More about Peter Elsea

Where I Come From.

I was raised in the Midwest, primarily in Sioux City, Iowa. The school system had an excellent music program, and I took full advantage of it, playing clarinet and bassoon in band and orchestra. When I was a sophomore in high school, a lovely girl played bass clarinet in the seat next to mine. I found out she was interested in ham radio and began studying my brother's college electronics textbook so I could impress her. Well, she moved away in the fourth week of school, but I was hooked on electronics.

At about the same time, the band director loaned me a book on instrument repair and a really beat up clarinet. I fixed the clarinet and began tinkering with every instrument I could get my hands on, not always improving things, but I never did any real harm. The orchestra director loaned me the score to "The Rite of Spring"... I think the personal interest these two, Robert Brooks and Richard Anschutz, took in me had more influence on my life than any other factor. If you've seen "Mr. Holland's Opus" you know the type of men they were.

This was space race time, so I picked a practical major in college, physics at Iowa State. The music bug was too strong however, and I was a music major at U of I within a year. I saw my first Moog synthesizer a year later- electronic music was for grad students then, so I only got to look, but I designed a synthesizer as a paper in music theory. (Got a C on it as I recall.)

My college career was interrupted for military service, but I managed to get into an army band. Somewhat exaggerating my exploits with that clarinet in high school, I wangled a permanent assignment as instrument repairman. When I was posted to Korea this ensured me a cushy apartment in Seoul rather than a tent on the DMZ. As the official techie, I also got to play recording engineer with some classy microphones.

The 70s

When I returned to Iowa, there was a brand new music building and expanded electronic music facilities. I finished up the B.M., then became one of those grad students who never seem to go away. Ostensibly an education major, I basically lived in the studios and made a gradual transition from volunteer help to full time staff engineer and teacher. Peter Lewis taught me the joy of composing with raw sound, and Lowell Cross whipped me into shape technically. The Iowa Center for New Music (for which I played bassoon from time to time in addition to being the guy who moved the equipment and plugged everything in) had an active visiting artist program, so I was able to meet and work with many of the most important composers of the day.

Somewhere along the way an M.A. appeared, but instead of pursuing a Ph.D. I devoted my energy to building synthesizers, learning digital electronics and computer programming. I built several systems, some for Iowa, some for other schools or individuals, and one for myself.

I financed all of this with a part time job in the repair shop of a local music store. The shop had a reputation for exceptional flute work, and I eventually rose to lead flute man, working on instruments from all over the country. The owner had a dream of manufacturing artist quality flutes, and I became involved in this enterprise, finishing and voicing instruments that were actually built by a genius metalworker named Paul Krumm. None of us made our fortunes on this deal, but I got to travel a bit and meet some famous flute players. This aspect of my life faded away when I became full time at the university, but I still take the craftsman's approach to anything I work on.

How I got Here

In 1980, I answered a help wanted ad from UCSC. Gordon Mumma interviewed me over the phone and offered me the job. My wife and I rented a truck and were in California within two months. (It had been a cold winter in Iowa.) Actually it was two jobs: 50% staff to build and run the electronic music studios and 50% lecturer to teach the courses. I'm still doing both. Gordon and I expanded the curriculum to the current size over the course of five or six years, and the studios gradually grew in complexity and number to match. When Gordon retired, I assumed responsibility for everything except the introductory history course. As the program expanded to include graduate studies ( and especially since DANM popped up) other instructors have been helping with the beginning undergrad courses.

What I Do


I teach two intensive courses a year (we're on the quarter system) and supervise three more. I also have continuing seminars in undergraduate and graduate composition and studio technique. The courses are described elsewhere, but there's not much in the official description about how the courses are organized and taught. The typical undergraduate class has 25 students, which is a little big for my taste, but appropriate to the funding realities of a state supported school. Since there are five labs for the students to work in, there is plenty of time to produce the assignments (I expect students to spend 8 hours a week in the studio.) Instructors use a video camera and projector to give everyone a close up view of whatever equipment or program we're demonstrating. About two thirds of class time is spent on techniques and one third listening to and evaluating student assignments.

