“From my perspective, SPLICE Institute is about building and maintaining a community of creative individuals who all value the use of technology in music-making, whether it be performing, composing, producing, research, etc. We focus specifically on composing and performing, but the core of both of these is collaboration, creativity, and community. I call them the three ‘C’s’ of SPLICE…Did the field need a workshop like SPLICE? Absolutely! Did it get more than just a ‘workshop where you can learn about technology?’ Definitely.”
Elainie Lillios, SPLICE faculty
Permanent and Guest SPLICE 2017 Faculty Members – L to R: Elainie Lillios, Richard Johnson, Sam Wells, Keith Kirchoff, Adam Vidiksis, Christopher Biggs, Per Bloland, Paula Matthusen
Steven Ricks (SR): I remember when Keith was using Facebook to audition various acronyms for what eventually became “SPLICE.” At the time, I had known Keith for a while and had met Christopher, and I knew the two of them were involved with this collaboration, and that it was likely to involve others. How did this whole thing get started? And how did the faculty grow to the six of you?
Christopher Biggs (CB): Keith called me to discuss an idea he and Adam had talked about at a conference. My boss was looking to start a summer composition program at Western Michigan University, but we had no unique idea. This idea was the first idea that would not be white noise amongst summer programs. WMU was willing to be supportive and provide space, equipment, and some crises money, if things went badly. Keith and I talked and had a nearly identical vision of who would be appropriate on faculty. All six of the core faculty were involved in the first year. Elainie was the first guest composer, but we always were hoping that she would return and we were thrilled when she was willing. While we were concerned about selecting the initial faculty, I do not think we imagined that the core faculty would be so consistent or work so well. I think we were lucky that we clicked in this capacity together. It took a good deal of time to work on the specifics of what would happen the first year and it has changed each year, but the underlying mission has been very consistent. It also took a long time to come up with SPLICE as an acronym, which we just dropped, and to call it SPLICE “Institute,” verses some other term. The initial desire for the name to be an acronym repeatedly resulted in SPICE and other funny words, but thankfully we found an alternative.
Keith Kirchoff (KK): I had been wanting to start a festival like SPLICE for several years, but being unaffiliated to any university left me with obvious challenges. I would casually chat with various faculty from different institutions over the years, not formally proposing SPLICE, but just tentatively feeling whether or not they’d theoretically be a good fit (Steve: You had no idea, but I even casually ran the idea by you maybe seven years ago, sussing out whether BYU might be a fit!)
(I remember that, Keith! I guess I blew it 🙂 )
In the summer of 2013 I started to get more serious about the idea and the time felt right. It then dawned on me that the perfect place would really be Western Michigan and the perfect collaborator would be Chris Biggs! I had known Chris for several years, and had recently visited Western as a guest artist. I was really struck with how passionate Chris was about his students and his program, not to mention that Chris is one of the most reliable and dependent people I know.
I drafted up a proposal about how a festival might look and sent it to Chris in an email. As luck would have it, they had just had a meeting about wanting to host a unique summer festival at Western but didn’t have any proposals on the table. Then mine showed up in Chris’s inbox!
Western has been abundantly supportive from the start, and it’s been the perfect location!
With Western on board, Chris and I got to chatting about faculty. It was the easiest discussion: we both drafted our lists and they both included nearly the exact same people! The only difference was Chris hadn’t really ever met Adam, and I had heard him play at SEAMUS 2011. I was really struck with his craft, his stage presence, and I knew he had to be involved.
Elainie Lillios (EL): When Keith approached me to be the first SPLICE Institute guest I literally ran through my house shouting “Yes! Yes! Yes!” — Firstly because I thought it was amazing that Keith and Chris chose me out of all the great EA composers in our community, and secondly because I had always wanted to start a similar program at BGSU but was never able to do so. There always seemed to be a big need in our community for a technology-focused summer program and with not being able to launch it myself, the next best thing was to join others who had the same idea and also the ability to get it off the ground. My first SPLICE Institute experience was amazing and inspiring, so when they asked me to stay on at the end of the week (and I may have said something like “please please keep me!” but my memory on that is a bit fuzzy) I accepted immediately. I love the SPLICE team.
