Multidimensional terrains


Concepts from the revised project description Between instrument and everyday sound1 and developments suggested 2013 in the assessment application 2 can serve as overall perspectives for my work as a composer within the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme, and the final artistic results.



The project Between instrument and everyday sound set out to deal with multidimensional phenomena of sound explored within instrumental, vocal and electroacoustic mediums.


"The aim of the project is to explore multidimensional, amorphous and vague expressions arising when many aspects of the music are given more independent roles than in traditional musical writing styles. What interests me is to manoeuver within a continuum of means, where the historical sounds of the instruments are there as just one extreme within a continuum. All these aspects can best be explored in a diverse constellation: an hour long work for ensemble, voices and electronics, placed in a location where musicians and loudspeakers can be freely distributed throughout the entire space." 3


Vagueness through the necessary accuracy

Calvino described a search for a perceived 'vagueness' defined through a precision of language.


"So this is what Leopardi asks of us, that we may savor the beauty of the vague and indefinite! What he requires is a highly exact and meticulous attention to the composition of each image, to the minute definition of details, to the choice of objects, to the lightning and the atmosphere, all in order to attain the desired degree of vagueness." 4


His Leopardi quotations describe views on a landscape from a multitude of specific places:


"in a passageway seen from inside or outside (...) places where the light mingles (...) on hills seen from the shady side so that their crests are gilded (...) by a colored pane of glass on those objects on which rays passing through that glass are reflected" 5


Parallels can be found in definitions of all simultaneous  physical aspects of a musical performance, in search of vague and amourphous sound phenomena. Dissolving gestures into nuances 'lightning', 'atmosphere' and spatial perspectives can become conscious efforts, in search of pleasant sides of this perceived 'vagueness'.


"...Giacomo Leopardi maintained that the more vague and imprecise language is, the more poetic it becomes. I might mention in passing that as far as I know Italian is the only language in which the word vago (vague) also means "lovely, attractive." Starting out from the original meaning of "wandering," the word vago still carries an idea of movement and mutability, which in Italian is associated both with uncertainty and indefiniteness and with gracefulness and pleasure." 6


Dense "micro polyphonies" from thousands of sounds of a city does not need to be decomposed in the same sense. A concrete outside world can be brought into the work, or virtual worlds can be created through multidimensional precision of language.


Melodics or trajectories

Imagined worlds can be decomposed and built up again through a polyphony of parameters.


"The melodic principle can be transferred to all traditionally static linear parameters. 'Klangfarbenmelodie' is known from the second viennese school and can be extended by timbre modulation melody, spatial melody and 'melody' for all other aspects possible to modify over time." 7


My initial use of the term 'melody' meets some resistance from Pierre Schaeffer.


"For a timbre-melody to have any chance of being perceived, the pitch of the sounds must remain the same from one note to the other all the time (as Schoenberg tried to do in Farben)." 8


"The T.O.M. 9 remains sceptical about the feasibility of composing timbre-melodies like these, especially associated with pitch and duration series, where the perception of these, which is already difficult, masks out any possibility of identifying the timbre-melody." 10


It will not be a point to prove that all parameters are equal. Timbre did in the Schönberg example need special attention to come to the foreground. What is clear, however, is that effects of depth into a sounding phenomena can be achieved when many parameters are in flux. Schaeffer makes a distinction between 'variation' and 'permanence', there are variable or static parameters11 'Perception' as such of every element need not be a goal, continous variation on parallel parameters can create a very audible richness in the overall sound, approaching what Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf has called 'apperceptive overload'12 which is a defining characteristic of polyphony. 


Through Schaeffer's reservations against multidimensional melodies, I started thinking in terms of trajectories shaping surface aspects of the music, as well as transformations or compositional choices below the audible musical surface.


"Ideas of multidimensional melody has developed into various uses of trajectory shapes, from the detail level (pitch, tempo, dynamic shape of a musical phrase), to a meta level; overall transformation of my own ideas, historical quotations, or spectral information of sounds. A flow of information is altered by curves of chronology, sorting after criteria, or pitch scaling. One result has been hundreds of new fragments from a short Ravel quotation, and I continue to recycle my own ideas though chains of manipulations.


This can be considered approaches for morphing sounds into musical material, or transform musical materials. Tools and methods have been created through Ircams Open Music, through self analysis of my visual sketches for past works, and ideas of morphing music on a meta level. I have also used morphing in it's usual sense for treatment of sounds; a virtual orchestra can transform between string and flute timbre." 13



Existing tools for cross synthesis can be used on recorded sounds, in search for hybrid identities of sound.


