A discussion with Elaine Walker

Elaine Walker is the founder and visionary of the all-electronic microtonal space-pop band, ZIA. Since 1991, her philosophy for ZIA has been to show a positive view of the future, to embrace technology as an inevitable part of it, while breaking down unnecessary artistic walls. The biggest artistic “wall” in her eyes is the 12-tone tuning. Elaine got her degree in Music Synthesis at Berklee College , where Dr. Boulanger introduced her to the Bohlen-Pierce Scale. She received her masters in Music Technology at NYU, studying under Dr. Rowe. Since then she was a music editor for the cartoon, Pokemon, for six years, and taught Electronic Music at colleges in the Phoenix and Las Vegas areas for nine years. In 2016 she became Director of the DJ and Electronic Music Programs at SCC. Elaine continues to spend her time developing microtonal-friendly MIDI controllers and composing in her favorite equal temperaments.

Elaine has also regularly volunteered for the NewSpace community, promoting the idea of humans living in space. She spent five summers in the High Arctic working for the NASA Haughton-Mars Project, and that included the production of a music video for her song, Martians. She is a proponent of longevity and a member of the cryonics organization, Alcor. She is also the author of a non-fiction physics/philosophy book, Matter Over Mind: Cosmos, Chaos, and Curiosity. - Aaron Krister Johnson

UnTwelve: What are you up to these days? Any exciting musical projects around the bend?

EW: After the ZIA Drum’N’Space album was released in 2011, I filled my time with finishing my book, Matter Over Mind: Cosmos, Chaos, and Curiosity, which came out in 2016. I also had a baby during that time, and worked very hard on building Vertical Keyboards to make a more exciting keyboard for live performance and to serve the Xenharmonic community. I had an amazing job – I was Director of both the Electronic Music and DJ programs at SCC in 2016, but made the tough decision to resign so that I could move back to my home town to take care of my parents. So nowadays I’m promoting my book, raising Alice, taking care of my folks, plotting the production of an improved Vertical Keyboard model, blogging, and carving out time to finish my long overdue music album, Microchip.

UnTwelve: Excellent, sounds like you have a rich and busy life. Tell us about the material that will be on Microchip. Will you be releasing it as ZIA or as Elaine Walker?

EW: Microchip will sound as the name suggests–Microtonal and inspired by chip music, aka video game music. At least that is my starting point. We'll see where it takes me. That’s a very good question as to whether I will release it as ZIA or Elaine Walker. It may be fully instrumental, and not geared toward a live show, so I’d be inclined to release it as a solo album. However, my solo albums have all been purely pro-space music that I’ve performed at space conventions, so that’s a very narrow niche. This album will match more with my ZIA music. So I’ve gone back and forth on that, but am inclined to release it as ZIA. It probably can’t hurt to have an instrumental ZIA album.

UnTwelve: Regarding chip music/video game music, is there anything lately that has inspired that direction? And, will Microchip use an authentic sonic palette, i.e. will you be limiting yourself to, for instance, 8-bit audio, etc.?

EW: I like the idea of concept albums, such as Drum’N’Space was, and the concept of Microchip is also encapsulated in the name itself. But also, I want to write an album that is more like what I actually listen to – blipy, bleepy instrumental music, devoid of emotional content. I hope to incorporate lots of 8 bit sounds, and specifically SID chip and Commodore 64 sounds. As I said, it’s just a launching point. I thought Drum’N’Space would be purely Drum’N’Bass style "with space on top" but it ended up with all sorts of different drum styles. Instead, the name "Drum’N’Space" ended up having a deeper meaning beyond simply the style of music. It ended up defining the plot of the space rock opera, where my ZIA crew drums our way through space. (We set the trajectory of our ship by drumming patterns, of course.) We shall see where "Microchip" takes me.

UnTwelve: Following up on part of the previous answer: what kinds of things are you listening to? Can you say more about what you mean by "blipy, bleepy instrumental music, devoid of emotional content"...would you say then you lean towards the Apollonian end of the spectrum, and away from the Dionysian? If so, oddly, I see your music as embracing a futuristic ethos, but in its sonic palette, and its gestures, I find it Dionysian, sensuous, and I daresay, emotional! I'm thinking of tracks like Love Song, Avatar, and Love is the Catalyst. Am I hearing it all wrong?

