Creating with timbre

Unfolding processes of timbre and memory in improvisational piano performance
Magda Mayas


One question that seems to reappear time and time again, when experiencing an improvised music performance, concerns the means of composing in real time. How does one structure a piece of music when, as an improviser, one doesn’t know what the next sound event will be? This exposition is an introduction to my research, in which I unfold processes of timbre and memory in improvised music[1] from a performer’s perspective.

In my practice, I have developed and expanded the vocabulary for inside piano playing[2] using preparations and objects that become extensions of the instrument itself. I experiment with a grand piano, objects, microphones, speakers, movement and space. I do not divide these elements into (passive) objects and (active) subjects but rather treat them as changing configurations of dynamic relationships. The relationship between these elements and their subsequent relationship to me is in constant flux and, with it, my role as a performer and listener.

Timbre specifically fascinates me because of the multitude of parameters and experiences it entails – frequency and dynamics, experienced over time and through space. Timbre is often understood as a purely sonic perceptual phenomenon. However, this is not in accordance with a site-specific improvisational practice[3] with changing spatial circumstances impacting the listening experience, nor does it take into account the agency of the instrument and objects used or the performer’s movements and gestures. Improvisation is a compositional approach and an immanent and continuous response to every aspect of the environment I find myself in, as well as a way to negotiate and navigate within it.

Unfolding the performance and composing process is not only an intellectual task, it is also a physical, sensorial experience. Listening, performing, composing become ways of experiencing and engaging with the presence of a space, the instrument and the people around me.

Timbre orchestration

The timbre of a sound is a phenomenon still difficult to define or even talk about, although there have been many attempts to quantify or conceptually approach it: sometimes simply by describing what it is not; by inventing different scales and systems with which to categorize it; through focusing on how different timbres are produced rather than describing its sonic outcome; through comparing it to language; through describing the frequency and balance between various parts in the spectrum [4]; and in psychoacoustic research through timbre spaces - a graphical representation of perceived (dis)similarity ratings of multiple timbres translated into a distance model.[5]

In my practice, I have found a concept as part of the creating process in improvised music which has compelling potential and, to my knowledge, has not received much attention: Timbre orchestration. My research takes the many and complex aspects of a performance environment into account and offers an extended understanding of timbre, which embraces spatial, material and bodily aspects of sound in improvised music performance. I want to embrace a deeper understanding of the compositional and relational potentiality embedded in timbre and the way it is contextualized in improvised music performance through timbre orchestration and choreography.

Perhaps this desire to extend timbre, and with it my practice, emerged from the grand piano itself: this massive, static and immobile instrument; more than any other acoustic instrument perhaps, it usually remains in one fixed position, which can be limiting in regards to an active engagement within a constantly changing body-space-time-continuum.

I understand timbre orchestration as the creation of both micro and macro structures: reaching from the sculpting of a “single” sound while I perform -spatially, temporally, physically and mentally - and determining how it transitions to the next, to the creation of overarching polyphonic maps of movements, variations, juxtapositions and combinations of sound material, within the framework of an entire composition in live performance. It is in performance that I find that the relationships between space, sound and the instrument reveal themselves. Unfolding and reassembling then becomes a process that happens simultaneously.

Researching improvisational processes

A lot of research around improvised music - in particular music with a focus on timbre, rather than pitch, rhythm or harmony, as a structural element - tries to find and develop ways to transcribe, notate and analyse it, much in the same way one would approach and analyse pre-composed music. Conceptual and analytical tools, focusing on in-depth aural analysis, in particular in regards to electro acoustic music, (starting with Pierre Schaeffer’s Traité des Objets Musicaux) have been adapted to analyse improvised music performance as well. The development of graphic notation, detailed signs or letters to represent and describe sounds and transitions, spectral analysis, and language to describe and categorise spectromorphological characteristics of sounds (see Smalley, 1997; Larsen, 2007) have all been proposed and investigated.[6] Likewise, there is vast literature on social, cultural, psychological and political aspects of improvised music[7], both in regards to influential groups (see for example Eddie Prevost’s No sound is innocent or George Lewis´ A power stronger than itself) and in the realm of music education.

In my research I am addressing the following questions:

The investigative projects described in this exposition offer a methodology to explore timbral improvisational processes integrated into my practice, which is further extended through collaborations with sound engineers, an instrument builder and a choreographer:

-experiments in amplification and recording, resulting in Memory piece, a series of works for amplified piano and multichannel playback

- Piano mapping, a performance approach, with a custom-built device for live spatialization[8] as means to

expand and deepen spatio-timbral relationships;

- Accretion, a project with choreographer Toby Kassell for three grand pianos and a pianist, where gestural approaches are used to activate and compose timbre in space.[9]

Together, the projects explore memory as a structural, reflective and performative tool and the creation of performing and listening modes as integrated parts of timbre orchestration.[10] In this exposition, I describe how I use memory strategically in relation to an extended understanding of timbre as means to gain knowledge about improvisational processes.

I want to address the entanglement of sound, material, body and space in my listening and performance experience - not in an attempt to disentangle it, but to re-organize and re-link its components and agents and to emphasize its complexity in timbre orchestration. As a general aim of my research, I am looking for ways to stimulate and extend a performer’s imagination through unfolding the complexities involved in creating with timbre.

