Q&A with the legendary Elaine Walker

Elaine Walker is an extraordinary figure in electronic music, renowned for her retro-futuristic sound and pioneering work in microtonal music. A multi-talented individual, she’s a physicist, philosopher, inventor, martial artist, and NASA researcher. Her band ZIA promoted space exploration and showcased the beauty of microtonal music. Now, with the release of her album No Terrestrial Road, Elaine delves into themes of space, humanity, and extraterrestrial life. Drawing from her mathematical musings, the album explores imaginary spaces and the speculative future of humanity. Musically, it breaks conventional boundaries with its use of unique scales and equal temperaments, offering a sonic journey into her universe that is both alien and captivating. Elaine’s autism enhances her creativity, allowing her to reinvent music, philosophy, and mathematics with unparalleled originality. 


Listen to No Terrestrial Road while you read our interview with this sonic savant below.

Set the tone for us. Why the arts?

Mom played the piano a lot when she was pregnant, so my brother and I were brainwashed with tonality before we were born. Plus, we started piano lessons at a young age. So it’s like we ended up being hardwired as musicians. I have to create other things too, or else I get bored, but being a musician is my default state.


Was there a specific moment in your life when you thought, “This is what I want to do?”  

Yes! MTV 1982! At the time, I had recently quit classical piano lessons after several years, and I wasn’t sure what to do with all that training. I had no desire to play classical concerts. Then, one day, I saw Billy Idol on MTV. I knew at that moment that I wanted to either be like him or like his keyboard player (she had really cool, frizzy blonde hair). So, I ended up doing both!     


How do you hold time and space for being a polymath in such a busy, saturated world? 

My own time and space have always been a priority for me. Ever since I was young, I’ve known that pure, uninterrupted alone time is far more valuable to me than money, so I always worked part-time and spent years figuring out how to make “passive income.” The world is only as saturated as we let it be. Think of all the “breaking news” stories we don’t see. If the world was a hundredth of its size we’d still feel saturated because we’d simply be seeing a higher percentage of news stories that exist. I’d much rather write music, think about math, or work on a keyboard invention than be clicking around!


Have your accomplishments involved quite a lot of self-discipline as opposed to pure obsession? 

It’s both, but “discipline” is probably only what it looks like to other people. It feels super easy to work on stuff all day long. It’s much harder to go hang out with people. For me, discipline comes in during the tedious finishing stages of a project. And instead of “obsession,” I’d call it special interests. I bet a lot of other musicians can relate to this.


What gets your creative juices flowing?

Believe it or not, when my house is clean, everything is organised, all my problems are taken care of, and all my ducks are in a row (what?), then that’s when I feel a big surge, like “Yeah! I’m gonna start on a new song!” It’s the opposite of any other musician I ever met who feels most creative when they’re a hot mess.


Take us through your collection of gear, tech, or software that accompanies your creative expression.

I mostly use Ableton and a slew of software synths– Zebra is my favorite. I have 13 microtonal keyboards around the house (the keys have been rearranged for various microtunings), several other keyboards’ worth of guts, and drawers full of extra keys. I’m finishing up a patent for an easily rearrangeable keyboard, and once it exists, I’ll only need one keyboard! Then I can live in a smaller house. In my rack of synths I have a Kurzweil K2000R, Korg Wavestation SR, Yamaha TX81Z, and Ensoniq ESQM– all great synths for microtonal music for those into hardware. I bet they’re cheap on eBay nowadays. I have a hexagonal keyboard called a sonome arranged for the Bohlen-Pierce scale. My Plutotar and Planetar (my early homemade trigger-based instruments) are collecting dust but still inspire me, and some of my keyboards are my “vertical keyboard” design. I still have my very first synth, a Roland JX3P, which is juicy and fat, but I have to use tricks to microtone it. My most proud possession that I hope to dust off for my new album is a (signed) Moog Sonic Six synthesiser. I bought it for $50 in 1985 from a local newspaper ad… worth a lot more now! It’s pre-MIDI, so I play it into the computer live. The sound is gritty and organic. I used it a lot on the Drum’n’Space album. They used to call it the Chronic Six at Moog because it’s so kooky to use. 


