Darwin: Okay. Today I have the great pleasure of talking to somebody - I have bumped into her a number of times over the years. Most recently it was at, Seth Cluett's Sounding Circuits, a presentation at the New York Public Library where she was one of the performers who did this really cool thing on the Gametrak that was a real pleasant, introduction to some of the more interesting music that can be done. I think it was a really great way to introduce that to people that were at the library. But in any case, I'm very excited to have a talk with Lainie Fefferman.
Lainie, how are you doing today?
Lainie Fefferman: Hi, I'm doing great. How are you?
Darwin: All right. Why don't we start off by having you describe your work? Because, from my perspective, you do so many things almost all simultaneously that it's, it's really hard for me to pin you down as having one particular body of work. So I would love for you to explain your artistic work.
Lainie Fefferman: Yeah, I have the same feeling that I - when people ask me what I do, I get lost in my own head and like, "Oh, what do you want to hear from me? What should I tell you? What should I focus on?" I mean, I default to saying I'm a composer because no matter what I'm doing, I'm still kinda like organizing sound experiences for some kind of audience. So in my mind, the way I grew up in my education, that's a composer. So I tell people I'm a composer, but that can look so different. You know, today I'm focusing on a piece that I'm making with a bunch of awesome collaborators. It's going to be an app and people experience it through their phones as a community. And it's really a "public sound art, walking through an app" kind of a piece.
And there's that side of my life where I want to use technology to get people really engaged with sound community. But then, I write string quartets and choir pieces and stuff like that. And I put black dots on lines and I work with that tradition and that's - I don't know percentages. That's a big chunk of my life, too. I love doing that. And more and more I'm integrating technology into that part of what I do. So I usually have some kind of fixed media track behind whatever piece I'm making. So there's that side of what I do. And then I'm a teacher: I teach at a Stevens Institute of technology. It's like an engineering school in Hoboken and they have this cool Music Tech program and I teach synthesis and electro-acoustic composition and fun odds and ends. So there's that side. And then, gosh, I'm an organizer, so I do a lot of work putting together concerts, festivals, conferences for the New Music community that I really work in and care about. So a lot of my brain power goes into spreadsheets and emails and schedules and that kind of thing. So that's maybe the big bins of what I do.
Darwin: Right. I think it's interesting to hear that certainly your tools range from manuscript paper to spreadsheets. That's a [wide range...]
Lainie: Yeah, that's true. I would say, like most projects are dipping into weird tools for your project. Like, Oh, okay, this is going to be: I'm writing for string quartet, but you're going to get cues from the tape. So I'm going to put a waveform as a track underneath the tapes. You can see spikes and amplitude are like, "Oh, this is a laptop ensemble piece, but I'm really interested in group trauma and you're going to have to dig into what's making you most anxious and perform it in front of a crowd." Like everything's just a little off or extra demanding. So I'm very demanding on people.
Darwin: The other thing you didn't talk about though is that you actually perform a fair amount too, right?
Lainie: Yes, I do, that's true. So yeah, right now I perform - the most, my solo... I have a voice-and-electronics project called White Fire and it's really, it's only a few years old and it feels like it's in the larval stages, so I don't quite know what it's going to become. But the basic structure of it is I write songs for myself and I use all different kinds of little scraps of audio from my life that I care about. And I bring those in as tools and I make all of the sound surrounding my voice almost exclusively out of recordings I've made around my house, around different travels that I've taken. And then I muck about with them in a computer to make them sound as cool as I can. And then I do crazy effects on my voice.
Like, lately, my favorite technique is doing vocoding, but I'm singing not on top of a steady signal, but I'm singing on top of recording like a very dynamic recording of something. So there's a bridge in Brooklyn that's really beautiful and resonant. So I sing where the signal that I'm imposing my voice on top of is the Gil Hodges Memorial Bridge. It's super cool. It's a really easy thing to do. I'm kind of, I'm trying to get all my students to do it. And you just sound like a weird ghost from the future. It's the most fun technique because your voice will go in and out as the signal goes in and out anyway. So it's weirdo songs like that where I'm still trying to figure out where they live. I mean, in an experimental music venues, like they're cool but they may be a little, I don't know - pop-y's the wrong word, but they're a little like A Four Minute Song - here you go.
But then they're a little too weird and out there, I think, for a traditional, we're-standing-around-drinking-beer venue, I don't know. So I have to figure out, it's all larval. I dunno. I'm still figuring that one out, but I love it. And, that's one performing side. And then another big performing side is [that] I'm in this laptop ensemble called Sideband. And that's what you saw me perform. I had such a blast at Seth's fabulous exhibit at the Library; Sideband did a little mini-set just to show what network computer music can look like these days. And I love those folks and we perform a sort of a tour a year at this point. We all live in different spots. We're kinda busy with other [stuff], but I love playing with that group because we're all really different composers, performers.
