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In the Spotlight: Maggi Payne Professor of Electronic Arts, in the Music Department

Mills College Weekly

Maggi Payne never thought she couldn’t do work in the field of
electronic arts, as a woman, “It never occurred to me that I could
or should not compose music or become a recording engineer.”

Today, in the world of electronic arts, there are a modest
number of women producing works. However, when Payne began studying
electronic arts in the early 1970s, the majority of artists in that
field were men.

Electronic music is a form of music that creates and utilizes
pre-recorded sounds as a means for composition and performance.
Frequently, computer music uses “samplings” or recorded sounds from
everyday life, integrating them into pieces of music.

Payne started playing flute when she was nine years old and
began composing music “in earnest” as a senior in college. “This
came about in part because I was playing so many graphic scores
which were wonderful impetuses for improvisation, but at some point
I became aware that, in some of the more extreme cases a single
squiggle on a page, these pieces were mine more than the
‘composers,” she said.

She received her B.A. from Northwestern University, studying
applied flute, and followed her new interest in electronic arts to
attain two M.F.A. degrees.

As a graduate student at the Univ. of Illinois at Urbana, she
studied electronic music composition, graduating in 1970, a time
when electronic music was just emerging into popular culture.

Like many other instrumentalists turned electronic musician,
Payne felt that she had “pushed the flute to the limits with
extended techniques and was looking for more sounds to explore.” To
pursue her studies of electronically produced visuals and music,
Payne came to study at Mills College and obtain her M.F.A in
Electronic Music and Record Media. She graduated in 1972 and was
hired to teach at the college soon after.

In the early ’80s she began including sounds from everyday life
into her pieces, rather than solely relying on sounds made via a
synthesizer or computer.

Over the course of her career, Payne has recorded numerous,
incredibly unusual sounds, that range from paper tearing, fires,
flames, a door furnace, underwater sounds, and “a huge variety of
rolls of tape being unrolled.” She also said, “I did spend three
hours recording the faulty valve in the sink in the men’s washroom
next to the Concert Hall. Great sound!”

“Many of these sounds I most love,” Payne said, “are so quiet
that people don’t really hear them.”

Just as important to her are the visual and video components to
each composition she produces. She incorporated visuals along with
her audio pieces for over 30 years.

In describing how the process of combining them takes place, she
said, “I simply am taken by certain visuals in the same way that I
am taken by certain sounds, and I want to share this experience
with others. More often the visuals come first, and then I compose
the music to the visuals, although this isn’t always the case.”

Payne, who began her artistic career by studying flute
performance at Northwestern University, has since been awarded two
Composer’s Grants and an Interdisciplinary Arts Grant from the
National Endowment for the Arts, and video grants from the Mellon
Foundation and the Western States Regional Media Arts Fellowships
Program for her work as an Electronic Music Composer.

Her works have been shown at festivals across the United States
and throughout Europe, including the Composers’ Forum in NYC, New
York Museum of Modern Art, Sonic Circuits IV Festival of Electronic
Music, and the Not Still Art Festival. Currently, she is the
co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College
and teaches several Electronic Arts and composition seminars.

In Payne’s 1996 piece, “Apparent Horizon”, she compiled video
images over the course of six years. Each image is shown in smaller
detail, then zoomed in or out to reveal its true identity. In each
part, Payne paid special attention to what might be “revealed” from
an overhead view.

The video pieces themselves came from NASA footage taken by the
space shuttle and Apollo series astronauts. Sound sources were
transmissions from and through space, satellite transmissions, and
shortwave radio broadcasts.

Many of the earthbound shots,” Payne said, “are of rather
‘alien’ landscapes? those where I as a human being don’t really fit
it? I’m the alien here. In these often desolate places the only
sounds one hears are wind, insects, a scant number of birds and
animals, and a rare rainstorm.”

Payne, who has been teaching at Mills College since 1972, said
that she enjoys the school’s creative environment “where students
have so much to contribute back to add their own knowledge,
vitality, and creative ideas back into the mix, enriching not only
the lives of their peers, but the faculty as well.”

“I feel very lucky to have Maggi Payne as one of my professors
at Mills. She’s terrific! She’s always available to offer valuable
advice about sound recording. I consider her a great resource when
I am working on a new recording project,” said junior and music
major, Liz Setzer.

“She’s an amazing teacher,” said Molly Thompson, a composer and
graduate student at Mills College. “She goes beyond the classroom,
taking people to recording studios and critiquing pieces of music
with a lot of depth.”

When asked if there is a new direction she sees her art moving
toward in the future, Payne said, “I’m always looking for something
new, a new approach, new technologies.”