Wendy Spitzer asks questions about the things that everyone experiences but nobody talks about. How do we make friends in adulthood versus other parts of our lives? How do we work together, and how do emotional issues arise and get resolved when we're collaborating?
She doesn't offer answers, but since returning to the Triangle after a years-long stint abroad, the longtime local musician has been probing their possibilities.
Spitzer spent 2015 to 2016 at Goldsmiths, University of London, delving into these questions of trust, vulnerability, and the social dynamic inherent in creative collaboration, while earning her master's degree in music. Before that, she spent a year living alone in Prague, and prior to that, she was in Carrboro, making music under the name Felix Obelix—a name that intentionally has no meaning, allowing its function to remain fluid.
"It doesn't connote any one particular thing, other than the words sound nice together," Spitzer says. "Felix Obelix has changed over time, and it's always in flux. Initially, it was a band that I put together to play my own music, which I used to write by myself and everyone just played all the parts. Over time, it morphed into more of a solo project, where basically me as a musician is Felix Obelix."
Though Spitzer considers herself primarily a musician—a composer, a singer, and a multi-instrumentalist whose work is an experimental blend of classical and pop styles—she's spent the past few years dabbling in other arenas, ranging from visual art to creative writing.
"People have told me that there's a strong current of myself going through everything that I do, regardless of media," she says.
Recently, however, Spitzer has become less interested in her personal brand and more invested in creative collaborations.
"I'm not playing strictly Felix Obelix music right now, where everything is my own vision, because I'm really interested in what happens when it's me plus other people," Spitzer says. "People bring out different things in each other."
This intrigue goes back to her time spent in London researching psycho-social dimensions of interacting with another person in a creative setting. Spitzer's newfound interest in creative collaborations stems from multiple sources.
"After having done my music for so long, I was ready for a change," she says. "I think the isolation of living in a different country by myself was also at play."
Another catalyst for Spitzer's research was the unexpected death of a friend and musical associate.
"His death hit me really hard, and I was really surprised by it, so I started to think, 'Why is this affecting me so much?'" Spitzer says. "I got back to that thing of like, we were doing special musical things together, so it was like a double loss—as a friend and as a collaborator. And then I started thinking about why that relationship was so special and interesting."
Spitzer's research explores how vulnerability in social relationships leads to trust, and when this occurs in a creative collaboration, the social dynamic deepens in parallel with the artwork.
"It creates what this scholar Vera John-Steiner calls 'emotional scaffolding.' It's like you're building a building, and the other person builds the scaffolding, so you can get higher and higher and finish the building," Spitzer explains. "It creates a framework where you feel safe enough to try new things and take risks, which you can't always get when you're doing your own thing."
But those connections can go the other way too, Spitzer notes. If a relationship between collaborators is unhealthy, their art suffers too. Trusting each other's feedback is one of the most important elements of maintaining positivity within a creative collaboration.
"You can have an internal/external, objective/subjective opinion about how it's going. It's a very special thing if you can find collaborators that are really in tune with you," Spitzer says.
And she has—as an outgrowth of her findings, Spitzer is involved in numerous creative collaborations, five of which she plans to showcase in a performance called "Co-Labor-Atory" at Nightlight on Saturday.
"I'm going to start off by giving a conference presentation on my research, which is not a typical way to start a rock show, but who cares," Spitzer says. "Then, I'm going to Skype in my collaborator, Barnabas Poffley, in the UK, and we're going to play music over the speakers that we've been writing remotely, trading files back and forth."
Spitzer and Poffley's crisp, evocative compositions fall under the genre of library music, intended for use in videos, commercials, podcasts. Following that, Spitzer and Genevieve Dawson will perform songs they've written together, after which Spitzer will screen a documentary art project she created with her friend Carol Bales on the topic of friendship. Yet another set involves Spitzer and her partner, Billy Sugarfix, reading from the first draft of a middle-grade novel they're writing about a boy's journey through seventh grade, inspired by Sugarfix's own experience.
"It's basically about a kid who has a Napoleon complex, and is trying to compensate for being small for his age in a number of ways, and finds that he really wants to play rock music," Sugarfix says, adding that the creative collaboration process with Spitzer has helped him refine the narrative.
"Since it's about my experience, I want to write about everything, but Wendy can look and tell if it adds anything to the plot or if it's just some silly story. If she rewrites a scene that I wrote, it's like the scene got bitten by a spider with powers," Sugarfix says.
"Co-Labor-Atory" will conclude with a set of songs performed by Jeezle-Pete, a band comprising Spitzer, cellist Josh Starmer, and percussionist Robert Cantrell.
"I feel like, especially in this creative area, the Triangle itself, there's a lot of collaborating going on," Spitzer says. "I like to pick questions about things that people aren't talking about, and having a chance to have a whole night around that topic—first, with the presentation, and then getting to witness the outcomes—people will get to think about these ideas in a new kind of new way."