The methods and artistic approaches I employ are however not didactic- I do not construct a quantifiable categorization and terminology of timbre and the artistic works and aesthetic choices used in their creation are not explained. Rather, I unfold the complexity of timbral processes, instead of reducing them, explore and extend my practice and show timbre as a dynamic energy in improvisational performance, which continuously transitions.

Instrument relations

Since the middle of the last century, inside or prepared piano playing has become quite common in contemporary music practice, both in composition and improvisation. I would argue that searching for ways to alter and add to the timbre of the piano through various preparations and mechanisms has been part of the instrument’s history since the very beginning (see e.g. Vaes, 2009). Some research has been done on the challenges of performing extended piano repertoire (Dullea, 2011) from an interpreter’s perspective, but little research on the relationship between composer/performer and instrument in improvised music has been undertaken. Likewise, research around the changed acoustic and performative capacities of the extended piano, and the consequences of this for performer and audience alike, is a much-needed addition to the field of extended piano performance.

I use a set of so-called extended techniques[11] that draw on the history of prepared and inside piano vocabulary, but are highly individualized and extend the possibilities for internal piano music-making. The techniques I use are not so much preparations in the Cagean sense, which involves a fixed set-up for specific pieces, but are flexible, so that all preparations are instantaneously accessible, movable and thus adaptable to different pianos, to the acoustics of different concert spaces and to musical requirements.

Developing idiosyncratic ways of systematizing material and movements, knowing and internalizing the vocabulary I use and having it at hand when needed, are all preconditions for me when I improvise, and represent one way of understanding the choices I make. This means understanding both the physiology and the possible meaning of movements when I play, as well as the acoustic capacity and perception of sounds produced, with a decoding of my own perception at its core.

An overview of a selection of preparations and objects I use, with audio and video documentation, can be found here: There are, however, a myriad of combinations, nuances and constantly evolving techniques within my set-up. I find the differences between prepared or inside piano approaches lie not so much in the objects or sounds utilised, but in each pianist’s specific touch and aesthetic and in how and when the material is used and musically contextualised. As an example, a lot of pianists use Ebows[12] or bow strings with fishing line etc., but they will sound considerably different depending on how the Ebows are treated, where they are placed, whether they are prepared, what material is used to bow, whether the bowing is executed in front or behind the dampers, rhythmically or in a sustained manner, in which register, how soft, hard, fast or slow the bowing gesture is applied and, most importantly, what happens before and after in a musical context.

Cathy van Eck speaks about different definitions and capacities of musical instruments and how musical ideas are shaped by the instrument itself (Van Eck, 2017: 48). “As soon as a musical idea is played on an instrument, one will never be able to hear only the idea, …one cannot subtract the instrument and retain the music…it is not endless possibilities, but rather the finiteness of these possibilities which render an instrument fruitful for music making”.

The instrument-specific outset, the piano with its acoustic possibilities, the way sounds project, the piano’s sonic limitations, the physically challenging and straining position of leaning over and into the instrument when I perform, and the fact that I am adapting to different instruments every time I play, often with unpredictable outcomes, are all defining preconditions for the music that is being created. The particularities of the performance situation inform each other and become part of the composition and performing process.

In his System of objects Baudrillard points out, that “objects do not merely help us to master the world by virtue of integration into instrumental series, they also help us by virtue of their integration into mental series, to master time…” (Baudrillard,1996: 20, emphasis in quote). Techniques and material for me imply a need for a system, an internalised knowledge and mental structure of the actual physical material I am using.

The author’s inside piano set up

My idiosyncratic collection of objects inside the piano, and the way they are laid out is a composition in itself. Their physicality, their haptic feeling in my hand, their weight, material and shape affect how I use them in a musical context. Sherry Turkle speaks about the intimate and emotional relationships we develop with objects, how they shape our ideas and how we think with them (Turkle, 2007). Likewise, in my use of preparations, the objects expand the piano and become part of the instrument. They set parameters, which are temporal, spatial and timbral, and initiate a dynamic feedback loop of action and reaction.

Placing the audience inside the piano

Many timbral subtleties of inside piano playing do not translate or project very well into space – the acoustic output can be quite low and at times does not reach the listeners in all its detail. The practice offers much broader dynamics than the standard employment of the keyboard, and the often very fragile and soft soundscapes demand an alternative performance approach.

There is very little literature or information on amplification and recording techniques for inside or prepared piano performance. Of course, the amplification and recording method is dependent on the specific space and instrument, on the idiosyncratic way performers play and on which pieces are being performed. However, I have found that the way standard keyboard playing is amplified and recorded is often simply carried across and employed when working with inside or prepared piano playing. In most cases, this is very ineffective and does not take into account the changing dynamic and timbral range, as mentioned above.

Pianist Benoit Delbecq, who uses various preparations inside the piano, including different types of wood and triangular pieces of eraser, states: “The main problem with prepared piano lies in its acoustic output. Depending on the instrument you’re playing on…you definitely have to increase the energy to trigger a decent acoustic power…it requires a lot of piano strength but it doesn’t sound loud” (Shoemaker, 2002). Playing inside piano, e.g. producing harmonics on the strings, can have an even softer dynamic output.

Chris Burn, is a pianist, composer, improviser and interpreter, who has investigated amplification and electroacoustic techniques with the grand piano since the early 1980s, as well as later modifying acoustic piano sounds with electronics and combining both the acoustic and electronic elements in live performance. He started working with various microphones and a volume pedal in the '90s, to amplify sympathetic resonances, as well as difference and summation tones produced with the piano[13].