But we all had this commitment to, we're all in some way connected to Princeton. And when we were at Princeton, we all were really into the Princeton laptop orchestra. I'm actually... in your honor, I'm wearing my Princeton laptop orchestra t-shirt as we talk. It's very like, I don't know, a club or team, it just feels like a real, a real tight bunch of folks. So out of that grew this kind of pro touring ensemble where we could take laptop orchestra repertoire but then dig into it, not as undergraduates taking it as a class, but like as grad students and professors out in the world caring about this rep the way a string quartets learn their own rep and keep it in their arsenal. So that's another branch of my performing life that I love doing. Cause we're all figuring it out together. And it's just a lovely bunch of folks.
Darwin: Right now in reviewing your body of work, one of the things that I noticed was that you are not really very conventional - or very conservative - about your use of instrumentation.
Darwin: I mean you will use, I get this sense that if you were in a room with a comb and a piece of paper...
Lainie: You nailed that! That's what I, that's what excites me. You know, I've written pieces for six kazoos, I've written pieces for - I'm trying to think of the weirdest stuff that I could say, but like choir, where everyone gets a rain stick and a noisemaker. Like, I love that. I don't know, it feels like a quick way to get fresh listening if you have fresh instrumentation. Yeah, I didn't know. So even when I'm writing for more traditional ensembles, I love figuring out ways just to get a timbre or an unexpected tool in there where everyone will be like, "Whoa, wait a minute. Whoa. What's that? How's that happening?"
Darwin: That puts people in a position to just \get away from their ossified way of doing the thing that they've been doing for their whole life and take a different approach at the musical nature that they got in them. Right.
Lainie: Yeah, It's funny. I think some composers really get their, like their juice, their energy out of, "Oh, I'm going to craft the perfect seven note phrase that will encapsulate the energy I want at this moment." And I'm not like that. I'm way more about slabs of sound and large scale energy focus. So I do think that, yeah, that means exactly as you say, getting people to get out of their comfort zone for sounds or techniques above the micro decision making of note to note or chord to chord. Yeah.
Darwin: So true. So one of the things I like doing in my podcast is talking to people about their background and how they got to be the artists that they are. And I am curious, how do you, how do you come to the point where you feel free to write string quartets or run around with the laptop orchestra or write a piece for six kazoos - I'm curious. I mean, first of all, I would love to meet your parents because it seems like your background must be one of a lot of acceptance and a lot of experimentation. I'm curious what that looks like.
Lainie: Well, God, that is a really good point. I bet a lot of the freedom I feel to do stuff is just, I've got some family that loves me and they, you know - yeah. Except, gosh, except that even... I grew up with support. I didn't grow up afraid that I would do something that would make my family lose respect for me or lose, gosh, love for me. I do think that's something. When we talk about helping artists and we're going to help them at the college level or the high school level, that's great. But just growing up as a little kid and feeling like I had a supportive family, I think melted into my brain in a way that lets me not be afraid to write for six kazoos or for asking people to be very, to be doing different things from what they normally do.
Like that level of comfort with myself is probably a big deal. So, yeah, I dunno. I had lovely parents. I actually grew up a classical pianist, so I was going to be on that road to like "I'm going to play Hammerklavier the best ever!"
And I kinda fell off that train. I had a a back condition. I had scoliosis and I had to be in a brace all day and I just wasn't comfortable playing piano anymore. And I was a big one of those like play-piano-all-day kind of kids. And I just couldn't do that anymore. And I slid into new music. So I had a background in music. My brain was already toward music. But but that kind of a constraint, I'm so grateful for it cause I now I look back like, Oh I think I would've been horribly suited for life in like 19th century rep doing solo piano.
But having that background meant that I had chops that led me into conversations already in high school. I had a great theory/composition teacher, Randall Bauer, Randy Bauer, who showed us a lot of 20th century music and I had never heard a lot of this stuff before. And I got really excited. And so that's the way that happened. But then at the same time my dad's a mathematician and I loved math and I studied a ton of math and that made me, I think, less fearful for the technical side that I saw friends get really like, "Oh God, using technology and music! Oh no!" And really I think having had a pretty strong math background meant I wasn't as default fearful of technology. It's like, yeah, it's ones and zeroes. I was like, we'll figure it out. Something like, if you want to make a cool sound, I didn't feel reverent of it. I think that's it. I didn't feel scared of this outside reverent thing called Technology. I'd grown up around abstract math and applications of technology. So I was like, "Oh, that's a, it's a fun little like tool whirlygig thing to figure out if you want to use code for a piece." I didn't actively start doing that until grad school, but I wasn't afraid of it. I think that already was really helpful that I grew up with that technical background.