"Characteristics of something is transferred onto something else through morphing, known from digital sound or image-manipulation. Morphing is possible between sounds (with various types of vocoders, cross synthesis and cross fadings, through music technology, or as inspirational models for notated compositions)." 14


Meta morphing


"On a meta level, a sound can be 'morphed' into notation; if impulses from an everyday sound give rhythmical or harmonic progressions to an instrumental composition, or a quotation from the music history can be distorted in intonation and rhythm, to be reproduced as drops of water." 15


Concepts of transformation or 'morphing' of musical materials posed technical challenges which led to software development occupying a significant amount of time.




"The equal tempered scale of the piano is a compromise where few intervals are 'pure'. 16 Analysis of a tone or a noise sound will reveal completely different intervals sounding more fresh, offering a higher degree of timbral homogeneity, liberating melodics from the tension of harmonic functions and other music historical associations attached to the intervals." 17


"Finding alternatives to equal tempered 12-tone tuning has been an important part of this work. Through history a variety of tuning systems have been in use, offering fine nuances, pure and resonant, or with different types of dissonances or interferences offering completely different expressive qualities to the music.


Building a software organ has been important for intuitive experiments with tuning systems, and it can be a useful tool for rehearsing microtonal works in general.


Tunings are found from a variety of sources:


·       Equal tempered divisions (including 1/4, 1/5, 1/6, 1/8, 1/10-tones).

·       Western early music.

·       Javanese Gamelan.

·       African marimba tunings.

·       Turkish Makam.

·       Experimental composers (from Nicola Vicentino to Harry Partch).

·       The harmonic overtone series.

·       Pure Tuning by Eivind Groven.

·       Spectral analysis of sounds (instruments, soundscapes or animals).

·       My own just intonation tunings (based on overtone series).


This is not a field to cover exhaustively within this project, and it's not given I will use all of the tunings directly in my works. By comparing and selecting I can expand my repertoire of tunings to enrich sonorities of my music. Using electronics, a software organ, and scordatura strings, tunings can be used extremely precisely. For voices and ensembles practical approximations are necessary." 18




'Landscapes' or 'terrains' can offer fruitful metaphors for a musical language, through sculpting fluid constellations of timbral phenomena, gestures and topographic perspectives, within a composed language, or working with everyday sounds in the most concrete sense.


"I have for some time seen 'terrain' as a useful musical metaphor, elements of a terrain will form continously new constellations depending on postition of the viewer. I have found ways of considering a musical score as a terrain, which can be scanned in a non linear way, 19 to form new orders, speeds, and ranges." 20


Exploring the space

The ear is able to recognize fine nuances of intonation, and our perception of spatial directions in a horizontal field is extremely fine-tuned.


"The musicians are stationary, while their performance can be spread flexibly through the room with live electronics, just like an electronic sound can relocate itself very rapidly through the loudspeaker setup. I wish to make the spatial aspect an important part of the project, and find locations enabling experiments with positioning of musicians and loudspeakers." 21


The vocal repertoire


"The human voice becomes an important part of the total instrumental palette, with all its possibilities and connections with everyday sounds. Luciano Berio 22  and Brian Ferneyhough 23  have explored vocal techniques with a wide expressive range between noise and singing, and I will continue from these. The singers can manoeuver flexibly between timbral phonetics, overtone singing, and understandable text, which can again be superposed into a buzz of voices. Text collages from different literary epochs or different languages can superposed, and just as well be performed theatrically 24 (whispered, murmured, shouted) rather than be sung." 25


I ended up using texts by A.R. Ammons, James Joyce and Demian Vitanza.

Soundscape or sound object?


"During the 1960s and 1970s, two fundamental interdisciplinary tools for sound analysis were invented: the "sound object" (l'objet sonore) and the "soundscape."" 26


The two terms cover a contrast between composed or designed situations, and pure field recordings.


"…although the sound object is an essential tool in education or sound design, it can hardly be used as a fundamental concept for the description and analysis of urban sounds." 27


The term 'sound object' served as an inspiration for past works, suggesting isolated and sculptural ideas. Rather than extended situations of polyphony, I composed from a palette of objects, each object with it's inner life and potential influences and transition towards other objects, while objects only exist within bubbles of various shapes and lengths. A composition unfolds by abruptly cutting and superposing elements of a palette. Like it is possible to sketch out an understanding of any everyday sound through a continuum of morphology, it is possible to find morphologies of an ensemble or orchestra. These are not neutral descriptions, but attempts to understand relations between clearly imagined orchestral sounds used in specific a work. It is also possible to look through Pierre Schaeffers tables describing a continuum from centered tone to noise, with a simultaneous flux from continous sound, to iteration and grains.


