Eli Wallace and His Evolving Approach

Photo by Rafael Arriaga

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There are a lot of reasons I love doing Foxy Digitalis, but chief among them is hearing music I likely wouldn’t have otherwise and getting to talk to people about music that I probably wouldn’t usually cross paths with. Eli Wallace has only recently been on my radar, but his new album, Precepts, is an incredible piece of work. Using a combination of Earle Browne’s pitch content and the graphic notation of Anthony Braxton and Anestis Logothetis, Wallace developed his own approach on Precepts. The four pieces on the album give me a lot to think about from a conceptual approach, but at the same time, it’s incredibly engaging music that I simply want to hearPrecepts is out now on Infrequent Seams.

This interview was done in December. Eli Wallace can be found via his website.

First off, as we wind down 2021, how has this year been for you, and what have been the things that have helped you make it through?

In some ways it’s been an absolutely incredible year, in other respects, it’s been very difficult. Before going any further I think it’s important to note that many struggles I’ve experienced are universal in this time period due to the pandemic and the strange turn that our world has taken, so I just want to acknowledge this element of solidarity and collective struggle that humanity is facing right now. 

As a music teacher, I always commence with something positive and so I’ll start there. This year brought a period of growth for me, as I branch out into new directions artistically and personally. In terms of music, I’m prioritizing what I want to do a lot more, and I recorded two projects (amongst other collective group endeavors) that I think are signifiers or turning points that pave the way for where I want to go. The first was the Precepts album, which I’m sure we’ll talk about later and the second was a solo album that will come out in 2022. These projects took conviction, dedication, and commitment to two things I had some trepidation about doing previously: a) recording one of my graphic scores, and b) recording a solo album in the studio. This past year opened up the possibility of recording more, and I’ve really enjoyed emphasizing this aspect more in my practice.

The struggles I’ve experienced have more to do with general life things. I’ve never experienced so much anxiety in my entire life and I continue to navigate that so that it doesn’t affect my work, my teaching, and my relationships. But it’s difficult. There’s so much uncertainty now and I find myself just being really uncomfortable in social situations. During the beginning part of the pandemic, I survived economically by teaching all my piano lessons online, which really messed with my head in some ways. However, when we emerged from that hibernation I felt so anxious just being around people, playing music, performing, interacting, even just visiting my family. So that’s been tricky to navigate. I love spending time with people collaborating, chatting, and my family is so important to me. So, it’s been bizarre when these bouts of nervousness emerge, I don’t always know how to handle it, but I just keep trying using different strategies. 

So, how have I gotten through it, hmm. I’ve just continued working, thinking, creating, reading. I became very interested in studying Spanish, I always wanted to be fluent in Spanish but never gave it that final push. However, my partner is a native Spanish speaker so it’s become very important to me to speak with her and her family. Therefore, I’ve studied using online programs, listened to a lot of Podcasts, and read books in Spanish. I start every day with Spanish study. It’s opened up a whole new world to me that always caught my interest, but now I feel I am learning about and interested in Central and South America in a whole different way. 

Musically, I’ve gotten through this year by refining my piano practice. I have continued to play consistently throughout the entire pandemic but this year it’s become much more focused. Beforehand, I wanted to maintain my abilities to play different genres so I practiced for hours on that in addition to my improvisational and prepared piano language. This year I’ve narrowed my focus on the skills I need to play improvised music, and I’ve found that to be a huge creative energizer as I deepen my prepared/inside the piano language. 

I always like to ask about your earliest memories of music and sound in interviews as I think it’s so interesting to hear about where things started for artists. Are there any songs or records or even environmental sounds that really made an impression on you when you were young and have stuck with you?

Oh yeah absolutely. Well, I always loved the piano and wanted to play but a lot of teachers stuck these method books in front of me and I was like “no thanks.” I remember my first lesson with William Beatty (an amazing pianist from the Bay Area, California) and right away he taught me how to play a blues/boogie pattern, no sheet music. Afterward, I remember that feeling of just beaming, I was hooked (I think I was about 8 years old). I remember hearing Swiss Movement by Les Mccann and Eddie Harris and I had to learn “Compared to What”. Then I got really into Thelonious Monk and learned a few of his songs that I consistently used to play as a kid like “Monk’s Mood”. Then when I was a little older Claude Debussy was it. As a young teenager, I loved the way his compositions brought a different life and sonic character out of any piano, and when I played his pieces (I learned “Reflets dans l’eau” amongst others as a kid) I remember it transporting me to somewhere else. 

