Graduate Janice Wong releases album ‘Cello Music for Meditation’
It’s mid-February and the old church of Ruigoord, the idyllic artist community in the Amsterdam harbour area, is filled with pinkish purple-blue lights and is buzzing with people. Tonight the old church (and now also music venue) is hosting ‘Multiversum’, a recurring event hosted by Comport Records, where underground electronic music meets cutting-edge installations and live performances to create a unique experience.
Amidst the excitement, Australian-born cellist Janice Wong enters the stage. She is a bit nervous because this particular moment and performance is going to be quite unique for her. After double checking her loop machine, the cabling and her cello, and while the DJ fades out the music, she slowly closes her eyes. It’s still buzzing, people are talking loudly, enjoying themselves. Then the loop machine starts playing, filling the hall with a low drone sound, while Janice starts adding melodies with her beloved cello. Within minutes something magical happens; the church gets completely quiet, filling it with silence and the mesmerising sound of the cello, while the crowd stares at her, captivated by her performance. Janice keeps playing, feeling slightly overwhelmed: because this is precisely the reaction she was looking for.
The power of music
Janice Wong, a.k.a. The Wong Janice, came to the Netherlands to pursue a Master of Arts Degree in New Media & Digital Culture. After a successful 6-year career in social media marketing for one of the largest sportswear manufacturers in the world, she decided to pursue a full-time career in music. This led her to Abbey Road Institute where she graduated in 2018. Earlier this year, she released her first solo project: Cello Music for Meditation.
We interviewed Janice to learn more about her project, the journey and how she managed to do it all by herself in just a couple of weeks. What initially started as a short interview about her album, turned into a deep and interesting conversation about the search for direction, connecting the dots, the power of music and making an impact as a music producer …by doing what you do best.
Janice Wong in Studio 2 at Abbey Road Institute (picture by Jasper Derksen)
Tell us a bit more about this project, how did this all start?
Janice: “Before I chose Abbey Road Institute, I was looking into music therapy as a study.
Over the years, I realised that people really respond very well to the cello and that it goes much deeper than any other instrument. For instance, in my high school years I volunteered to play the cello at nursing homes. More recently, I went to visit my great uncle – who used to be a violinist – at the nursing home. He had a stroke many years ago, so he hasn’t been able to play for years. I would visit him and play for him. I’ve witnessed and learnt that the cello touches people in a way that other instruments can’t. At least I felt that I was making an impact with it, which felt really good. I wanted to make something more accessible, instead of reaching just one person at a time. “
What makes the cello so unique in that sense?
“The cello is one of the closest instruments to the human voice, in terms of the range. Many people feel that it vibrates at a frequency that they [subconsciously] understand. Lately, I have been collaborating with Frank Klank who uses singing bowls, hosting guided meditations that consist of 3 elements: singing bowls, cello and silence. Singing bowls are known to create so-called ‘Sound Baths’, where the room is immersed with different frequencies and vibrations. Since our bodies mainly consist of water, these vibrations have an impact. Even after the concert you still feel them. I found that my cello music has a similar effect, where I use two layers: a drone with deep low frequencies and the melodies on top.”
What happened to the music therapy study?
“Well, as I said, I did look into studying music therapy, but I decided to become a music producer instead,” she explains with a laugh. “I thought that the study at Abbey Road would give me more skills in my pallet than studying a single music therapy course. And it’s not a coincidence that this album came around. There is a thread that I hadn’t realised before.”
Can you tell us a bit more about that thread?
“After my Abbey Road Institute graduation, I gave myself a couple of months to finish off projects, things that I’ve recorded in the studio, mixing them. But as the year started, I was really excited to be a music producer, and I wanted to create my own music. I was searching for a direction and started experimenting with different things that came on my path, like combining strings with electronic music and beats, the composition of cinematic music for film and advertising, and those kinds of things. But it always came back down to me and the cello. So I decided to go for that because that’s the best thing I can.”
How did you take it from there?
“I started by doing a small survey amongst my friends, asking them ‘when would you listen to cello music?’ The answers were mostly related to situations that are more introverted and quiet, like reading, writing, or having a glass of wine in a bath. I started to visualise different situations where people would listen to my music, like deep thinking, yoga, meditation, which gave me a base for what became the cello for meditation music. I started to paint a boundary so to speak where the music would fit, which led me to the Wheel of Emotions.”