Darwin: That's really cool. Going back to your introduction to 20th century music, do you remember what were some of the things that first caught your ear? Because a lot of times, the people that I have known that were really on that track to become a concert pianist or concert violinist or whatever, it took either a specific composer or a specific performance or something. It sort of cracked the code for them and allowed them to go past traditional repertoire in or go more advanced. Do you remember what that was for you?
Lainie: Oh yeah. I have some touchstone pieces. Well, I loved... my high school was Princeton public high school and there was a crowd of fabulous music students, but also the music teachers were really committed to some new music exposure. So in choir, I sang the Duruflé Requiem and the Benjamin Britten Ceremony of Carols. And I was like, "Oh, what?" I just remember crying while we were singing and I was like, "What is happening? This is amazing." That had never happened to me. I'd sung in choirs before, but there was something about, I don't know, 20th century rep there. It really got me. And then in orchestra, my orchestra teacher was encouraging of a couple of, I wasn't there yet, but a couple of folks who are in orchestra went, "Oh, can I write something or can I arrange something?"
And I just got so excited by like, "Oh my gosh, my friend Ben Lockie arranged Bartók Mikrokosmos for orchestra!" This is the coolest thing ever. And I was an oboist in the orchestra and just learning Ben's part and talking to Ben about what he wanted. I was, I don't know, it changed it from being, "Music is something you perform that the people have all died, but I'm performing it and decoding it", to like, "Oh, this is living conversations with my adorable friend Ben." So that was really formative. And then this guy, Randy Bauer in our theory class, he put in so much extra time. So he on Fridays after school for a couple of hours, it was just listening day. So I remember this gorgeous Friday, we just listened to all of Piano Phase and I'd never, I had never heard of Phase. I'd never done any kind of nonstandard rhythmic stuff.
And I don't know, it blew me away, and Different Trains. I got really on a Reich cake, like all the Reich repertoire. Basically from that day we listened to Piano Phase and Different Trains in one day and little Lainies head exploded. And I went the record store in Princeton, Princeton Record Exchange is so great, and I - I made a lot of money as a math tutor at that time, just in high school, and I spent all of it at the Princeton Record Exchange. So that's how I got exposed to Bang On A Can, because they had recorded some Reich and that's how I got... God that led me to like, one thing led me do another and I got all the different... that led me to Ethel and then that led me like that, that thread of being so excited by those pieces and having the access to a record store and some money.
I just went down the rabbit hole and talk about family support - like my mom was a classical violinist. It's like Bartok was her weird and wacky, 20th century touchstone, but that was it. So as I'd bring home the CDs, she definitely, her face smushed - it's like, "What are you, what is this? What are you listening to?" But she was so excited that I was excited. So even just getting feedback from parents that's like, "I'm happy for you to do this weird thing that we don't know about!" You know, they gave me license to do it.
Darwin: So how did you track your way through academics, through school? Because again, sometimes there's a desire when you're going through the education process of really being slotted into a singular thing. And I would say again, you are anything but singular. So how were you able to traverse that?
Lainie: Not consciously or actively? I think, well... undergrad I was really pretty squarely in the, "I write notes on staves for people to play" [camp]. Like I had done a couple things with electronics, but there was such an active community when I went to Yale and I graduated in 2004. And you can just look, there are so many composers I'm super excited about really active now who were undergrads over the course of my time there. I didn't need to go outside that bucket of activity of just I'm writing for, I wrote a half hour solo cello piece. I wrote a 20 minutes piece for six classical guitars. I wrote a ton of solo piano music for the amazing pianists who were there. Like there was just so much energy that that was pretty much all of the musical activity I did. But then I moved to New York right after undergrad.
And again, 2004 in New York, there was so much. I was really inspired by all the different kinds of music that people my age and a little older were making that almost all the concerts I went to are like either buddies or people who are just a little older than me - buddies of buddies. And I was getting tons of exposure to different things. And then really I gotta say, and then I went to Princeton for grad school and that place, there's just a magic frickin' halo around that place. Dan Trueman is one of my favorite humans in the world, but also as a teacher, he was so welcoming. And I wasn't scared of technology or coding, but I'd never used that part of my brain from music before. And he's like, "No, look at you - like, you should totally just make some pieces for laptop, orchestra and get involved."