EW: My 5 year old Alice and I listen to 70s and 80s in the car, which I love equally, and also to current top 40 (only to analyze current production techniques and Alice loves to sing along). I always enjoy listening to my friends’ music, whatever shape it takes. The music I listen to when I read, write, or sleep, is IDM (Intelligent Dance Music), which is minimal instrumental synthy music that seems to align with my brain patterns and doesn’t get in the way of thinking and processing information (as emotional and/or lyrical music would). I used to listen to an IDM radio station a lot, and their tagline was "blips and bleeps backed by beats." Of course I also love some classic synth music such as Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre, Louis and Bebe Baron, and Morton Subotnick’s Silver Apples of the Moon.

I’m sure I lean heavily toward the Apollonian end of the personality spectrum, but when I think about it too hard within the context of my music my brain almost fries, as I talk myself into some contradictory illogical loop. You can hear me do it to myself in real-time in the Genesis P-Orridge interview of ZIA that I just posted on our website.

In the early days of ZIA there were no emotional "love songs". Like a lot of industrial music, some of it was issue-oriented, but mostly it had a sci-fi vibe. We developed the live show to have a cold, stark, futuristic aesthetic that I hoped would be enjoyable as an "escape" for the audience, but also to spark their curiosity about the future of humanity. For purely survival reasons we gradually became a pop band, as DJ’s were grabbing the dance gigs for $50 instead of the $500 we had been charging. The rave scene killed the industrial scene. So as a pop band, emotional relationship stuff naturally made its way into some songs (I’m only half Vulcan after all). And the other songs were perhaps even a bit inwardly emotional, being about futurist topics that I feel deeply about.

The newest album that you referred to, Drum’N’Space, was written as a space rock opera about "intergalactic dating" issues (based on real life), so it is naturally full of tragic-relationship songs. I wrote it in a way that should be a humorous, family oriented affair from the audience’s perspective, but there are definitely pockets of deep emotion in the songs you mention, Love Song and Avatar. This album is the perfect example of the confusion I was having over whether my love songs were funny or sad, during the Genesis P-Oriddge interview.

I never did work out my love life. Any single Apollonian Dads out there?

The other song you mentioned, "Love Is the Catalyst," is about humanity’s place in the Universe, and it sums up the punchline of my book, "Matter Over Mind: Cosmos, Chaos, and Curiosity." Here’s one quote from Chapter 9 that refers to it, which I derived it purely from logic. I will leave it to you and the readers to decide whether it’s Apollonian or Dionysian.

"[…]many of us get that "spiritual" feeling, if you will, when we read about the Cosmos or anything profoundly mysterious to us. If we evolved to have a purpose here, I could only imagine that we are now the eyes and ears of the Cosmos—the Universe trying to figure itself out! For this, we need ample free time to ponder. And to have free time, we need civilization. Being civilized involves the sturdy fabric made up of communities and families, which, of course, requires friendship and love. So it is clear in my mind that love is the ultimate catalyst for our continued existence."

UnTwelve: That certainly clarifies a lot. And you listen to Cliqhop! Christopher Bailey (from our board) brought that station to my attention a few years ago. Anyway, one thing I want to address with you: you certainly not only represent an admirable song-craft and imagination-craft model to your fellow musicians, but you are an excellent producer in the technical studio sense. What are some key bits of wisdom that you've learned over the years that would benefit others in that regard? I'm thinking, in particular, of the Pareto Principle: what 20% of what improve most people's production-craft 80%?

EW: Always have a sense of the three-dimensional aspect of the sound coming out of the speakers when mixing a song: (1) left—right (panning), (2) near—far (dry versus reverb), and (3) up—down (high frequencies versus lows). Good, modern sounding mixes use both aspects of all three. Use any of the three dimensions to freshen and modernize a mix over the course of a song. For example, make vocals super dry in the versus and then use long reverb/delay during the chorus. Pan a sound fully to the center for one part of a song, then widen it out to left–right for another. There are also many ways to use these three dimensions to clean up a mix. For example, if two equally important sounds step on each other in a mix, try all three techniques and use whatever sounds best: (1) pan one sound left and the other right, or (2) make one dry and the other wet with reverb, and (3) high pass filter one sound and low pass filter the other so that they share less of the same frequencies. You’ll not only be cleaning up the mix, but adding depth and variety at the same time.