Sam Wells (SW): I clearly remember receiving the email from Keith about a year before the first SPLICE Institute asking me if I was interested in being apart of this summer festival. I was quite honored to have been asked to join a faculty of people I really look up to. The basic premise of the Institute was already fleshed out by Keith and Chris at this point, and it really resonated with me. I actually just pulled up the original email and my responses was “I am 100% in.”
Adam Vidiksis (AV): At that time, I was particularly concerned about the equilibrium in EA between performers and composers. So many programs were focused on producing highly-skilled electroacoustic composers, but performance programs weren’t keeping up. In the composer-performer ecosystem, there needs to be many more performers than composers if great works are going to live on past their premiere. There were a number of wonderful programs offering EA performance as an important part of their studies, but not enough to achieve that healthy balance. I had known Keith for a few years on the conference/festival circuit, and one night we hashed out some solutions over beers. At this point, it was largely a hypothetical exercise—but Keith was determined to make some sort of festival happen. I was very happy and excited when I learned that he had established this opportunity with Chris at WMU, and of course, was thrilled that they wanted me to join the faculty. Through the years, a number of things have changed about SPLICE, but this mission to help form better EA performers remains a core part of our mission. Other than Keith, I initially only knew the other faculty members as acquaintances from conferences before our first year, but I knew and greatly respected their music. Keith is one of those consummate artists who really achieves excellence in all he does, so I knew the faculty that he and Chris had put together would be wonderful. What surprised me the most was how quickly and easily we all got along. Now these are some of my dearest friends.
Per Bloland (PB): I also have a very clear memory of receiving the invitation from Keith to join the faculty that first year! My reaction was similar – basically “are you kidding me, this sounds amazing!” I remember reading the initial description from Keith and thinking how strange that something like this didn’t already exist. The possibility of being a part of it from the start was incredibly exciting. And that was before I saw the full faculty list. I already knew everyone on that list, some better than others, but the prospect of working with them all just seemed like fantastic opportunity.
Christopher Biggs holds forth on the finer points of electro-acoustic composition to participants in the 2017 SPLICE
What was the impetus for creating SPLICE? Was it just a desire to work together with a focus on involving electronics, or did you also feel there was a need for your sort of workshop?
CB: I think we have a fairly idealistic concept that drives our focus and desire to do SPLICE Institute. I think we all believe in music that combines highly-skilled, expertly interpreted performances of music that has a robust, dynamic, and detailed electronic component. I think we feel that this medium has created amazing pieces and continues to evolve in interesting ways, but that the work is underrepresented in programming and pedagogy. That underrepresentation, in our view, results from various factors: 1) the inability of composers to create work that is technologically competent and functional in performance, 2) the inability of composers to match an aesthetic vision with a particular technological method, 3) the inability of composers to create fixed media and live electronics that are produced as adequately as we expect based on the quality of production of audio for other media, 4) the inability of individuals to maximize the equipment they have available to appropriately make a piece sound good in a particular space, 5) the lack of performers who have the technical knowledge to setup and execute performances involving electronics, and 6) the inability of performers to interpret works with electronics adequately. Curricula at schools of music are not covering these things for composers, nor – with some notable exceptions – for performers. So we felt that need. We also felt that music for instruments and electronics would be presented more often, if we designed a program that focused on community-building and collaboration. We wanted there to be a sense that you were meeting and working with people who you would continue to work with and support moving forward. I think that conferences do this for individual disciplines, but we try to do this for composers and performers. That is why it is important that the collaborations that happen are not between some ensemble that we bring in that plays a work once, but between composers and performers who are participating in SPLICE as colleagues.
KK: Yeah, Chris pretty much summed it up in a nutshell. I might elaborate a little from the standpoint particularly of a performer.
When we started SPLICE, I was regularly noticing that – with a few exceptions – I was generally only hearing this music at conferences or with the composer present. Generally speaking, performers weren’t programming the music on their own. This lack of integration into a regular concert experience has really led to what is oftentimes a really stark line between “composers” and “electroacoustic music people.” I think of my own undergrad: as a piano major, I wasn’t allowed to study composition. But I was allowed to study EA music because it wasn’t seen as composition at all.
