A. Introduction   B. Memory Piece    C. Audio Paper

Orchestrating Timbre

Unfolding Processes of Timbre and Memory in Improvisational Piano Performance

Magda Mayas

A. Introduction

This exposition is part of a doctoral thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Fine Arts in Musical Performance and Interpretation at the Academy of Music and Drama, Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts, University of Gothenburg.

The written thesis can be downloaded here

This doctoral thesis presents how the orchestration of timbre is investigated from a performer’s perspective as means to “unfold” improvisational processes. It is grounded in my practice as a pianist in the realm of improvised music, in which I often use preparations and objects as extensions of the instrument.

As practice-based research, I explore multiple, combined, artistic, and analytical approaches to timbre, anchored in four of my own works. The process has also involved dialogues and experimental collaborations with other performers, engineers, an instrument builder and a choreographer. It opposes the notion of generalizable, reproducible, and transferrable techniques and instead offers detailed approaches to technique and material, describing object timbre, action timbre, and gesture timbre as active agents in sound-making processes.

Whilst timbre is often understood as a purely sonic perceptual phenomenon, this view does not accord with contemporary site-specific improvisational practice; hence, the need to explore and renew the potentiality of timbre. I introduce and argue for an extended understanding of timbre in relation to material, space, and body that embraces timbre’s complexity and potential to contribute to an ethical engagement with the situated context. I understand material, spatial, and embodied relations to be non-hierarchical, inseparable, and in constant flux, requiring continuous re-configuration without being reduced or simplified. From a performer’s perspective, I define “orchestrating” timbre as the attentive re-organization of these active agents and the creation of musical structures on micro and macro levels through the sculpting and transitioning of timbre—spatially, temporally, physically, and mentally—within a variety of compositional frameworks.

This requires recognizing the multiple and complex roles that memory plays in contemporary improvisational practice. I therefore introduce the term timbral memory as a strategic structural, reflective, and performative tool in the creation of performing and listening modes, as integrated parts of timbre orchestration.

Reaching beyond the sonic, my research contributes to the field of critical improvisation studies. It addresses practitioners and audiences in music and sound art, attempting to also constitute a bridge from artistic research in music—often viewed as a self-contained discipline—into multiple artistic fields, to inspire discussions, creation and education.


Media example A 1: Videos of Inside piano Techniques

Instrument Relations


Throughout the years, I have developed a set of techniques that, whilst they draw on the history of prepared and an inside piano vocabulary, are highly individualized and extend the possibilities for internal piano music-making. The techniques that I use are not so much “preparations” in the Cagean sense, which often involve a fixed setup for specific pieces, but are rather flexible in the sense that all preparations are instantaneously accessible and movable, and thus adaptable to different pianos, the acoustics of different concert spaces, and different musical requirements. The piano is transformed but it can be returned to its unprepared state in an instant, which is an essential and critical aspect when I improvise.

My idiosyncratic collection of objects inside the piano, and the way they are laid out and placed, is a composition in itself, setting a scene of possibilities. The objects expand the piano, becoming both instruments in themselves and part of the piano, transforming and adapting it to the situation and to what is required in the moment. Together with the piano they are also extensions of my movements and body, facilitating and manifesting my musical ideas. As such, they play a major part in my decision making in improvisational processes and timbre orchestration, while I am performing.

I talk in more detail about the history of the prepared piano as well as recent approaches and practitioners in the radio documentary “Inside Piano” (Mayas 2013), which includes interviews with pianists Cor Fuhler, Chris Burn, John Tilbury, Andrea Neumann, Benoit Delbecq, Tisha Mukarji, Anthony Pateras, Reinhold Friedl, Frederic Blondy, and Sophie Agnel, as well as discussions of their music.

I give an introduction to inside and prepared piano playing, objects and preparations as instrumental approaches and material agents in music making, and dicuss performer-instrument relationships in chapter 2 and 3 of the thesis.
Below is a  selection of videos to show how I engage with the piano and objects I use to create sound with. Doubleclick the video too enlarge it. Video and postproduction by Tony Buck