Darwin: All right. Today, I have the great opportunity to talk to somebody, I've actually been trying to chase her down for a little while, but we were finally able to get some open time. Her name's Elainie Lillios. She has got a lot of titles. First of all, she's a composer of quite note. In fact, several of the people I've interviewed, people like Steven Rupenthal, Jane Rigler, other people have talked about working on her compositions, playing her compositions. So an active composer/performer.
She's also the Professor of Creative Arts Excellence at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and is the Director of Composition Activities for SPLICE Institute. So, now you can see why it's been difficult getting her to have a seat, but after all that, I am very excited to have this chat with Elainie. Hey, how's it going?
Elainie: Hello. Thank you so much for inviting me and for your tenacity in trying to get us together.
Darwin: Well, I suspect it's going to be worth it. Let's kick this off by talking a little bit about all of these things you do. First of all, your work as both a professor at Bowling Green as well as working with SPLICE Institute, what do those represent as well as what your compositional and performance activities have been like lately?
Elainie: Thank you for asking. I think as a composer, we maybe should think that composing is the most important thing that we do. But for me, I think inspiring other people to be creative and specifically to be creative in using technology is to me the most important thing that I do. So, I have through my job at Bowling Green State University, and also through the SPLICE Institute especially, have the opportunity to hopefully inspire young generations of composers and performers to explore technology, and to be creative in ways maybe that they didn't think they could be - or didn't realize they could be - to open doors for them to just think about sound and think about all the sounds that surround us and how they can listen to those in a more intentful way and explore them either as composers, as performers.
I have a former student who is an entrepreneur who goes out and records environmental soundscapes. So, in all of these different ways, to be creative and to listen to the many sounds that surround us in this world, or that could be created using synthesis, of course.
Darwin: Right. Now, it's interesting because, oftentimes, we think of composers as having one track through the world and people who are trying to inspire through teaching, education, whatever, as another track. But you seem to have really connected them both into a really nice career for yourself. How is that possible? How do you have the time to be a composer when you have a really robust educational/academic life, especially when you're involved with SPLICE Institute? How do you maintain an opportunity to still do composition and work with performaners and that kind of stuff?
Elainie: Well, it's challenging. I started laughing when you started asking that question, I knew where you were going and I was going to say, "Well, I don't do it very well." And I think one of the things we all struggle with in our lives is this idea of balance, right? Trying to you can read all kinds of articles about this work/life balance, right? Well, guess what? Work is work, life is life, and they both are the same with each other. When you're a creative person, your creative activities are your work and your creative activities are also your life.
So, what does that mean? How do you make that all fit? Well, it's a struggle and I don't think that my situation is much different than anyone else. We do the best we can to try to find time or make time. I do a lot of my composing during winter breaks, during summer breaks. I also try to remain compositionally active during the academic year. I have a day or so a week that I have set aside for composing and I think one of the nice things about being involved in the academy is that there's sort of a give and take. There's a symbiotic relationship, I think, that develops between a professor and their student.
Perhaps not everybody has that. But with many of my students over the years, I do my best to inspire them, and they in turn inspire me. They give me ideas and they challenge me in different ways to think about the creative process differently than I have. And so, I think it's thanks to many of my students, former and present, that I can claim that a number of my pieces are experiments, that they're different ways of thinking about music than ways that I may have done otherwise if it weren't for the influence of my students.
Darwin: That makes a lot of sense. Now, I would say one of the things I think of when I think about you and your work, is that you actually do a lot of collaborative work. I mean, here you talk about collaborations with students, but also working with a lot of collaboration with performance people. That had to see a significant shift with the magic of COVID, right?
Elainie: Yes. I have been very fortunate to collaborate with a number of really great performers, and maybe we'll talk about that before it's all said and done. Things did change during COVID. It was funny that I was by myself during the shutdown, which meant I somehow had more time to compose, but like many people, not a whole lot of inspiration to do so. And then when things started to open up, all of a sudden, all the deadlines that had been postponed started piling up again. But one of the great things that happened to me during COVID, during the pandemic, was that I was approached by Scott Deal who was one of my long-term collaborators, percussionist, music technologist, Scott Deal who teaches at IUPUI in Indianapolis. And he said to me, he said, "Hey, Elainie, let's start an improv, let's start a telematic improv group."
