technology and is the director of the Experimental
Music Studios at the University of Illinois at Urbana
What were some early experiences that made you decide to pursue music professionally, or I guess I should say at the academic level?
Around 2002, I was a high school sophomore in Middletown, CT and was presented with the opportunity to join the Wesleyan University Wind Ensemble, colloquially called WesWinds. They were unusually desperate for percussionists that semester, so the director, Peter Hadley, reached out to the local public high school. All of a sudden, I was exposed to wind band repertoire that was way more engaging and challenging than I was used to (Holst, Grainger, Ticheli, to name a few). At first, being surrounded by college-level players was really intimidating, and frankly, emotionally overwhelming at times! I even considered leaving the ensemble after a few weeks because I felt totally out of my league. I think it was my second rehearsal playing timpani on David Holsinger's The Gathering of the Ranks at Hebron that I started panicking. It was a five-timpani part that demanded constant retuning. The time signatures were all over the place. I was the only percussionist that semester, so if five timpani didn’t need enough babysitting, I was also covering a few crucial hits (cymbal crashes, etc.) on other percussion parts. For context, my timpani experience at that point was limited to bonking out B-flats and Fs in mostly alternating fashion -- tuning the F to an E-flat on an exciting day. Fortunately, Peter talked me into staying, so I took up the challenge and my percussion chops really improved dramatically over the next year or so.
But, the most important consequence to emerge from my WesWinds experience was that the repertoire inspired me to start composing my own wind band pieces -- really, really bad ones at first. But Peter, being the great guy he was, didn't need any persuasion whatsoever to program those pieces. So, I wrote a new piece each semester, and WesWinds premiered it. This continued until I graduated from high school and started my undergraduate studies at Brown University. There, I joined the Brown Wind Symphony and continued composing and performing. I also served as that group's assistant conductor for three years, so I had the added bonus of conducting premieres of my own music. So, I’d say WesWinds was the primary impetus for pursuing music professionally/academically, and continuing on this path at Brown cemented my decision.
A large portion of your output from the last 4-5 years has been in the electroacoustic genre, utilizing live performers, live electronics performance, etc. When did you initially become drawn to electroacoustic music and was there anything in particular about working with electronic and digital media that interested you?
Well, I've always enjoyed activities and modes of thinking that often get associated with composing electroacoustic music -- mathematics, programming, data charts and tables, chess and other board games, card games -- pretty much anything that presents a well-defined environment or problem, has discrete components, and can be solved creatively and in many different ways.
But, I didn’t start taking electroacoustic composition seriously until I was more than halfway through my Master’s degree at The University of North Texas. Before moving to Texas, I suppose I considered electroacoustic music to be something of a novelty. I took a computer music course taught by Butch Rovan during my senior year of college, and another course on electroacoustic techniques with Andrew May in my first year of grad school. These courses were fun and interesting, but I remember sometimes feeling frustrated by the subject material because initially it felt very opaque -- conceptually and logistically. But, I later came to realize that these courses planted a seed that took some time to start growing -- so I owe these two teachers a great deal of gratitude.
During my studies at UNT, I was spending a lot of time with two other grad students, Ilya Rostovtsev and L. Scott Price. Ilya was an endless source of stimulating conversation; we’d talk about all sorts of things, often but not always electroacoustic music. Perhaps unintentionally, he helped orient my way of thinking so that I’d start asking myself all the right questions. Scott used SuperCollider for some of his music and was pretty handy with it. At the time, I knew what SuperCollider was -- a programming language for digital audio -- but that was the extent of my knowledge. Scott showed me a few things, and after a difficult semester or two, I started making genuine connections between computer programming and electroacoustic music techniques. During the summer of 2010, I took a summer course at Wesleyan University, jointly led by Ron Kuivila and James Lipton, who taught SC from a musical/mathematical perspective, respectively. This course put a lot of the puzzle pieces into place for me, and I was hooked. While pursuing my doctorate at UT Austin, Russell Pinkston was my primary teacher. In addition to studying composition with Russell, I also took his courses on Csound and Max/MSP, and served as his primary TA for a few years. These experiences helped reinforce many important concepts underlying electroacoustic music composition, irrespective of software or language, and that’s when things really started to open up for me.
My first experience with your music was Fractus I for C trumpet and electronics. This was the first piece in a series of 5 “Fractus” pieces for solo performers and electronics. Can you talk a little bit about this series of pieces? Is there an overarching music or extra-musical theme that connects them?
Right, this piece was the first installment in what I tentatively imagined would be an ongoing series of pieces for solo instrument and electronics, akin to Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms, or perhaps Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas. I think there exist versions of the score that are simply titled “Fractus,” because I wasn’t initially sold on the idea of an ongoing series. But, I stuck with it, for better or worse. The title comes from the cloud formation of the same name. Fractus clouds are usually described as having broken off from larger clouds and/or having a shredded, fragmented appearance. It seemed appropriately suggestive yet abstract in the context of the piece and its anticipated sequels. In retrospect I’m not all that pleased with the title; with every conference I attend, I usually see one or two pieces titled “Fractures,” “Fragments,” “Fractals,” etc., so it seems I may have fell headfirst into a cliché. But, it is what it is, and my philosophy on composed pieces is to leave them alone when they’re finished, title and all.
If there is an extra-musical “theme” that connects these pieces, it’s not particularly strong. They’re all written for solo musician and SuperCollider-generated electronic sounds, but that’s about it; they’re essentially separate pieces. Fractus I was the first piece I had ever composed that combined a live acoustic instrument with electronic sounds, and it was my first substantial undertaking with SuperCollider, so the territory was very unfamiliar. I’ve revised the piece since then, but it’s very much retained its identity, and I’m happy with it. So happy, in fact, that I dove right into the second installment (viola) a little too enthusiastically. Looking back, I think I was so excited about this new media combination that I neglected many of the more fundamental tenets of composition. The music in Fractus II doesn’t have the expressive power it should have -- not to mention, the SC code was (and still is) a complete mess. It was performed once or twice, but I’ve essentially withdrawn it until I can sit down and make some revisions.
I’m really fond of the third installment (flute), and I believe it’s got the most performances of any in the series. It was at this point that I started assigning subtitles to the pieces in this series (Fractus III: Aerophoneme), perhaps to give them a greater sense of individualism. This piece was put into motion by flutist Kenzie Slottow, who specifically requested it. The two of us collaborated closely during the compositional process, and it was a great experience. I have fond memories of sitting on an empty stage at UT Austin with Kenzie, score sketches haphazardly surrounding us. More recently, this piece caught the attention of virtuoso flutist Meerenai Shim, and it served as the inspiration and opening track for Pheromone, her album of all-electroacoustic flute works, for which she commissioned five other composers.
Fractus IV: Bonesaw (trombone) was commissioned by ASCAP/SEAMUS in 2012, on which I worked closely with trombonist Steve Parker, and Fractus V: Metal Detector (drum set) was commissioned by Graceland University percussion professor Adam Groh. It’s been some time since the latest installment, but I’m leaning toward a saxophone piece in the near future, because I’ve been talking with a new friend/colleague/saxophonist at The University of Illinois, Nathan Mandel, about taking a piece to the 2018 World Saxophone Congress in Croatia.
Your electroacoustic works involve a high degree of live electronics and interactivity between the performer and the software. What are some of the things that interest you about live electronics, especially in the context of pieces for instrumentalists and electronics?
An environment that’s capable of generating and processing sound in real-time generally offers a larger set of musical possibilities than one that isn’t. I like creating pieces that allow a performer to show off her or his unique talent, and to this end, I’ll often include space for improvisation or otherwise provide the performer with options. A real-time paradigm is great for this sort of stuff, because it can be flexible with durations, ordering of musical events, and other parameters.
On the topic of improvisation, live electronics offers what I find to be an enjoyable challenge of turning a computer into a reasonably sophisticated improviser. A long-term goal of mine is to create a genuine “duet” for composer and human performer, where both parties can riff off each other in meaningful ways -- but I certainly have a long way to go on this front. Most of my work so far has resulted in algorithmically-generated textures which are unique with each performance. In some cases the performer is encouraged to “react” to computer-generated sounds, and add their own sound to the electronic sounds.
A live electroacoustic setup also affords interesting microphone options. The composer gets to work with: (1) the acoustic sound of the instrument, (2) a real-time recording of the instrument that can be electronically processed, and (3) predetermined electronic sounds. In a non-real-time setup, item 2 isn’t available, and in my experience, this is the component that’s most helpful in bridging the gap between an acoustic instrument and pre-rendered electronic sounds. It can more easily convey to the audience that the musician is truly interacting with the musical environment, and it’s all happening right now, in front of them. Live electronics can give the sense that the musician’s capabilities are meaningfully augmented, rather than artificially supplemented, or juxtaposed with other media.
I’m not trying to imply that a fixed media paradigm is inherently inferior. Fixed media has a lot going for it, particularly the degree of control and reliability that it affords. For what I’m interested in, though, I think I’d have to work a lot harder to get the same results using predetermined electronic sounds.
