Technology is now a huge part of the creative process for many artists – even those working in a more traditional medium. We asked a handful of our favourite New Zealand creatives about the piece of tech that’s inspired their creativity.
From agriculture to aviation, education to esports, you’d be hard pressed to find a local industry, institution or even a leisure pursuit that hasn’t been fundamentally changed by technology over the last few decades. In the case of our rapidly shifting software and technology sector, the shift has even created the space for entirely new industries to arise. The fast rise of smart devices and almost-always-on connectivity has shifted not only the ways in which we share and receive information, but also created entirely new ways of working in our professional lives.
Our creative sector is one that’s long punched above its weight internationally, with an impressive number of Aotearoa artists gaining global acclaim over the past few years – from writers to filmmakers, musicians to choreographers. And with Spark’s 2023 Christmas campaign shining light on the ways in which technology can help to unleash your creative potential, we wanted to learn a little more about what that actually means for people making art in Aotearoa.
To help us understand, we reached out to artists from all over the country and who work in a wide range of disciplines: poet laureate Chris Tse, musician Crystal Choi, dancer (and Spark ad star) Reuben Moffett and photographer Nancy Zhou. Here, the four tell us all about the tech that helps to unlock their creativity.
This content was created in paid partnership with Spark. To give a gift that unleashes your loved ones’ talents this Christmas, check out Spark’s amazing range of tech gifting options in store and online.
Crystal Choi, songwriter and musician
A university-trained pianist who’s performed with jazz ensembles, indie bands and alt-pop super-troupes, as frontperson of local dreampop outfit Phoebe Rings – who have just released the gorgeous single ‘아스라이 (Aseurai)’ – Crystal Choi seems to draw just as much from her formal training as she does the metronomic grooves of Stereolab or the gentle intergenre explorations of Japanese legend Haruomi Hosono.
As Choi tells it, the path that led her from jazz school to Phoebe Rings was a patient one: “It was around 2016, the year after I graduated, when I first started to feel like, ‘Oh, maybe I’m not just going to keep focusing on jazz.’” Spending more time performing in friends’ bands and as a session musician, over the following years she would find herself being drawn gradually towards different sounds and modes. It was a 2018 international tour as a member of Princess Chelsea’s band, she recalls, when that slowly accumulating inspiration reached critical mass.
“Just seeing all of these bands from overseas making all of this really colourful-sounding music, it was like a confirmation for me that I really wanted to do something different.” With a bunch of ideas already semi-formed in her mind, it was technology – specifically a MacBook laptop with the music production software Logic Pro – that helped her to first bring the sound of Phoebe Rings to life.
“I think Logic is perfect for beginners, or it was for me, because the instrument I was always the most intimidated by was the drums. I mean, I could hear the rhythm in my head, but I wouldn’t know how to translate that to a drum kit.” Choi would eventually take her ideas to close friend and accomplished drummer Alex Freer, who she’d performed with in his own solo project AC Freazy, but says that the earliest versions of those songs were produced with drums from Logic’s own on-board automatic drum programming tool.
“Having to ask drummers to workshop a groove or something… I thought that was taking too much of their time. And because I didn’t really know how to program drums myself, I used the Logic Drummer for the drum track, then tweaked that a little bit, and then took it to Alex for him to interpret in his own way. ‘Cheshire’, our first single, was actually born like that.”
As the project has evolved, that reliance has lessened – “I don’t even have to give Alex instructions, he just knows what to play” – but the versatility lent by software like Logic remains a huge asset in Choi and the band’s creative process.
“I used to use [music notation and scoring software] Sibelius to write,” she explains, “Which would sound nothing like the live band. And Logic might not sound exactly like it, but it’s a lot closer. And as I’ve gotten better at using it, and I’ve bought better plugins, what the music sounds like becomes closer and closer to what I’ve imagined it sounding like.”
As music technology continues to advance and become even more accessible, the role it plays for artists is set to grow even further. Choi even notes that in her session and jazz gigs, most of the musicians she’s playing with have replaced their paper sheet music with tablets, and apps like ForScore – “I bought an iPad for music specifically because when I have gigs, I try to save the environment and not print as much.” And on the creation side, between production software tools like Logic (and entry-level alternatives like Apple’s Garageband software, which is even available as a free app on iPhones and iPads) and the increasing ease of publishing music on platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, it’s never been easier for artists in Aotearoa to take the sounds inside their heads and share them with the world.
Reuben Moffett, student and dancer
At just 13 years old, Reuben Moffett says that almost all of his spare time is dedicated to dance – but it wasn’t quite his first calling. “I did dance around the house a lot when I was little,” he explains, “But originally I was a gymnast. I’d watch the girls do their floor routines, and they would have little dance sections which I found interesting, but boys don’t get to do that. I thought it was kind of unfair, so I left gymnastics and I started doing dance.”
He’s been hooked ever since, building a passion brought vividly to life in Spark’s 2023 Christmas campaign. And with his creation last year of a scholarship for families struggling to pay for dance classes, it’s a passion that he wants to share as widely as possible.
“It actually started as a school project,” Moffett explains, “But I kind of took it to the next level and set up a scholarship dance event at my school. There was some stuff on sale, I got dance classes from the studio I dance at, and I reached out to some other dancers from my company, like, ‘Hey, can you show up?’ Overall we raised like two grand.”