I said, "Yeah, Scott, that sounds great." He said, "And let's do it with Chris Biggs." Well, Chris Biggs is the big head of SPLICE and he teaches at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. So, the three of us got together and of course, Scott and Chris had been doing a lot of improvising on their own, Scott with other telematic groups and Chris also with some distance type types of things and in-person things. And I felt a little intimidated getting together with them. Of course, composing is its own creative activity, and I do a lot of improvising as part of that creative process, but not improvising necessarily with other people. But we started getting together every week and improvising together, Scott playing on various percussion instruments. Chris and I processing Scott in real time, we're using SonoBus and I'm using Max and Chris is using Ableton Live - and it was really a blast.
And we started doing projects together. And now Chris and I are also both performing and Scott performing and we're all processing each other. And it has been a really nice way to remain creative during the pandemic to experiment with something that I didn't have time to do before the pandemic, like how can you add one more thing, right?
Darwin: Yeah, right. Exactly.
Elainie: To experiment with and I have found that it's just another way of exploring creativity and what that means. And then you think, "Well, how is that going to influence your composing?" And I don't really know yet. I haven't been doing it long enough, but so...
Darwin: That was the first time that you had done a telematic kind of performance thing?
Elainie: Yes. It's the first time I had done telematics. I had done some live improvising with people in a couple of other instances over the years, but not anything really serious. So, this was the first time I had done any distance telematic-type stuff.
Darwin: Is this something you think you'll do more of?
Elainie: Well, we still are meeting every week.
Darwin: Well, that sounds amazing.
Elainie: And we've a couple of projects that are out there and we're working on another one now, and we're starting to talk about doing some of these things live. And that's where I have to start thinking to myself, "Okay, Elainie. Time to put on your big girl panties. You are going to have to stand up in front of real people now. It's not just going to be with your buddies online and then you are going to make a video of it." And so, I got to kind to work on that. I have to admit that I started out life as a performer and I found performance very stressful, and I stopped doing it and went into composing thinking, "Oh good. I can just sit in the back." Well, we know that's not true. You're a composer and well, sooner or later, you got to...
Darwin: To haul your butt on stage. Right, exactly.
Elainie: Yeah. So, I guess maybe that's one of my New Years' resolutions is to haul my butt on stage, as you just said. And so, I guess maybe your listeners can hold me to that. Maybe the podcast listener is going to say, "We're waiting for you. Where are you?"
Darwin: They'll corner you at the next conference, right?
Elainie: It's going to be like December 28th, 2022 and they're going to be emailing me saying, "Lillios, that was your New Years' resolution. You've got three days, get it together."
Darwin: So boy, there's a bunch of stuff I want to talk about. Before we get into it though, one of the things that I like that really is a part of this podcast is talking to people about the their background and how they got to be the artists that they are. And I'm curious, you are a self-avowed Max user, but a composer. Your educational background is significant. You studied under someone who I really enjoyed working with and working around, Larry Austin. I'm curious how you grew up and became who you are. So, tell me a story.
Elainie: Sure. Well, I can tell you that in a certain way, I don't really know how I ended up here, but in another way when I look back on things, it all makes sense that I just happened to maybe be in the right places at the right time. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs. I'm actually from the Chicago area and my dad had come over on the boat from Greece when he was 21, he's an immigrant. And my mother was born in Chicago. And I grew up in a very sort of middle class family. My dad was a carpenter. He had never finished high school. My mother had not gone to college. So, I don't come from an academic family. I come from a very kind of, almost lower middle class, middle class family. But I had a couple of very interesting things happen to me when I was a kid.
One thing that happened to me when I was a kid is that for some birthday, I don't even remember when, somebody gave me a little transistor radio. And I know this to be true of, oh... Well, Pauline talks about how she received a recorder for her birthday, Pauline Oliveros. I received a transistor radio when I was a kid and I used to ride up and down the driveway on my bicycle listening to this transistor radio and I found myself always kind of twisting the dial, right? Listening to the songs that were on the radio. Of course, it was AM at that time, but then also listening to all that super cool static and how the voices could get garbled when you started untuning them from their, when you would detune them from their station and you'd have all that "Eeh-woo-errk", and the "Crrr-crrr-crrr" static stuff and I just found that super cool.
