Vol. 36 Issue 3 Reviews

Elainie Lillios: Entre Espaces

Compact disc, IMED 11110, 2011; available from empreintes DIGITALes, 4580, avenue de Lorimier, Montréal (Québec) H2H 2B5, Canada; telephone (+1) 514.526.4096; fax (+1) 514.526.4487; electronic mail info@empreintesDIGITALes.com; http://www.empreintesDIGITALes.com/.

Reviewed By Barry Schrader
Valencia, California, USA

Lillios CD CoverFor over 50 years electroacoustic music has had a continuous history of works composed and realized in the studio. It is no longer a novelty, and even though it may still be rejected by the entrenched “classical music” establishment, most of the music that people hear today is, in whole or in part, electroacoustic.  In fact, electro-acoustic music (as opposed to acoustic music) is now the dominant creative medium of music in much of the world. With this being the case, one would expect that contemporary masters of the medium would have appeared by now, the pioneering phase having been over for some time. Of course, this is the case, and there are several composers who fit nicely into this category.  One of these is composer Elainie Lillios, and her mastery of the medium is aptly demonstrated in her excellent new CD, Entre espaces, released on the empreintes DIGITALes label.

Lillios has long been a part of the American electroacoustic music scene. She is an associate professor of composition and coordinator of music technology at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, and her work has been presented internationally by organizations such as the GRM, Rien à voir, L’espace du son, and June in Buffalo. She specializes in what most today would call acousmatic music, the modern state of musique concrète, and she also works with live electroacoustic music in several forms, ambisonics, and multimedia installations. Although her music has been previously recorded on 15 compilation CDs, this is her first solo CD.

Putting together a CD of a single composer’s music is no small task, even when the composer does it herself, as is the case with Entre espaces. A successful CD requires not only outstanding music, but like a good concert, the selected content and work order should present a variety of material with a degree of contrast. Few composers would want to be judged on the basis of one work, or a section of a single work, as this would display only a part of their compositional thinking and abilities. Lillios is keenly aware of this, and so has created a CD that takes us on a sonic journey through her compositional ideas, considerations, and techniques.  After listening to Entre espaces, we know her as a composer and can come to a well-deserved appreciation of her work.

The first work, Dreams in the Desert (2001) is an excellent introduction to both the CD and Lillios’s work as a whole. The composer states that this work “…calls to mind the reveries of a person on a desert caravan.” It is quite appropriate, then, that the first timbre we hear is derived from the sound of flowing water, perhaps the most important thing someone on a desert caravan would consider. The beginning of Dreams in the Desert is a short introduction (0:00–0:11), a small ternary structure that presents the water material first in a flowing manner as a constant event with changing pitch and some delay (0:00-0:03), then as isolated events with less delay (0:03-0:08), and then back to the original presentation that quickly crescendos into the first main part of the work beginning at 0:12. Part I (0:12-3:20) is made up of water sounds. The initial event resembles a sustained, Eb <<Typesetter: use flat sign here and elsewhere>> dominant seventh chord created from smoothly looped, flowing water sounds. It is attacked hard and quickly becomes a pedal below variously processed, flowing water sounds. This chord, heard several times in the work, is one of the signature elements of this piece. The pedal chord gradually fades away, but dovetails into a reflection of itself at a lower volume in a higher register, a beautiful and seamless transposition of this material. Meanwhile, the flowing water sounds are treated to increased processing, including comb filtering. Additional voices are added, and the timbre begins to morph into harsher, less pitch-centered events until about 2:30, where the process reverses itself, and the flowing water sounds once again predominate.  So most of part I of Dreams in the Desert is itself a sort of ternary structure, mirroring the introduction, but here the sections are overlaid so that there is a transition from A to B and back to A, creating both timbre and pitch progressions, heard primarily as a timbral change. The Eb chord, at first salient, becomes part of the background, although we are aware of its eventual return to the original pitch in the third section of part I. Thus, the timbral transitions draw most of our attention. The rhythmic aspects of this section, as for the rest of Dreams in the Desert, are secondary, because they are unpredictable and do not create a perceivable structure. Nevertheless, Lillios’s use of dynamically accented attacks, such as in the second section of part I, creates striking rhythmic accents. At 3:07, a noise timbre with a long resending envelope creates a segue to part II.

Part II of Dreams in the Desert (3:21-5:50) consists of ambiguous, crunchy noise sounds. Are they footsteps, the scraping of rocks, or, perhaps, the breaking of dead branches? I do not know, but all of these things come to mind until the material begins to be more heavily processed at 4:44. Lillios starts part II, after the great sweep of the segueing noise envelope, at low volume, and gradually increases the intensity by adding voices and expanding the volume. While the material in the first section of part II (3:21-4:44) is unpitched in the sense that there are no easily perceived fundamentals, the second section (4:44- 5:50) contains an increasing number of pitched elements created from filtering the water material. So there are two progressions that take place in part II. This part comes to an end with the introduction of a low transposition of the signature chord to Gb, beginning at 5:29, that swells to a climax and interpolates down to Eb at 5:48. This creates a dramatic segue to part III.