Amplifying the piano in my own explorative work was to create a situation where my subjective listening experience, leaning over and into the piano, and the way I use the instrument is reflected in the set up and equipment I use. I wanted to have more control over the sonic output and the way sounds project and translate in the room. Details of timbre, the inside piano space, instrument and object specific resonances and reflections, which are not usually audible, are made available to the audience and hereby change their, and my, listening perspective.

In the last years, I have spent extensive time experimenting: recording and amplifying the piano with different microphones, testing different positions of microphones and loudspeakers, working together with sound engineers Douglas Henderson and Stig Gunnar Ringen as well as Palle Dahlstedt. This has led to a set-up where I amplify the piano with four to six microphones within a multiple speaker set-up, with the piano in the middle of the space, the speakers in the corners of the room and the audience sitting or walking around it. The piano is then projected onto the space, by placing microphones in different areas of the piano and routing them to different speakers.

Virtually enlarging the piano to the size of the entire room, I create an immersive listening experience, as though one is inside the instrument. I place the audience in a similar listening position to that which I experience with my head inside the piano, enveloped by the surrounding sounds. This allows the audience to experience many facets and details of sounds; it adds intimacy to the performance experience and allows me to share the creating composing process with the audience in a more immediate way. It is also a way of spatializing sound through working with microphones and loudspeakers, their positioning in space and the directionality, diffusion and immersion of the projected sound. In essence, it creates a piano map in the space, a microphone loudspeaker configuration, which maps the piano’s architecture and layout and magnifies it.

Piano and speaker set up, Sjöströmsalen, Gothenburg University, October 2016

I chose four super cardioid condenser microphones to close mic the different registers of the piano, a contact microphone for surface sounds on the soundboard and a mobile guitar pick up, so as to be able to zoom into certain sounds and create feedback[14]. The set up was partly inspired by Andrea Neumann´s inside piano set-up, a custom made inside-piano frame, without the keys or legs of a grand piano, which she uses with various microphones and a mixing board (described e.g. in van Eck, 2017:108-110). Apart from the distinct differences in the way the microphones pick up the sound, the precise positioning and directional character - especially of the super cardioid microphones - enable me to focus on the frequency range of each register. I am engaging with microphones and loudspeakers as a timbral and spatial exploration, where their individual qualities and implied aesthetics surface and impact my playing. As van Eck points out, amplification moved from its initial purpose, and the idea of “the same sound but louder”, to the development of new (electronic) instruments and, likewise, to new playing techniques on amplified instruments (Van Eck, 2017: 38i).

I find myself developing new playing techniques and performance set-ups through exploring and further developing the possibilities amplification has to offer. I notice changes in my playing through this direct interaction, the different timbral subtleties each microphone picks up and transmits and the different functionality it fulfils within my performance. I directly interact with the contact microphones, placed on the soundboard, as they mainly capture the sound of e.g. a chopstick or my fingers gently scratching and moving across the soundboard. The guitar pick-up amplifies different frequencies and resonances depending on how far or close it is from the sound source and, depending on where on the string I place it, the harmonic range it amplifies changes: e.g. closer to the tuning pins, many of the harmonics are present, the sound is harsher, with higher frequencies dominating the sound, while in the middle of the string the 1st harmonic is present and, overall, the fundamental frequency is more dominant. The guitar pick-up I use amplifies resonances of e.g. a vibrating magnet or Ebow on a string, which would not be perceptible for the audience or me otherwise. It is also mobile and this movement from one place to another needs to be coordinated with the rest of the techniques and movements I am performing, and in that way has direct impact on the structure of a piece.

The raised level and sound detail made available do not only influence the way I play (i.e. less physical effort is necessary) but also enable me to engage in a much softer sound vocabulary and lead to the invention of new playing techniques as described above. Hence, a different listening mode also implies and calls for a change in the physical performance, necessitating the learning of new movements and gestures, which need to be incorporated into the overall listening-performing-composing process. Changes in spatial configurations of sound always imply timbral changes in the way sound is perceived, structured and choreographed as part of a composition. By placing the audience effectively ‘inside’ the piano, I enrich and add a spatio-timbral vocabulary, which I explore through multi-channel compositions and performances in Memory piece and Piano Mapping as described below.

Memory piece

Memory piece is a series of compositions for amplified piano and four-channel playback. The title is a reference to Alvin Lucier’s Memory Space.[15] In Lucier’s score, players may use different devices to memorise the sound situations of outside environments, e.g. written notations or tape recordings. Later, they are asked to interpret and perform those sound situations in an inside space, but without audibly mixing recorded with re-created sounds. Documenting and recording the process of performing in a multi-speaker set up (mostly quadrophonic), led to the idea of Memory piece.

The playback consists of recordings of improvised piano pieces made in this set-up, which are regarded as memories of sound and gesture, as well as perceptions of different performance spaces. Segments of these recordings are reorganized into a sparse composition, as a sound diary of that experience: a documentation of past sound events and movements in space and a playback with which to improvise in a new multi-speaker performance.The speakers project the sound of the live amplified piano as well as the pre-recorded sounds.