The seminars or workshops are more free form. The participants decide what topics to cover at the beginning of the quarter, and I or the students make presentations on those topics. The students also propose and produce projects of their own. Workshop topics might include electronincs and Arduino, studio recording and microphone techniques, or synthesis software such as Kyma or Csound.

I write what amounts to custom textbooks for each course. (That's the source of most of the material on this site.) I use published texts from time to time, but they become dated quickly, and of course can't address the unique aspects of these studios. UC regulations forbid the reproduction of copyrighted materials without permission, so rather than Xeroxing manuals for student readers, I write my own versions. (I can usually explain something more clearly in fewer pages than any manual. So could you I expect, but to be fair, I have the advantage of knowing my audience can read at university level, and they have a strong technical background.)

Mixing teaching and engineering has some interesting aspects- sometimes in the middle of class I'll notice something not quite right, and the students will be treated to the spectacle of me fixing it on the spot. If a student wanders into the shop area, he may get a lecture on what I'm doing and why. Close association with the students keeps me very aware of any studio problems and the direction expansion should take. For instance, the Lobjects were a response to an experience I had in the classroom- I was teaching a general compositional procedure and using Max examples to illustrate. As often happens in Max, a conceptually trivial ("move the data from a list to a table") operation took up most of the blackboard and too much class time, so I decided Max needed some high level operations.


I think of an electronic music studio as an elaborate musical instrument. Everything should work properly, sound right, and be where it needs to be for fast response. My fellow engineers rib me about "totally rebuilding" the studios every year, but changing equipment and working methods do often require reevaluation and relocation. Each year I add or replace 7 to 10 thousand dollars worth of equipment. Some things can't be bought. For instance, electronic MIDI patchbays are not appropriate in studios that are used differently by a different student every two hours, so I build old fashioned MIDI patchbays that use real patch cords. Once in place, the equipment has to be monitored (the students take care of that) and maintained. Most modern gear is pretty reliable (even the Moog is amazingly resilient), but I've discovered that no matter how expensive a piece of equipment is, there's some $5 part deep inside that will regularly bring it to its knees.

The staff job has changed over the years- where I used to spend a lot of time tweaking tape decks for that extra 3 dB, I now troll the net for compatible audio device drivers. Instead of building synthesis and logic circuits, I write C code. With modern technology, there is less that needs fixing than there used to be, but I still heat up a soldering iron at least once a week.

The consulting work comes mostly from ex-students. A lot of them have landed jobs with high tech music firms, and from time to time one of them will have a chore I can help them out on. I enjoy keeping in touch with the alumni, and the work helps me stay abreast of new technology. Usually I am asked to help with the conceptual design of future products or to test them before they are released.


Like Mr. Holland, any composition I do comes in stolen moments. Usually I produce pieces that explore new equipment or test software I'm working on. Nothing is published, I usually just play a piece in a local recital and move on to the next thing.


In 1985 I went out on a financial limb and bought a Mac 512 and a DX7. This was one of the first pieces I produced with this instrument, using a combination of default sounds and some I programed on my own. I thought of it as a dance piece, but I was never able to interest any dancers. The original title was "Balance Due $1520.97" because that's what was on the invoice from the music store.

Balance (mp3 , 8 meg)

Poseidon's Tears

More recently, I have been doing interactive/ improvisational compositions with integrated visuals. In 2004 I was asked to provide a piece for a Santa Cruz New Music Works concert themed on endangered species. "Tears" was written to memorialize coral reefs, which are under threat from polution, ocean warming, and careless tourism. The melodic materials and form are developed from whale songs, and I edited the video from material provided by a scuba diving student of mine. The piece is for solo cello (Aria DiSalvo) with electronic processing (Kyma) to give an impression that it is played under water. The instructions to the performer are not to imitate a whale, but to imagine having a conversation with one.

Poseidon's Tears (Quicktime 6 required)

Return to facilities

Return to research