Frances White is a composer who writes primarily for small ensembles with computer-generated sound. She studied composition at the University of Maryland, Brooklyn College, and Princeton University. Ms. White has received numerous awards and honors including commissions from ICMA and the Bang on a Can Festival. Her composition "Walk through Resonant Landscape No. 2" was featured as part of the soundtrack of Gus Van Sant's award-winning film "Elephant" and appears on the soundtrack album for the film. Several other works by Ms. White can be heard on CD compilations.

Ms. White's music is often quiet and contemplative with a subtle and sometimes mysterious weaving of the acoustic instruments and electronic sounds. She studies the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), and has written several pieces for the shakuhachi and other traditional Asian instruments. She is an avid gardener, and her music often employs natural sounds.

(Much more information -- including a list of recordings -- is available on Ms. White's web site at


AK: How were you first exposed to electronic music? And what led you to decide to become a composer of electroacoustic music?

FW: My first exposure to electronic music was as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland. They were offering a class on electronic music, using a Moog synthesizer. I honestly can't remember exactly why I took the class - I think I was just curious. And even though I was not very good at splicing tape, I just fell in love with it. I couldn't believe how wonderful it was to make sounds in that way!

From there, it wasn't really a decision to be a composer of electroacoustic music. I just knew I wanted to continue to explore making sounds in this way. I found out you could do this with a computer, and that there was a computer music center at Brooklyn College (this was in the early 80s, by the way, and it was a PDP-11 at Brooklyn!) So I decided to go to grad school there, and one thing just led to another.

AK: Which of your pieces do you feel have been particularly significant in the development of your own "unique voice" as a composer?

FW: "Trees", for string trio and tape, was just immensely important to me. In that piece, I really found a kind of "extreme-ness" that is very important to me, and the courage to not do things by halves! In "Trees", I decided that if something was going to be quiet, it was going to be REALLY quiet. If a note was going to be long, it was going to be REALLY long (in fact, the first movement of that piece is fantastically difficult for the string players. They have to sustain non-vibrato, ppp tones for a minute at a time! This is to achieve the sense that their tones are the decay portion of the gong-like piano sounds in the tape part). In "Winter aconites", for chamber ensemble and tape (listen), I began to explore what counterpoint means to me, and how profoundly important it is. In "Like the lily", for viola and double bass (listen to an excerpt), I discovered how melody works in my music. The piece was inspired by a chant, and the chant sort of led to this discovery. And I'd have to include "Birdwing", my first shakuhachi piece (listen to an excerpt). I began to study shakuhachi when I got the commission from ICMA to write "Birdwing". And studying shakuhachi has really shaped my music in so many ways! Although one very interesting phenomenon did occur as I started to study shakuhachi - I found that some aspects of the traditional music for the instrument were very similar to aspects of my own music! So studying shakuhachi has been a discovery, yes, but also a kind of recognition or affirmation of some of my musical obsessions.

AK: You started off writing several pieces for just computer-generated sound in the Eighties, but have focused more recently on works for solo instruments and tape. How has this shift towards including live performers been important for you?

FW: I'm most interested in writing not only for solo instruments, but also for ensembles: I love to write for live performers! Anymore, I guess it just seems to me that there is a certain energy, a certain life force, that performers bring to my music, that I really need. And there are these sonic relationships possible between live instruments and electronic sound that I just find endlessly compelling. For example, in multiple pieces ( "Trees", "Winter aconites", "Lesser celandines" for piano, string quartet, and tape) I have been fascinated by the idea of having the electronic sound act as the "attack" of the sound, the live performers as the "decay"; another such relationship is where the electronic sound might act as the "fundamental" of a sound, the performers as "overtones". Now, of course these are sort of poetic images that get me going - I'm not real literal and pedantic about it in the music. But somehow, it seems beautiful to me for people to play these kinds of parts in a sonic landscape. And I love the idea of creating a sonic space, and allowing performers to find their place in it (both in terms of time and timbre) by listening. The realization of how much I need performers is kind of a confirmation that for me, music is a deeply human and communicative act.

AK: Can you offer any tips to other computer music composers who might be interested in going the same route?

FW: I would say try to find performers who are open minded and interested in trying different things. And maybe most of all, performers who want to make a piece their own - they are the people who will find things in your music that you didn't know were there!

On a practical note, it's also important that you make your music not only do-able, but something that people might actually become involved in trying to do. For example, most performers I know are not terrifically interested in playing pieces where they have to coordinate with super-precision, down to the half-second, with a tape part. Its not something that comes naturally, and although a great performer will be able to do it, he or she will not be able to help feeling somewhat resistant; whereas if you build in flexibility, you allow the performer room to move, to be creative, and to feel.

Compositional Process

AK: Is there a general method to the way that you compose?

FW: Not really. It varies with the piece.