In contrast to Lucier’s piece, I like to superimpose recorded and live performance and to make audible the process of interacting with a similar situation - an amplified and virtually enlarged piano in a room, a “piano map” - in different environments. Memory piece is not so much about my perception and memory of a particular space at a given time, but about what performing within that space sounds like, how it aligns and interacts with present performances. I am exposing myself to the changes in my playing: I hear myself responding to a piano map from another room and situation, projected into the present space; I respond to it, while simultaneously playing with a new piano map, adding manifold sonic and psychological layers.

Whilst I play, I notice how closely the sounds overlap; sometimes I cannot tell whether it is the playback or the sound from my own live playing coming through the speakers. The sound of a string being plucked could be pre-recorded or live or both at the same time. Hence the recording turns into more than just a document of a process, it is a memory that is both spatial and a reminder of a gesture and a sound. It enables and encourages listeners to compare perceptions of “the same work” under different listening conditions and contexts.

Every sound and every musical layer occupies its own time, to exist and unfold and to be perceived, and our perception of it changes when a sound is repeated, live or through a recording, and remembered. With the structural use of timbre, silence and space, I want to reorganize and overlap these different layers of time and moderate between immediacy and distance. Memory piece becomes a research method, to document, track and transform (past) performances.

There are many different versions of the piece, as the recordings and playback material are constantly evolving; consequently, I am always confronted with new sound environments and my performance within them. I try and record my performances of Memory piece whenever possible, and turn those recordings into a new playback and memory piece. I am then presented with even more layers of time and material.

A recording is, of course, much more than a reproduction of a concert situation and represents a reality of its own: from “the record as a copy of the concert” to "the concert as a copy of the record "(Van Eck, 2017: 43). This is something I like to play with in this work, where realities of live and recorded performances blur. Denis Smalley talks about “the interdependence of the composed space (the space as composed on to recorded media), and the listening space (the space in which the composed space is heard)” (Smalley, 1997: 122).

The way I record a performance changes with the occasion. Sometimes I wear binaural microphones in my ears while I perform[16], so as to have a very personal and almost autobiographical document of the performance. Alternatively, I might ask someone else to wear binaural microphones and slowly walk around in the space during the performance, to experience differing proximity to the speakers and to capture different spatial angles. I might use recordings of the same microphones used for amplification, or work with (quadrophonic) microphones set up in the middle of the room. Often, I use different recordings in combination in the composition of the playback. I appreciate the different perspectives and documents the various recording techniques provide, because this also reflects the practicalities of different performance situations. The recording turns from a documentation into an interpretation of space and events, an autobiographical reportage.

Space performed; space remembered

In the process of composing and improvising with different Memory pieces, I have also noticed that my auditory memory of a space is often a static one – almost just an impression, or an idea of what a space sounded like and what I liked or disliked about performing in it. For me, it is not a dynamic memory of an event in time. The compositional process of working with the playback helps me remember, interact with and observe that memory of a space and my performance within it. The spatial simultaneity of multiple recordings and live amplification, often featuring similar material, gives me the chance to consciously listen to space. In addition to its function as an enhancement of sounds, it is therefore also a separate, highly dynamic spatial experience, which I explore as part of a situated act of improvising, composing and performing.

Pauline Oliveros addresses space as part of the instrument and vice versa, and talks about “spatial coupling” between performer and space and instrument and space (Oliveros, 2007: 2). In this project, I experience space through performing in and with it, as well as through adapting my listening to different modes, focusing variously on past and present, amplified and acoustic sound events.

Space is further transformed both in our memory of it and in our attempts to document it: The recording process artificially adds space and “colours” sounds due to the devices used: the microphones, the preamps in the sound card, the computer, the software; artificial space is added in the mixing and mastering process; the loud speakers and their specific resonances and the final listening space itself all translate, change and influence the way we perceive sound and space.

Recording technology also splits musical space temporarily, spatially, socially, and artistically (Blesser & Salter, 2009: 133). A recording is never an “authentic” representation of space, but it can serve as a reference to a source, a moment or another place, with a view to evoking the experience in the listener “of being in places other than the place where the music is performed” (Macedo, 2015: 246). Especially when recording space with various devices, in different proximity to the sound source, I try to capture specific aural realities, which are authentic to the circumstances at the time, selecting one perspective out of many.

The process of imagining and composing a multichannel piece for me, means imagining sounds and their movement in space as a structural part of the composition. Pauline Oliveros describes this imagining process as auralizing or “mentally modeling sound in memory creatively” (Oliveros, 2011: 163)[17]. I usually work with the spatialisation intuitively, taking into consideration my live interaction with the playback, my position in the performance space, as well as giving sounds enough time to unfold and move from speaker to speaker, in a similar pace I would perform a corresponding movement on the piano. I think the way I compose spatially is, in fact, quite connected to how I use my body in performance; the loudspeakers, just like the piano, functioning as an extension of my body.

Memory piece represents an attempt to bring to the surface an inherently internal process of improvising, one of continuously remembering and listening to what has just been played and creating a response to it. It is an engaging with the act of listening, listening to the tiniest timbral details and changes the different recording techniques, speakers and their projection in space provide and how they blend with the live acoustic sound. This performing with layers of time, space and material enhances and amplifies the listening itself, my own and the audiences’.