I think the largest reason that performers weren’t generally including this music on their programs – besides a lack of knowledge about its existence – was an insecurity around the technology. How does this work?? I’m sent a Max patch, and what the heck am I even looking at? What am I supposed to do? You mean you want to press a pedal in addition to play my instrument? Whaaaat???
This insecurity – at times, even straight up animosity – with the technology is completely understandable. A performer spends decades perfecting their craft on their instrument. We want to walk on stage being confident that we not only have the tools to play the music well, but we also have the tools to recover and be convincing if the music doesn’t go well. Once technology is added to the mix, it adds an extra wild card that can be terrifying!
But it really doesn’t have to be that way at all. At SPLICE, we break down the zillions of parcels of technology info into bite-sized chunks of what would particularly help a performer. You don’t have to know gen~ or fft to be comfortable working with technology from the perspective of a performer. Give the performer a few basic tools, and their confidence and comfort levels will soar!
EL: From my perspective, SPLICE Institute is about building and maintaining a community of creative individuals who all value the use of technology in music-making, whether it be performing, composing, producing, research, etc. We focus specifically on composing and performing, but the core of both of these is collaboration, creativity, and community. I call them the three “C’s” of SPLICE… Did the field need a workshop like SPLICE? Absolutely! — Did it get more than just a “workshop where you can learn about technology?” — definitely.
AV: I’ll elaborate a bit on Elainie’s response: while the impetus for the first year of SPLICE grew out of a perceived need for better resources and instruction for composers and performers to create EA music, much of what has grown since the first summer institute, particularly the festival and ensemble, has come as much from a perceived need as a desire to work together. The last of Elainie’s three C’s orbits around the incredible people on this faculty. The wonderful sense of community that has formed around SPLICE is a result of the passionate, caring, and dedicated musicians involved in the organization, their relationship to this art, to each other, and to the participants.
PB: At the risk of over-inflating Elainie’s list of Cs, I might add a fourth one – for craft. I think the balance between creativity and craft is particularly tricky when composing with technology. It’s easy to get lost in the technical fun and under-represent the resulting music, or conversely to rely on under-developed electronics when composing. I think SPLICE does a particularly good job of addressing this issue. Between our technical classes, our group aesthetics meetings, and all the ongoing discussions in between, we try very hard to tackle this head on. That being said, the thing that hooked me in immediately was the stuff that Keith discussed above – the opportunity to help performers better come to terms with the means to perform electronic works. There seem to be so many performers out there eager to improve their understanding of the tech they interact with, and to gain a greater amount of independence with it. I’m thrilled that we are able to contribute to this trend!
SPLICE Ensemble rehearses during the 2017 institute at Western Michigan University
SPLICE started as a summer workshop, and then evolved to being an “Institute,” and now also includes the SPLICE Ensemble, and a yearly(?) SPLICE Festival. How would you describe or characterize this growth–how did it happen, was all of it planned or has some of it been surprising, etc.?
CB: SPLICE Institute was always SPLICE Institute, but we would just say SPLICE, since it was shorter, but now that we have the other components we are trying to acclimate to saying SPLICE when referring to the organization and SPLICE X, Y, or Z when we are referring to any component thereof. SPLICE Ensemble and SPLICE Festival evolved seamlessly from the summer program. Adam, Keith, and Sam had to work together on programming, curriculum, in performance, and in rehearsals and I think they realized how much they enjoyed working together and wanted to seek performance opportunities year round. Given some of the difficult music that is put together at SPLICE
Institute, we felt that we wanted to repeat some of those performances. We also felt that we wanted an electronic music festival that evaluated the performance in terms of both the interpretation and technique of the performer, in addition to how the performance component was conceived to add expressive value to the presentation of the work. Therefore, when we took submissions, they had to be for a specific performer and we wanted a document of that performer interpreting the work. We also think it is important that we encourage performers to submit pieces, and that they can be the individual who attends–the composer is not required to attend if the performer submits; therefore, someone can work up a piece by anyone and submit it. Lastly, the educational component of SPLICE Institute will be part of SPLICE Festival, since we will have presentations about many of the works that focus on aesthetic and technical features.
KK: Yeah, Adam, Sam, and I really enjoyed playing together a lot, and in a short time have become very close friends. Like Chris mentioned, the SPLICE Ensemble really flowed quite organically from the Institute and has given us the opportunity to work together more than once a year!