And you know, I have had just in my math education life, my technical life, like there can be an atmosphere of like, "You must be worthy with your intellect and dedication and devotion to the program and you must prove yourself." And there was none of that crap with him. He was just so open and welcoming and he'd help anybody with a question. And I think that that community spirit really is the thing that got me to do [it]. It wasn't even the sounds themselves or the music itself, it was that sense of community. And then my advisor was Paul Lansky, who is so... He did electronic music because of the community; he talked about in one of our lessons where I brought him the score to a piece that had just been performed. And I was like expressing, there was a little upset. I go, "I worked on this piece so long and after the concert, everyone was like, cool, cool. Thanks." He's like, "Yeah, that's why I got into electronic music." Cause he just found the community was so much more conversational. Like in the working process, conversational and after concerts just talking endlessly about what they'd heard and and I was like, "Oh yeah, I want that. That's really cool." So that's really what made me start writing music that needed computers, coding, yeah. Hardware, whatever.
Darwin: Sure. But what's interesting to me is that unlike a lot of people who come to embrace technology, you did not pursue it as a way to create pieces that, you know... I don't know how to say it better other than to say that you could hide it in your study and make music and then squirt it out on the internet and not have to interface with the rest of the world.
The community aspect of it appears when I look at your work. It has always been with bands, with other performers, with things like Sideband, with different groups that are formed to be performance-specific, or maybe working with an existing group. You seem to have put yourself or, or made a lot of your work as part of being either in a already existing community or to even develop a community.
Lainie: Yeah. I like people, I like these people, electronic people I've worked with, that so much of the joy of it for me. I mean, you probably reach a much wider audiences than I do, but you know, how many people are really going to hear my laptop ensemble piece. Like, I know some people and that's fantastic, but I'm in it for the people I'm making it for and with like - I don't have visions of all the tens of thousands of listeners of that, I know that's not really that realistic and not even really my desire at this point. I just love Seth and Jascha and the people I'm making music with are just delightful. I dunno. So it's the same way when I was a pianist; I had this idea that I'd be a solo pianist, but then looking back on it, the memories I have that are most joyful are when I did chamber music.
Like when I did a trio, I did a whatever and I just - that kind of the conversations about musical interactions. I love eye contact these days. Even when I'm writing for another group, I will often say things in a score, like "Be sure to make eye contact here." Or like "All of you breathe at this bar at this beat." - to get those kinds of interactions, performer interactions or some of the stuff I'm most excited about as a listener and not just a composer. So I guess a lot of my work has had that kind of people...
Darwin: Well, it's funny you say that because the piece that I saw you do at the library, one of the things that was really cool about watching you perform was the way that you and Jascha were looking at each other and like very much keying off cause the Gametrak is a thing that to a certain extent you look like you're doing, kinda like lame jumping jacks. But, it was really amazing to watch the interplay between the two of you while you were working the device. And then, as you know, as I've viewed other work and stuff, it does seem like that kind of interpersonal connection is a real hallmark of how you make your stuff breathe. It's really cool.
Lainie: Well first I the caveat for... I mean I married Jascha Narveson. And so when we play that piece, there's a real, there's an energy to that cause I do feel like there's being good friends with the performance and then there's being partners with them. And he wrote that piece -that's "In Line" that he wrote. And that's one of my favorite things in the world to perform, because it's such beautiful sounds, it's a beautiful piece of music, but also as a performer, he wrote it as kind of a game. So there's a constraints of the game and you have to do certain things to make the sounds happen. But it's a game that you have to win together. Like you have to, sort of, get to certain musical spots and moments together.
And a lot of that involves really fun interpersonal - really weird faces. Like, you're not going to say on stage, "Oh, you're almost there." But you can make us at a squidgy face and make eye contact. Like, "Oh no, don't wait here - almost there!" And making gorgeous music with a spouses, this is the best for me. But yeah, as you say, I think all of the pieces I'd made with other people, it's that that goal is a list, or as an audience member of seeing the connections between the players. I'm writing to facilitate that happening, the clearest and the most satisfyingly for the players. But I want to facilitate it for the audience so they can get that same like, "Oh my God." Even the solo pieces that I'm writing now - I'm doing a series of solo pieces called portrait pieces with friends who commissioned them.
