Elliot Cole: Hunger for the Opposite

While digging through Elliot Cole’s catalog of music, it’s easy to get caught up in the role text and stories frequently play in his compositions. Babinagar, for example, is a bewitching song-cycle based on an Afghan folktale, and De Rerum (a “hip hop lecture on the physics of history”) is wedded to wordplay.

But after chatting with him, that image shifts. The words can be vital to his work, definitely, but the core of his inspiration turns out to trace more of a pendulum swing. Cole is most comfortable and feels most productive when he can vary his approach: insider vs. outsider, text-rooted vs. pure sound, composer vs. performer, a musician dipping his toes into a wealth of styles and methods along the way. Rather than a troubadour, it might make more sense to think of Cole as a trapeze artist graced with contagious enthusiasm and seemingly inexhaustible curiosity.

“I use music to explore other things that I’m interested in, as a channel to be curious through,” Cole explains. “One way to divide up what I do is by genre—dramatic work and chamber music and hip hop. But another way to divide it is that I’m trying to deal with music on two different levels. I love composing because it lets me think about music from a really high level of generalization and abstraction, but I can only keep working on music from such a conceptual distance if I’m also as close to it as I can be in some other activity.”

That closeness is something Cole finds in performance, whether playing in bands or presenting his own music. He grew up in the rich musical environment of Austin, Texas, and it rubbed off. Now, he says, “I’m not a stellar performer, but I stay as involved as I can in actually making music. In music school, the role that we adopt a little bit too naturally is putting some performers on the stage to have kind of a bad time playing your music for an audience that is kind of stressed out by the whole experience. And you sit in the back thinking that you’re a genius. It’s just a very different experience when you’re up there doing it.”

After completing his undergraduate work in music and cognitive linguistics at Rice University where he produced “very serious and intellectually grounded” work, he stayed in Houston and wrote other pieces that “felt more real and natural and heartfelt and exciting to me,” works such as Ladies and Gentlemen which was built around a lecture by Borges, the hip hop opera The Rake’s Progress which he wrote with Brad Balliett, and Babinagar, a delicate chamber work scored for harp, contrabass, harmonium, and singers which he toured through living rooms across Texas.

Cole is now a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, a school he jokes was the only one that would have him. “When I went to look at schools, I got a real clear sense visiting Princeton that they were open to the whole package,” he recalls. “So, I’m there because the work that I was doing, that other places might not find as serious but that I take very seriously, that was a plus for them rather than a minus.”

A big piece of this catalog that Cole feels doesn’t fit so comfortably can once again be traced back to his desire to work at the edges of genre and institutions. “I feel like there’s a real focus and value in contemporary music on being an insider,” he explains. “Being in a territory where everyone is focused on being an insider, I really find it fun and liberating to have something that I’m doing where I’m a total outsider—where I don’t have credibility. For me, that’s hip hop.”

It’s work that he’s exploring together with performer/composers Brad and Doug Balliett under the project name Oracle Hysterical, an organization that Cole characterizes as kind of a band and kind of composer’s collective, but really more of a book club. The group uses text, such as Melville’s Billy Budd (a recent example), and reads and writes their way to a piece of music, motivating and inspiring one another. Writing the metric poetry used in the lyrics is work that Cole finds provides a neat parallel to composition. “It’s really simulating imaginatively because every pair of lines is a puzzle that you have to work out. I really like writing music that is the solving of puzzles because then you’re in a relationship with it where it’s as much a process of discovery as creation.”

Still, sometimes Cole sets the words aside to, again, escape into something else. To scratch that itch last year, he wrote more than an hour of chamber music, including Postludes, a set of eight pieces for four performers on one vibraphone that was written for So Percussion. Cole is also an active computer programmer and has been working to develop an algorithmic composition and deep-listening environment using SuperCollider. He found that being able to think about music from the point of view of computer programming provided some new clarity, which he explains in more detail in the video below.

Admittedly, more tightly integrating all these varied areas of interest might be more productive and efficient, and Cole wonders how his diversification may be preventing him from establishing a clearly identifiable voice. Still, his flexibility is an essential underpinning linking his work—when one project or area becomes frustrating, he has another to move to. This also extends to his compositional methods. He says that he “may begin at the piano and at a point of impasse or frustration, write on paper and see what grows out of that. Or type it into the computer or try to learn it on guitar or sing it. By these processes of translation, I can kind of keep a flow through the writing. It’s an intrinsic part of how I get notes on the page and how I get to the end of the idea.”

Ultimately, his curiosity keeps him from shelving any possibilities. “I’m stupid enough to think that I can still do everything,” he explains with a self-deprecating laugh. “If there’s a chance for two majors, I’ll take it; if I have a chance to write a piece for a group, I’ll write two pieces. I’m always having to fork and do both.”

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