This process of working with multichannel compositions further evoked the need to spatialize live performed sounds as well, and to have a more refined and controlled spatial response and vocabulary when I perform. I wanted to integrate the spatial parameter into improvisational processes within my performance and find a way to extend my engagement with microphones and speakers described above, so that space would be an equal compositional component and part of a timbral orchestration. This eventually led to my collaboration with Sukandar Kartadinata, with whom I developed a custom built spatialization tool which I discuss below.

Piano Mapping -

Warping space as unfolding

Piano Mapping is an approach to spatial composition in my performance, a mapping and unfolding of space and sound relationships, a choreographing of timbre in space. Here, I am referring to spatial composition as an organizing, directing and moving of sound in space and an active engagement with speakers and microphones as additional instruments while I perform. This results in a timbral choreography in my performance, the possibility of deciding where a sound happens and when and how, during this event, I shape its timbral qualities.

Working and interacting with loudspeakers and microphones has a long history and has generated a vast artistic practice. An overview of this history and practice would go beyond the scope and purpose of this exposition. “Between air and electricity” by Cathy van Eck gives an introduction and historic overview, as well as discussing milestone electronic and electro-acoustic works extending right through to those produced by today’s practitioners (Van Eck, 2017).Van Eck uses the theoretical approach of “movement, material and space” (van Eck, 2017: 83) in regards to interactions with loudspeakers and microphones, where they become “audible as sound-producing objects by either moving them, attaching objects to their diaphragm, or positioning them in space” (van Eck, 2017: 146). In contrast, I am exploring relationships with similar elements but with a different emphasis: timbre rather than amplification/diffusion technology. I am using the concept of movement/body, material and space in relation to an extended understanding of timbre in instrumental performance. In this project, I explore spatial composition and the choreographing of timbre through the interaction with loudspeakers and microphones.

I wanted to expand my performance through improvising with piano maps, using these as a compositional element, a score perhaps, “a means of delineating musical structure” (Smalley,1997:122). Apart from mapping the piano and choosing between different maps and moving them live in space, I also wanted to be able to choose and interact with one microphone at a time and, for example, to engage with how a guitar pick-up versus the DPA condenser microphones would change the timbral quality of the same sound.

In March 2017, I began working with Sukandar Kartadinata, who (re)constructs instruments and develops custom solutions for musicians operating between the virtual and physical domains.[18] He built a device which is part of my current set up, a small hardware box containing a computer (Lattepanda[19]), which now runs the Max patch and which I can access via my lap top prior to a performance through a closed network, to create the presets and piano maps I want to use in a particular space. Furthermore, the device operates with 3 different modes and has additional functions which proved to be useful during the experimentation process:

1. a preset mode with 9 different configurations/piano maps

2. a joystick to be able to pick out one specific microphone and move sounds between speakers

3. a “play-back” mode of up to 3 sound files, which I can start, pause and stop and which gives me the possibility to play with multi-channel compositions, such as the Memory pieces.

Additionally, there is a crossfade to move seamlessly between different presets/piano maps, which I can turn on or off with a small switch. The device/controller is positioned inside the piano next to my preparations and objects and is now integrated into my performance set-up, accessible at any time as another instrument and object I improvise with.

Piano Mapping device

In some settings, I try to emulate virtually the piano’s architecture, so that the instrument’s layout and different registers are mapped in space. I also like to play with this virtual image and take the piano and its enlarged sonic architecture apart , for example, by moving the bass or the treble of the piano from the rear to the front of the performance space, which creates a somewhat unsettling effect. Connecting the piano’s registers to different positions in space and then changing those positions plays with our perception of the instrument’s physical properties. The biggest audible contrast between the different set-ups is created by using one kind of microphone exclusively as well as switching between amplified and acoustic sound. The switch to an acoustic setting, after having listened to and “accepted” the virtually enlarged piano map that fills the space, creates a naturally softer, but also less reverberant, very intimate setting that requires a different listening attention and performance.

I find the idea of warping space through these different piano maps intriguing because it creates different listening modes and sound sculptures in addition to the acoustic materiality of the sounding piano. It can deepen the spatial listening process, emphasize or even disturb it and it enables the audience to encounter a more immediate plasticity of the sound. I have been experimenting with having the audiences either sitting around the piano or moving through the space during the performance and allowing the spatial listening experience to unfold.

Blesser states that there is no universal definition of an ideal listening space (Blesser & Salter, 2009: 147), while electronic composer Eliane Radigue speaks of anti-acoustics (Schütze, 2011) and attempts to create a listening situation where sound is dispersed through the concert space in a way that it creates a sound bath, so that the “same sonic information is coming from all directions”(van Eck, 2017: 135).These arguments connect to my thoughts of abandoning the idea of “sweet spots” [20] in listening spaces in my performance. In contrast, I want to encourage a variety of ways to experience music in space, which is particularly imbedded in the immediate creating, adjusting and sculpting of sound in improvisation and confirmed in this particular project. Rather than diffusing sound in a way that the same information can be experienced everywhere in space, I am encouraging the idea of being exposed to a multiplicity of listening modes and experiences, with differing details in regards to timbral information, directionality, diffusion and movement, so that the orchestration of timbre becomes something the listeners and I can additionally experience through the choreographing of sound. I want to take create a dynamic and flexible spatial listening experience, which exploits the possibilities the performance space has to offer.

