notes from the "pop" end of the spectrum (Part III: Elaine Walker)

by Aaron K. Johnson 2013-10-09 @ 20:25:43

We're now in the 3rd installment of our series on microtonality in "popular" styles: pop, rock and dance music, progressive or straight ahead.

One of the more important and long-standing "pop" artists in the realm of micro- and macro-tonality, and/or alternate tunings is Elaine Walker, who is also known as Zia. Elaine is an interesting case, in that she combines a traditional pop image, with all the glamour and sex-appeal associated with it, with a brainy, nerdy, high-tech, and space-oriented edge to her work that goes beyond the usual Madonna-wannabe modality we are now used to in commercial pop. In a way, it's what both makes her music special, appealing, and also, alas, less likely to get that million-dollar per minute radio's almost too intelligent for prime time!

Deciding that what she needed to express musically was adventurous and exotic and beautiful beyond the norm, especially since she is passionately dedicated to all things astronomical, Elaine declared at one point a ban for her band on standard 12-edo instruments in favor of heavy use of tuning such as 10-edo, 19-edo, and more recently, the Bohlen-Pierce scale. [CORRECTION--Elaine informed me that Bohlen-Pierce was actually one of the first, in 1991's track Stick Men, and that she has since also moved on to explorations in 16- and 17-edo] She is involved in designing her own keyboard controllers, software triggers, costumes, and other electronics for her live shows, and is clearly able to get technical and take charge of her vision. Although she is highly intelligent at understanding the theoretical side to tuning and scale-building, her approach to song-craft is highly intuitive, melodic and ear-catching. To my mind, she combines the quirkyness and intelligence of an artist like Bjork with the more traditional kitsch and "blond bombshell" image of an iconic performer like Madonna, but with the subject matter of the songs being more un-earthly, literally.

A graduate of Berklee school of music, where she majored in music synthesis production, and of NYU, where she received a Master's degree in music technology, Elaine is a studio and technical wizard. Currently she teaches at Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, and is also an entrepreneur, designing her own line of vertical keyboards, to bring out the lead guitarist persona in all of the new microtonalist keyboard players! Another key aspect to Elaine's persona is that her space theme isn't just an act: she's an active amateur astronomer and has even been involved with NASA on Mars promotional materials...see below.

Looking at her discography over the years, where she has alternated between appearances as a solo artists and her chosen "nome de plume", we surely see a dedicated artist who works hard and has an impressive body of work that both highlights her unusual gifts: catchy hooks, amazing synthesizer programming, and absolutely golden production values (no doubt, in no small part due to her time at Berklee). In addition, she has a cool and suave vocal quality and delivery. What's not to love here?

Which brings us to the music. As reviewed elsewhere on this site, the most recent release, Drum 'N' Space is an excellent introduction to her work, as her craft is by now extremely finely tuned.

But one would be remiss not to mention one of my all time favorite tracks of hers, which I hinted at above. Commissioned by NASA Haughton-Mars project and filmed in the high arctic, featuring Elaine walking around and dancing in a spacesuit while imagining mankind overcoming its more primitive limitations a la Carl Sagan, the song Martians is really a great first track to show people what Zia and Elaine are all about, but do check out more of her stuff on her youtube channel.


Aaron K. Johnson 2013-10-12 @ 06:07:22

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