SIP - SoundLAB Interview Project

Baldwin, Elise

Elisa Baldwin
US artist



Interview: 10 questions

1. When did you start making music, what is/was your motivation to do it?

I started playing the piano when I was 6 and still do, but my dual obsession with recording technology and the theater of sound was apparent even before that. My love of creating something fantasical, musical and narrative out of everyday sounds (which I still consider my primary music-making skill) began when my parents brought a portable cassette recorder home. I was age 4 or 5. My brother and I would tote the recorder all around the ramshackle farm we lived on, creating elaborate radio plays, writing songs and squeezing the housecats to make them meow on tape. Of course, the only editorial capability we had in these endeavors was linear, so it was a excellent introduction to the editing and listening skills that have become my profession.

2. Tell me something about your living environment and the musical education.

I studied classical piano from childhood, but never felt I had any preternatural talent for it despite the fact that I was a good student. My innate talents were related to listening and my love of technology. I studied filmmaking as a young adult because it incorporated so many mediums that I loved (theater, music, sound design, cinematography) and when that became too expensive a practice, I started making sound art. Eventually I realized that my “music” was hampered by my preconceptions of what was music and what was sound, much as my film work had been hampered by my difficulty with preconceptions between narrative and documentary forms. I also thought that both mediums had been somewhat colored for me by the fact that I had worked in them professionally, so I took some time to pursue a MFA in Electronic Music at Mills College and detach from a corporate production setting. This was a decisive moment for me artistically. While at Mills, I was able to integrate the three discrete artistic practices that had existed in my life- film/video-making, audio recording and music composition into one live performance form. My process of combining mediums has been a lifelong tendency and evolutionary process—learning to let sound and image resonate with each other, developing some mastery over each individually, and garnering the technical skills to control them digitally in real time.

3. .Is making music your profession? What is the context in which you practice music nowadays?

I work as a sound designer and music director, so part of my job does involve music, commercial music. But aside from some overlap in toolsets and vocabulary, I perceive my art and profession to be separate activities, since one mandates that I make something that the majority of people will like and the other mandates that I make something I like. My art practice usually happens at home, late at night or on the weekends. I try to perform frequently- lately pushing myself to do mainly live solo performances, as these are currently the most frightening, pure and rewarding experiences for me artistically.

4. How do you compose or create music or sound? Have you certain principles, use certain styles etc?

My main methodology is somewhat paradoxical, now that I think about it. It combines a deeply intuitive process with my love of organized cataloguing systems, serendipity with ordered structures. I tend to gravitate to conceptual themes, and then categorically collect sounds and images I associate with those themes. I hoard these collections, sometimes many at one time, until I feel I have enough raw material to make a compositional structure from. From this point, the process is completely intuitive and largely subtractive- creating linkages, resonances and patterns both visually and aurally, iteratively refining the composition as one would edit a film until it feels complete, succinct and somehow transcendent of the original materials. I am a great believer in the value of editing in any medium, so I spend a lot of time on that part.

5. Tell me something about the instruments, technical equipment or tools you use?

I use a hard disc recorder to record sounds (usually in my kitchen late at night because it’s the quietest), an old beatup video camera to record my images, and Max/MSP and SuperCollider to build the software instruments to process both in real time from my computer. I use a midi controller to play my homemade software instruments.

6. How about producing and financing your musical productions?

I am very fortunate in that I have access to recording and post-production facilities through my job, and that the technical skills of my job benefit me enormously in the producing of my own work. Yet I still find it challenging both in terms of time and money to produce my work- I tend to work a lot with archival video and film- these transfers are enormously expensive and the material very labor-intensive to research. I will say that public archives and open source software have created options that did not exist fifteen years ago, when I graduated from film school. Ironically, expense was one of my initial impetuses to start making sound art, because I could not afford to continue making films once I was outside the academic system, but I could afford to record and edit audio on consumer-grade equipment.

7. Do you work individually as a musician/soundartist or in a group or collaborative? If you have experience in both, what is the difference, what do you prefer?

I do both and have contextual preferences for each. I tend to collaborate only on musical projects, whereas my individual work is pretty evenly split between music composition and live audio/visual performance. My own music tends to be more cellular and predeterminate, especially when there is video involved, I like to improvise very much but feel my skills in this area to be somewhat nascent, so this has been a very fruitful aspect of collaboration for me. I have had the great fortune to have improvisatory collaborations with some very sensitive and gifted players- William Fowler Collins, Joel Pickard and Seth Warren most notably- and this has increased my confidence and enthusiasm for the form enormously.

8. Is there any group, composer, style or movement which has a lasting influence on making music?

Too many and in too many ways to detail here.

9. What are your future plans or dreams as a soundartist or musician?

I hope to tour more and also have opportunities for more collaborations. I miss having a long-term collaborative project but also realize that is a very special relationship. I intend to continue my explorations blurring the line between representational and musical sounds.

Can works of yours experienced online besides on SoundLAB? Where? List some links & resources

Yes, at my website