And so, I would just play around with that and I don't know why I did that and it was just interesting to me. And then a couple of years later, the girl down the street from us who was a very good friend of mine, Gina Pepitone, she was taking organ lessons. And I went down and Gina was playing the organ one day and I was there and she was playing the organ and I thought, "This is amazing." And so, I went home and I said to my mom and dad, I said, "I want to play organ like Gina." And so, my parents, God bless them - my mother wasn't working, and my dad wasn't making a lot of money, I don't know how they afforded it, but they bought an organ and they started giving me organ lessons.
And I was very fortunate to study with a woman, Adele Scott Sullivan, who had gotten her doctorate from the University of Illinois. And I started playing all kinds of organ repertoire with Bach and Couperin and Buxtehude and some more contemporary things and then one day I went to my organ lesson and my teacher said, "Well, Elainie, today..." I think maybe I was 11. She said, "Today we're going to learn how to compose." I was 11, I didn't really know what that meant I was like, "Oh, okay. Sure." And I started composing organ music. And from there things just kind of snowballed because I think being an organist that of course led me to wanting a synthesizer and then getting a synthesizer led me to somehow discovering the Oberlin Conservatory Summer Camp used to be called MIDI-something. I can't even remember the name of it now, but in 1986, I went over to the Oberlin Conservatory MIDI Camp and started playing with modular analog synthesizers.
And then I went to college and I just said, "This stuff is awesome. I just want to do this." And I was still writing instrumental music, but that was the beginning of my foray into electroacoustic music and I think it's because of the organ.
Darwin: That's really amazing. Now, going to school and getting a basic education is great, but there's at least in the timeframe when you were going, especially if you were going on the composition track, music education was a very, very highly structured thing. And so, walking in and saying, "Well, I like turning the knobs on a modular synth...", it wasn't really an environment that was conducive to saying, "Okay, let's make your own degree or whatever, right?" It was you would've had to still follow the very traditional track of composition, counterpoint and all these things, right?
Elainie: Yes, I did. But I was also, again, very fortunate to somehow end up at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, which at that time was populated by a number of composers on faculty there who had been at the University of Illinois in the '60s with Herbert Brun, with Salvatore Martirano, one of the composers had played in the Harry Partch Ensemble. And so, my composition teachers had come from this super-experimental environment at the University of Illinois. Then in the 1980s when I was at Northern Illinois University, was still kind of on the tail end of that sort of highly experimental mindset. And I was lucky to start my electronic music studies with a guy named Joe Pinzarrone who had later left there and went out to California to do some things. But they were all about this idea of experimentation.
And so, even though I was in an environment where I did take all of my music theory and oral skills and music history, counterpoint, acoustic composition lessons, et cetera - there was also this really experimental vibe that permeated NIU at that time. And I think that I really benefited from that, that it made me realize that, yes, I could put notes on the page, but that there were other ways to be creatively expressive and it was of course, either through things like graphic notation, if you wanted to still write for acoustic instruments, but then also through the electronic medium. And I started with analog tape and then went to analog synthesizers and then into computer programming, Forth, JForth on the PDP-11. So, it was old school there at the time, which I'm really thankful for. It was awesome.
Darwin: Well, also, if you were working with Forth, all of a sudden then something like Max just seems like a very lightyears more efficient to be able to do something, right?
Elainie: Oh, absolutely yes. Once I started learning Max, I abandoned programming and there were some people who said, "How could you not program your own stuff?" And I just said I got to a point in my career where I realized I could not do it all. I'm not talented enough to be a programmer and be a composer. And I had to choose one and when I was taking C programming classes and we started talking about dynamic memory allocation and pointers to pointers, my literal brain kind of exploded.
And if I didn't know, like if I couldn't identify where that thing was in memory, now I think I could do better at it because I've learned to abstract things a little better. But at that time I was like, "What do you mean I don't know where it is in memory? What do you mean I just have to know it's there? I want to know it's there and I want to know where it's at. And what do you mean? I've got to point to this thing that's pointed to some other thing. And I just when we got to that in C programming, I just said, "You know what, I don't think I'm cut out for this."
Darwin: Yeah, that's interesting. But that's kind of a common breaking point for people though too. So, that's interesting.