It is challenging to give the audience and myself enough time to get used to a specific setting or a particular “listening”, until it is accepted as the “aural reality” in our spatial perception and memory. “Because experiencing sound involves time and because spatial acoustics are difficult to record, auditory memory plays a large role in acquiring the ability to hear space.” (Blesser & Salter, 2007: 17). This play with our spatial perception and the remembering of sonic spatial movements is an important aspect in the improvising process. I learn how to memorize spatial sonic experiences and be aware of them. I can then use these memories of timbral choreographies to construct a narrative within a performance.

It connects to the Memory pieces as a compositional approach and the creating of different listening modes. However, as Piano Mapping uses live spatialisation, it requires a different approach to time, in that space becomes another component in the structure of the piece with which I can improvise. Spatial differences convert into temporal differences when we move through space (Blesser & Salter, 2009) - listening to space then becomes a process. Hence, playing with the Piano Mapping tool seems to refine and influence the temporal aspects in my performance and resulting compositional structures; through exploring different stages of a sound spatially, I am naturally also extending it temporally.

This approach requires a different pace in listening, in giving room to perceive these timbral spatial changes, and I am amazed how one idea, one sound, can now be temporally and structurally extended and re-composed through this new spatial listening capacity. Listening to space, through timbral variation and movement is a process and as compositional parameters are added to my vocabulary and timbre is extended, I find myself reducing the sonic material and rather diving into minute changes in dynamics, movement, rhythm and timbre.

A spatial parameter has been added to, or refined in, my vocabulary, leading to the development of new gestures and techniques which need to be learned and incorporated into my practice; this re-defines my physical relationship to the instrument. A repetition of a sound or a variation of it can be performed by moving it spatially. This can also be applied during different stages of the sound’s existence – e.g. moving the reverb or “remains” of a sound after it is produced through space, or while it is in the process of unfolding. This is a completely new listening experience and compositional tool for me.

The performance with Piano Mapping creates a multiplicity of listening modes, stimulates imaginative processes and deepens performer-instrument relationships. It expands the complexity of interactive agents in timbre orchestration through its integration into improvisational processes: a continuous re-configuring of gesture, material and space, creating timbral choreographies.

Accretion -

Between memory and movement

Accretion is a collaborative work with Toby Kassell, a choreographer and dancer currently employed at the Gothenburg Opera who works extensively with sound and produces original pieces.

I discussed how Piano Mapping is a means of spatially composing with sound through loudspeakers and microphones - a spatial extension and translation of physical and musical gestures. Here, small gestures and sounds inside the piano are translated into movements between multiple speakers and enlarged piano maps are projected into space. Accretion is in many ways an inversion of this process: I work with acoustic grand pianos and instead extend my gestures and movements. Spatial composition becomes an organizing principle not only of sound in space, but also of instruments, my body and movements in space. Through the positioning of multiple instruments, I project myself into the space and invent new playing techniques to explore physical aspects of timbre orchestration and choreography. Movement connects me to the instrument, and the instrument to the space and the listeners and back to me in a split second. I want to address this entanglement of sound, material, body and space in my listening and performance experience - not in an attempt to disentangle it, but to re-organize and re-link its components and to emphasize its complexity in timbre performing and listening.

In recent years, musicological and artistic study of gesture has become an important research field applied to instrumental performance, investigating its expressive potential, its influence on musical structure and its potential as a source for new compositional approaches. Godøy and Leman define gestures in the context of a musical performance as “movements made by performers to control the musical instrument …or express the activity of listening…they go along with the articulation of the musical idea or meaning” (Godøy & Leman, 2010, p.5). Godøy further speaks of “gestural-sonorous objects” (Godøy, 2006, p.149), an extension of Schaeffer’s concept and terminology, including the gestures associated with sonorous objects in the explorative process and proposing a taxonomy of musical gestures.

Similar to Godøy, I explore the role and potentiality of gestures in musical performance, however my practice goes beyond the “control of the musical instrument” described above and involves highly expanded bodily gestures related to instrument, materiality and space and connects to an extended understanding of timbre. In 2017, I started working with Toby Kassel in order to shift my perspective in relation to instrumental performance from a strictly sound-based one to one that focuses on inherent body movements and physical relationships. I was interested in Toby’s approach to structuring a piece, his way of working with memory, repetition and time, from a choreographer’s and dancer’s perspective. How does working with movement patterns as building blocks in composing with the body relate to how I work with sound, and how does Toby’s approach to space resemble to or differ from mine?

I was particularly interested in the transitions, when a single sound becomes a texture or phrase or part of a larger frame and syntax, and how I could extend the way I use my body to create structure within a musical performance. Memory - temporal, spatial and physical - is at the threshold of improvisation and composition, as it can reveal and create relationships between events within a performance. Remembering past sound events as well as being aware of our muscle or gestural memory requires and combines intuitive and analytical skills and informs how we react and create. I wanted to be aware of the role gestures and movements play in my performance and how memory could be activated as a compositional tool. I was also interested in Toby’s insight into performing movements in uncomfortable or physically challenging positions and how this changes the artistic outcome and meaning of a gesture - given that my performance at the piano often reflects a certain physical effort and requires a balancing of aesthetic choices with what is possible and comfortable.

Based on these thoughts, Toby developed different tasks and exercises which we expanded on in collaboration.

Perform a short piece at the piano. Improvise for a few minutes. Repeat the piece as precisely as you can and memorise it. This is piece No. 1. Now, repeat it once more, but without performing any sounds, but just the movements.

