The use of recorded improvised segments as material for development in electroacoustic composition


Maria Popova, in her articleWhat Is Art?, reports film director Federico Fellini as writing in an essay in The Atlantic magazine in 1965: “All art is autobiography. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography”. (Popova, 2012)How then do we best impart this sense of autobiography, of artistic authenticity to a sonic artwork?  New Zealand composer John Cousins, who has worked extensively in the sonic art realm, describes the creative process thus:

“The creative process in people occurs when they attempt a codification of their most deeply felt, intuitive insights regarding themselves and the world in which they live; using whatever medium they wish to employ, or find at their disposal.” (Cousins, 1986)

Improvisation has always been a key part of the conventional compositional process. Sometimes in the process the composer makes up a tune; but even experimental compositions may involve an act of performance in selection of the material to be presented, as this invariably involves aesthetic choices. I would argue that even John Cage’s (1912- 1992) iconic and controversial piece4:23 encodes the aesthetic choice of the composer for the audience to have a particular time-bound, constrained experience communicating the intent of the composer.

The introduction of sound reproduction technology has allowed composers an option to relay their art without the intervening filter of a performer, and this has ranged from the player-piano works of Conlon Nancarrow (1912-1997), through to the sophisticated use of digital technology today. The inventions of the phonograph, opto-electrical film sound track, and tape machine have all in their time provided composers with opportunities to manipulate source sounds in new ways. This has included the use of field recordings, found or repurposed materials, and recordings of deliberate performance.

Contemporary New Zealand composer/performers use techniques of layered recorded performances in their work. Ivan Mršić has told me that in his 2012 work I hear you with My Eyes, he used eighteen superimposed layers of recording for the soundtrack of that piece. Phil Dadson’s installation work Bodytok (2013) uses video clips of artists, musicians (including himself) using the bodies as musical instruments. The clips are spread across five audio-visual consoles that play back in response to the proximity of a viewer and slow down as the viewer recedes. Thus the layers build as you move through the installation.

In a previous research paper, I suggested that creative cycles involved in producing improvised materials are fast, intuitive, and bring the performer /composer closer to material likely to have gestural profiles consonant with subconscious primitive archetypes.  This conclusion was to a large degree based on my own intuition and experience, although I did find some supporting evidence by synthesising opinions from expert domain literature.(Smalley, 1986)

This project seeks to extend on that research by testing it in the context of practical application. I have explored the use of improvised material as core elements in a larger piece.


The core hypothesis of this study is that recorded improvised performances can provide suitable material for further development in the realm of sonic art.I set out to test this via a process of practice-led research. The project had four stages:

  1. Capture and review of initial materials
  2. Transformation of the materials
  3. Integration of materials into a final work
  4. Reflection and review of outcomes.


The initial experiments consisted of exploring material from three sources:

  1. Toy Triptech* recording
  2. Piano (D goes on and on)**
  3. A saxophone improvisation session

*Toy Triptech is a collaborative project between the author and Rohan Evans involving improvised performance on analogue electronics, iPhone applications and effects pedals.

** D goes on and on was performed by the author on a Steinway piano in the School of Music theatre. The recording was originally made as the author’s contribution to the experimental film Seven Octaves Plus a Minor Third  (Amelia M. Harris 2013)


The Toy Triptechsession was recorded at the Wine Cellar via a direct feed from the house mixing desk. The recording was unfortunately not of usable quality, and was rejected.

The piano piece recording levels were set quite high. This caused some clipping at high volumes, but this was not of concern to me as the main focus of the recording was the decay tails of the piano notes.  The file was given several treatments including compression, partial extraction and re-synthesis, and granular transformation using a Max/MSP patch.  Results were arranged and layered in Logic.


The saxophone session was recorded on three channels, tweaked with EQ and reverb, then layered and time shifted across an 8-channel Protools session.


The above was submitted as Study 1, and provided initial proof of concept.


The second study developed the material in the following ways:

  • Use of key click elements from sax session. These were time-stretched and repeated to provide additional rhythmic interest.
  • Further transformations of saxophone material from study 1, using the GRM Evolution plugin.
  • Additional material was created from a short improvisation using two Korg Monotron ribbon synthesizers.
  • Transformation of Monotron segment also using the Evolution plugin.


The outline structure of final piece is was now apparent, and this went on to be the basis of the finalised work Let Me Be Your Sax Machine.



Two studies and a final work were submitted as the main research outcomes.


For me, part of the appeal in using improvised material is that is generally very rich in gestural content.  As an improvising performer, I valued the ability, in effect, to become a virtual ensemble.  When transforming the source recordings, I noted that several iterations of spectral transformation and extreme time stretching are required before the nuances of human agency are degraded.


Bob Snyder, in his work Music and Memory(2000) provides us with an excellent description of nuance in this context. He considers them to be a vital aspect of musical performance:

“Nuance is the variation that takes place inside of the boundaries of a musical category. Musical nuance in this sense includes a range of different phenomena. Melodic nuances include the subtle bending of pitches, vibrato, and small variations in intonation… Nuances, which in a very real sense make the music ‘come alive,’ usually cannot be captured in notation


These nuances can be restored in heavily transformed material to some degree by re-imposing some of the original characteristics.  I experimented with a range of approaches to that particular problem.  I tried convolving that material with the original file; side chain processing with the original as the key file and the transformed file as the target; simple mixing, layering the target file with software instruments driven by pitch-to-midi information from the original file, and lastly a specially written Max patch which acted as a crude but effective envelope follower.


I enjoyed how it seemed, even when the gestural content was reduced by extreme transformation, that the material remained exceedingly pleasing and useful as background texture. I felt that this was due in large part to the degree of spectro-morphological consonance between the two.


For me, use of improvised performance also addresses an issue of artistic authenticity. Improvised material created ‘in the moment’ provides a route for the composer/performer to intuitively (and sometimes sub-consciously) externalise emotions and mind states, imprinting those on the sound produced.


Instruments that are, in effect, extensions of the voice seem particularly effective, and perhaps that is not surprising.  However, any instrument that relies on human movement will impart some gestural nuances. Thus even synthesizers can do this, so long as there is a human playing the keyboard or tweaking the knobs and sliders. We seem particularly attuned to the asymmetries and non-linearities thus introduced. These are the fingerprints of non-random agency, distinct from the robotic regularity of machine noise. These are the subtle signals to which we seem to be hard-wired by evolution to attend most well; and this in part explains the power of the approach under investigation. This view, essentially that such parameters connect subconsciously with archetypes, is supported by Smalley. I regard this aspect of the project as a success.


This approach provided (at least in this instance) a viable methodology for generational of a set of sounds, with a set of related attributes, for integration into a larger-scale structure. I view this as analogous in some ways to (Smalley, 1986)the choices that conventional tonal composers make when choosing a key signature or set of pitches to use in a piece.  Just as in this latter scenario, nailing down a “sound world” does not immediately solve the rather more vexing problem of achieving a satisfactory large-scale structure. Solving that problem is whole other project.



Cousins, J.(1986). Teacher and composer in the university. Studies in Music Education, 1(1), 35-65.


Popova, M. (2012, June 22). What Is Art? A Few Famous Definitions, From Antiquity to Today – Maria Popova – The Atlantic. (M. Popova, Producer) Retrieved June 01, 2013, from


Smalley, D. (1986). Specto-morphology and Structuring Processes. In S. Emmerson (Ed.), The Language of Elecroacoustic Music(pp. 61-93).

Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press.


Snyder, B.(2000). Music and Memory – An Introduction.London: The MIT Press.