Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Elinor Armer

ANG Newspapers, 1995

It takes a creative sort of person to see a relationship between plate tectonics and music. Berkeley composer Elinor Armer, and her artistic collaborator, science fiction/fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin, feel that the two indeed interrelate and they have just completed the last element of a set of pieces with this in mind.

This latest piece, Island Earth, will receive its world premiere tonight at 8 p.m. at Zellerbach Hall on the University of California, Berkeley campus when it is played by the Women's Philharmonic orchestra under the baton of JoAnn Falletta. Besides orchestra, the piece will involve the San Francisco Boys' Chorus and 23-member "Uttermost Men's Chorus."

Le Guin describes Island Earth as dealing with "the formation of the Earth, using the splendid images of plate tectonics, volcanism and island building. Geology is the science of Time and Earth, and the drama of the interplay of Time's vastness and Earth's living, ever-changing being." According to the quick-witted, genial Armer, such imagery lends itself beautifully and naturally to music. "Music is the Art of time," she posited during a telephone interview last Wednesday.

She explained that the collaboration with Le Guin began nine years ago when the two came upon the idea of creating a work to describe an archipelago of fantasy islands in which music is paramount. "What if music could be used as food? Or water? What if it functioned as roads, walls, weaving, or a love potion?" she said. The women named their fantasy islands and the music describing them, The Uttermost Archipelago. It consists of eight separate sections or pieces chronicling the "exploration" of the individual island in the archipelago. [Note added in 2005: Uses of Music in Uttermost Parts is the name on Ursula Le Guin's website for a 1995 composition described as seven pieces for orchestra, chamber group, voice, and/or chorus, music by Elinor Armer, recorded by Koch International Classics. There is no mention of an eighth piece or of another composition with music by Armer and text by Le Guin.]

"On each island, music is used in a different way," says Armer. "On the isle of Hoi, it is food and we use a mixed chorus. On Oling, music is weather and we use a chamber group consisting of cello, viola, piano, percussion and narrator. A girls chorus performs in `Anithaca, the Island of the Daughters of Penelope' and their music is highly contrapuntal as it depicts weaving on a giant loom."

Since the project has grown to such large proportions and utilizes such a variety of musical ensembles, it is difficult to assemble the resources to do the whole thing live. As a result, the entire eight-part work will be recorded for KOCH International Classics following tonight's premiere of its final section, Island Earth.

Armer was born in Oakland in 1939 and raised in Davis. Her creativity was fostered by her father, Austin Armer, an acoustical engineer who invented stereophonic sound reproduction and even coined the "stereophonic," and her mother Alberta, a writer of children's books.

Her penchant for composition was ignited when her parents started her on piano lessons at age eight with Olive Shipstead of Davis. Remembers Armer, "Mrs. Shipstead gave me a great deal of ear training and harmonic and rhythmic dictation along with teaching me how to play the piano. She sharpened my ears and made it all into playful games. And she often had me make up and play my own pieces."

Mills College, from which she graduated in 1961, provided even further stimulation. She proceeded on to graduate study at UC Berkeley and received a Master of Arts degree in composition from California State University, San Francisco. Darius Mihaud, Leon Kirchner, Roger Nixon and Alexander Liberman were among her teachers.

Now the chairman of the composition department at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, she has received national recognition for her performed, published, and recorded works. She also remains an important advocate of new music and is a founding member of the Bay Area Contemporary music series, a member of the American Music Center and the Society of Composers, Incorporated, and has received awards and honors from the MacDowell Colony, the Charles Ives Center for American Music, Yaddo, the Djerassi Foundation, and more. She is also in frequent demand as a panelist, reviewer and adjudicator and has served on advisory panels for NEA and the U.S. Information Agency.

In spite of her many academic accolades, however, her musical style is very accessible, rhythmically lively and reflects her tonal background. "I am a very harmonic animal," she emphasizes, "and I almost always base my music on a program _ even when there is no specific text, there is a sort of narration going on in my mind. For this reason, my collaboration with Le Guin was a complete joy _ it freed my imagination. And I've always enjoyed playing popular music and jazz by ear. My music, I think, is all the better for it."

Playfulness and humor also play a part in her music. "I take playing very seriously and think it is essential to survival," she says. "We suffer when we're deprived of play. Art is, in fact, a form of human play."

Of the current state of creative music in the world, she says, "We've had an explosion of musical languages in the 20th century _ and because of the quick worldwide communication through the mass media, things are evolving faster. Music has a shorter shelf life now than it did before my father's stereophonic sound."

With the verbal facility of a philosopher, she characterized mid-20th century music as being rather academic, technically skillful and taking on the properties of intellectual systems. "It was more science than art," she says. "But lately, we seem to be longing for more pure artistic expression. There may be some reversion to art with purely human values _ art that touches the emotions."

In agreement is Frank LaRoca, a professor of composition and music theory at California State University, Hayward, and one of Armer's fellow founders of Composers, Inc. Says LaRocca, "Elinor is so quick with the bon mot -- an extremely bright woman in everything she does. You see it in her conversation, her incredibly quick wit and her ability to use words in the most surprising ways." "Her music," he continued, "shows that same spark of intelligence in a mind that is able to instantly create associations and streams of thought that are always original, refreshing, and meaningful. There's great substance to what she has to say."

And after sitting in on several performances given throughout the Bay Area this week of sections of her Uttermost Archipelago, she said with a smile in her voice, "I think I am becoming recognized for my music now - and not just for my gender."

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