Interview: Liza White, Part I
Liza White is a composer currently working toward her Doctor of Music at Northwestern University. She also teaches at Access Contemporary Music and the Merit School of Music where she recently became the department chair for music theory and composition. I talked to Liza in September on the occasion that her composition Step! was soon to be performed by the Chicago Composers Orchestra. (For more background on the orchestra and that concert, check out my interview with CCO co-founder Randall West.) Here’s the first part of our interview:
I thought I would start by talking to you about what you did this summer; you did two residencies?
LIZA WHITE: I did three residencies. One festival and three residencies. I went to June in Buffalo at the beginning of June for a week and then I spent two weeks at the Virginia Center for Creative Arts in Amherst, Virginia. Three weeks at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. And then back here for a few weeks, and then I was in Wyoming for a month at the Brush Creek Foundation for the Arts.
Were those all the same kind of set up?
Little differences, but similar. They’re all places where composers and visual artists and writers can go to work. VCCA you get your own studio—same with Brush Creek—and your own room to live in, and you can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They feed you—all these places they feed you and kind of take care of your needs. The Atlantic Center for the Arts had shared studio space so the composers divided up the piano time but in some ways that was really awesome ‘cause you saw art projects happening all around you and you saw everybody more. It forced me to relax a little, too, which was nice. Not compose constantly.
Did any of the residencies present a situation where you share your art with others, maybe in an informal presentation or something like that?
Yeah, all of them have that. I was forgetting the Atlantic Center has a master artist in each discipline, so it’s almost a little like a festival too in that that person will hold informal gatherings or classes (which in our case happened maybe once every few days). Melinda Wagner was the composer-in-residence while I was there. So you’re doing that but then most of the time you’re structuring for yourself and you’re working. But we had sort of a collective presentation at the end for the public and we were constantly presenting stuff for each other and talking about work. VCCA everybody kind of has the option of picking a night and doing a presentation and it works out so that almost every night there’s people doing that, which is really inspiring. Brush Creek they have guests on this ranch that also has this artist colony so we would give open studios for them.
So it’s definitely like—I mean you can choose that isolationist route—but there’s also, as you said, inspiring each other—
—And that’s one of the greatest things about those residencies.
Do you find that you’re more productive there as a composer immersed in this Mahleresque scene? You know, you’re surrounded by nature, you’re alone with your thoughts, you’re immersed in yourself. Or do you find yourself more productive when you’re immersed in your studies? So like, you’re teaching and you’re focused on studying, and you’re also going to concerts all the time. Or are they just two different things?
Good question. For me, I work really well at these residencies. I do get more done there. Because even when you have time at home there’s lots of other things that could crowd your thoughts, like other sorts of pressing matters that you force yourself not to have when you’re at a place like that. Everyone around you is working and that culture of devotion to your art is really contagious. Whereas teaching can kind of command all your time if you let it and it’s a constant struggle not to let that happen because you care about your students. Your students aren’t there at those places. So I find them really important for me, actually. I go there ready to work at the beginning of the summer and I’m so excited to just get a lot done.
To me it seems really daunting because you do school for nine months or whatever and then the time when you are supposed to take a break from everything, you probably have more output than you do during the year!
Yeah, definitely. And I’ve heard people say they get more done in a few weeks there than they do in months at home. It is a little scary ‘cause you have nothing else to do, you know? You have to face yourself and your work and the fact that it might suck at any given moment. I’ve kind of carried some of the work habits I’ve developed at those places into my life normally, so it’s been really good for me.
The piece deals with material from step team routines, kind of choreographed clapping and stomping. Words and motion play into the piece and I didn’t really do it on purpose, but I’ve kind of been interested in step teams for a few years. Seeing them perform kind of impromptu in cities, on subway platforms and stuff. I had never been exposed to step team growing up. I went to a very white and Asian high school that had no step team or, you know, nobody knew what it was.
I’ve always loved hip hop, also, and often the music of hip hop plays into step team routines and it’s a form that’s derived from hip hop. And a lot of the character things are very similar. And I’ve been interested in hip hop culture and attitude for a while; I’ve liked that music since I was a kid. So it naturally kind of happened. But I also like the idea of putting that on a concert stage and making people see it and listen to it because I was discouraged form listening to hip hop and didn’t know anything about step when I was growing up.
So you were never a participant.
Well now I know how to do some of that! My downstairs neighbors in California can attest to it.
So when were you first exposed to step teams?
Probably in Boston when I first went to college. I went to Boston University and actually, yeah, my freshmen year roommate had a step team. They rehearsed in the hallways on weeknights in the middle of the night at, like, 2 AM.
Is that kind of where you did your research, so to speak?
That’s where it started, yeah. I also did a fair amount of internet research and watched a lot of Youtube videos. But the interest started from just seeing it around me.
You’ve told me before that hip hop was a big influence for you as a kid (you’ve mentioned groups like Salt n’ Pepa). What I wanted to get at were the rhythms you speak of in hip hop. Are there specific things that you’re hearing? Some of the things that you use in Step!, are they derived from specific eras?
Maybe not so much specific eras. Although the stuff I know best comes from the 90s and the early 2000s. But general characteristics more; aspects of hip hop beats that I think are interesting and aspects of the sounds that producers put in there. The idea of a sound being looped, having something happen exactly the same way, kind of put wherever I want it in a piece. As if it’s a recorded sample, that’s something I’m interested in.