I'll interview them and I'll get a ton of recording of them talking about themselves or they're playing or just talking. And a friend of mine I just wrote for - James Morgan - it was that our friendship is so based around Scrabble. I recorded us playing Scrabble and I used the sound recording of the Scrabble game as a backing track, but hearing the person's voice and watching the live guitarist or pianist or double bass; it's like react to their voice and play. It's almost like chamber music again, like it's almost like a double-self that you're hearing and the audience gets to watch that interaction. And I just think it makes people better. It makes me a better listener - that kind of communication being evident on stage.
Darwin: Well that's really interesting. Some of the nuggets you dropped here are really interesting to me. Especially this idea that you were in New York in the mid-2000's timeframe, and there was a lot of crazy stuff happening there. New Music was really getting its legs in a very particular way and getting attention instead of just being underground, or hidden away in loft somewhere or something. It was definitely coming above ground in some pretty particular ways. What influences from your peers - and sort of the gestalt of the place - how much of that was influential into a maturing you as a composer?
Lainie: Oh, incalculable. I mean, everything, every concert that I went to... I mean still every concert I go to, it's in the hopefully best possible way of filing it into like, "Well, how can I use this? How can I use it?" It's like, "What a cool idea. How do I put this? How do I get inside of this idea for my own stuff?" I mean, Bang On A Can loomed really large. I did that summer program, the Band On A Can summer program, I think the second year it opened. So that was 2003 I think? And that a bunch of people, I mean Bang On A Can is in New York, and a bunch of people who did their program moved. They were in New York and there was a magic where each of them was, I felt in a slightly different pocket of the New Music scene as you say, which exploded so large.
In those early 00's. So it was really fun hearing a lot of the kids out of Columbia, like all the Columbia composer concerts were really big and a lot of those concerts were music that didn't sound anything like I was writing, but I was really excited to talk to them about how they were thinking that I don't... I feel like that being exposed to stuff that I wasn't interested in writing but that affected my brain for how I wanted to write my own things.
Darwin: I think that's actually really powerful because I think a lot of times there's too much of a sense that we listen to something and that we would be directly influenced by it. And I think that maybe, especially in a situation like the early to mid 00's in New York, when there was so much stuff happening, you wouldn't have to be directly influenced by everything. What you could be is inspired to do things by watching other people who had become inspired doing things. And so having so much stuff happening around you is going to give you agency to do the thing that you want to do.
Lainie: Exactly, exactly. And just talking to different people, how their brains worked, making music. It wasn't even - I mean the sound that I was hearing, but it was even just, yeah, as you say, when I'm being inspired by the people who were inspired, just the people who are getting energy out of all different kinds of working methods and sounds and ensembles. I think that just really let me go... And to be honest, the community feeling at that time, I was pretty new to that. I was brand new to the scene when I came, but already it was, I dunno, I'm in a privileged spot because I like people. So a lot of people playing a lot of these concerts had some kind of vague, I'd somehow met them through the Yale funnel into New York.
So, that's a huge leg up and it might have been really different if I had gone to a far away school, but given that I did quickly feel like, "Oh, this is such a great world, this is such a great bunch of people." And that as you say, that gave me a ton of musical gold. Like, I could've been making music alone. These days, I am like, "Darn it, I need a solo practice." Like these songs came out of like, "Oh, not everything I do should be at the mercy of setting up schedules. Like I need something that I can be excited about to work on just for me." So now I am developing this. But even just the idea that, "Oh, I want my work to really be tied to other people in the community". I think through my undergrad, it's just watching and being inspired by those people, it made me feel that way.
Darwin: So one other thing I'm curious about that you said is - you mentioned that a lot of people that you know went to school at the time that you did are now becoming fairly well known, and becoming sort of popular within the world, and getting their work done. That time period, like 12 to 18 years, that seems to be a consistent development time for composers. What do you think it is about that length of time that is important to a composer to hit their stride? Or do you think it's more like it takes that amount of time for the public to find out about a person and accept them?
Lainie: I do. I do strongly suspect that the reason we hear about a lot of composers, something like a bit before 20 years after they're out of school... the resources and the connections and the establishment, the attention being pointed on them, press being pointed on them. Anything that takes a while in general, if you don't have really good PR resources or really strong connections coming into the scene, it can just take a long time to get people to care about your work, to look at your work in a serious way. That's, I guess, a related but separate question from composers hitting some kind of stride or having a more clarity in their voice. I did feel - well hopefully forever I'll just be getting happier and happier with the work that I make. I am happier with the work that I make now, but but I think I just keep checking, I sort joke with myself that every sort of five, seven years I have radical new goals and just the sort of surface level what I want to do, like for all of undergrad and a bit after it's like dots on lines, that kind of thing.
