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The Electronic Motive

Liza White talks about the manner in which computer music and hip-hop production inform her classical compositions.

By Marc Weidenbaum

The classical compositions of Liza White often employ standard repertory instrumentation in the exploration of motives, textures, and elements from such realms as jazz, hip-hop, and electronic music. She’s also known to invoke some of those elements directly, working LP static and electronic percussion in amid more immediately recognizable instrumentation. Her piece “Step!” absorbs hip-hop and the synchronized form from which it takes its name, her “Ballad of the Mean Angry Jazz Hater Monster!” likewise draws from the genere claimed by its title, and her elegant “Groove” series suggests a melodically incisive derivation of minimalism — all accomplished with an acquisitiveness that is refreshingly lacking in quotation marks.

White’s work has been performed by JACK Quartet, members of Fifth House Ensemble, and the Charlestown Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet, just to name a few, and may be familiar to readers of this site thanks to a recommendation of her “Step!” (in a live performance by Alarm Will Sound) back in February (“When a Chamber Ensemble Sounds Like a Jazz Ensemble Sounds Like Breakbeat”).

White generously assented to the following interview, in which she talks about her compositional technique, her ongoing musical education, and her exploration in deriving classical compositions from digital sounds.

Examples of her work discussed below can be heard at her website, lizawhitemusic.com.


Marc Weidenbaum: You don’t compose purely electronic music, but it plays a role in various of your works: the LP static in “Ballad of the Mean Angry Jazz Hater Monster!” and the electronic percussion in “Let It Begin With Me,” for example. What is your connection — educationally and personally, as a composer — to the equipment and techniques associated with electronic music?

Liza White: For me, using electronic sound is just one of the possible ways in which I can try to achieve whatever it is I’m trying to achieve with a piece. In “Ballad”, the LP static, played from an actual LP onstage, is used to distinguish the parts of the piece depicting “jazz” — in the form of fragments of fake standards, played on the piano — from the parts depicting the irate jazz-hating monster. Then at the end, we hear the monster’s voice on the LP, which the pianist accompanies. The use of the LP fits well with the theatrical nature of the piece, and the sound helps to create the contrast that is needed. In “Let It Begin With Me” the electronic percussion is supposed to evoke a harsh urban environment in which a person is trying to assert him/herself. The sounds are made from saxophone key clicks, broken glass, and acoustic and electronic percussion sounds and are triggered through a Max/MSP patch by a percussionist playing a MIDI drum kit. It was important to me to have synthesized percussion sounds in this piece, but I also wanted the audience to see a player striking drums forcefully and to witness the interplay between the percussion and saxophone parts as created by two people onstage.

I tend not to write purely electronic music because I really thrive on working with performers, but technology is a big influence on the way I treat material, regardless of the sound source. I like to loop, offset, and fragment motives. I’m also interested in emulating electronic sounds with acoustic instruments and seeing how accurately I can capture their character.

Weidenbaum: The idea of the electronic as an influence on your composition is particularly intriguing — that you might, through more traditional instrumentation and notation, emulate something that largely post-dates those tools. Could you give an example of such an effect, like looping, and how you went about accomplishing it.

White: Sure. One of the more interesting examples might be using acoustic instruments to make a sound that resembles an electronically synthesized one. In “Step!,” there’s a sound that happens several times that combines a muffled bass drum hit with a downward glissando played by the bass. A lot of hip-hop beats have this sort of characteristic in their bass drum hits — there’s often some pitch in there that slides down a little at the end. There are three or four variations of that sound in “Step!,” but every time it occurs, it’s an exact reiteration of one of them, as if it’s a sound being played from a sample.

Last year, I did a lot of work with Reason, the production software program, trying to emulate songs I know and to figure out what goes into that. I spent a lot of time comparing really similar sounds against each other and playing with different parameters to determine what gives each sound its character. That experience has helped me start to learn to detail acoustic sounds in an electronic-sounding way. It’s definitely a work in progress, but it can be done convincingly, and I’m getting better and better at it.

Weidenbaum: I hear a lot of things in “Step!” — I hear hip-hop, I hear Sousa, I hear exposed parallels between marching bands and chamber orchestras. What I don’t hear, which is interesting, is Ives, who was sort of synonymous with classical interpolation of marching bands. Was it difficult at all the shed that influence?