A silent choreography of the piece, sound gestures in the air.

First, perform at the piano. Pick up the objects you used or just use your hands.Then move away from the instrument, perform the piece again in empty space, in the air around you, as if at the piano.

How much space does the piano take up in the room; how much does my body take up; what is the gestural space I occupy when I move at the piano; how far to the left do I reach over with my arm to pluck a bass string? I am losing my balance, with my right foot lifted, imagining holding the sustaining pedal. I am trying to remember the exact physical and spatial details of the piano, its layout, and relying on what my body remembers. I do not experience the same resistance, force or weight with my body, as I do when performing gestures on the instrument; the movements are transformed and become self-referential. Is all the effort and force I usually move with necessary? Can my movements be ergonomically improved or do they carry another meaning or function that I am not yet aware of?

Play a second piece and memorise it in sound and gesture. Repeat piece No. 2 and now reference piece No.1, either in gesture or in sound. At the piano or away from it. Memorise that new piece, as piece No. 3.

Play piece No. 3, and reference piece No. 2 in sound and piece No. 1 in gesture.

What is the second sound you performed in piece No. 3? What is the last gesture you referenced in piece No.2?

Re-performing a piece, and removing the sound from it, or rather, emphasizing the movement which causes it and is so deeply intertwined in its meaning, is foreign to me. It feels mannered or affected at first; I am exaggerating gestures, my body is suddenly the focus and my reference to time and space shifts completely. I am imagining and remembering the sounds I played and trying to recall how long each sound and silence lasted. I don’t have any acoustic cues, I am performing ghost movements, working with the physical residue of the piece.

Usually, when I perform, I listen to the sounds I play, how they project and sustain and decay, I react and decide on the next sound to follow, based on my listening. There is an interplay of transitions between sounds and silence and a timing which is connected to that. Here, I am forced to rely upon, and listen to, my movements. However, my practice is deeply sensorial. The practical and physical attributes of the piano and my own body determine equally the timing and the structure of a piece and my musical thinking during the performance. The way I move and play is also based on what is practical and logical and at hand at a given moment in time.

After a while, I start to relate to gestures as triggers, each with its association to, and memory of, a sound. Through disconnecting the movement from the sound, I expose the time and structural force a gesture implies and the dynamic and emotional output and intention that is embedded in the way it is performed. According to Toby, dancers commonly use the term “body time” to describe time in relation to their own body moving, rather than thinking in strict metrical measures, as an approach to spatial composition, the organizing of bodies in space. I find this notion very interesting, in particular regarding my work process described above, with gestures or movements as reminders and memories of past (or future) sound events and as means to structure time.

The ‘body time’ concept used in choreography or dance is extended through a sonic parameter, performing sound within a body-time-space-continuum. How far can my arm reach into the strings? The shape, weight, layout of the instrument and objects, the instrument space, the tempo of my movements, the time it takes to stretch out my arm to pluck a string - all of these determine and shape the sounds I play. The length of a nylon string threaded through the piano strings and the length of my arm decide when I change direction as I am bowing a chord. A gesture of bowing the bamboo skewer stuck between the strings of the piano is repeated silently, made visible to the audience, resounding in their imagination, perhaps.

Imagine the piano is as big as the room. How would you perform the piece now?

Change your spatial perspective: lie on your back on the floor of the studio and imagine that the piano is in the air, floating above you.

I am reaching up to touch the piano and play it. I am struggling, lifting my body weight. It is disorienting, I lose any sense of a physiological relationship with the instrument, and a simple movement, e.g. pressing down a key, suddenly becomes very difficult to imagine.

What if you had 3 or 5 or 10 pianos in a room, at different positions in space, each representing and triggering different memories of sound and movement.

How would that open up and change your performance?

Performing Accretion- for 3 pianos and a pianist

Three grand pianos in a room, placed in different positions in the performance space, with the audience sitting in between and around the instruments. No amplification is involved. I perform with limited material at each instrument, improvising pieces, playing with repetition and variation of material, referencing on one piano pieces that were previously performed on another one, and thus accumulating layers of sound and movement, which are further multiplied by the 3 instruments.

This, again, is an inversion of Piano Mapping, where the piano was placed in the middle of the room and the audience around it; here, the audience is framed by the instruments. I am playing inside the pianos, moving in between them, transitioning the sound of one instrument to the next and, at times, performing with the resonance of all three sounding bodies simultaneously. Small vibrating engines (vibrators) and Ebows are placed inside the pianos, operated from elsewhere in the space through remote controls. The combination of these resonating materials forms a sonic and physical connection between the pianos, acoustically transforming the performance space and leaving physical traces. The development of new playing techniques and material plays a major part in the spatial composing of body and instrument.

Blesser talks about spatial maps, the aural, visual, tactile experiences of space that contain different ways and units of measuring and perceiving space and fuse into a single spatial map (Blesser, 2007: 49). In Accretion I am using these multi-sensory approaches as a way of experiencing and remembering space. I do this through direct physical interaction, moving my body between instruments, across the floor, through standing, walking or lying, through extending and stretching material across the space which leaves traces, and through performing in multiple positions in space. I experience all of this and map it physically, visually and aurally.

These are aspects which likewise become spatial experiences for the audience, as they perceive sound coming from different sources positioned across the space, at times simultaneous and immersive, at times removed and distant. As the audience is seated in the middle of the space and around the grand pianos, we all share the same space. It allows me to experience sound in the room together with the audience, while simultaneously performing.

