychology was the idea of associations: ideas are never in isolation — thoughts and sensations and impulses are grounded in something. And to understand art in that way makes things more logical. When I’m constructing my pieces I try to build on associations; hint at things and then take them away, or when I know something needs to be filled in because someone needs that cadence, or whatever, I can make a choice. Do I complete it and make it enjoyable, or do I get on their nerves a little bit? I don’t think I would have discovered things in either of those fields the way I did without having studied them together, because they pushed me to think interdisciplinarily, which is what I’m all about now.
Sun: What have you been doing since you graduated?
J.W.: I went back to Hong Kong, where I’m from, and started to make music. I’ve been preparing my first album which is due out in the summer. It’s been a really interesting experience because my management and my producer and my collaborators have been giving me a lot of responsibility for this product that we’re putting out, and of course, that product is me.
Sun: Is that unusual?
J.W.: Yeah, because typically in pop, which is what I’m doing now, the person just represents a shell, a vehicle that all the backstage people can put their ideas and inventions into and sell it, because that shell is supposedly more attractive than a hundred people all trying to sell all their ideas. It’s about simplicity, and filtering, and all that. I’m involved in multiple stages of the creative process. I wrote or co-wrote every song, arranged or co-arranged every song, talked to the lyricists about my own ideas, had dialogue with the choreographers of the music videos, talked to the stylists — we have meetings, I don’t just show up and they put clothes on me. It’s important because if I can’t present myself to them, how are they going to present me to an audience that knows nothing about me?
Sun: How do you think you fit specifically into the Chinese-language music scene?
J.W.: In Hong Kong, there’s a huge karaoke culture, so karaoke music, or K-songs, are written so you want to go sing at a karaoke bar. They’re pretty formulaic. Not that I don’t believe in formula — I’m not someone who needs to spend my life re-inventing the wheel ‘cause it’s so fascinating. But I don’t want to produce music whose sole purpose is being replicated at a karaoke bar. I want to make music for listening and that’s inspiring for visual art, for dance, something that has a groove.
Sun: Can you describe your typical day as a burgeoning pop star?
J.W.: I wake up and usually go to a dance rehearsal or to the studio to work on some tracks, then evenings I’ll meet with management or producers, and then when I have time of my own I’ll continue song projects I’m not finished with, or maybe open source a song with a couple of friends, and then go to sleep pretty late and wake up kind of late the next day and just do it again.
Sun: You mentioned dance rehearsals. What are you working on as far as dance?
J.W.: Right now I’m preparing for two music videos. For one I get to do modern dance. The other’s to a faster song, we’re doing it to ‘new style’ hip hop, it’s LA style, slicker, not so punchy. The purpose is to contribute to a vibe — it’s so engineered [laughs]. Everything’s supposed to contribute to the idea that I’m trendy and fun but a little more grown up then your typical starting out pop star.
Sun: You’ve come back to receive the CCA award and to create a performance. Tell me about how you started planning for this piece.
J.W.: The thing I originally planned is not quite what I’m doing right now; it was too abstract, too polemic. It’s always fascinated and frustrated me that high and low art are so separate in our minds, but no one can tell you where the divide is, so I thought about that, and when you actually examine the things that are in “high” or “low” art, they’re actually very similar. So I tried to put them all together. Now I’m more concerned about making this thing aesthetically pleasing, and a valid piece of art, otherwise I could have just written a paper.
Sun: You’re performing in Weill Hall. How and why did you chose the space?
J.W.: Well, first why a public space? I believe that dance brings people together. A lot of us in the academy think that art is about the furthering of that art. But the higher up in the clouds you go the fewer people you allow in on your work. So I wanted to create a work in an open space to deconstruct that mystique. I’m not putting additional chairs there, so there’s no front, there’s no back, you can walk away from it, you can disrupt it, and the space in Weill encourages really interesting traffic.
Sun: What types of movement are you’re drawing from?
J.W.: It’s kind of a mash-up. I tried to take things out of their particular aesthetic and look at, for example, what is social about social dance? It’s the attitude with which you approach it. I’m trying to replicate the attitude of social dance, or concert dance, or street dance, and re-contextualize it.
Sun: Can you imagine yourself doing anything else or is this where you want to be?
J.W.: Someone once told me that the only successful performing artists are the ones who have no plan B. If you have too many options, you never see it through. I used to want to become a modern dancer but for me to do pop and be decent at it is better and more viable than to not quite make it in dance. So, I’m sticking with this for now.