We really see the Festival as a natural extension of the Institute with the same core philosophies: that of community, collaboration, and education. When we attend various festivals or conferences, there’s so much that we could be learning! Both performers and composers have interesting perspectives on the tools they used to construct that performance, or ways they overcame certain challenges. These experiences aren’t unique: we all share so many of the same hurdles. By sharing these experiences we can learn from each other and all be better for it!
AV: By year two, Keith, Sam, and I would find our rehearsals interrupted by fits of belly-laughter with moderate frequency. Our various approaches to chamber music, and dedication to the music, made preparing, rehearsing, and performing easy and enjoyable. It is rare to find musicians who you respect so highly merged with personalities that you enjoy so much. We were clicking on both the artistic and personal levels. The decision to start a regular ensemble grew from there.
The Festival is also a way to share this SPLICE community with a wider portion of the EA field. There are many musicians who cannot travel to Kalamazoo for a whole week in the summer. A shorter festival during the year allows even more of the EA world to be involved. We are really excited that there has been so much interest in and support for this organization.
What have you learned about music education in general, and composition and performance instruction in particular, from your involvement in SPLICE? And what feedback have you received from the summer workshop participants about the workshop and the focus on electronic music (electro-acoustic, whatever) composition/performance?
CB: We have changed and adapted significantly each year based on feedback and the teaching interests and skills of our guest faculty. An example of change is that we are adding an advanced performer track for SPLICE Institute 2018. The focus on electronic music composition and performance has been why people have attended, so I think that has been universally appreciated. The biggest challenges have been with the organizational structure and work associated with running SPLICE Institute. That has changed regularly and morphed each year with different people taking on different roles depending on who has time. I don’t want to sound overly self-assured, but I think that the main thing we learned about music education was that our assumptions about the need for this type of summer program were valid. I think we all have been in school and/or taught enough that we had a sense of what we were doing and, while we have had to adapt to and learn about teaching in this context, we had a good sense of what we needed to do instructionally for the attendees. Many of us have been involved in significant curricular revisions in both composition and technology programs and have reviewed many degrees, so we had a good sense that we could provide significant educational opportunities beyond any typical coursework for any degree in composition or performance. We have all had our moments when we realized that we could have done something better, such as realizing that the amount of content prepared was too dense or too advanced. We do a good deal of assessment of the level and interests of the attendees as part of the application and planning process.
KK: So much of it really is adjusting on the fly, too. Like Chris said, we really craft each year’s workshops based on the members attending, and we often have to adjust midweek too. Maybe a particular topic is a little too advanced for the folks in that track. Maybe it’s moving too slowly. The nice thing about the size of SPLICE is there is a good ratio of faculty to participants, and we can really personalize the experience to have the most effective impact on the most people.
EL: Part of your question asked about feedback from participants. I think the best feedback we receive from SPLICErs is the return rate. Many participants return for a second year, and some returned for a third year! — Some who attended in 2016 but not in 2017 commented that they felt like they missed out by not attending. So I think the fact that many of our participants return for a second or third year points to a few things — 1) they love SPLICE institute; 2) the SPLICE Institute curriculum is robust and diverse enough that attendees can return and learn new things; 3) having rotating “special topics” (like this past year’s laptop ensemble and this coming year’s focus on improvisation) gives returning attendees something new to engage with.
AV: Each summer, we are working with musicians of various levels: some are students discovering themselves as artists, others are established composers and performers who are looking to explore electronics for the first time, others are experts in the technology, and lots in between. One of the unique challenges of SPLICE is finding a way to provide a meaningful experience for each participant. Our ability to do this has improved every year, and I believe this is due to the flexibility that we build into the curriculum, as well as the willingness and capability the faculty has to approach teaching in this way. You need to meet each learning opportunity where the participant is at in their skills, philosophy, and artistic practice. I think this is good advice for any music educator.