And then all of a sudden for awhile it was like, just very game-oriented speech-rhythmy, like, Meredith Monk-inspired... like that for awhile. And then I got really into technology and code pieces and whatever. I did that for a while and I'm just coming on that like, "Oh, I'm getting at the end of that period, I wonder what's coming next." So I don't know what's coming next. But I wonder if it's just trying on a bunch of hats, like if you've just, if you might be making brilliant music, but if you're 22 you've probably not had time to try on a lot of different music making personas, and maybe I'm making this up, but maybe something like 18-20 years out of school, you've had the opportunity and exposure to try on a bunch of different things so you can borrow from each pot what you want and then you can really start seeing unique combinations and people's practices because they've been exposed to so much and felt comfortable trying things.
Darwin: ...which hat seems to fit best them...
Lainie: Yeah, yeah. But I, but I'm figuring it out. I don't know. I will say I've been extraordinarily lucky and the collaborators that I've had and a lot of it I think is to do with the schools that I've been to and the resources they've had. But I'm still, I don't think I've especially figured it out in a final like, "Ah, Lainie's voices - there it is! And it's developed and..."...
I don't know. Every new piece, I'm kind of, I have my little toolbox, but I'm willing to dump all of it if there's some idea I get or some new inspiration that I have. Like when I, when I heard Tune-Yards by Merrill Garbus for the first time, I don't know how many years ago - maybe five? Hmm. More than six years ago now. It was a "This Changes Everything" moment.
I was like, "Oh, you're amazing. This is music!" Unlike what I have been concentrating on before, this is what I want to do. And that's largely responsible for a lot of the choices, like my voice and electronic stuff. Even if you can't hear it, like, that is my North Star is just listening to those Tune-Yards albums or... I'm trying to think of other moments like that or yeah, I don't know. When I got to Princeton and Plork was so amazing, like I'm willing to trash anything if I'm excited by a new thing. So even saying that I've hit a stride, I'd be nervous to say it because I, I don't know. I don't want to jinx it. Or I'm unwilling to tie my future self to anything that I'm doing right now. I dunno, who knows what I'll be wanting to do. And I'm lucky that I have a teaching gig and a salary and whatever, that I don't need to worry about feeding myself if all of a sudden I'm like, "Just kidding - I want to make like kinetic sculpture, sound art!"
Maybe that'll happen. I don't know.
Darwin: Right. Well, I'm, I am curious about the process you go through in terms of composition because you know, it's gotta be multilayered. Do you start with the people you want to work with? Do you start with an idea? Is it lnot something that's easily codified in that way? Because, again, in doing a little bit of digging on you, I mean, in some cases you say, [you] like speaking about and doing things that are related to your Jewish heritage. But then I'll see other stuff. It's like I was really inspired by this person I was working with. I needed to go down this route. Or there are other pieces that look like you'd always been curious about what it would sound like to get six kazoos [together].
Lainie: Yeah, yeah.
Darwin: The only way you're going to find it out is if you write a piece for it and make it happen, right? I'm curious about the process you go through to actually come up with the composition because it sounds like there's a whole lot of conceptual or a whole lot of thought that goes in it before you start scratching out dots on paper or dots on a computer screen.
Lainie: Oh my gosh. Almost all the work I do on a piece is before I actually sit down and make the piece. Like there's so much - I take a walk and stare into space and I wake up thinking about it and I'm like taking a shower, thinking like that. Just... this is so disgusting. But the analogy that I give students, because students talk to me all the time about "white page syndrome", like, I don't know what to do. I didn't know what to make. And I was like, "You know, you eat the world, like you eat the inspiration of the world around you and then it's like your digestive tract."" It's like this is so gross. I'm sorry to do this to your podcast, but I say it's like pooping, you know, before you poop.
So much processing has to go on with all the influences and all the ideas and all the everything. It just goes through your guts and it gets broken down and changed and you take what you need from this and what you do for that, whatever. And then in the end, like, ga-gank, it happens - really for me, this is my process. I just - like, you poop and there it is. So if you were living with me, you would see that like weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks. I'm thinking, thinking, thinking, and I'm talking... Most of my work at this point is commissioned by somebody, a particular person, ensemble, whatever. So I'm like, "Oh cool. I have to make a piece for JACK quartet." That's amazing. And then I just like, I stare at it, I'm like, "Oh, what am I interested in now?"