AK: James Pritchett wrote in Array magazine that you are more interested in making a "handmade music." Is this easy to do with computers? And how do you work with these machines to reach this aesthetic?

FW: I think it's easier with computers than with instruments! The thing about making electronic sound is that you are making the actual, particular, irrepeatable sound. Whereas when you write for instruments, to an extent you are creating an abstraction: you write B-flat in the score, but its sort of the concept of B-flat, not a specific, physical instance of B-flat. Feldman talks about this, comparing painting and music. He describes the way that in a painting, a patch of blue is not the "idea" of blue, or a description of blue, but rather a specific, individual instance of blue. He expresses frustration that he can't get quite that particular when writing for instruments. I do believe he came closer than most people, and I try to bring that kind of immediacy to my instrumental writing. Having the electronic part helps, because you can then give the performer(s) not only the score, but at least part of the actual sound of the piece.

AK: What do you mean when you say that "gardening and composing are the same thing"?

FW: I think of them as being different aspects of the same need, a powerful need to try to create beauty. And more than that: when I am composing, it always seems to me that I am finding something, somehow, rather than making it. Finding and recognizing an energy, a sonic image, that already exists. And it's the same in the garden. They are both a way of interacting with nature: organizing, yes, but also attending, listening, and seeing. I guess I try to think of the things in my life that are most important as being completely integrated, part of the same process. And my garden influences my composing so much, and vice versa, that I start to think of them as a joined process.

Specific Pieces

AK: One of your most recent pieces, "She lost her voice that's how we knew", is a chamber opera for solo soprano and tape (listen to an excerpt). How did you come to write a piece -- which I understand is fairly long -- for this particular combination?

FW: The wonderful soprano and composer Kristin Norderval heard a piece of mine at a festival we were both part of. She asked if I would be interested in writing for voice. At the time, I said not really. I have always had a problem with text setting: if its a text I love, it always seems like "gilding the lily", and if its NOT a text that I love, well, why would I want to set it? A problem! Well, anyway, about a year later, Kristin sent me a CD of her singing, and her voice is just so incredibly beautiful, I fell in love with it and realized I had to find a way to write for her. She introduced me to our wonderful librettist/director, Valeria Vasilevski, and things just flowed from there.

AK: You wrote in the program notes for "She lost her voice" that the tape part uses recordings of the soloist, Kristin Norderval, and that it follows her "sonic fingerprint." In what ways did you transform her voice? And did you use recordings of the libretto as material for the tape part?

FW: I did use recordings of Kristin reading the text, and also singing, quite extensively. For example, I took recordings of her singing harmonics, tuned them way down, and created low drones that are an important part of the piece. Also, to write the vocal part, I would frequently do pitch tracks of Kristin's readings. Then, I would use the contours from the pitch tracking as the basis in creating the vocal lines: I wanted to make the vocal writing sort of "sound like" Kristin, to be based on her natural speech contours.

AK: Many of your other compositions, such as the 'bulb' pieces ( "The seasons and the constellations", "Winter aconites", "Like the lily", et al.), also use processed recordings of speech as a fundamental element of their tape parts. These pieces do not use an overt text like "She lost her voice", so do you choose particular texts to record or is the source material more spontaneous?

FW: In a sense, the source speech is irrelevant in bulb pieces. That will make more sense when I answer the next question, so I'll just go straight there!

AK: The sounds of the 'bulb' pieces pulsate in wonderfully "irregular" patterns since you base them on the natural rhythms of speech consonants. How do you extract and process these patterns, transforming them into electronic sounds that do not closely resemble speech? Can you share with us the particular DSP techniques or programs that you use to create these evocative sounds?

FW: The technique to create bulb tracks is as follows: I do an lpc analysis of speech. Then, I do a synthesis from this, where sound is only produced if the speech is on a consonant: it is silent for all of the vowels. But at each consonant, I put out a burst of noise that follows the amplitude contour of the particular vowel. However: I do NOT use the lpreson filter: I just use straight white noise. The reason for this is, I don't really want it to sound like consonants, I just want it to follow the rhythm and contour of the consonants. So what I end up with is several tracks of little bursts of white noise. Then, I simply filter this white noise, using filters with very narrow bandwidths tuned to whatever harmonies I choose. The result is a track of chords moving in an irregular but natural-sounding rhythm.

AK: Several of your works also incorporate recorded environmental sounds such as water, wind, and traffic. (e.g. "A veil barely seen" and the 'bridge' pieces). How do you make use of these resources when shaping the computer parts or crafting the instrument parts?