I know this question is primarily about my childhood and initial musical memories but I also felt it necessary to add that Unit Structures by Cecil Taylor and For Alto by Anthony Braxton are the two albums that led me to become an improviser and experimental composer. 

And what, then, drew you to want to play and create music yourself?

This has a rather simple answer I suppose, there was a very clear definitive moment. In High School, I was playing a lot of jazz in the school band, pretty active in the department and in the concerts and was composing music then too (more in the style of straight-ahead jazz). But I was also playing sports. Midway through my senior year of high school, I realized how toxic, sexist, racist, egocentric, and misogynistic that world is and I needed to get far far far far away from it; and I also realized how much I really really really wanted to play music. I quit ice hockey before I got to the end of the season, and after the lacrosse season ended that was it. I started practicing 6 hours a day and composing as well. Even though my focus in terms of genre/practice shifted over the years I’ve dedicated my life to music ever since. I think my biggest inspiration then was my piano teacher David Michel-Ruddy. He was so creative, composing all sorts of pieces using different novel harmonic and rhythmic conceptions and he played gigs all over the Bay Area. I observed what he was doing and I was like “yeah I wanna do that”. 

Let’s get into your new album, Precepts, that’s just out on Infrequent Seams. One thing that I like so much about it is how there’s this interesting conceptual basis for the music that is heightened by the deep emotions of the music. It’s really fantastic. Can you talk a little bit about where you first got this idea to combine Earl Browne’s organization of pitch content and the ideas around graphic notation from Anthony Braxton and Anestis Logothetis?

Yes, I’d really love to explain this project. I just have to say, as musicians, we don’t always get to discuss what we do in a public format like this; we work on our compositional language or improvisational conceits for years and then people hear it without knowing what went into it. So, thank you so much for asking me about this work, it’s really significant and meaningful to me. 

I’ll start with fusing Earle Brown’s ideas with Anthony Braxton and Anestis Logothetis. First, Earle Brown could be my favorite composer (although I generally like to hold off from using superlatives). The way he arranges pitch always fascinates me and every few years I’ll return to his work to do another extensive period of score study of his pieces. For Precepts, I used my own system but it was definitely inspired by his methodologies. I approach every piece from scratch and ask myself what is this piece about? what do I want it to convey or express? and then I go about constructing a particular system for that particular piece. For this work, I knew it was to be guided by the graphics but that each of the four movements would have one pitch suggestion for each performer (total of four musicians: violin, cello, bass, & piano). Thereby, each movement uses four different pitches and the piece has a total of 16 pitches. Only four pitches are repeated in the overall piece, thus resulting in a four-note harmony for each of the four movements, and a four-pitch macro harmony that results from the four pitches that repeat during the course of the entire piece. 

I coupled these pitches with the graphics, which were inspired by all three composers mentioned above. Each instrument has its own characteristic line that meanders on the page to create the score. The piece is read from left to right in all movements (except movement II, which can be read in any direction and in any order). The whole point of this piece is how these lines interact with one another, to quote the instructions to the piece: 

“The relation of the lines to each other pertains to the “rate of interaction” between the instruments… 

Rate of interaction: how closely one’s own musical pulses are related to others…” 

The instructions go into more detail about this but this gives you the general idea when the lines are far apart there is a disparate “rate of interaction” while when the lines are intertwined the musician’s “rate of interaction” is very close. The graphics, therefore, become a vehicle to determine the congruity of pulse between the performers. However, I also add things in the instructions like players can actually jump parts during the movement or play another musician’s line/pitch. So there’s a lot of flexibility too. Every performance will have a certain morphology to it that’s vaguely consistent, but overall each separate iteration will be its own unique thing. This is what I love about creating a graphic score: that it has a framework, a construction, a direction, but there’s also so much freedom. That is so important to me in any composition I create, I’m never interested in just telling people to play a certain note/phrase/rhythm/etc. but I want to create a score that propels the music and the performers to create something together, whatever that may be on any given day; I want to create something that is like a living amorphous document where musicians can discover how they want to interact with it.

Emotionally, to me during the composing process, the recording itself, and the feeling I get when listening to the recording all portray a sense of isolation, loneliness, fear, and deep uncertainty.

Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Building off that, I’m curious what it is about Braxton’s and Logothetis’s approaches and ideas that you are most drawn to?

Phew, don’t know where to start here. Well, Braxton is one of the most important influences on me. I started to pursue developing a solo piano language because of him over a decade ago. But in terms of notation, his combination of graphics and pitch content always intrigued me. I used to employ more pitches and fewer graphics, now I draw more graphics and use less pitch. I’m always struck by how his scores instantly put you into his world, and that propels you to create something within that framework. His guide for different improvisational language types helped me develop my own graphic language. I’ve spent time copying his symbols for such things as “long tones” “staccato line formings” “angular attacks” etc. and composed contrafacts or exercise pieces based on these symbols. After I felt comfortable with that I created my own symbols and designations. Now, with each piece, I start from scratch and create a system for each work. 

Logothetis is another fascinating composer, and I’m always struck at how impressive his pieces are from a visual standpoint. Each piece is striking and necessitates entering into his world. Many of his pieces employ specific graphic instructions for pitch, attack, and movement with less room for improvisation, which inspired me to create a graphic score that can be read left to right, where the musicians are following a consistent thread together. Finally, his bold lines informed my own sketches and final draft of my score from a purely visual standpoint. 

The ensemble you put together for the album – Erica Dicker on violin, Lester St. Louis on cello, and Sean Ali on bass – is top notch. How did the group come together?

Oh wow, yeah I’m so glad you think it’s “top notch”, I definitely agree. Erica, Sean, and Lester are three of my all-time favorite musicians; and they’re all just wonderful human beings. I had the musicians in mind before I started writing the piece, but didn’t reach out to them until I had completed it. I wanted to put together a string and piano ensemble for some time and these three players were the obvious choices to me. I’ve worked with Sean in various groups now, and he always grounds the music in such a profound way. Lester adds life to anything he plays, and he’s a joy to play with. Lastly, Erica was one of the first people I met when I moved to New York and I’ve always thought that she is insanely talented – she can play anything! So this ensemble to me was a no brainer for this piece. The recording session was so organic, seamless, and just plain fun that I really hope we can continue to play and develop as a group in the future.

It’s astounding to me that this recording is the first take of you all together and, I think, shows how incredibly successful the score itself is. What was the experience like when you all got together to record? What kind of preparation did you all do for it?

Again, wow you’re asking about all the things that I was trying to go for! This piece was written during the pandemic. No one was really doing sessions or collaborating much. There were outdoor concerts and sessions but there were no pianos outside. However I wanted to play with people, I wanted to record a new piece. So, my intention in writing the piece was a score that could be successful in doing just that: going into the studio and recording it in one take, without a rehearsal. So, it was an experiment in some ways, the score had to convey enough material to hopefully result in something worthwhile while being simple enough to execute without rehearsing. 

I arranged the session and told the musicians that we were recording a composition of mine. A few days before the session I received some emails inquiring about the piece and if they could see it (as is expected some were worried if there would be difficult passages, etc.). I replied that no I won’t let you see the score before the session but not to worry there’s nothing difficult in it. That was my plan, I wanted them to see the score for the first time the day of the recording. We arrived at the studio, warmed up, sound checked, and then spent some time going over the piece. We talked it through, and as a group discussed things we would do during the recording to make it work. Then we went for it. And that’s exactly what I wanted: a sense of immediacy and urgency that is a result of the parameters set upon us by our current era. We actually recorded another take that day too. But listening back, the first take had the energy that I intended. It was really rewarding to conceive of a strategy beforehand uncertain if it would work or not, and then as a result turns out the first take was the one to use for the record. 

It’s mentioned in the album description that one aspect of Precepts is the consideration of how isolating the pandemic has been and exploring new ways to still collaborate and play with other musicians, even within our current circumstances. Can you talk a little about how your thoughts and ideas around collaboration have changed in the last two years?