Is there something I can bring that... Or, "Oh, I heard that concert with that sound and I'm so into that sound. Is there a way I can bring that in?" And I'm just staring into space and thinking for so long and then I really need that. Like depending on the length or the depth, like several days of nothing else. Like I don't really, it's terrible - hygiene goes to the wind, I don't really eat, just like I... and it's usually laptop at this point. It's just me and a laptop and that is it. And that's my process and that is distinct. I remember so many teachers telling me about a good healthy process was like every day you carve out a few hours and that's how you make money. But I just that I've, the couple of times I've had the luxury of being able to have that schedule, it's been awesome, but just the way my life works, I don't - I guess I could do it, but I've never managed to get myself to do it with, as you say, all the other things that I do, having that like two to three hours a day process, I haven't trained myself to do it.
So I've trained myself for this other model of every new piece. It's like a puzzle of what do I want to do and how am I going to do it. And most of that is away from the actual putting notes on lines or putting code in a laptop or putting whatever effects in a DAW. Most of what I do, it's Reaper. Well, Reaper and Max are my two little buddies. Like Reaper and Max are, I'd say more than even score paper at this point, where I get my ideas. But before I even open the applications, open the environments, like I am just thinking. I'm not inspired by tools, you know what I mean? I'm inspired by, "Here's the thing that I want to do and then how do I wrangle the tools to make it work?", and that's kind of the process at this point. I just get an idea and then dig down into how I can make it happen.
Darwin: Oh, so you say that you don't get inspiration from tools, but I'm wondering, do you, do you ever take advantage of them to either stimulate development or, I don't know, get you out of ruts? Like do you deal with generative-type processes or do you do anything with like, there's a lot of different tools that you can make, things that you can make or you can find that are Max-driven, that are "Here's an outline and let's see what a system might be able to fill the outline." Do you do any of that kind of stuff? Are you, are you more specific in, like, [being] hand-driven on that?
Lainie: I mean, the fact that I'm like, "Ooh, let me think of a story where that happened to me..." and I can't think of one that's maybe in telling a tale, but I will say of course I have, I'm sure that has happened. There's nothing coming to mind. But you know, I've got a patch open and I drag something by accident. I'm like, "Oh, wait a minute. That's like, Oh wait, Oh, that's neat." Of course, I'm sure that has happened to me. I don't have like a purity of vision where any new ideas - no, absolutely. Or in Reaper, like, I get some new plugin for some reason, but then it has some other feature. I'm like, "Whoa, what I gotta use that for something!" - that absolutely happens. But I just, I'd say like most of the compositional work is not, I know people who their fluency in a DAW, in a coding environment, is such that they really just dance around in the environment and that makes beautiful work.
Whereas for me, it's really not that. It's also [that] my memory is terrible. So any fluency in any system. That's why I loved math. I always forgot everything and had to recreate it all. I don't remember. I have a horrible memory. So even just in code or whatever, I never, no matter how many hours I code something, if I'm away from the environment for, I don't know, three weeks, I will have to remember... I write myself little comments everywhere. Like, "Lainie, remember how you did this, it's this to this, to this..." So, I think maybe it's a fluency question that I don't have the fluency that would let me be inspired by tools that way. But also I think the way my brain works, I have such a... like this piece is about, and basically any piece you can point to that I've made, I can give you some kind of a little three bulletpoint list of here are the things, the pieces, and then I just figured out how to realize that somehow.
And sometimes it's really concrete like this. I literally have a piece for orchestra that is only pitches E then D - and that's it. And that's the whole idea of the piece. It's like how rich and fun and exciting can I make a an orchestra piece with two pitches, which piece will never get played again! Because, shockingly, no orchestra wants a piece that is very rhythmically complex with only pitches E and D - if anyone's listening and is pumped by that, give me a call! But I'm pretty much assuming that piece will never again see the light of day. But anyway, I get those kinds of ideas either concrete like that or yeah... Or just this piece that I'm working on now, for laptop ensemble, for Paul Mathison's laptop ensemble. It's really - I just had the idea, like I started thinking about the piece for Sideband for shortly after the 2016 election and there was just a lot of anxiety and trauma floating around all my friends and community.
And that was my idea for the piece was how do I ease that existential angst? Like how can this piece, in a direct way, somehow contribute to making people feel better? I thought of it as a sonic equivalent of like, can I just give everyone a blanket and a hot cup of something? Like what can make everyone feel better with their anxieties? So I don't know if my piece will actually do that, but that meant that all the decisions that I was making were inspired by that and not inspired by "Oh, I heard this new networking tool makes the latency that much quicker." Like,mthat's super useful to me. Actually as I say that there are new network tools that I'm saying that's amazing, but that doesn't inspire exactly.
Darwin: One question I have, because you've dropped some hints about it, but it sounds to me like some of your compositions, to actually get to the point where you're satisfied, can take an extraordinary long amount of time.