Elainie: I just had brain explosion. And then on top of that, I always was overly complexifying all of my programs. So, you'd get an assignment and it would say, there'd be assignment to program this thing, program this algorithm, whatever it was. And so, I'd start programming it and then I'd start thinking, yeah but. Then there's where you start going wrong, right? As a programmer, you start to use the word, "but".
Elainie: And then the two words, also like two words of death that you put after that are "what" and "if". "But what if the user wants to do this..." or "What if the user wants to do that?" And so, I started taking these very simple assignments and turning them into these humongous acts.
Darwin: Option overload, yeah.
Elainie: Yeah. And always talking about, well, this edge case or this edge case and I just, I had to stop. And now I am happy to say that I try to reign that in with my Max programming. I try to keep things modular which is how I teach my students. We're going to build one module and this module is going to do this algorithm, this function, and then we're going to build another module. And I think it's compartmentalizing in that way. It makes programming a little bit easier to manage.
Darwin: So, you came to this fork in the road where you decided that you were going to be a composer. But anyone can say they're a composer, but at some point you have to A) compose and B) have someone willing to perform your compositions.
Darwin: What were the breaks for you? What cracked it open for you? What were the opportunities that came that made it happen?
Elainie: Well, I think the first thing was just being at Northern Illinois University and having that super experimental environment where anything goes, and we used to do these happenings where we'd set up these crazy humongous tape loops in one room and record people in another room on the tape loops. And there were all these crazy open house things and crazy concerts that we did and that I think it helped me to open my mind to the possibility that music doesn't necessarily have to be just executed or articulated in one way, that there are many different ways that we can be creative and many different ways that we can articulate our ideas. That was one, I think very fortunate break for me. Another is that after I was done at Northern Illinois University, as you mentioned, I went to the University of North Texas where I studied with Larry Austin.
And of course, North Texas has a big experimental music history with Merrill Ellis and Larry of course also with his involvement with Source Magazine and the music of the Avant Garde. And so, that experimentation continued to be encouraged. And I was doing a lot of electroacoustic music there. Of course there, they called it computer music. I started with working with NeXT machines there. Then my next great break was that I managed somehow to wheedle my way into the good favor of Jonty Harrison who was at the University of Birmingham in the UK, and managed to go to Birmingham to study with Jonty for a year and that really changed the way that I thought about music.
In my training and working with Larry, my studies were very dictated, which isn't a bad thing. You come your lesson and Larry always wanted to know what the title of the piece was, how long it was going to be, what the form of it was going to be. So, he was a very sort of predetermined kind of composer that you determine a number of these elements ahead of time and then you execute the task, whatever that task is, whatever you're writing for, whether it's a solo flute piece or an orchestra piece or fixed media piece or whatever. But then when I went to the University of Birmingham, Jonty turned all that on its head. And here I am, this American kid going over to the UK and I want to make a good first impression with Jonty Harrison. I've got my first lesson with the great Jonty Harrison.
So, I sat down and I got my composition notebook out because that's what Larry was all about, the composition notebook. You got to write it all down, journal, which is also great. I wrote it all down. This is the name of the piece, this is how long the piece is, this is all the sounds that are going to be in this piece. So, I meet with Jonty and I'm so proud of myself. I'm like, I'm ready for this. And he says, "So, Elainie, what are you going to do?" And... "Yes, I got it." And I read all these things right off and he looks at me and he smiles and gives me this bemused look. And he says, "Well, how do you know that?" And I started spluttering, AAARGH!, breakdown, lesson number one, crisis.
And so, over a period of a year that I studied with Jonty, he taught me a different way of thinking about composition in that if you are composing from the standpoint of the sounds themselves, that it's the sounds that dictate what's going to happen in the piece, how long the piece is going to be, what the eventual title is going to be. And that until you create those sounds and manipulate those sounds or process them in various ways, build a relationship with your material that you can't... I mean, you can, right? You can predetermine all those things, but really that if you allow the sounds to do what they're going to do to be themselves, as it were, that you can make some really great discoveries that you might not otherwise. Because you're trying to get that square peg in that round hole, right?