Part III of Dreams in the Desert (5:50-8:28) (parts II and III dovetail) is again concerned primarily with water sounds. It is reminiscent of the use of the water material in part I. The signature water chord is heard now on Eb (coming from part II) and also on F, creating a more complex harmony. The ebb and flow of the water sounds is more elaborate and presented at higher dynamic levels. Initially, their envelopes are short and percussive, similarly amplitude modulated as in part I. But, gradually, the envelopes of the water material, sounding above the pedal, become longer and build to a large vertical structure by the addition of voices. Thus, part III moves from a sort of heterophony to a shimmering verticality that climaxes with a portamento, sweeping noise chord beginning at 8:21, which continues into part IV. Lillios has achieved yet another, different type of progression in part III.
Part IV (8:28-10:48) (again, parts III and IV dovetail) quickly leaves the water sounds (except for the now wide-ranging chord on F) for the noise material from part II. But we are greatly surprised at 9:46 with the sounds of human voices. While the voices are unintelligible, the inflections are clear, as are the sounds of laughter.  The noise sounds now imply walking through the sand, and one can easily imagine a couple enjoying a hike through a desert landscape. The voices disappear, and we are left with the noise events, now somewhat regular at a walking pace, and the water chord. At 10:30, a long noise envelope, reminiscent of the one that ended part I, sweeps across the stereo landscape; our journey of remembrance is complete.

I have always considered that, with regard to recognition of the sound source, there are two types of acousmatic works: those that seek to hide the original source and those that do not, and, of course, combinations of the two approaches. Dreams in the Desert is of the second type. The listener usually has a good idea of the identity of the original sound material at any given moment. This is especially true with the water and voice sounds. This aspect of the second type of acousmatic work always carries an extra dimension of meaning in the music, for the sounds of water and the human voice, in and of themselves, have both universal and personal meaning for listeners. The noise material in this piece is somewhat more abstract, yet we know it is acoustic. So, the movement between less and more abstract sound materials creates yet another level of progression in the piece.
Because the structures, transitions, and progressions in Dreams in the Desert are apparent to the listener, I take it that the composer has intentionally created the piece with these ideas in mind, and wants them to be heard. This creates teleology in the piece and a strong sense of relationship and meaning that propels the work as a linear-kinetic structure. Furthermore, the attention to detail, particularly concerning spatialization, timbre, pitch, and rhythmic accents, is masterful. The fact that Lillios has achieved so much with very little source material attests to her skill as a composer in the acousmatic medium. Dreams in the Desert is what an excellent musical work realized in the acousmatic tradition should be.

If I were to deal with the details of each of the rest of the works on the CD as I have with Dreams in the Desert, this review would be unwieldy. I wanted to consider at least one work on this CD with some thoroughness in order to demonstrate the care and precision with which Lillios approaches her craft. For the rest of the album, my comments will be more succinct.

The second work on Entre espaces is Arturo (1998), a work based on an interview with a tarot card reader. While the very sound of human voices and their inflections in Dreams in the Desert carries information, here Lillios presents recognizable speech, sentences you would expect a tarot reader to say, such as “There is no such thing as a self-fulfilling prophecy.” The piece, Arturo, reveals both Arturo as diviner and Lillilos’s musical interpretations of the spoken ideas, by manipulating and processing Arturo’s speech in various ways. This creates a direct, dramatic work, one with an overall ominous quality. There are menacing rustles, suspenseful silences and quiet passages, as well as quick gestures of rushing crescendos. The opening ideas immediately give the listener a sense of foreboding, and we never leave this mood throughout the piece, as we progress through the tarot reading from the initial shuffling and dealing of the cards, through Arturo’s final admonition.  Again, Lillios creates the use of a “signature chord” as we heard in Dreams in the Desert with the water chord, but here the chord is made from Arturo’s voice, and the chord itself seems more variable than in the previous piece. But the same chord appears at both the beginning and the end of the piece, making us wonder if the journey Arturo and Lillios have taken us on has given us any real answers to the supposed questions.

