Name: Elliot Cole
Occupation: Composer/ teacher
Current Release: Nightflower on Long Echo Music
Recommendation: I cannot stop listening to Alasdair Roberts’ new album of Scottish ballads What News. Start with Clerk Colvin (I suggest headphones & walking outdoors in the dark).
Website/Contact: You can find out more about Elliot Cole at www.elliotcole.com
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I wrote songs in high school. Bands like Soul Coughing, Cake and Morphine were big influences. I was also really into the old-time and swing scene which was big in my town (Austin) — for a while it seemed like all my favorite local bands had lots of ukuleles in them. So, a number of my early songs had a 30s jazz feel. Carla Kihlstedt’s group Tin Hat Trio was also a huge influence; they opened my eyes to the possibility of a strange and beautiful chamber music that I’ve been chasing ever since.
The musician I went to see the most was a fiddler and guitar player named Erik Hokkanen. He’s one of the most joy-inspiring performers I’ve ever seen, a master of fiddle music, surf rock, gypsy jazz. For a while I went to see him every week, and sometimes his backing band was the Tosca string quartet. That was a turning point for me — the experience of being in that little room with that sound was profound. I arranged all my songs for string quartet and put on a concert at my school, and went off to college ravenous to learn about music.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I imitated a lot when I was younger, and I still do. I think my motivation has changed, though. I used to feel the need to prove that I could do it, whatever it was — a Bartok-ish string quartet, a Feldman-ish piano dreamscape, half-erased music like Gerard Pesson, a hip hop album. I had this idea that I could do anything and wanted to find out if that was true (it’s not).
These days the pleasure of imitating is the pleasure of participation — just like performing it, studying it, or dancing to it, it’s a way to enjoy music from the inside. I just wrote a set of dances for a medieval ensemble and I loved the chance to learn from and join in the style.
But the work I’m most proud of, like my new album Nightflower, is music that sounds the most unique. Getting to a place where I felt like I was doing personal and original work required a conjunction of a few things: 1) getting good at an unusual and personal set of skills, 2) letting go of the need to prove myself against others’ standards, and 3) the willingness to walk a long way down an uncertain path to see where it leads.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
Early on, my biggest challenge was momentum. I was into harmony, and the more delicious I made my chords, the thicker and slower the music seemed to get. I broke out by spending a few years exploring patterns, which I do on the computer in the music programming language Supercollider. The music on Nightflower is propelled by those experiments.
I seem to be working backwards, because my current focus and challenge is even simpler – melody.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My workspace is far from perfect. I have a keyboard and a computer, but they’re at a bad angle from each other, which can kind of hurt my body when I work too long. My desk is smallish and usually cluttered. I have a few instruments, guitar and bass, berimbau and bendir and a Push. I bounce between these and the keyboard, depending on what I’m writing. This is where I do the slow work of developing a piece.
But I’ve been writing more and more music quickly, in a notebook, when I’m in transit or have to kill time somewhere. It’s a great way to make time fly. It lends itself to music I can sing in my head, so I’ve been writing much more melodically. I’m working on an album of guitar and cello duets this way called Journals.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Every day is different for me. I barely have any routines other than black tea and flax seed oil in the morning, and a forkful of crunchy peanut butter every chance I get. I teach at three schools, I have rehearsals and concerts, I travel for projects. Today I’m answering some questions, working on art for my album, arranging a few bars of a piece for orchestra, pricing pillow and blanket rentals for an event, packing some gear and going to a rehearsal.
It’s not all composing, but I’m lucky, I work with music every day in some way. I used to fantasize about being a creative hermit and just writing all the time, but I don’t want that anymore. Composing is lonely and sedentary and its satisfactions can be months apart – my jumbled-up mix of a life is for me more sane.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
My ideal creative state of mind is relaxed but alert, focused on one thing at a time, optimistic that something good is possible, and playful, able to suspend judgment and just enjoy the act of moving things around for its own sake.
For me, this state has one big enemy: the anxiety of other responsibilities pressing in. It makes it hard to settle into focused, playful time, because I’ll always interrupt what I’m doing to take care of something I feel I have to do. So, anything that helps me lower my anxiety in general is helpful — exercise, meditation, keeping my phone in another room, being organized.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I’ll tell you about Facets, the last piece on Nightflower. The initial idea was to write a piano texture where the two hands floated independently over each other making two overlapping arpeggiations. I wanted to work out the patterning before I dealt with pitch, and so I wrote out different patterns (in computer code) with a random collection of notes. I wanted the two arpeggiations to be somewhat distinct, so I separated them with rhythm, settling on a 5:3 ratio because I loved the floating sensation that gave.
Then I turned to pitch. I found a random collection I liked, and then tried different ways to make the left hand and the right hand play different but related pitches. I settled on a relationship that results from taking all the notes the right-hand plays as a chord, making the first inversion of that chord, then transposing it so that I get another chord with the same intervals (vector) and same top note, but many different pitches. (It’s a beautiful harmonic ‘pivot’ I learned from Quinn Collins.)
Once I had a starting pattern I liked, I recorded a bunch of it as MIDI into Logic and worked on the next one. I’d leave the right hand alone and pivot the left until I found something beautiful, record that, and then hold the left and pivot the right, and repeat. Then I brought the MIDI files into Finale and stitched together the piece, smoothing out the seams, feeling the pacing, making an arc. Because of the way it’s made, it has a tight internal logic, but because I chose each pattern from many possible options by ear, it also expresses what I love to hear.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I love working with computers. Programming especially – it helps me think clearly, which is a (rare!) pleasure. But I only care about music I’ve put my hands all over. There’s no satisfaction in the music that comes from an instant-music-machine. So even my most coding-centric works like Facets have lots and lots of human intervention. The computer opens up spaces to explore; the human work is what makes it matter to me.