Do you often work closely with performers when creating these works for live electronics, or does most of the collaboration occur in the rehearsal process after the music and software is written?
I certainly try to work closely with a performer from start to finish, if possible. Since Fractus II, I’ve made a point of first finding a performer who’s interested in performing the piece. I’ll then engineer a recording session in order to capture their personalized sound as accurately as possible. In addition to rudimentary sounds (individual staccato/sustained notes at various dynamic levels, etc.), I’ll also ask her or him for any unusual or unique sounds they’re capable of creating. The end result is a diverse library of sounds that have come directly from the performer. This approach has a distinct advantage over commercial sound libraries, in that the fusion between the electronic and acoustic sounds has a greater potential to sound completely seamless. This approach also offers the performer a shared sense of ownership; it’s not just my piece they’re performing, but they’ve actually contributed to its inception in a meaningful way.
I try to keep the collaboration going while the composition is underway, too. Ideally, I’ll periodically bring score sketches and audio mockups to the performer so she or he has an opportunity to try it out and offer feedback. Performers know way more about the capabilities of their instruments than I do, so this kind of feedback is usually extremely valuable. And, I find that it’s better to catch areas of improvement during the early stages of composition, rather than the alternative (having to make unexpected changes when the piece is nearly done).
After working closely with Kenzie and seeing the kind of success that can result from close collaboration, I’ve begun treating these early steps as an absolute requirement, and I encourage my students to approach their live electroacoustic pieces similarly.
You also have a number of multimedia projects (With Oui, Genetic Anomalies, Hypnagogic, and more) involving dance and video processing, which also utilize live electronics and various controllers. What are some of your thoughts and approaches to multimedia works?
I’ve developed a sense that multimedia works have, on a fundamental level, a deeper and richer ability to communicate with an audience than single-media works (e.g. a fixed media musical composition or purely visual work of art). Our everyday lives are filled with experiences in which an encounter with an object excites multiple senses simultaneously. When we flick a light switch, for example, we feel the movement of the physical switch, we hear a click, and we see a change in the quality of our environment. These and other experiences have intrinsic meaning to us, and multimedia works are well-poised to take advantage of this fact by translating these multi-sensory experiences into an artistic experience. This premise might even help explain the widespread popularity of film, video games, and the more recent surge of interest in virtual reality applications, all of which are reasonably classifiable as multimedia art.
My personal philosophy is that multimedia works should somehow take advantage of this ability to create an especially meaningful and immersive experience for the audience. With this in mind, though, there’s also a balance to be maintained. On one hand, if multisensory experiences are translated into an artistic form too literally or simplistically, the result is dull and predictable. On the other hand, if the relationship between different media is too complex (or if there is no tangible relationship), then the result is too abstract and confusing. The best multimedia works I’ve encountered present content that is familiar enough to trigger associations, but altered just enough to keep me guessing (and therefore engaged).
I’ve developed this philosophy over several years and will probably continue to refine it. As a result, many of my earlier multimedia works don’t really adhere to this philosophy particularly well. In retrospect, these early works present a simultaneity of experiences without enough attention paid to integrating these ideas into a single expression.
Do you feel that collaboration is an essential part of a successful multimedia project, at least for projects that utilize so much interactivity and interconnected data between movement, music and video?
Well, collaboration and multimedia usually appear as a pair, but not always. Two artists can collaborate on a single-media work, and a multimedia work can be created by a single artist. But, for interactive works with deep artistic and technical interconnections, a well-matched collaborative effort is crucial. It’s not totally unreasonable for a single artist to handle all aspects of an interactive multimedia work, but it’s to see this approach as advantageous to a collaborative team of individuals who’ve devoted years to refining their particular craft.
The phrase “two heads are better than one” seems apt here; ideas from different brains can often meld in unique, exciting, and sometimes unexpected ways. A well-matched collaborator provides complementary thought processes, and when I’m working with one, I feel like ideas come to me more quickly, and I’m less likely to feel stuck.
Can you talk a little bit about your work with controllers and live electronics, specifically Brain Candy for Arduino gloves?
I think I learned about the Arduino platform while I was pursuing my Master’s degree, where doctoral student Ben Johansen had been doing some interactive multimedia work. He created a piece called Light-Box, in which he used a laptop-Arduino combination to control the opening and closing of a personified black box, paired with LEDs and 5.1 surround sound. Although Arduino had been on my to-do list for some time, it got forcefully pushed to the top of the stack during my first semester teaching at Ball State University in 2015. I was covering Mike Pounds’ teaching load while he was on sabbatical, which included his Human-Computer Interface Design course. As I’m sure you can imagine, having to teach a topic is a very efficient motivator for learning it!