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On stage at @amsterdamdanceevent alongside these brilliant artists/composers and industry professionals. We each presented our composition and got feedback on our sync music. Was super cool! Shout out to @perrin4. . . . . . #ade18 #amsterdamdanceevent #ade #femaleproducer #womeninmusic #producerlife #conference #musicconference #musicfestival #electronicmusic #composer #composerlife #cellist #musicproducer #danceandbrands @firstdayof_spring #edm #dancemusic #sync @ivamusics @homay.s @oliverpatriceweder @niklaspaschburg @kaiserdisco_official @pershanoush @djchuckie @joshrabinowitz
The wheel of emotions as a framework
“Basically, I was looking for a way to distinguish different sounds and categorise the western musical keys. I was reading some articles, and various interpretations of musical keys and human emotions, like C major was pure, F minor was grief, etc. There was not one source that everybody agreed on. So I kept on looking around, and I decided that I would also like to incorporate colours with different keys, so I started looking up the colours as well, and there was also not one source. So while I was looking into the emotions of the keys and the colours of the keys, I bumped into the Wheel of Emotions from the professor and psychologist Robert Plutchik. The only thing that his wheel didn’t have was the keys, so I thought, that was alright”.
So Janice Wong is now creating her own wheel?
She laughs. “Well, I have my own, and it’s not to share. It’s just my own way of deciding how to name the tracks and also what emotion I‘m playing towards. On the current album, ‘fear’ is the lead track, and the others are ‘remorse’ and ‘ecstasy’. But I’m already working on the next album, which has at least one bright, positive emotion on it. The music is ready, I just need to mix it and master it and decide on the publishing framework.”
Earlier you spoke about ‘Me and the cello’. Can you tell us a bit more about the ‘me’ part?
“The music comes from me because I don’t compose, I improvise. Everything you hear on the recordings is basically me pressing record, and I improvise. Coming from a classical background, I always played from sheet music. I think at a particular moment I just wanted to break free from that.
On this album it’s all improvised, therefore, it is 100% from me, it’s the music that just came out at that specific moment. And that’s why it’s so suitable for meditation, it’s not a song, it’s a journey. I don’t try to make it predictable, it’s not repeating in a pattern, although there are phrases that return and I do that on purpose. But not in a way that you can predict or expect anything, and I think that’s important when people try to relax or focus, it is not to distract the listener.”
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So when did you start playing the cello?
“I started when I was 8 years old. And then for the next 10 years, I played classical music doing all the exams, played in a lot of orchestras and string ensembles and toured in different countries. My first instrument was actually the piano. But my parents wanted me to play in an orchestra and the piano is not suitable for that. I was drawn to the cello and I got along very well with it” she adds with a smile. “But it was not a conscious choice, it came on my path.”
Could you say that you have a passion for it now?
“I think being good at something, it makes you biased and an easy thing to become passionate about. And I’ve learned so much at Abbey Road Institute. I want to use all the skills that I’ve learned there to back up my talent and my passion, which makes more sense than the other way around. I know how long it took me to get to the level that I’m now.”
It feels like you connect all the dots…
“It’s quite interesting to look into back sometimes because that’s exactly how I chose to be a music producer and study at Abbey Road Institute. I looked back into my past and asked myself a series of questions: list all the dream jobs that you’ve had since you were young, list people that really inspire you and what their roles are, and a series of other questions. And the only thing that was a common thread was a music producer, and that really surprised me because it was not on the top of my mind at that moment. I was still thinking about my marketing career, and I wasn’t sure if I should go the marketing path, but I couldn’t really see the path. And when I saw that the thread was music producer I just chose it blindly. Rationally it just had to bring something and Abbey Road Institute just needed to happen. I feel so much more comfortable now. I was recording and editing songs before but not in the way that I do it now, it has given me such a big step that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. It also helped me to develop the live concept to go with the album, and that went pretty quickly as well because of the knowledge I’ve had from Abbey Road Institute. I understood how to create the sound I was looking for and how to manage the amplification. It just went way quicker. I already had the equipment at home. But now I’m much more aware of what I’m listening to.”
So how does it feel to have your first album release?
“Of course, it can always be better, but for the speed of the output that I have, I’m very pleased.
Currently, this is the most important thing to me; to get it out and to see a reaction because then I can improve it. I didn’t want to spend a year on an album, I spent 3 weeks actually.
Everything came at that moment, making me able to start this. But what feels like 3 weeks was probably over 10 years in the making. Actually, after I finished my last classical exam, that was the first year that I transitioned to pop music, and that was the first time I started improvising because I realised that I couldn’t improvise. And so to create an album now that’s entirely improvised, I’ve totally come a long way. It has been almost 15 years since that moment. I’m pleased with where I am now.”
Following your Facebook page, there are quite some collaborations happening.
“Since the release of the album and now that I’ve started to promote myself, I’m getting a lot of excellent contacts. I’m collaborating with Frank Klank and his singing bowls, Nathalie Rasing who is giving Yoga Nidra, a lying down guided meditation, and there is a spoken word guided meditation with SpaceAgePoetry coming up for more corporate clients. These are some of the upcoming collaborations, but the music is always the same.”
How did you get into meditation yourself?