PB: I’ll second Adam’s statement – I think the most challenging thing pedagogically is accommodating the vast range of experience levels within our curriculum. Of course the first year we had no idea what to expect in terms of the participants, specifically who would be drawn to what we were offering. It was incredibly exciting when that first cohort assembled and did indeed array across the entire spectrum of experience levels. That’s exactly what we had hoped and planned for, and it has been consistently true each year. We work very hard to create an environment where no one feels left behind and no one feels held back. One of the ways we do this is by offering a pretty wide range of activities and classes, organized according to experience-level tracks. Participants can pick and choose as they please, or just sign up for a specific track and stick with it.
The field of electronic music is so broad…so many different tools, technologies, aesthetic approaches, etc. Does SPLICE have a particular aesthetic (or other?) focus? If so, what is it? Can you boil it down to a mission statement or statement of purpose? Or is your approach very broad and open to diverse approaches?
CB: Aesthetic focus: I think we are all open and that we have divergent aesthetics within the core faculty. I think we push each other and surprise each other and that we seek a diversity of aesthetics in our attendees. I do think there are some universals. I think that we all A) accept the norms of what is considered appropriate usage of electronics in the academic sphere (so no unmodified playback of orchestral sound libraries unless it is intentionally referential in relationship to an extramusical concept, limited looping of beats, and a good deal of spectral morphology or a clear focus and interest on a specific timbre that is really exceptional); B) value a tradition of performance that focuses on the performer as an expressive conduit, an interpreter, not a passive transmitter of a fixed aesthetic object; C) are interested in experimentation, and D) believe that music is a temporal art form and that form is therefore important.
KK: What he said. 🙂
Really, that sums it up perfectly.
EL: WOOT Chris! That was great! I agree!
PB: That’s about the most cogent set of values I can imagine! Should definitely be on the website. The goal is to achieve at least the skill level required to realize your goals without hinderance. This applies to any creative task, and no less to composing or performing electronic music.
EL: SPLICE believes that electroacoustic composition and performance are vital contributors to our twenty-first century musical world. Through workshops, applied lessons, performances, collaborations, and festivals, SPLICE seeks to promote electroacoustic composition and performance, and build a creative community of listeners, explorers, and technicians dedicated to composing and performing technology-mediated works.
Elainie Lillios with 2017 SPLICE Institute guest faculty member Mari Kimura
Adam Vidiksis demonstrates software to institute participants
What advice would you give your fellow SEAMUS members who might be interested in establishing an ongoing workshop or starting a festival–what are the challenges, the rewards, and what has to be in place for something like SPLICE to succeed?
CB: Like with many things that are going to be too much work, I would recommend that you do it because it is unique and serves a clear need that you are passionate about and that you do it with people you admire and respect who challenge you. The sustainability of such things, especially when there is no endowment or institutional financial support, is really difficult. The amount of unrewarding, free labor is really difficult to sustain, so the passion you bring and the support you receive from those you work with is really important.
KK: I would add that it is critically important to surround yourself with reliable helpers. Festivals like SPLICE or conferences like SEAMUS are dreadful to near-impossible to run alone. Especially if one is trying to start a periodic event, the amount of work to prepare for it is nonstop. I cannot stress enough how much of a difference equally committed, enthusiastic, reliable, and trustworthy assistants are. And I cannot think of a better team than Chris, Per, Elainie, Sam, and Adam! So sorry, folks. You can’t have them. 🙂
EL: I agree with Chris and Keith, and I would add that it takes a very special person or group of people to create and maintain ongoing festivals. Only the most dedicated people take on the yearly task of producing events that take such HUGE amounts of time to design, program, and produce. I think about other festivals and their organizers–EMM, EA Barn Dance, Third Practice. I’m sure those organizers will say the same things that Chris and Keith have said. You need to be amazingly dedicated to our field, and surround yourself with a great team. While everyone on the SPLICE team does a LOT of work, either in the planning stages or on the ground, Chris contributes the most because he hosts the event. So a lot of the pre-planning has to be done on his end–reserving dates and spaces, managing funds, making sure we have enough gear for all of the workshops, rehearsals, concerts, laptop ensembles, extra things, etc. etc. The whole team is really amazing but we couldn’t do it without Chris and his dedication. It’s a privilege to work with everyone and learn from them every year.