The human gasps that open The Hastening Toward the Half Moon (2004) seem, at first, to not have taken us far from the mystery of Arturo. And the fact that The Hastening Toward the Half Moon, too, is based on human vocal sounds, creates a relationship to Arturo. But unlike Arturo, in Moon, the vocal sounds contain no words, but are made up of aspirated and mumbled utterances. Lillios states that this piece “…strings together a series of vignettes on life’s eternal mysteries…”  It is a sectional work that is unified through the use of the human voice. While dramatic in its own right, the piece is vaguer than the two previous works, and yet it seems to be permeated with a sense of anxious dread, ending on a low-pitched vocal cluster that closes the piece without offering a sense of resolution.
The three-movement Back Roads comes from a completely different emotional and sonic world. In this piece, Lillios relates personal experiences she has had on three different road trips. The first movement, Shoe Factory, begins with the sound of a truck starting, immediately reminding me of Luc Ferrari’s Presque Rien No. 1. But Lillios’s truck takes off in a screeching rush that goes far beyond Ferrari’s classic. Back Roads lies at various points on the continuum between soundscape composition (which used to be called electro-acoustic music photography) and the more abstract acousmatic approach. To be sure, there are passages of clever manipulation, but in many sections you can hear exactly what is going on. At times, as at the end of Shoe Factory and the middle of Elevator, you feel as though you have entered more of a dream state than one of reality, but this quickly ends when, in Elevator, you are thrown into a swiftly disintegrating pop electronic dance music beat, a surprising and unexpected development, which nicely transitions back to the road sounds of the beginning of the piece. All three movements of Back Roads, as one might expect, deal with car sounds, particularly the Doppler-shifted passing of a fast vehicle. But Tree Tunnel has little of this and is mostly a reverie on the sounds of birds, children, and wind chimes. All of these pieces take the listener on a ride, and none of them end where they started. These may be works relating Lillios’s personal experiences, but almost everyone can follow along these Back Roads with her.

If Back Roads is the most “representational” work on Entre espaces, then the next two pieces, Threads and Stumbling Dance, are the most “abstract.” Threads (1998) is the closest Lillios comes on this CD to what many would regard as a classic example of acousmatic thinking and construction. The work is obviously sectional, and the sound material is always processed beyond recognition. Still, we hear Lillios’s characteristic building up of sections by the accretion of voices of related material, dramatic crescendos, and an overall sense of progression. Stumbling Dance (1998-99) is only slightly less abstract in that there are musical reference points, points of imagined departure and arrival from which, and to which, the music constantly leaves or approaches. The actual arrivals are few, as the music usually veers away before reaching its targeted goal. This idea is first realized primarily in the dimension of pitch. Eventually, rhythm becomes a part of the concept as we arrive at the reference points for longer durations. The piece seems to “dance” around these points, moving to and from them. When we approach the final point of arrival, starting at 11:28, there is, for the first time, a building up of a rhythmic regularity through what sounds like the addition of multiple and independent loops of material. This buildup climaxes at 13:22, unsuccessfully tries to establish itself again, disperses into the sort of material we first heard at 1:21, and dances away into the distance.
The final work on Entre espaces, Listening Beyond… (2007), is the most recent, and also most unusual, of the works on the CD. Perhaps it represents a new direction for Lillios. Originally composed for an ambisonic environment, Listening Beyond… is directly related to Pauline Oliveros’s ideas about Deep Listening: “Deep Listening is a matter of perceiving and making sound interactively, in a way that expands beyond the music to include the environment. Rapport with the space of sounding and with the audience deepens the musical experience for all. A profound experience can be shared and its influence can be spread.”  (Pauline Oliveros, “Listening for Music through Community” in Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 19, pp. 100–101, 2009.) It is not possible to experience the “performance” on a music CD, nor any interactivity that might be involved, and so the work comes through as part of the acousmatic world. But the idea of dealing with “the pace of sounding” does seem clearly involved in Listening Beyond…

As in the other works on Entre espaces, Listening Beyond… involves only a few sound sources: a woman’s voice (perhaps that of the composer) and a percussive vibraphone-like sound (initially presented with descending portamento). As in Lillios’s other works on this CD, the use of limited source material combined with processing variation creates a sense of unification in Listening Beyond… One experiences the feeling that these pieces are from unified sound worlds rather than randomly assembled sections of processed material.
Perhaps the closest sense one can get for the Deep Listening concept in Listening Beyond… comes from the moments when events stop sounding and we hear the material reverberating into silence, points such as at: 1:47, 2:47, 6:15, and the end of the piece. In these few seconds, small details become the focus, and the spectral minutiae that might otherwise be imperceptible take center stage.
The audio quality of this CD is excellent. It has been mixed and mastered with a high regard for the original material, and it retains a wonderfully wide dynamic range. It represents, I think, Lillios’s intentions in the best way that can be achieved with a stereo CD. Listening to Entre espaces takes the listener on an excursion not only through Lillilos’s recent work, but also through her imagination and technical prowess. It is a journey not to be missed. 

Towards the end of Listening Beyond…, we hear a woman’s voice – perhaps it is Lillios herself – asking us “If you listen deeply, can you hear infinity?” I am not sure I can, but I never would have even thought of trying before listening to Entre espaces.