“I’ve been practising yoga for a few years, and I attended a mindfulness class as part of my work and that really intrigued me. I hadn’t really spent any time with being aware. At least not that hyper-aware. And then, a couple of years ago, I attended a ten-day Vipassana meditation in Australia, which kind of changed my whole perspective of life. It was a combination of the learnings (because every day there was a lecture), the insights, and the awareness of being quiet inside. It was about how that feels and wanting to live a lighter life, not living with burdens and pains and trauma. Just wanting to live a harmonious and quiet life on the inside.”
“After the ten days, I felt that I only had a glimpse of what that would feel like. If I could continue that in my daily life then I would be a totally different person. I came out much more positive. I felt like the nature of my thoughts changed completely, so meditation helped me a lot.”
“But over the following years after that, I realised that it’s hard to keep constant, you have to keep working at it. It’s also something you don’t easily share. Meditation is an individual thing. People generally don’t tell other people that they do meditation. Yoga, for instance, has become a social practice, but meditation is still very private. But at a particular moment, I realised that when I play the cello, I am completely present. Because the cello doesn’t have keys or frets, so I have to be totally in the moment, listening to what I’m doing. It’s so familiar to me, it comes out as a kind of muscle memory, rather than thinking of being worried about the next note, or what I should do or how should I hold the bow or what movement should I make. It’s just so organic. I realised that when I play the cello, that’s my meditation. And then I decided that I wanted to share that.”
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Is your music mainly for meditation?
“I want people to listen to it where they feel it helps. I don’t want to say it’s for this purpose or that purpose. Some of my music is also available on the ‘Insight Timer’ app, and I’ve received a lot of different reactions from the users of the app. From people saying that they use it to release (chronic) pain, or they’ve been crying or that they had a blockage during the day and with my music it helped them to release with a lot of tears… I’ve had a lot of beautiful reactions. The app really has the audience for that.”
How do you perform your music live on stage?
“Live I use the same drones from the album, with the help of a loop machine. A drone is a low tone that stays constant, which serves as the framework, and the melodies come naturally. The drone is created with my electric cello, which has a lower bass string. I decided to keep it one note the whole song because, for the purposes of meditation or concentration, it’s more grounded to have something stable. I found that pieces that change harmonies or bass-notes, it becomes distracting. With the drone you don’t notice it anymore, it just grounds you. It’s also so low that it brings you to a different conscious state. Without the drone, it can not bring you as deep. I didn’t go very much into the technical part though, I’ve approached it more musically.”
Who are your inspirators?
“My biggest inspiration cello-wise is Zoë Keating. Her music is made up of the cello only and a lot of digital effects. She has been playing for over 10 years with digital delays and her laptop, she’s been very inspirational to me. I once bumped into her at the airport in Zurich, while I was travelling for work. That was cool.”
“Another big inspiration to me is Imogen Heap. She is not a cellist. I’ve actually performed with her. I guess I like people who are thinking outside of the box. People that follow themselves. Because everything that Imogen has been doing is very unique. Like she was into crowdsourcing sounds for her album years in advance of the trend, and now she is into blockchain. She is just so curious and adaptable, and I think that is really great.”
Does curious and adaptable describe Janice Wong as well?
“Curious yes, and I suppose adaptable. Now I’m releasing my music digitally, and the modern producer can do it all by themselves at home. And I think that working with electronics is definitely a sign of the modern cellist. The concept of cello and electronics is a sign of the times.”
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Where do you want to go? What’s next?
“I would really like to perform at the famous Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I’ve already ticked off the Paradiso (the well-known pop venue in Amsterdam) and performing at the Amsterdam Dance Event would also be great. But the big one is still the Concertgebouw. I’ve also been playing around with visuals, which is something I would like to add; meditation music with visual projection. As time goes on, I would like to play at [more] festivals. Nowadays, there are more conscious festivals and the audience is more willing and open to it. Some even open with guided meditations! I think there is a shift happening. My music has no barriers so reaching an international audience would also be something I want to go for.”
Do you think that music can be healing?
“Scientifically I don’t know. But I do think music can heal. What I want to achieve with my music is to bring people in a certain flow. Talking them on a journey. My wish would be that people feel free when listening to my music.”
That’s really beautiful. So as the last question: Do you feel free?
“Yes, I feel free, waking up every day excited and energised and enthusiastic. Every day I have a new idea of what to do next, so my to-do list is never empty. I feel very free being able to express myself in this way because I have the right skills to do so as well. I’m very happy where I am.”
Thank you, Janice!
Besides the above-mentioned collaborations, Janice is organising her own events and/or participating with others as a promo for the album, finding herself at exciting, peculiar and different places. From horizontal listening concerts and Ecstatic Dance club nights to Airbnb experiences.
You can listen to Cello Music for Meditation on all major streaming services, or you can download her music through Bandcamp and other platforms:
Bandcamp link: https://thewongjanice.bandcamp.com/
Read more about her music on her website: https://www.thewongjanice.com
Or follow her on Facebook for more info.