You asked about rewards. The rewards for me are immense. SPLICE is truly my FAVORITE week of the entire year. I get to teach people who want to learn about technology! I get to mentor them and help them explore and realize their creative and technical ideas. I eat meals with them and hear about their projects, ideas, and experiences. I see them grow through the week and how they come together as a community of learners, composers, performers, colleagues, friends… and that’s just the students! Then there’s my SPLICE colleagues, who also inspire me daily with their amazing musical and technical talents. Plus, we have FUN at SPLICE Institute!
SW: I think each year at SPLICE Institute we try to make a week that WE would really want to attend if we weren’t already fortunate enough to be teaching there. We’ve set up an environment that is about being passionate, curious, hard-working, and collaborative. I think participants respond well to this, and feel welcome. We also have a lot of fun.
PB: Absolutely, SPLICE week is definitely a highpoint of my year, every year. There are so many factors, and many of them have been discussed above. It seems worth mentioning though that none of the rest of it would be nearly as fun if I didn’t really look forward to seeing my colleagues every summer. It’s just such a fun group to spend time with, doing what we love to do. It’s a great pleasure to see the SPLICE ensemble perform, and to hear what everyone has been working on compositionally over the past year. And then stay out too late talking about it all with the students – makes for a fantastic week!
Any predictions for the future of SPLICE? A cookbook? Or more seriously, some sort of publication or instructional materials? Competitions? Actual hardware/software developed by the institute? How do you anticipate SPLICE evolving?
CB: I think we want to solidify what we are doing now, establish some fundraising geared towards scholarships so that we can offer more at SPLICE Institute without raising costs and solidify the structure of SPLICE as an organization with three components. While we are very happy with how things have progressed, we are working to figure out how to be sustainable and to continue to improve. We are very excited about what we are planning for SPLICE Institute in 2018 with guests Sam Pluta and Dana Jessen. While we do not have any plans for publications, we give everyone who attends SPLICE Institute the materials that we teach from. We try to be a springboard for creative activity. Sam Wells and I have developed some tools that we will release, but we consider that a separate, though related, project. I hope SPLICE evolves as follows: A) we receive fiscal support, beyond the in-kind donations provided by WMU, and can offer more, by adding more guest faculty, without increasing costs, B) we are able to bring in more performers just to play on concerts, C) we are able to hire an administrator to deal with more of the organizational processes, D) that SPLICE Ensemble continues on its present trajectory of playing more concerts outside of SPLICE Institute, and E) that SPLICE Festival becomes an annual event and is hosted by institutions at which the core faculty do not teach.
KK: Only that SPLICE 2030 will be held on Mars.
KK: No, seriously there is so much we already offer between the Institute, Festival, and Ensemble, that I think that will keep us busy for some time. I’m excited to see the Festival grow, especially as we look to collaborate with different schools each year.
I think the biggest goal is to help grow the community of musicians in this field. I emphasize that word because I really see SPLICE as a tremendously encouraging and supportive family!
EL: I hope SPLICE continues to be an inspiring endeavor for all of our participants, and that as we continue we find new ways to help composers and performers become great EA practitioners.
AV: Me too!!
SW: Again, I agree with everyone. I think SPLICE is settling into its mature structure as an organization. We are all eager to see how the Institute, Ensemble, and Festival will each evolve. We are now at the point where I think we all are hoping to involve as many people as people as possible to increase the activity, support, and diversity in our EA community.
AV: My hope for the future is that what we do here makes a meaningful impact on electroacoustic music. Along with the many other EA organizations and festivals, I hope that the community we help build plays a part in bringing thoughtful, well-wrought, and diverse music to the next period of EA art. I personally hope I have the opportunity to work with this incredible group of musicians for many years to come. Other than this, one thing is clear: our organization has adapted repeatedly over time to the perceived needs of the EA community. So I am sure that new things will continue to emerge over the years as we respond to the shifting landscape of resources and opportunities available to EA composers and performers.
Also, given Keith’s skill as a brewer—SPLICE Brewery!
PB: The word has already been mentioned, probably too many times, but I can’t help but ending with another mention: community. I suspect that solidifying the existing structures is enough for now, but all of this is in the service of building the community. Both bringing new people into the larger EA community, and growing our own little SPLICE world. A brewery would be nice though…
Faculty and Participants of SPLICE Institute 2017
For more information about SPLICE, or to apply for the 2018 Institute, visit: https://splicemusic.org/