Elainie: And so, my composing changed quite a bit working with Jonty, and I shifted it over to a more materials-based way of working with music. And now I have this hybrid method, a little bit influenced by the pre-compositional thing and a lot influenced by the materials-based idea.
Darwin: That's really interesting, but that also really helps make sense out of as I listen to the breath of your music, I mean, so many of the pieces are very different, but it is one of those things where your voice comes through, even when other people are performing your compositions. And it makes sense that by starting with that material thing, that would be sort of the foundational voice that's attached to everything else that's done.
Elainie: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And that's where that collaboration with performers comes in. So, when you are composing fixed media music, your materials are the sounds that you recorded or the sounds that you are synthesizing. And so, you have those, you've created them, but when you are working with a performer, they are eventually going to be the person that's creating the sound. And so, when I started working with Scott Deal for instance, Scott has all of his percussion stuff set up in his basement and he said, "Elainie, why don't you come on out to Indianapolis and let's just spend a couple of days playing around with all my stuff." Again, materials based composition. But now instead of me standing in a studio with my pots and pans or whatever it is that I'm recording, now I have another creative individual, a virtuosic performer, who is saying, "Hey, I got this instrument and I've got all these mallets." And so, now that experimentation, that creative experimentation is shared.
Darwin: Right. Yeah. It can be sort of a creative loopback. That's really interesting. What was the first major performance of your work from your perspective? When did that happen?
Elainie: I think the first major performance of one of my pieces was a piece that I had composed at North Texas, a little five and a half minute fixed media piece called CELLAR that got accepted to SEAMUS 1996, which was in Birmingham, Alabama. And that was the second time that I had met Jonty Harrison and when I was able to talk him into letting me study with him was at that SEAMUS Conference. So, I think that was my first big break as it were into the community of electroacoustic practitioners. I had gone to International Computer Music Conference in 1995 in Banff, but I only went as an observer, I didn't have a piece performed. So, SEAMUS in 1996 was my "break in" to the community. And from there, then I had gone to England and I composed a lot of fixed media music and had a number of performances there.
And then in Germany, and I started having, because of the pieces I was making there, I started building a little bit of a career over there. And when I came back, then I started having more performances and I would say maybe the first piece that US audiences probably remember of mine as a piece called Arturo, which is based on some interviews I did with a tarot card reader who I met in Denton, Texas. It's a little sort of radiophonic work about him and that had a lot of performances early on. And so, later what happened was I was composing all these fixed media pieces and performers were hearing them at conferences, at SEAMUS, at Electronic Music Midwest, here and there. And then performers started asking me to write for them and that's when I kind of returned to writing for instruments but this time with electronics.
Darwin: Yeah, it's really interesting. Now, I am really amazed when - and people who are listening who maybe haven't heard a lot of Elainie's work can go, I think some of the great things to do is to go on YouTube and find performers that are performing your work.
Darwin: One of the things that really is mind boggling, though, is [that] there are performers performing your work very much doing the thing that they do, but also with a laptop that has a lot of material from you. So, are you making Max patches that you send, how do you actually accomplish these kinds of things? Because I saw Jane Rigler do a piece of yours and you weren't there, but the noise makers were, and I'm curious, how do you set up a performer to actually do your work? Do you provide them notation? Do you provide them a program? Do you provide them a bunch of samples or do you give them instructions on collecting stuff? How does that work?
Elainie: Thank you for asking. So, I have to say that I'm probably a little bit traditional and boring in the way that this works. So, when I compose for instrumentalists with electronics, depending on the collaborator, I always try to do what the collaborator wants. So, if the collaborator wants live electronics, I use Max. If the collaborator wants fixed media, I make a fixed media track and then have it trigger using Max, right? So, Max is somehow involved, I think, in everything, right? So first I try to find out what do you want? Do you want something that's going to process your instrument in real time or do you want something that is just a fixed media thing that you can just play along with, right? And so, once we determine that, then I compose the piece thinking really about the performer.
I always want the performer to be at the front and center of what's going on. And what live electronics allows me to do is just create this... A lot of people talk about this, so there's nothing new in this, this idea of a meta-instrument to make that instrument seem larger than it is. So, the long and short of it is that I write the piece, I create a score, and then I create a Max patch and I have a signal processing toolbox that I have built in Max that has all the typical things that you might expect, feedback delays, exponential delays, chorus, panners, reverb, tremolos, granulators, that kind of thing. And I have it all built in a toolbox set up like a mixer with aux sends, basically, where you can have a process come in and then send any effect to any other effect.