FW: Well, again, this varies from piece to piece. For example, in "Centre Bridge (dark river)" I took recordings of traffic on Centre Bridge. The bridge has a metal grating, and as cars pass over it they generate pitched glissando-ing tones. I listened to these recordings, and transcribed the pitches: in the opening of the piece, the lower strings are playing a literal transcription of the bridge sounds. In the shakuhachi duet "Centre Bridge" (listen to an excerpt) I used pvoc on the recordings to create the electronic part, but I also did some transcribing and transposing of the "car music" to derive the shakuhachi parts. In "A veil barely seen" (listen), I used the recorded stream sounds as a background, for one thing. However, the way that the pitches emerge from these stream sounds was inspired by the experience of listening to the water in spots where it flows through rocks. The rocks act as a kind of filter, and the water ends up sounding very pitched if you listen carefully in these places.

AK: When using field recordings to determine pitches and rhythms in these works, do you extract these features by ear or by computer analysis of the recordings?

FW: I almost always do this by ear. The reason for this is that it's an important part of the compositional process for me to do this kind of listening. It connects me profoundly with the source material. If I used a computer tool, I would miss out on that connection. The one big exception being the pitch tracking of Kristin's voice - I used that because its just really difficult to determine the pitch of speech accurately by ear, so I needed help!

AK: You are currently working on a new piece for Japanese instruments and tape. Can you tell us more about it, such as how it will be different or similar to your prior work?

FW: This is a piece for taiko drums, shakuhachi, and electronic sound for the Australian ensemble TaikOz. The piece is still in its early stages, so I can't say too much about it. It's a real challenge! Taiko is not just percussion, it's a whole dramatic and cultural phenomenon. So I have to find a way to incorporate this world into my musical universe. I'm finding that the shakuhachi (an instrument that I have been studying since 1995) is sort of "leading the way" in the piece, at least so far.

Relationship to Technology

AK: You have been quoted as saying "I hate computers"; but I think that many composers of electronic music are seduced by the technology. And it can be all too easy to get wrapped up in learning new languages or software, and searching for or even creating the "perfect" tools. How are you able to avoid these "traps" and how do you deal with tools that may be less than ideal for the way that you compose?

FW: I think I fairly easily avoid these traps because, quite frankly, I'm just not that interested in technology. For me it's purely a means to a musical end. And yes, my tools are imperfect, but so long as I can accomplish what I need to, I can put up with a lot of annoyance, etc. Of course its true that the software that you work with can limit what you do. But then, isn't that true of writing for instruments also? (That is, in writing a violin piece you are limited to what the violin can do).

AK: What software and/or hardware tools do you use to compose and what computer platform do you use them with? Are these specific tools important to the way that you work?

FW: I work on my Mac G4 laptop. I use Csound, Cmix, and [MOTU] AudioDesk. These specific tools are only important in that they are the ones I know.

AK: Can you give us examples of how you use Csound in your tape parts? Any favorite techniques or opcodes?

FW: I think the Csound tools that I use most often are the filters. These days, I don't do that much with completely synthetic sound, so I'm mostly processing sampled sound. Although I do on occasion still use detuned (to create beating) sine tones! I used them in, for example, my piece for violin, electronic sound, and video "The Old Rose Reader" and also in "A veil barely seen" for viola and electronic sound - the sine tones blend very nicely with the string sounds, and can be used to reinforce harmonics, etc. But more typically, I'm processing a recorded sound. I use a lot of combinations of reson and comb filters (I used banks of resons to create the chords in the bulb pieces, for example). And the analysis/synthesis tools like pvoc and lpc are quite handy: I like to use lpc analysis in particular to generate timings, etc, as in the bulb pieces.

On Being a Contemporary Composer

AK: Do you find it difficult to be a composer writing for instruments and computer-generated sound in a society that often does not appreciate such music, indeed if they are even aware of it at all?

FW: Well, it is hard in that you always have to be working on lining up opportunities. I find the "self-promotion" part of being a composer extraordinarily difficult! But it's part of the job.

AK: What suggestions would you give to other aspiring composers of computer music for writing music, for finding an audience, and for just "surviving" in our rather obscure profession?

FW: For writing music: you have to write what you really and truly, honestly hear. For finding an audience: you have to get your music out there. Send it to any opportunity that you are eligible for (although I do NOT send to any call for scores that requires payment to submit!) For "surviving": I think you have to be willing to work other jobs, and keep an open mind about what kinds of projects you will take on.

AK: Will there be any upcoming performances of your music that readers could attend?

FW: EARPLAY in San Francisco will be performing my piece "A veil barely seen" on Monday, September 26 at the Herbst Theater [starts at 7pm]. Then in NY, violinist Mari Kimura will be performing my piece "The Old Rose Reader" on Friday, January 27 and Saturday, January 28 at The Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn.

AK: I would like to extend my deep gratitude to Frances White for taking the time to answer my many questions in such great detail and for sharing some of her composing "secrets" with the Csound community. I hope that her music will continue to enrich the lives of others as much as it has enriched my own.

-- Anthony Kozar

Related Links: