5 Questions to Frances White (composer)

Frances White

Frances White

The work of composer Frances White combines live instruments with electronic soundscapes. Her awards include prizes from Prix Ars Electronica (Linz, Austria), the Institut International de Musique Electroacoustique de Bourges (France), the International Computer Music Association, Hungarian Radio, ASCAP, the Bang on a Can Festival, the Other Minds Festival, the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, The Dale Warland Singers, the American Music Center, The Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, and The Guggenheim Foundation. She is often influenced by nature and traditional music for the Japanese shakuhachi.

What first drew you to working with music technology?

As an undergraduate, I took a class in electronic music, where I worked with a Moog synthesizer. I fell in love with the way one could shape sound, timbre, by hand. The ability to design the spectrum of a sound–to, for example, control the evolution of the individual overtones of a sound over time–was beyond thrilling for me; it was like finding something I had always dreamed of. It allowed me to take this almost painterly approach to sound, shaping timbre as a painter might shape a color.

Did you have any “role models” who helped shape or guide your work directly or indirectly?

Certainly there are many composers who have been important musical influences. Role models are a bit more difficult to identify. I think part of the issue was that, as a young woman composer, there were very few female composers that I could look on as models. So while I had many wonderful and supportive (male) composition teachers, this was a bit of an issue for me.

However, I was lucky enough to have a class with Pauline Oliveros while I was at Brooklyn College, and that was really important for me. She really opened my ears in a very special way. Then later, at Princeton, I had the chance to work with Eleanor Hovda. She was a truly great composer (I really love her music and its focus on timbre, on sound) and a wonderful, caring, supportive mentor. She became a very important role model for me, both as a composer but also as a teacher.

How do you feel about performer presence in your mixed electronic works and how do you approach blending the two seemingly very different sound / psychological worlds of live instruments and electronic sound?

Although I have written electronics-only pieces, there is nothing more satisfying to me as having live performers in my music! First off, just from the sound perspective – the sound of live instruments is like nothing else in the world. And second, I really draw inspiration from the passion, the creativity, and intelligence of great performers. I like to think of the electronic part as a kind of sonic space, within which the performers find their place. One reason why I love to include electronic sound is that then I am giving the performers some of the actual sound world that we are creating–not just the abstraction of notes on a page, but actual sound.

Blending the two can be tricky, and of course you are always a bit at the mercy of what hall you are in, what equipment is available, etc. When I’m composing, I have a very clear sense of how the two parts relate, and how I hope their sounds will resonate together. But it can be frustrating when the limitations of the hall or equipment get in the way. Often it can help to slightly amplify the instruments, not so much for volume, but rather to bring them a bit more into the electronic sonic space. Again, this tends to be very space specific. In general, too, I find it helpful if there are speakers in the back as well as the front of the hall, to give the electronic sound more of an almost physical presence like the instruments. But this is not always available, you just kind of hope for the best!

Your music creates delicate, meditative, quiet and sustained soundscapes, requiring a certain amount of concentration from both the listener and the performer (in a 1996 profile of you, James Pritchett writes about inspiration from the art of bonsai cultivation, which requires an enormous amount of patience!). Are there particular modes of listening that you hope for the audience to engage in?

I am interested in Deep Listening, which to me is a kind of transformative experience. As a listener, composer, or performer, you immerse yourself in the sound, and really kind of give yourself to it, and by doing this, I think the music can transform you. I think this does require a lot of the audience, performer, and composer, but I think it is a really important spiritual place that I hope to reach with my music. I have a particular interest in quiet sounds, because I think that quiet things have a way of encouraging you to sort of “lean forward” and listen more carefully, more profoundly. But at the same time, my music can be very romantic and expressive, and I hope that this can connect directly with the emotions of audience and performer.

As a musician, I want to reach a place where I join with the music spiritually, emotionally, physically, and mentally, and I hope that my music can evoke this for listeners. This kind of listening does require a great deal of concentration and care.

Is there any advice you can give to young musicians interested in working creatively with technology in a professional capacity, and in particular, young women?

One very nice thing nowadays is that working with technology is no longer considered a fringe activity! Technology is in our musical lives in all sorts of different ways, it’s almost taken for granted. The main advice I would have for young musicians is to always keep in mind why you are using the technology. If you are really a musician, then the tech should be in the service of the music; it shouldn’t be an end in itself. Cool technology might be very interesting in its own right, but (at least for me, as both composer and listener) the bottom line is to create a beautiful, engaging, powerful artistic experience.

My guess is that technology is much less intimidating to young women nowadays, as opposed to when I was growing up. However, you still do come across this attitude that technology is not something that women are involved in. And women are still a minority as composers of any variety, and in particular as composers who use technology. Not only that, but I think women still face an uphill battle getting recognition for their work, largely because the status quo is so male dominated, and is very resistant to change. Young women should be aware of this, and aware of the fact that in some ways, it’s still just going to be harder for them to get recognition, performances, commissions, etc. than for their male colleagues. And while being aware of this, to always maintain a very clear idea of what you want to do artistically, and just go after it with passion and resolve.

Frances White can be found online at