Darwin: Got it. Like the big Matrix mixing system, yeah.
Elainie: Yes, exactly. Now I'm using mc.matrix which is really great. I discovered the MC family of objects. Yeah. And so, I create a Max patch and one of my goals is to create something that is, I'm knocking on wood here while I'm talking to you, that is reliable, that is easy to use, that is going to work, that a performer can use. I have these USB foot pedals that I buy from Delcom that with a USB foot pedal, a performer can control the patch themselves. So, I program just these scene basically, and each scene is a different set of effects and Max. And so, that means I don't have to be there.
Darwin: Yeah. That was one of the big questions I have because so many of your works are multi-sectional and that can be really difficult if-
Elainie: It's a character flaw.
Darwin: Well, or what I would say is it is definitely a differentiator because it's hard to do electronic pieces that are multi-segmented unless you do purely fixed media. Anything that's performative, anything that does live electronics, it's hard to take that and pass that along to somebody because so often the setup from one section to the next can be so difficult that if you're not there juggling the chainsaws, it's not going to be able to happen properly, right?
Darwin: So you literally set it up so that foot pedals can walk you through the performance?
Elainie: Yes. I mean, in some instances depending on the piece, I use some pitch tracking. There are a couple of pieces of mind that use some amplitude tracking, but by and large, the electronics for the pieces are basically, they're scenes that I set up in Max and the performer is simply stepping through the scenes. And I try to create - there are some randomness that comes in with some of the effects and to try to make it a little bit it more dynamic, I think that's something that I'm always trying to do.
Darwin: But there's a balance there too, because having dynamics is important, but having it goof-proof is also going to be a little bit important in this case as well, right?
Elainie: I'll tell you, it really is. And I test my patches pretty extensively, but every now and again, somebody will reach out to me and say I have a piece from, I think, 2007 that people are still playing and just a couple of months ago, I had someone contact me and say, "I couldn't get your patch working." And I'm thinking this piece has had a 100 performances. Why is the patch and it's the same patch, why is it not working? I don't know. And maybe I suspect it's something that has to do with that person's computer, right? Something having to do with their system. But just a couple of months ago, I had a piece canceled because the performer couldn't get the patch running and it's somebody who has played the piece many, many times. Maybe this particular person has played the piece maybe eight or 10 times already. So, it's not like "I just got it. It's not working." It's I've been playing it all this time and now all of a sudden it doesn't work.
I'm thinking "What the heck?" But yeah, that troubleshooting part to me is very important because I want performers to feel, I want them to feel like they can play my piece and that they can be creative and virtuosic and feel confident that when they push that pedal, that next thing is going to happen, that it's going to work and that it's going to work every time.
Darwin: Yeah, so critical. Let's talk about the process from inception to completion. Now, I am going to point my podcast listeners to another piece on YouTube. You actually did a lecture at Georgia Southern, which was kind of fabulous. And part of what you talked about there, was all of the things that are considerations in the creation of a piece. So, it was like a variety of things like I actually drew a picture of it so sound versus silence, frequency, timbre, density, perform ability, stuff like that, right?
And I thought that that was really great because it gave an insight into how you think of bringing a piece together. But once you have a concept, or maybe even before you have a concept, what is the process you go through from - maybe the impetus is like, I got to do something for somebody. Somebody says I have to do something.
Elainie: Yeah. Somebody says I have to do something.
Darwin: Yeah. Maybe that's the generator. How do you get from there to being like, "Okay, it's done, shipped out the door?"
Elainie: Yeah. Well, that's kind of funny. My husband calls me a deadline composer. So, the first thing I do is procrastinate for a really long time and then I panic. Now actually, you know what, I actually start out from the beginning and I start out with ideas and then I procrastinate and then I panic. Well, the first thing I like to do whenever a performer or commissioner asks me to write a piece, I want to find out what they want. I like to try to include my performer or my commissioner in the process so that somehow they feel invested in the product. So, a performer comes to me and says, "Hey, Elainie." Like Scott Deal, "Hey, Elainie. It's time for us to do another project." "Okay, Scott. What do you want?" "Oh, let's do a vibraphone piece this time." "Sounds great." Then we talk about maybe ideas for the piece or inspiration for the piece.
We experiment with implements, with instruments or whatever and then I go off and I start writing and I just start composing the material. Then after a while I send the material to the performer and I say, "Hey, record this for me." And I already know my signal processing toolbox. So, I already have an idea of what it can do. It's like all those little guitar pedals, it's like a guitar pedal board, right?
Elainie: So, I kind of have an idea of what that toolbox can do so I can get an idea in my mind of the electronics, but the performer sends me recordings. I push them through my toolbox to create the effects and then I program them into the final patch. I create the score. Again, I talk to the performer. I say, "Well, how do you want the score to look? Do you want it metered? Do you want graphic notation? Do you want time lapse notation, what? And then I try to do, make it, create it in a way that seems to fit them, that fits their personality, what they want to see on the page.
Darwin: So, this is super interesting to me, but you black-boxed something there really big time, which is you talked about... So, I imagine in my head, I was like you collect sounds, you do some process planning, you do scoring. But you talked about a thing that you said, "I composed the piece." And I don't know what you mean, because frankly, a lot of people who compose for instruments do it by scoring the piece on a chunk paper, get all their counterpoint correct. Get all their lanes working properly, all this stuff, right? Your work isn't going to be conducive to that.
Elainie: Well, sometimes it is.
Elainie: Sometimes I do.
Elainie: Well, every piece is a little bit different.
Darwin: What is that process? When you say, I compose the piece, what does that effort look like? When you have, you're on winter break, it's January 7th, somebody's expecting something on your inbox.
Darwin: What are you doing?
Elainie: I'm in pain. I'm cursing my life and my husband is hiding somewhere because he knows. Every piece is a little bit different. So, sometimes it is about taking out a piece of paper and doing abstract drawing. Sometimes it's about getting out my keyboard and playing chords. Sometimes it's about opening up Logic Pro and improvising into Logic Pro and then cutting and pasting things. Sometimes it's using some Max tools that just generate random things and then seeing what I get. So, there's no single method.
Darwin: Okay. That's interesting because a lot it's times, people like the way you talk about working with Max where you have a toolbox, a lot of times people, when they compose, they have some mental toolbox and it sounds to me like instead you just open yourself up to where the universe is going to take you.
Elainie: Yeah. I got the mental chaos.
Darwin: Okay. Interesting.
Elainie: Yeah. I never know. I mean, I just think about it and... I'm working on a flute piece right now that I just recently started and I always start out by going and listening to literature and looking at scores. So, I've been spending a lot of time listening to solo flute rep and looking at scores to see how other composers visualize their ideas and listening to the sounds.
Darwin: Oh, that's really interesting.
Elainie: And then sometimes I use poetry to inspire my work, sometimes art, sometimes an idea. It just, I don't know. There's no single way about it, I'm afraid.
Darwin: Yeah. Well, that's interesting. I guess what that's going to do is prevent anyone from coming up with an Elainie-in-a-Box system. No such thing.
Elainie: Yeah. Well, they could and they probably come quite close. I teach all of my students my tricks. So, I always hope that my great goal is that my students are more successful than I am and I think in many instances that has been true. I have many former students who I'm very proud of their many accomplishments and their composition and their creativity. So, the Elainie-in-a-Box is maybe the distillation of what people take away from either learning or it's what we learn from each other.
Elainie: It's that inspiration that we take - all the creative community from each other.
Darwin: So, unfortunately I've already blown through all of our time. I can't believe it.
Elainie: Oh, no.
Darwin: This is a great conversation. But before we go, I want to just dip a toe into one thing, which is: I think of your music... So, I go to SEAMUS conferences particularly is where I hear you work performed a lot. And I always think of it as being dynamic, really engaging, but also improvisational with the performer. Even when you have fixed media, there's a certain amount of freedom that comes that the performer brings to the process. But the flip side of it is you're a musician and there's this sense that musicians and composers don't really exist unless they have recorded material and a recording is in essence, a freezing of that material into a very concrete form.
Darwin: And I'm wondering how satisfied you've been with the recordings of your work and to what extent recordings feel limiting and in other cases, maybe they're freeing because it allows your work to be shared in a way that's useful for people. How do you feel about the recording process? Because I tend to think of that as being very different from how I've always experienced your work.
Elainie: Thank you for asking. And I'll try to keep my answer short because I know we're running out of time.
Darwin: Don't worry about that part of it.
Elainie: The recording process to me, I think it's important to maybe share my work with the community at large for whoever is interested in it. And so, doing recordings, of course, audio recordings, and now video recordings - people are moving more toward video recordings - is something that I find both gratifying and extremely arduous. I hate it but it's a necessity. I'm very fortunate here at Bowling Green State University. We have a fantastic guy, Mike Laurello, who is the head of our recording services area. And he makes the recording process so easy and so fun and it sounds great and we get together and we master the stuff and he's really wonderful to work with. But you're right, it does fix the piece in time. And one of the interesting things about that and also people who do live streams, like who record their live performances of my piece...
So, one example is I have an alto flute and live electronics piece called Among Fireflies. Someone could go onto YouTube and find probably more than 4, 5, 6 different performers playing that piece and each performer brings a tiny, different idea to it. So, there's one performer who plays my piece and it's super aggressive. It's "crackle-crack-crackle", right? And then there's another performer who makes it sound like the most beautiful, gentle kind of thing and everything in between, right? I think that this is the beauty of performance is that the performer can bring their own interpretation, their own creativity, their own virtuosity into the interpretation of the music. And so, is every recording of my music online, the one that I would say this is the definitive version?
No, not necessarily, but I think it's an interesting - it's just an interesting study to me in how people interpret music. I mean, I love all of them. I think every single performance, every performer who brings their time and energy to performing my music or to recording my music, they're giving their time and their talents and they bring something to the table and I love that. And then I have something that I can point people to. The hard thing though, is that when I have [people], especially students, who want to play my music and they say, "I watched this video on YouTube," right?
Darwin: To show me how to do it.
Elainie: Right. And then I have to say, "Okay. It's okay that you watch the video, but don't think that you need to imitate this video, right? You should bring your own creative ideas and your own virtuosity to the piece, especially if the piece involves some improvisational elements, right?"
Elainie: If it's fixed on the page and it's metered, of course you can pick your own mallets or you can pick your own, you can kind of flex the music a bit, but when there's a little bit of improv involved as there is with some of my pieces, not all, bring your own ideas to the table.
Darwin: Right. Yeah, but even in pieces of yours where improv isn't necessarily a part of the composition, there's - as with any written piece of music - there's also just interpretation really has a huge influence on what the end result is. And I appreciate your answer on this because I suspected that there had to be a certain amount to which these were recordings and especially these videos end up being a little bit fraught for you.
Elainie: I like them and I'm thankful for them. I never really thought about it. So, thank you for giving me the opportunity to reflect on that. Of course, with my fixed media music, which people can find on electrocd.com, I have to plug Jean-François Denis of empreintes DIGITALes a little bit. Those are fixed and so what you hear is what I composed. And so, like it or hate it, there's no performer there who can be either credited or blamed for the success or failure. That's all on me.
Darwin: Oh, I never thought about the opportunity to blame someone as being.
Elainie: Oh, well, I credit them for making the piece great. It's either...
Darwin: I just like, I'm always looking for an out and so I was hoping maybe we could go with that. Okay. So, Elainie, I want to thank you very much for having this conversation. It was really great to talk with you. I wish we could have gone over a bunch more stuff, but we'll have to save that for another time. Before we go - places for people to listen to your work?
Elainie: Certainly. And before I say that, I really just want to thank you very much, Darwin for reaching out to me and for including me on your amazing podcast.
Darwin: Oh, thank you.
Elainie: Thank you very much. People who are interested in listening to my work can visit electrocd.com or can go to YouTube and just type my name in Elainie Lillios, or can go to my website, which is elillios.com. And I would like to encourage people also to check out SPLICE Institute, if you want to do some electroacoustic awesomeness, including learning Max or learning Advanced Max or performing with technology, SPLICE Institute. Woo hoo!
Darwin: Right. Fantastic. Well, thank you so much and with that, I'm going to let you go. Have a good one.
Elainie: Thank you.
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