White: Actually, it hadn’t occurred to me to think about Ives while composing the piece. And he is one of my favorite composers. I also hadn’t consciously thought about marching bands. The musical influences that I actively considered were step team routines and hip-hop. And then, of course, I was writing for a large ensemble of classical instruments, each with its own historic/stylistic associations. The resulting mix, I think, can evoke a lot of different musical ground. Jazz is another association that people bring up, for example, which I wasn’t thinking about when I wrote the piece, although I love jazz.

I do think there’s a lot of intersection between marching band and step, though, in that both involve synchronized motion, and both center around a team and are about rallying spirit. Marching band probably was a factor in the development of stepping. One piece of music that assimilates marching band music, and that in turn influenced this piece, is Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl.” If you listen to the song and watch the music video, it’s all about that intersection: there is clapping and stomping on bleachers that evoke stepping and high school sports culture, and people waving trumpets and sousaphones, and synth brass loops, and also this sort of “step off” mentality to the lyrics. That may be where some of the marching band material you’re hearing comes from.

Ives’ interpolation of marching bands into classical music is different than mine, I think, because for him it was about contrast: two bands in different keys, a band showing up in the middle of an orchestral tone poem, etc. And in his time, combination of classical music with other styles was much more provocative. For me, I was simply trying to write a piece that, although the influences were disparate, was a musically economical pursuit of a single idea.

Weidenbaum: Your reference to “Hollaback Girl” makes me envious. I have still-fresh memories of the early days of Bang on a Can, and of the rise of terms like “avant-pop” and “post-rock” and, more recently, “post-classical” to refer to efforts by composers to acknowledge, make use of, or otherwise absorb so-termed pop culture. I feel like those genre-politics concerns are increasingly a thing of the past, and you and your work benefit from having it behind you. Was this approach of yours well respected in your education, or are there still battles being waged?

White: Hmmm…. well, I’m currently finishing my ninth year of higher education in music, including time at Boston University, the New England Conservatory, UC Berkeley, and now Northwestern, where I’m working on my DM [Doctor of Music]. I think that if you spend that much time in school studying composition, no matter what your style is, you’ll encounter people who don’t like or understand what you’re trying to do, and my experience is no exception. But the best teachers figure out what your objectives are and how to help you serve them better. I’m lucky to have had a lot of really great teachers. It’s true that pop-culture influence can be a lightning rod. But if you approach your craft with dedication and skill, I think in most cases it earns respect, if not admiration, regardless of what anyone’s interests are.

Weidenbaum: Please talk a little about your “Groove” series. There’s something especially textural about its repetition, and exploration, of a downtempo motif.

White: The first “Groove” was the last movement of a piece called “Four Sketches for Piano” that I wrote when I was in college. Each of the sketches was about two minutes or less. My compositional style had been fairly traditional up until that point, but “Groove” helped me recognize my fascination with repetition and the evolution of small changes within a repetitive texture. I developed the courage to see how far I could stretch the motive, and I wrote “Groove Excursion.” Later, after this type of composition had become more usual for me, I followed with “Groove II” and “Groove III.”

I love music where you know generally what’s going to happen, and the emphasis is on how or when it will happen. With popular music or jazz, I tend to focus in on whatever patterns are looped, and follow the small alterations that happen within their structure. There’s also something really exhilarating about music challenging its own framework. Like when a beat-based song surprises you with silence on a downbeat. These are ideas that the “Groove” pieces helped me explore. Additionally, with them, I was using a musical motive as a found object and examining it in different ways, to show what’s really at work in the material. The pieces expose the changing color of those three piano chords as they reverberate and decay, and the resultant sound of a bass clarinet and a cello blending seamlessly, and the difference between F#4 on a cello and on a flute, and those kinds of sonic details.

Weidenbaum: You have mentioned jazz, and I wanted to ask about the role that improvisation plays in your musical worldview. I ask in part because there is a — largely mistaken — impression, I think, among general listeners, that if there’s anything electronic music and classical music have in common, it’s an antipathy toward improvised performance.

