Interview: Liza White, Part II
Here’s the second half of my interview with composer Liza White. In the first half, we spoke mostly about her piece Step!, most recently performed by the CCO, as well as her relationship with hip hop. Here, we discuss her intriguing new string quartet, Zin zin zin zin (which you can listen to over at her website). And, of course, more hip hop.
AN EAR ALONE: Let’s talk about your string quartet a little bit. This is another piece where when I heard it I thought, “oh my God, I wouldn’t even be able to tell that was by her!” There’s something super harsh about it, right? Like, very dissonant in its heterophony. But it’s also really visceral and it’s also kind of addictive; you can listen to it a lot because the sounds are so interesting. And what I was kind of getting from it was that it captures this spirit, kind of like that rallying spirit that you were talking about in that interview I just mentioned. I get that from this piece somehow. I guess it’s because… Sorry, this kind of going all over the place.
You know that song “Get Low”?
LIZA WHITE: Yes, yes I do.
My old roommates and I used to listen to the a cappella all the time! And it is incredible just to hear the voices.
That would be interesting.
It’s crazy; there’s so much going on in the song, but even in just the a cappella there’s a lot going on. And there’s a lot of that kind of heterophonic stuff; people just coming in whenever and filling in every beat.
I’ve actually thought of Lil’ Jon’s voice as a compositional influence. In Babylon there’s this sort of like schizophrenic trumpet thing going on for a while where it’s fast and rapid fire, and then it’s low and “urr urr urr”, like, coarse. And it’s kind of like Lil’ Jon versus Twista in my mind.
That’s good! Well, and there’s like this amazing part where—you know when they say “TO THE WINDOOOOOWS?” Two of them both say it at the same time and they’re exactly a half step apart and the beats are insane, they’re going crazy. And it sounds so cool.
Yeah, in Zin Zin Zin Zin I was very deliberate with things like that. It’s a lot of microtones and it varies in ways that I thought out carefully. Like, when it’s louder there’s a broader spectrum of register and when it’s softer there’s less of one. And things repeat but it’s always a quarter tone or a half tone away from where it was before.
But I definitely get this sort of pep from it. I know you were talking about distancing yourself from expression, but do you feel like there are expressive elements in that piece? I mean, do you feel like you’re trying to communicate extra-musical feelings or ideas? I know you said you were very much thinking about the hip hop voices, this heterophony, etc. But is there something else?
It was really just the fascination with that. I shouldn’t say that I kinda’… “Staying away from expression” is such a vague thing. I almost wish I hadn’t said that. I mean, when I say that I kind of mean that I don’t tend to write in a way that seems emotionally gushing. I don’t like a lot of string vibrato, for instance. And I don’t tend to have melodies that work in the traditional kind of gushing sense. I tend to have just objects that sit, and then I will play with an object. But the word visceral is a good one, I think, for a lot of my music. That could be a theme across styles that I borrow from in different pieces. I think if I were to take up an instrument now it would probably be the drums; I like to kinda’ just make things hit hard, you know?
But with that piece I was just interested in that phenomenon of speech and I also wanted to get at a little bit of the kind of hardness and coolness that you get from a hip hop beat, and the way in which it impresses you without seeming to try to. Just because the syncopation that’s there throws you and makes you say “ah, that’s awesome,” you know? Not because it competed for your attention. That’s why a lot of the rhythms ended up being less heterophonic. Rhythmically, a lot of what’s in that piece lines up between parts, or at least when they diverge they diverge in groups of two. It’s not something you can’t follow ‘cause I wanted it to be hard hitting.
And “zin zin zin zin” is… There’s a song by the Roots called “Double Trouble.” Mos Def is featured on it, and toward the end he’s just kind of rapping gibberish, and he’s saying “zin zin zin zin” over and over, and that rhythm that I based the piece on isn’t even verbatim in there, but there’s something like it. And I kinda’ borrowed that like triplet motive that the whole piece deals with from thinking about him doing that at the end of that song. So it’s speech but you also get that kind of heterophony in hip hop speech a lot of the time in a way that seems effortless but it lines up when it lines up and it’s really cool. So I guess that’s an extra-musical element.
And it’s so funny because the rhythm in hip hop usually seems to take precedence; like, we don’t really think about the voices, we just think about the way that they’re flowing, you know? I just heard this quote from Grimes saying that hip hop is her favorite genre because you don’t have to worry about harmony, you don’t have to worry about melody.
I guess, though the best producers do think about registral spacing. And, you know, they make things cut through texture correctly. There are melodic things, even in just the very simple bass lines, that serve a direct purpose that work. But yeah, I see what you’re saying.
And I mean, Mos Def is definitely straddling both worlds because he does a lot of singing too.
And some rappers kind of have more variation in their voices and their flow almost to the point where they’re singing and it’s interesting who employs that well.
But now it just makes me think that there needs to be this, like, spectral hip hop movement!
I could see it!
There are some hip hop artists who need to be analyzed.
It’s interesting to me to see people get mad about Auto-Tune. You know, people who—especially singers—devote their lives to in-tuneness and melodies; but that’s not the point in hip hop at all. You know, Auto-Tune is a sound effect and it’s funny to see people interpret it that way; that they’re using it to try and perfect their intonation.
I wanted to go in another direction and talk a bit about Chicago. I’ve noticed here that for most of the contemporary music scene we seem to primarily focus on small chamber music. Do you feel like there are trends that composers are going through pertaining to specific instrumentations? Are there particular ensemble settings that people seem to either avoid or always want to write for? And do you yourself avoid certain ones?
Probably, but I don’t think it has much to do with what’s done here. I’ve only been here for a year, so it’s tough to even know yet quite what those trends are. I think that stuff occurs to you as you’ve been here for longer. But I dunno’. I think Chicago is pretty awesome, actually; you do have kind of a lot of everything. A lot of it is small chamber music, but I think that’s the case with new music across the board. I think there are economic reasons for that, you know. You see orchestras—even, like, BMOP in Boston is trending towards smaller pieces with less players; it’s more cost effective.
And I really enjoy writing chamber music. You can get very nuanced with fewer parts. But there’s Anubis, the saxophone quartet, a couple prominent string quartets, several mixed chamber ensembles. It seems you can do pretty much anything here. And brass quintets. So you have kind of conventional pairings and the more mixed groups. And even CCO, which is pretty cool that a new music orchestra exists here.
Yeah, have you considered writing for a full orchestra?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m writing for wind ensemble right now just ‘cause I have an opportunity for that. But yeah, that’s definitely on my list. Maybe some composers don’t want to be seen as orchestra composers; I don’t really have a problem with that.
So what’s next?
Well this year once I finish this wind ensemble piece, I’m writing for the Dal Niente ensemble for a Northwestern performance in the spring. And I’m also writing for Palomar for the Sound of Silent Film Festival. So those are the next projects coming up. And then I have lots of backburner things and it’ll be tough to choose what to do next. I’m working on a song cycle for mezzo soprano and piano for Jennifer Beattie and Adam Marks that I think I’ve told you about, with poetry by living poets (mostly people I’ve met at these artist colonies). And I’d love to pick that up again as soon as I can and focus back on it. Maybe also extending this wind ensemble piece that I’m working on, maybe adding more movements to that string quartet, I’m not sure. At this point I think I’m pretty open to everything. I kind of enjoy figuring out how to be myself in the context of whatever somebody wants me to do.
Is there a particular concert in recent memory that you’d like to tell us about?
I saw Public Enemy in San Francisco a couple years ago, which isn’t recent anymore, but it’s the first thing that popped into mind. And what’s interesting is that Flavor Flav sounds exactly the same. Even though he’s in his—
—20 years later—
—Yeah! Like, early 50’s. And pitch wise! Because not that I have perfect pitch, but I have strong enough relative pitch that I can tell if he’s exactly where he was on the recordings, and he is. I found that really interesting.
Had you seen Public Enemy earlier in your life?
No, I’d never seen them before. I’d just heard all the recordings. But often when you go to hear a rapper they don’t sound the way they’ve recorded because speech changes, you know? But what’s interesting is the audience singing along sounds exactly like the recording of that rapper and the only one who’s not making those contour changes is the rapper himself. But in the case of Flava Flav, apparently, he’s actually thought that out. Or he sticks to the same pitches, which is interesting.