UnTwelve: There's a goldmine in that answer, great, thanks! So, tuning-wise, what tunings continue to inspire you with their sonic resources, and why? And, are there any tunings/temperaments that you feel you haven't explored that are calling to you?

EW: I like the limitation of working with equal divisions, mainly because it interests me to find the "flavor" of each one. What I enjoy most is how one tone or interval or chord sonically leads into the next, over the course of a phrase or progression, within the context of any given tuning. That interests my ears and reveals the flavor of a tuning much, much more than simply the quality of each individual chord–how "in tune" they are. Also, with equal divisions I can compose and transpose freely without having to worry about using a "dynamic tuning."

The Bohlen-Pierce Scale, with the tritaves instead of octaves, is extremely compelling research-wise, when it comes to psycho acoustic affects such as how we perceive inversions, transpositions, and the frame of a scale (such as octaves versus tritaves). So I will always continue to attempt more music in BP. I delved into 16edo and 17edo during the course of composing my last album, and they were both sonically painful until I got a handle on them. Once I found the right note combinations they were suddenly beautiful and exotic. I still have a lot to learn about those two tunings and I’m not sure which one I love more. I’ve messed around with 15edo and 18edo, and they weren’t cooperating, but someday I will get to them. Most importantly, I have also never tried 20edo, and being the biggest fan, ever, of 10edo that I know, I want to try using 20 in the same way I use 10, but with the "quarter tones." It will be very interesting since 10 is a "macro-tuning" and that always means a more open, alien sound with the larger intervals, whereas 20 is a "micro-tuning," so I can selectively add the tenseness of tiny intervals within the macro feel. (Sorry, 19edo, we had a thing for a long while but I’m still tired of you.)

UnTwelve: Do you have a creative regimen? As a father and a full-time 9 to 5er, I certainly struggle to keep momentum for myself, so I'm sure you potentially have a struggle to find creative time as a busy mother and multi-faceted creative artist. How do you manage keeping the creative energy and inspiration going?

EW: I simply cannot go very long without some kind of creative outlet, and unfortunately music has taken a back seat for a while. Writing my book had me all tied up for several years. It was a great creative outlet, but finishing it was torture. I normally need long uninterrupted hours to compose music and that is still hard to come by. I know you can sympathize with me on how busy parenting can be! I also am a caregiver for my parents now. Ironically, through all of this, Alice has actually saved my creative sanity. I’m a compulsive teacher, so I naturally find creative ways to teach her this or that, and it has usually been very spontaneous. I sometimes grab the camera and record video of her learning stuff and edit it together into short videos. Editing is a creative passion of mine. There have also been pockets of keyboard–controller–building whenever I get an order in. When there is a lack of anything creative to do, but not enough time to write music, I just organize, organize, organize everything around me. Another thing I need in order to feel creative is for everything in my life to generally be in order so that I have no real worries (the opposite of most musicians). A few things have come together now. I’m completely organized, including organizing my time a bit better, Alice has grown mature enough understand that Mommy has to write music for a while, and I have surrendered to working in one or two hour chunks. So now–yes now!–I am finally getting to work on a new music album.

UnTwelve: You get to choose 5 tracks of yours; the rest get wiped out while stored on a quantum data drive during a horrific meteor storm. What are the 5 essential Elaine Walker/ZIA tracks, in your estimation, that should survive?

EW: What a terrible question! OK, I have five albums so I will pick, not necessarily my favorite, but what I feel might be the most important one from each: Stick Men from ZIAv1.5, Future from SHEM, the title track from Big Bang (sorry Plastic Man!), the title track from Martians, and Love Is the Catalyst from Drum’n’Space.

UnTwelve: Thank you for taking the time to chat with us, Elaine. We will certainly eagerly anticipate your next release and all other future releases!

EW: Thank you, Aaron, for reaching out! It has been a real pleasure.