Brain Candy is the result of my first experiments with Arduino. The first task was to get my hands on some sensors and confirm that I could pull their analog signals into SuperCollider and convert them into usable numerical data. With this out of the way, I then had to figure out what kind of sensor-enhanced “instrument” would become the centerpiece. I settled on a pair of sensor gloves, crafted from an old pair of bicycle gloves. Sensor gloves aren’t anything especially new or novel (lots of artists have explored this path), but nevertheless, they’re a natural choice for expression and non-standardized enough that the fine-detail design choices are open-ended enough that I wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel. The palms of the gloves each have a light-sensitive resistor that acts as a linear potentiometer when opening and closing the fist, and the back of each glove has an XY accelerometer. Accelerometers felt like a good choice because they can act like 2-dimensional linear potentiometers when tilting the hands, but create a signal spike from sudden, jerky hand motions, so they can serve as event triggers as well. I then spent a lot of time wearing the gloves, getting comfortable with their expressive nuance, and seeking out reliably reproducible gestures, and finally, I created a real-time SuperCollider environment to generate sound in response to these gestures.
The gloves aren’t wireless (I’m actually tethered to my computer during a performance), so there was a “costume” aspect to the piece that I didn’t fully anticipate. I bought several meter-long jumper cables that run the length of my arms and connect to the Arduino board on my back, suspended by a string around my neck. The board connects to my computer via USB like a vestigial tail. I wear a dress shirt to cover up the wires. There’s a prominent lump on my back, but since I perform facing the audience, it’s generally not visible. I’m happy with the costume, I think it provides just the right amount of concealment.
Do you have any current projects coming up? Multimedia, acoustic, electroacoustic or otherwise?
I do! There are two projects that have the relatively high priority at the moment. One is the aforementioned piece for solo sax and electronics. The other is a follow-up to to Brain Candy, in which I’m planning to create an interactive “sensors en masse” installation. Specifically, I’m envisioning a large quantity of light sensitive resistors positioned equidistantly on a large board, creating a sort of light sensitive grid. Interacting with the installation will involve exploring hand movements to block out the light in various patterns, covering parts of the grid with different materials, etc. I’m hoping to be able to support this project with a research grant.
In addition to these two projects, I’d like to get some reuse out of the laptop performance interface that I designed for my band and electronics piece, Singularity. In particular, I’d like put it into practice with chamber ensemble works (my list of small ensemble pieces is woefully small).
While I was at Ball State, I started experimenting with a MIDI-controllable piano, and I made some good headway on building a robust programming infrastructure. What appeals to me about this instrument is the extra layer of interactivity -- it’s a normal piano, so it can be mic’d, amplified and processed -- but it’s also a MIDI controller, so the stereotypically challenging and somewhat risky technique of pitch-tracking is made much simpler. But, the instrument obviously doesn’t travel well, and different models don’t have identical functionality, so this kind of piece presents some unique challenges; it’s a work in-progress.
I’d also really like to get more comfortable with the visual programming language Processing, with the goal of creating a short but solid audiovisual piece -- although I realize this would violate my philosophy on collaborative multimedia!
Purely acoustic compositions for wind ensemble are always on my mind, though not always in the forefront. Because the wind ensemble was my gateway into composition, it’ll always have a special place in my heart. I’m confident I’ll be writing band works throughout my career, hopefully never taking too long of a break from the ensemble.
And for the obligatory top-5 list - what are the 5 pieces that have had the most impact on your development as a composer and musician over the years, regardless of genre or time period?
Béla Bartók - Concerto for Orchestra
Vincent Persichetti - Symphony No. 6
György Ligeti - Artikulation
Philip Glass - Koyaanisqatsi
Luciano Berio - Sequenza X
Honorable Mention: Stravinsky - The Rite of Spring
Check out the videos below for some examples of Eli's music. To learn more about Eli you can also check out his website at http://www.elifieldsteel.com
Fractus III (for Flute and SuperCollider) - performed by Kenzie Slotow
Fractus I (for C Trumpet and SuperCollider) - performed by Jared Broussard
With Oui (multimedia work for interactive electronic music, video and dance) in collaboraiton with Rodrigo Carvalho (visual media), Billie Secular and Ladonna Matchett (choreography), and Gianina Casale, Nick Kao, Zach Khoo, Sam Olayiwola, Kelsey Oliver, and D’Lonte Lawson (dancers)
Brain Candy (quadraphonic improvisation for sensor gloves and computer) - performed by Eli Fieldsteel