Lainie: That's an issue. I don't, if you look, I don't make a ton of music, like I make enough music to keep me happy, but it takes forever, and I'm really jealous of composers who are - I keep using the word fluency - who are just like, "Oh, I have an idea, blah, blah, blah, boom. Here's my piece." And I've just never - God, that's never happened to me.
Darwin: The things that draw the process out for you, is it one of like doing something and then refining it and refining it, or is it doing something and convincing yourself that it's good enough to call done, or is it that when then when you start doing something, it generally inspires you to do the next thing and you end up like throwing away the first seven versions because you got inspired to do the next thing? There's a lot of ways that that that process can get extended. I'm wondering what it is that you find for yourself?
Lainie: That's a good question. I mean actually I think in my analogy, I think the digestion stage is a thing that just takes the time before I'm actually concretely making any elements. But when I'm just in my head going like, "Oh wait, how, what's the idea?" I'm really comfortable basing this whole piece on. Even if it's a two minute piece. Like just what's the idea? What's the driving conceit of the whole piece that takes me for - I mean, I guess once or twice I can think of times where just I got an idea quickly and I did it and today it's done. But almost always it takes forever for me to feel comfortable. Like, "Oh this is an idea that will be interesting." Because I don't generally switch course, switch directions. Once I have an idea for a piece and I sit down and I really started doing nuts and bolts, I'll definitely revise like, "Oh that should be a G and not a G sharp" or like "that should be a...". Like the conceit of the piece really stays.
Once I start working on it, it's fine. I have to be really committed to it. It's funny when you say it's conceptual music that I have a whole host of associations with that that I don't think people would hear in my stuff. But I guess it is conceptual in that every decision I make is driven by some initial concept. So yeah, even if I change things later on, it's still in service of that initial concept. So actually what my favorite, I think my favorite lighthearted bit of composing is after I've gotten some kind of, I call it left to right, just sort of a time interval based draft done. Then I get to go like, bop-de-bop, "I'm going to switch to this thing", and like, "Oh, change this thing." That's very lighthearted and quick for me. But I guess it's that, I don't know, pre-composiing, I don't know what you want to call it. It's the digestion part that just takes me forever. I got a piece due, you know, in like three weeks and I'm still digesting and I'm like, "Ah, better digest faster!" So, yeah, I don't know how to speed it up. Maybe in 10 years I'll know how to speed it up, but not yet.
Darwin: Well, Lainie, unfortunately our time is just about up. But before I let you go, could you tell us a little bit about what you have coming up around the corner, either composition work that's about to be played or maybe performances that you, yourself were going to do? So people who might be available would get a chance to see you work.
Lainie: Well, I've got, a bunch of performances of White Fire, my solo voice and electronics set, coming up. The first one is at the Splice Festival in Oxford, Ohio. So if you're around Oxford, Ohio, come drop on by. I think that's the end of February and it'll be on my website very soon. And then end end of February, I'll be in Oklahoma city doing Wild Fire. I'm at University of Oklahoma. And I'm giving a talk there about how, my Judaism - we didn't talk about it, but it's true: my Jewish identity filters in in various ways to all of the work I do. So I'm going to be talking with the Women's Studies and Judaic Studies program there about how that works. And then I have these laptop ensembles at Stonybrook and Wesleyan and who are doing this peace of mine called Overshare.
It uses real time vocoding of live-generated signal and lots of sort of onstage therapy of the airing of anxieties. It's a really intense piece! I'm asking the members of the ensemble to say out loud just single sentences of their own anxieties and concerns and then just also collect the anxieties and concerns of people in the audience. And then that text will be vocoded on top of a signal of them recording their voices singing a drone on stage. So it's all acoustic. It's really informed by the vocoder music that I've loved for a long time. So that's happening. I think it's happening. Oh God, I'm sorry. I'm horrible with dates. I think the Wesleyan one is end of February and the Stonybrook one is middle of April. I think that's true. But my website - when I update it this weekend - it'll all be up on my website and and yeah, people can, people can check it out.
Darwin: Okay. Yeah. And that'll be lainiefefferman.com, correct? All right, great. Well I will have links in the show notes for people who want to check it out. Lainie, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to have this chat. It was really great. I will be thinking about my digestive system! It was really interesting to think about that because a lot of times I tend to find myself certainly thinking in improvisational terms, and flipping that script and saying, "No, work, spend the time digesting and coming up with the conceit that's going to be fulfilling enough to really drive you through the whole process." That's really inspiring to me and I appreciate you sharing.
Lainie: Oh, well thanks. Thanks for talking to me.
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