James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

Frances White: a profile

Copyright 1996 by James Pritchett. All rights reserved.

"I hate computers." This is the concise summary that you are likely to get when you ask Frances White about her attitude towards technology. "If there was a way to make computer music without them, I'd do it," she elaborates. But since there's not, she's been doing it the old-fashioned way, writing works for computer-synthesized tape, with and without live performers. Her music has been a regular feature on ICMC programs since 1986, and she is one of the two composers commissioned by the ICMA to compose a piece for the 1996 conference in Hong Kong.

Although she doesn't like characterizing herself as a "woman composer," she does believe that her attitude towards computers and music is different than a man's. "I tend to think of computers entirely as a means to an end -- I'm not interested in computers themselves. I think this attitude is perhaps more common among women than men." She frequently repudiates the notion of "computer music" altogether. "You might say that I make music with computers, but I don't make 'computer music'." Rejecting the high-tech approach, Frances is interested instead in "a handmade music." She loves the way that a computer allows her to work like a painter: perfecting each brushstroke, subtly modulating each area of color. Working and reworking, she can spend hours, days, or even weeks getting a sound just right. Her work stands out in the way that a piece of hand-thrown pottery, bearing the thumbprints of its maker, would stand out in a collection of flawless mass-produced china. Or to use one of her favorite analogies, she works like a gardener, cultivating her music so that it can grow of its own accord. An avid orchid fancier, she often insists that "gardening and composing are the same thing."

Frances' fundamental approach to composition is based on the process of listening. "Sound and listening to the sound are always the starting points for me. I never think of music as a language conveying a message. In my work, I try to make something pretty simple, but still engaging, that you can explore for yourself by listening to it." To create this, Frances seeks out sounds that "remain mysterious" to her every time she hears them. As a result, her tape parts are almost always extremely quiet, and frequently feature noisy, less- than-high-tech sounds. "Sometimes the most inspiring sounds are those that are plain, fragile, maybe even a little ugly. I feel that part of my job as an artist is to try to make space for these sounds."

In her recent work, she has applied this idea of discovery through listening to the medium of tape-with-instruments. The problem with this combination has always been how to relate the live and taped parts to one another. In Frances' case the answer has been to make tape parts that act as sonic spaces — or "ambiences," as she calls them — for the performers to listen to. While aspects of this approach can be seen in her widely-performed Still life with piano, her distinctive handling of the tape-with-instruments medium wasn't really established until 1991 with Trees for two violins, viola, and tape. Inspired in part by her experience with bonsai (the Japanese art of miniature tree cultivation), the tape music portion of this piece moves at a very slow pace, suggesting a more spatial conception of music. In Trees and the subsequent piece Winter aconites (a 1993 commission by The ASCAP Foundation in memory of John Cage), the performers must listen intently to the tape in order to find their places. The coordination of tape and live parts is very flexible, but it is based on the performers having such an in-depth musical understanding of the tape part that they can respond intuitively to it, placing their long tones in just the right places. "Even though they have just a few notes in them, I think of these pieces as being quite virtuosic," says Frances. "They just require a different, quieter kind of virtuosity than most other difficult music does."

Frances has been very busy in the last year. She has just written a work for string quartet, piano, and tape in a style similar to Winter aconites called Lesser celandines. This past spring she participated in the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, sharing her music with composers such as Terry Riley, Lou Harrison, Alvin Singleton, Mari Kimura, and Muhal Richard Abrams. Members of the Cassatt Quartet have just recorded Trees for an upcoming CDCM release. And now she is working on her ICMA commission. "It's for shakuhachi [Japanese bamboo flute] and tape and will be called Birdwing. I'm taking shakuhachi lessons to learn about the instrument and its tradition. It's a very inspiring instrument to me: it is very mysterious. Traditional meditative shakuhachi music moves through time based on the player's breath, so it is very intimate and personal. As I have been studying, I am struck by how many aspects of this musical tradition seem to resonate with my own feelings about music. I think that in some ways the piece might be very different from my recent pieces."