And it’s almost similar to an interest in minimalism and post-minimalism. I have other music that works in really simple processes and changes gradually, and small things change. What you get with a beat created by a producer is often similar, I think. There are really minute changes that happen for a reason that supports the song better. They make a bigger impact because it hasn’t been free form, because it’s been this sort of character of electronic looping. Like when a downbeat disappears it’s really exciting, you know?
Also, I think, listening to your piece, you definitely get the idea that you’re not taking it specifically from any one thing. And just the progression, the way that Step! starts very sparse and kind of brings it in. It’s almost as if you’re taking these elements and playing around with them more and more, and it’s kind of progressing in that way. Which I think definitely makes it your own; it definitely puts your own stamp on it rather than saying “okay, this is hip hop right here, because of this.”
I would agree. It’s not a self-conscious use of genre. In fact, everything we’re talking about sort of occurred to me after the piece was written. But everything is sort of a building block that I can use. And there’s a lot of mixed meter in the piece and you’re right, it kind of coalesces into a groove, which is sort of the process that’s in the piece, and that’s something I’m interested in.
And what’s your relationship with hip hop now? Are there certain artists that you listen to?
Now it’s kind of a struggle to keep up with what’s current. And you know I’m interested in the developments of the genre. I’ve also done a lot of reading and scholarship in recent years that I of course hadn’t done when I was younger. But I dunno’. I mean, I love the music and I’m interested in everything about it that’s also extra-musical. The politics.
It’s the same as ever in that I just like to listen to it. I think sometimes people are surprised that I’m listening to music like that, especially the cheesy stuff. You know, it’s not even the, like, heady, intellectual hip hop; the conscious movement always. But I’m interested in finding those minute details in the production. I think composers listen to music really closely. We don’t distinguish ourselves from others—or, we aren’t distinguished from others by what kind of music we listen to in my mind as much as by how closely we listen to it. So I scrutinize; I hear something new in “Hail Mary” by 2pac every time I hear it, and the layers that are there and how they interact.
You’re looking at it with a microscope.
Yeah. And sometimes I think the way I use it is that way too. Like, I’m interested in what makes one drum sound the way it does.
On the other side, Step! uses choreography; it’s something that involves visual movement. We were talking about this earlier: the five-second excerpt you used for Third Coast’s RENGA, you got to see that. And that’s the great part about having the video of that performance. So I wanted to ask: is that aspect of using physical choreography something you want to explore more in your compositions?
Potentially, yeah. And I have a couple of other pieces that use it. I have a piece called Babylon for trumpet and drum set where there’s actually quite a bit more acting that the two players do. I’m interested in it even with pieces that don’t overtly have choreography in that I don’t view myself as a strictly classical musician. And there are these conventions of performance from the classical world that we often take for granted that I don’t always want. So in that sense if you’re engaging that then everything you do is choreography. Just not the same choreography that everybody else always does. So that’s something that I think about and have used those ideas in some pieces.
With Step! it was an experiment in some ways. I was writing for Alarm Will Sound, so I think you’re always afraid that performers aren’t going to commit to you and sell gestures like that when you write them. But I knew they would. If anybody would, they would. If it was not effective it would be my fault, not theirs. So that was a situation where I felt comfortable. And now I actually kind of wish I had put even more choreography in there. I didn’t know how well it would work, but they really made it work. So in the future I think I’d have more confidence to have that stuff.
You also have these series of pieces called Groove and you have Zin Zin Zin Zin which is a string quartet that JACK recently performed. It’s interesting; I feel like I had only heard one vein of your work, and now I feel like there’s a bunch of different styles. Do you feel like you’re exploring different styles? Is that a conscious choice? But also, do you feel like there’s a conceptual undercurrent throughout all of them?
For me, there could be conceptual themes that appear in many pieces. There are a few things I’m really interested in. And style is kind of just a means to an end. So any style that exists could be something that I could use toward an idea. I have seen other people make that observation too. I don’t really privilege one style over another, at least I don’t try to; we all have our tastes. But I never try to make a decision because it’s in a style that a piece might be in. I’ll pick material that serves a purpose with regard to mood or structure.
Things that kind of pervade a lot of my work include this idea of simple material going through simple processes, just ‘cause that’s what I tend to be interested in when I’m listening to music; something really simple that is so effective and you’re not even sure why, but how to create that yourself. Effects of repetition, but not knowing exactly when and how something will repeat. Downbeats not falling quite where you expect them to. Those are things that kind of show up a lot. And then maybe a character of detachment sometimes. I don’t tend to be overly expressive, if that makes sense.
You were kind of saying this earlier; listening to productions of slight changes, or things that are looped over and over. I think the undercurrent that I see in a lot of your music, conceptually, is you really pay close attention to imperfections. Or something that just doesn’t ever quite sound the same way twice. And so you really want to explore that. Obviously composers are very curious, but because you have this attention to detail, if you hear something you want to know how it’s produced. You were kind of talking about in that one interview how you spent time in Reason figuring out, side by side, how these two specific sounds worked.
And I think as a result one way that you practice composition is by emulation. So if there’s something in hip hop that you want to know how it works, you try it out yourself. And then as a result you have pieces that might sound like hip hop. I think that makes sense, especially now that you say style is a means to an end. You know, whatever’s going through your ears at that moment, you’re going to use it to fit those concepts.