Performing across a wide range of styles and genres – from ballet to ballroom – Moffett says that his personal favourite is something a little more contemporary. “Hip hop’s my strong suit… artists like Missy Elliott, maybe some Travis Scott, he’s another good one.” And while he’s understated about his achievements to date, it’s clear that Moffett takes his practice very seriously.
He’s always figuring out timings in his head, he says, retracing choreography and remembering cues, so it’s probably no surprise that one of his dance must-haves is a good pair of noise cancelling headphones. “At Christmas last year I got earbuds, and that was all new to me, since I was so used to playing music on my smart speaker in my room.”
While dancing with earbuds has a few obvious technical advantages – Moffett points out that having the music right there in his ears makes it easier to hear every detail, and pick up every cue – he also jokingly acknowledges that they may also have a slight upside for the rest of his family.
“They make it easy for me to just dance around the house, if I don’t want to hear what other people are listening to. And that’s a way better feeling than just playing it through a speaker, and then someone telling you to shut it up!”
Chris Tse, New Zealand poet laureate
Chris Tse became the poet laureate in 2022, and has been a force for good reading throughout his career. His catalogue of work includes three books of poetry, as well as contributions to anthologies and he has been described as one of the most “energetic and voguish writers around.” And while it might seem like a profession that still lends itself nicely to the romantic idea of sitting in a glade with a quill and a hand-bound notebook, there are some modern tech luxuries that Tse says help him with his work.
Already a habitual chronicler and note-taker, the advent of smartphones made him even more prolific in that respect. “I have a running Notes file on my phone that I’m always adding things to,” he explains, “Ideas for titles, ideas for poems, ideas for scripts – or even just phrases and lines and things that I think I might use for a poem later on.”
“My writing process is quite non-linear; it’s very fractured. I just gather all these bits and pieces, and then by putting two or three of those together I might get an idea for the genesis of a poem.” As technology has become more commonplace in his practice, however, Tse says he’s developed a bit more structure around when he will and won’t use it.
“I got to the point where I was relying on technology quite a bit, because it made everything so accessible and handy. And in my day job, I’m basically in front of a computer nearly the whole day; when you’re writing, and reading and editing, you’re in front of a screen.” Now he tries to ensure that he strikes a healthy balance between the two worlds.
“When I’m in the planning process, transcribing some of my ideas [from the phone] into a notebook might help me map out what a poem might look like, the shape of it, where it might be heading,” he explains, noting that for certain purposes he finds he can better articulate or process information when it’s presented in physical form. “But when I started travelling a lot for work, I started using an iPad because I wanted something that was lighter than my laptop, but that could still contain all of my books, and all of the poems that I might want to perform at a reading.”
While Tse is clear in his belief that “technology enables creativity”, for him it’s all about harnessing the right tools to augment all aspects of his creative process. He writes in Google Docs, shares notes and drafts through the cloud, video-calls into remote poetry readings, fills his earphones with “happy, cheery, cheesy pop music” while he writes, and reads from his iPad when the stage lights are too dim to leaf through a notebook. His craft may not entirely depend on tech, but it certainly helps.
Nancy Zhou, photographer
Nancy Zhou was studying towards a public communications and international studies degree when she first planted the seeds for her photography practice. “I did a couple of semesters as an elective,” she explains, “They were like, ‘Wait for the design students to finish picking their subjects, and then if there’s any spots available, you get to do it.’”
That humble initial introduction to shooting on film and developing her own photos would pique a lifelong passion for the Ōtautahi-based Zhou, now a professional photographer who specialises in editorial and documentary-style work. But it wasn’t until she picked up her first DSLR camera that she fully realised the potential of the craft.
“After I finished uni I went travelling – me and my friend went backpacking for a year – and I wanted to make sure I could capture everything around me,” she says, “[Digital] was just so much easier; it meant I could capture lots of photos on an SD card, rather than having to be super selective about you know, 20 to 30 or whatever. And film was so much more expensive!”
She now works almost entirely digitally – shooting on Canon cameras, ingesting shots on a MacBook and editing in Adobe’s popular Lightroom software – and says that even her iPhone comes in handy when she’s on the job: “I use Airdrop a lot, and If I’m on a recce, I’ll even just take photos on my phone. I’ll be a lot less particular about angles and things, but it makes it really easy to really quickly figure out framing, lighting, what the space looks like.”
Connectivity can make a huge difference on the admin side too. “I’ll bring my laptop to shoots in case the client wants to see shots while we’re there, and I might even do some light tweaks in Lightroom. I’ll still do the actual editing at home, but it can help them to get an idea of what the images will look like afterwards.”
And while she’s grown past her early digi days of “over-compensating for bad photos with heavy editing”, Zhou notes that knowing she’ll always have the option to tweak and fine-tune her shots makes her much more comfortable when she’s on the set.
“I do still get stressed and nervous, because particularly when you’re going into a new environment, you might not know what the space is going to be like; what the lighting might be like. But I know now that if I take a photo and it isn’t entirely the way I wanted, I still have the ability to do some correction in post. So that definitely makes me feel a lot more confident.”