White: Wow, that’s interesting. I’ve always taken it for granted that improvisation is important in both electronic and classical music.

I don’t normally create structures in which performers improvise. I do it sometimes, especially when a piece has theatrical qualities, like “Babylon” and “Ballad of the Mean Angry Jazz Hater Monster!,” but it’s not the way I usually work. It is definitely part of my “musical worldview,” though. The string quartet that I just finished, “Zin zin zin zin,” which was read and recorded by the JACK Quartet recently, is inspired by the vocal heterophony you get in hip-hop songs with more than one MC. There is improvisation inherent when rappers deliver the same lyric at the same time but not in the same way, and the piece deals with moments like these. It also deals with group rap’s frequent sense of moving in and out of improvisation, such as when a lyric is arrived at in unison at the end of semi-simultaneous individual flow. The preoccupation with repeating musical figures that I described earlier is similar; I love following repetitive material and listening to how it gets varied by a player — or a producer or DJ. That interest has influenced the “Groove” pieces, “Boston Night Prayer,” and others. So, improvisation is an important model for me.

Weidenbaum: Are there specific references or models for you in terms of how you notate things on the more unusual side, or how specific you get in terms of which electronic drums should be employed or the sound or quality of the vinyl surface noise.

White: I look at a wide variety of references for notation. I’m always studying scores to see approaches different composers have taken, as well as consulting with performers to find out what kind of explanation and visual representation will work best for them for the situation at hand. When I’m notating a sound that’s unique, I generally wouldn’t just use a pre-existing notation without modifying it to make it optimal for the desired result. But my current teacher, Hans Thomalla, has given me a lot of good notation ideas, and I’ve also recently taken ideas from scores by Derek Bermel, Helmut Lachenmann, Eric Whitacre, and Chris Fisher-Lochhead — a fellow Northwestern student — just to name a very diverse few.

“Let It Begin With Me” is my only piece that uses electronic percussion sounds, and I built those sounds carefully. None of them are purely canned sounds from drum machine software, although I did use some of those sounds in the synthesis, along with saxophone noises and recorded acoustic percussion instruments and broken glass. The sounds are organized into pools connected to each drum pad, so that hitting the pad plays a random sound from the pool, and controls are built in to further randomize pitch and other variables on a micro level. Each pad represents a different category — “bass drums” with broken glass, key clicks, metals, higher metals, etc. — but the randomization keeps the sounds new, to serve the narrative of the piece; the sounds resist familiarity and are continually oppressive in new ways. But I’m not really happy with the electronic sounds from that piece yet, honestly — I’ll probably revise them soon.

With the vinyl surface noise in “Ballad,” I was also quite specific. I wanted a smooth but characteristic sound in a higher register, so as not to get in the way of the singing and piano, and I went through a lot of samples before finding — and further modifying — the right one. I liked the idea of having it actually play from a record in concert, but I opted to have the sound file recorded onto the LP, rather than just dirtying and scratching a record. This let me blend the sound into the piece better and have more control over it.

I see this kind of specificity as simply how a good composer works: we make sure that everything we do is a conscious decision in support of a piece’s purpose. But I could cite a few models that have inspired me in applying this kind of thinking to electronics. Conversations I’ve had with Mason Bates about how he builds his sounds have been really influential. I also learned a lot from being around the UC Berkeley Center for New Music and Audio Technology while I was a student there.

Weidenbaum: This question is a little off the subject of electronics, but: As a composer building a portfolio of compositions, how do you balance the work and avenues you desire to pursue with the work and avenues that are determined by commissions and available musicians and ensembles?

White: Balancing creative desires with available players and forums is tough for a lot of composers, but I’m pretty lucky. I usually have a mixture of opportunities available, including works for festivals and commissions that I win through an application process, chances to write for musicians that visit or are affiliated with school, and collaborations with friends that either they or I might initiate. Within all this, there’s room to apply for things that seem to be a good fit for me and to choose projects that I most want to focus on at a given time. I also like to stretch myself in terms of what instruments I write for and what the strengths of the players are, which means that I’m willing to write in a lot of different situations. It’s a fun challenge to try and be myself successfully under different constraints, and to figure out how to explore whatever my interests are in the context of a project.

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