Yes, of course. As stated in the previous answer the piece centers around finding ways to continue to collaborate with others during this time period. As a pianist, it’s been difficult logistically to play with others, which has felt very isolating at times. I haven’t had my own space to arrange sessions with other musicians during the pandemic so I’ve relied on practicing on my own and developing my solo language. The pandemic has changed us all, some have changed their direction in music, others have changed their life direction, which is wonderful but I’ve had to reassess who my primary collaborators are. For me, I’m really interested in playing music with people that I really respect and value as human beings, and I’m grateful that I always find people that are really special to me. For future projects, I want to focus on these musical friendships and really develop them. One really special project that developed during the pandemic is the collective MAW (with Jessica Ackerley, guitar, and Frank Meadows, bass). We recorded during the pandemic and our first full-length album will come out in February. Frank and Jessica are two of my favorite people and it’s been a rewarding experience to see our group develop even with the constraints of the pandemic and the fact that Jessica lives in Hawai’i and Frank and I live in Brooklyn. For future collaborations I’m also in a phase where I want to expand and create new groups, I’m hopeful that this will begin to take shape. There are so many musicians with whom I would love to collaborate, some I’ve met recently and others I’ve known for years. 

I have to ask about the Solo/Duo release from late last year. How did that come about? I’m such a fan of Beth McDonald’s playing (not enough tuba players around!) and it was so interesting and fantastic hearing you two together. Any plans for further collaborations?

Wow, thanks so much for listening to that album as well! Beth McDonald is incredible! I scheduled a date to do a concert at Experimental Sound Studio in Chicago and they put us together for that gig (I played a solo set, and then we played duo). I really enjoyed the concert, but I didn’t necessarily have intentions to put it out. Then the pandemic hit and I was listening to recordings of some of my past live concerts and I really liked it and wanted to release it. Plus, they did such a good job of recording it at ESS. 

Back to the duo itself, I really liked playing with Beth, in particular, because of the instrument itself (you’re right, there aren’t enough tuba players around), but also because of the territory we unearthed and how our respective sound worlds overlapped. During the concert there was so much subtly happening with beatings and timbres, the recording really highlighted these elements and you could actually hear all of the nuance. We’ve discussed playing more together, as I’d really like to develop this duo and record something in a studio. Hopefully, that’ll happen in the not too distant future. 

What are you most looking forward to for 2022?

My solo release, I’m so excited for it to be out! I don’t want to discuss it too much before it’s released, but it’s probably the recording I’m most satisfied with that I’ve done. This project is carefully planned and practiced. Every detail adds to the overall concept of the project from the manner in which I practiced leading up to the session, to the mic placement during the recording session, to the post-production work; it’s all conjoining to sculpt this album. I would love to go into more detail about it as I’m a little giddy, but I’ll wait until it’s released. It’s going to come out on Infrequent Seams sometime in 2022. I really can’t wait to share that recording with you when it’s out.

And since we’re at the end of the year, any favorite albums, performances, etc. from 2021 you want to mention?

Roulette and Issue Project Room have done an amazing job of continuing to do concerts regardless of whether they’re in person or live-streamed. At Roulette, I really enjoyed watching the Luke Stewart/Leila Bordreuil Feedback Ensemble, and C. Spencer Yeh’s performance. At Issue, the George Lewis concert of his Recombinant Works was one of the most important concerts I’ve ever seen, and I really enjoyed Joanna Mattrey’s final concert of her residency. 

Classic albums: I became obsessed with Complete Communion by Don Cherry after re-listening this fall. That recording is such a gem, and I’m enamored with the way the form is constructed, particularly how it is continuously dictated via the different themes. 

New releases: Ribbon by Tim Olive on Notice Recordings really stuck with me. I’ve been into Maryanne Amacher’s work this year and her concept of perceptual geography, and I felt that Ribbon captures the specific environmental sonic geography where it was recorded. I also really enjoyed Empty And/Or Church of Plenty by TAK and Brandon Lopez on Tripticks Tapes. I met some of the members of TAK ensemble this year, and well I’m a huge fan of Brandon’s too. 

I’ve also been super interested in Eliane Radigue, especially since INA grm has released a lot of her pieces this year. I particularly enjoyed Chry-ptus — Biogenesis — Arthesis for her classic electronic work. And although it wasn’t released this year I’m obsessed with Charles Curtis’ recording of Occam V.

Lastly, there are two piano albums that I have to mention because I try to listen to other pianists when possible and these two albums influenced me: a) Formation < Deviation by Cranes: Matthias Müller, Eve Risser, Christian Marien and b) Confluence by Magda Mayas’ Filamental both out on Relative Pitch. There are so many more albums I’d like to add here but I’ll stop there as those are the albums that impacted me the most this year, there’s always so much more music!

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