Take us through a day in the studio. 

My studio used to be more interesting. For a long time in Boston, I was babysitting someone’s giant laser harp, building big racks of MIDI triggers out of discarded AT&T circuit boards, constantly messing with knobs and wires, composing all day, and my bedroom was the soundproof booth. Nowadays, I just pick a tuning, grab a keyboard to match, and make myself comfortable in my house, anywhere I want, with my laptop and virtual world of software synths. I’ll add some hardware synths if I’m in the mood, but I no longer have a formal studio. When a mix is close, I listen on all kinds of different speaker setups. This way, if my creative juices aren’t flowing, I just change my view.


What’s your current favourite playlist called? Who is on it?

I love Sevish’s Microtonal Music playlist on Spotify for discovering other microtonal artists. Sevish himself is one of my favourite artists, and Brendan Byrnes, Mercury Tree, Zhea Erose, Fast Fast, Xotla, Gaia Complex, Acreil, dotuXil, and so many more. It seemed like decades went by until I found other microtonal artists who wrote listenable electronic music that I liked. Now it’s like an explosion. For non-microtonal listening, I like IDM essentials. Or, most commonly, I tell my Alexa, “Ziggy, play disco.”


Any emerging artists on your radar?

James Mulvale, aka “Fast Fast”! The way he uses microtones gives me rare chills, yet it’s super accessible. 


As a pioneer of microtonal music, who is your favourite composer who uses microtones? 

I was going to say Ivor Darreg, but my gut tells me my true favourite is my professor and mentor, Dr. Richard Boulanger (known as Dr. B). The first microtonal music I heard was in the Bohlen-Pierce Scale, when Dr. B sang and played his piece ‘Solemn Song for Evening’ on a weird instrument called the Radio Baton in class one day. It instantly rewired my brain and changed the course of my life. For a long time, he was the only microtonal composer I knew who could write songs and not just avant-garde.


Tell us about the chemistry you have with your fans on stage.

The first time I performed in front of a big audience playing my original music, I was amazed at the good chemistry I felt with the strangers watching. Being autistic, I usually feel uncomfortable chemistry with humans in general, but somehow, sharing my art with people makes me instantly feel close to them. It’s the same thing when someone shows me their own art or anything they’re super interested in.


What do you keep close by while you’re playing a set?

I used to always keep a beer close, but now I’m gluten-free.


What techniques do you experiment with to get your original sound?



How have you refined your craft since you entered the industry?

I’ve gone through so many changes. In the beginning, I was playing synth and guitar into a boombox, with a Y cable that I somehow figured out how to make, connected to another boombox. I’d bounce back and forth until I got some tracks layered, including a lot of noise! I eventually got a sequencer and drum machine, then a DOS computer in 1985, then a 4 track cassette deck. I transitioned to Macintosh during my Berklee years and collected a big rack of hardware synths. I discovered the world of microtonality and started making my own performance instruments, such as big racks of MIDI triggers and microtonal keyboards. I also got more into performance, and stage props, and all that fun stuff. Eons later, I finally embraced software synths. It felt like cheating at first, and I don’t think software synths sound as good, but boy, is it more convenient! It used to feel like physical labour getting a song done, but now I barely have to move!


Breakdown the news for us: what can we expect from you this year? 

Speaking of my ancient past, I’m releasing a series of novelty videos on my Patreon of me in the 80s and 90s. I just posted one of a cable access TV interview from 1991 that has high entertainment value. I even performed on guitar–only one of two times I ever did. In other news, my rearrangeable microtonal keyboard invention might finally be completed this year. If you’re into visual-geometry-oriented math, I may have more published math research this year with my algebra-brained partner, Bruce. But most importantly, after releasing two 70s-influenced albums, I may finally return to the 80s! But think of it as 3080.


What was the weirdest sound you heard during your time spent in the High Arctic?

The Cha Cha Slide dance! Whyyyyyyyy


Famous last words?

Sorry I made fun of the singularity for 30 years.


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