  Instead of finding extended 'polyphonies', all internal and diverse activities collapse into concise, vertical sculptures. A consise orchestral sound phenomena can contain worlds of internal microscopic life. Dense vertical weavings approach what Pierre Schaeffer called 'polymorphy', rather than 'polyphony'.


"Polyphony/Polymorphy therefore distinguishes:

- on the one hand, musics based on the coexistence of horizontal voices and distinct interrelated discourses (polyphonic);

- on the other hand, music based on vertical “blocks” and fused objects (polymorphic)

The history of music demonstrates the progressive transition of certain musics from a “polyphonic” to a “polymorphic” stage, as the voices are progressively fused into compact harmonic aggregates." 28


Composing with 'polymorphic' objects can shift a focus away from a linear narrative of 'polyphony'. For me, this comes from an interest for ritual 29 and abrupt gestures, and impressions of 'aperceptive overload'. Without throwing out all existing elements, this language can be expanded by more continous situations and extended time scales.


Working with field recordings will be a fairly new element in my music. 'Found' and rich everyday situations can coexist with ideas composed through a thinking of morphology. The world is projected into the work, or virtual worlds are built from tiny 'sound objects'.


Artistic research

Henk Borgdorff suggested a distinction between 3 types of 'practise-based research' in the arts.


"Frayling differentiated between ‘research into art’, ‘research for art’ and ‘research through art’. I, too, will employ this trichotomy, albeit with a slightly different twist. I will distinguish between (a) research on the arts, (b) research for the arts and (c) research in the arts." 30


"Research for the arts can be described as applied research in a narrow sense. In this type, art is not so much the object of investigation, but its objective. The research provides insights and instruments that may find their way into concrete practices in some way or other. Examples are material investigations of particular alloys used in casting metal sculptures, investigation of the application of live electronics in the interaction between dance and lighting design, or the study of the ‘extended techniques’ of an electronically modifiable cello. In every case these are studies in the service of art practice. The research delivers, as it were, the tools and the knowledge of materials that are needed during the creative process or in the artistic product. I have called this the ‘instrumental perspective’." 31


The description is suitable for parts of the project, there are technical challenges connected to live electronics, 'extended techniques', instrument building, research on intonation, development of compositional techniques to transform musical ideas both for scores and the massive amount of information necessary for a useful synthesis of sound. A path of research has works of art as goal, while it is necessary to keep visions of aesthetic results from the beginning; how can the methods become sculpting tools for the heard visions, and as well produce unexpected results?


"The question we must ask as musicians however is not, are these procedures scientifically valid, or even predictable, but rather, do they produce aesthetically useful results on at least some types of sound materials." 32


If tools are still technically incorrect or in development, yet produce interesting results, the musical ideas are always more important than the correctness of the tools. The project suggest tresholds to overcome, until musical expressions involving multidimensional transformations, 'morphings', new (or old) intonation systems, live processing and spatial distribution of ensemble and electroacoustic sounds, can be brought into a synthesis.


I will in this text be making claims about effects of methods, which approaches turned out most useful, through experiments with musical ideas and technical challenges. The context for these claims is this concrete artistic project. It will not be a quest for the perfect methods, but expanding a repertoire of tools to meet specific musical challenges.


Software tools

Two main tools were developed through the project and made available for free download and documented in separate texts. 33


  • 3 Manual Microtonal Organ programmed with MaxMsp 34 and Fluidsynth. 35 This is a virtual pipe organ with possibilities to explore tuning systems and transformations between tuning systems. A database of tunings is written in a text format, and it's possible for users to add tunings to this database. This was used as an instrument in the final work of this project; Landscape with figures II.
  • Ruben-OM (an Open Music 36 patch library).  Ideas of transformation and translation between sound and musical material was a technical challenge. I have chosen to make the most general tools public, including new rhythm quantification methods.


The separate software documentation will deal with general functionality of these tools, while this main text will refer to methods as means of realizing concrete musical ideas.


Artistic results

The project was concluded through a performance of the work:


·       Landscape with figures II [90'] performed 7/9-2013, Dansens Hus, Oslo, during the Ultima festival, by Song Circus, Oslo Sinfonietta and Notam, conducted by Christian Eggen.


The rest of this text will deal with realization of this work, and how areas of research were explored and possibly expanded through this work.

Between instrument and everyday sound

 Concluding reflection for Norwegian Artistic Research Programme

 Ruben Sverre Gjertsen 2014 [Layout revisions 2018]

The Grieg Academy

University of Bergen