Accretion is a musical concert performance, in the sense that sound is still the dominating characteristic and compositional force in the creation of the piece. Movement does not have a purpose in itself - it fulfils the function of getting from one spatial position within the musical performance to the next. Bodily movement and gestures are choreographed and, at times, separated from the sound they produce, but are not a theatrical element – they function as reminders of what has happened, of musical structure. They change my physical and aural perspective – creating a visualized musical thinking. Gestures fulfil the purpose of pointing to what has been or could be sounding, it is memory coming back in another form, embodying sounds and timbre, a physical manifestation of it. For me, the gestures by themselves also serve as moments of reflection, ways of experiencing time and space physically, and of letting that inform the compositional process of a piece and the overall performance, as well as providing a more tangible experience of sound, space and time for the audience.

In a review of the performance, Andrew Choate observes:"… in Accretion the focus is on multiple mediums at once, and how to navigate both spatially and sonically."[21] For me, this describes the essence of timbre orchestration in a performance context: moving between multiple media- space, body, instrument- with the boarders between each component blurring into a hybrid compositional approach in creating with timbre.


We enter into dynamic, physical relationships with objects, sound and space and, as we listen and our bodies move and change position, this relationship changes as well. The piano, the preparations and objects I use, the gestures and the performance space itself set parameters, which are temporal, spatial and timbral, and which initiate an energetic feedback loop of action and reaction, informing the way I play.

All projects described in this exposition created diverse listening and performance modes through offering a multitude of aural and spatial perspectives.

I mediate a listening through overlapping past and present performances in spatial compositions, as I describe in Memory piece. In Piano Mapping this was further extended with live spatialization to expand and deepen spatio-timbral relationships. I have discussed the way I experience loudspeakers and the piano as extensions of my own body and how “warping” space functions as a narrative in the way I listen and perceive. In Accretion, I explored gestural and physical approaches as ways to activate and compose timbre spatially.

Through an extended understanding of timbre in relation to instruments, space and body, I unfolded myriad details and complexities as part of performing within an improvisational practice, setting the performer in dynamic relation to a constantly changing environment. Together, these approaches and projects led to a more complex and engaged way of listening and performing and explored the multilayered qualities of memory as a structural, reflective and performative tool.

The research brought about an awareness about the choices I make when I perform; this starts with a deeper engagement with sound creating processes, to choices about audience seating, the creation of listening spaces, as well as including space and movement more actively into my performance.

Orchestration and choreography of timbre then turn into an open and hybrid compositional approach, which can be applied to various contexts, engaging with dynamic relationships and reconfiguring them. For me, it is a powerful and exciting way of understanding and using the potential afforded by instrument-body-space interactions.


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  1. In this exposition, I use the label improvised music to refer to an approach to performing and composing music in real-time, that emerged in the early 60ties with influences from New Music, Noise, electronic music, and Free Jazz. Key groups and movements include AMM, the New Silence in England, Echtzeitmusik in Berlin and various schools and approaches in Vienna, Japan and all over the world. There is a lot written on improvisation within e. g. Jazz, world music, (early) western classical music, sound art etc., but I am not going into these areas as it would lead too far beyond my research focus. ↩︎

  2. This is a term commonly used (e.g. by pianist Reinhold Friedl), meaning playing inside of the piano, on the strings, metal frame and soundboard with the hands and various objects, as opposed to the prepared piano, where objects are often placed between the strings and the piano is played on the keyboard. ↩︎

  3. Site specific is a term mainly used in relation to contemporary art, sound art, urban art, etc. In this thesis I am using this term to describe a characteristic of improvised music, in that it always relates to and is created out of a specific time, space, situated circumstance and characteristic of site through the choice of material, technique and its articulation. Improvised music can hence be seen as inherently site specific. Robert Irwin refers to any given art work to fall into either of the four categories, site dominant, site adjusted, site specific or site conditioned/determined (Irwin,1985). ↩︎

  4. “timbre, the subjective perception of spectral content (frequency and balance between various parts in the spectrum)” (Kleiner 2008, p.77) ↩︎

  5. For an introduction to timbre spaces see accessed May 17^th^ 2017 ↩︎

  6. Thoresen: "… a set of conceptual and graphic tools for the aural analysis of music with an enriched sonic morphology…for describing aural thought "(Thoresen & Hedman, 2007: 2-5). ↩︎

  7. See e.g. The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, Ed. by George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, or “The project’s core hypothesis is that musical improvisation is a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.” Accessed May 1^st^ 2019. ↩︎

  8. I use the term spatialization to describe possibilities to direct and diffuse sound through loudspeaker and microphone positioning in space. Live spatialization refers to moving and directing sound between speakers in live performance as opposed to being fixed in pre-composed pieces. ↩︎

  9. For further reading and audio and video examples, I discuss these and other works here and in Transmitting a listening (Mayas, 2017). ↩︎

  10. Memory is also used as a tool in cued improvisation practices, e.g. in Butch Morris’ “conductions”, John Zorn’s game piece “Cobra” or Walter Thompson’s “Soundpainting” method. ↩︎

  11. The term “extended technique” is simplifying and often refers to techniques that are “unconventional” or “non-traditional”, but extending and individualizing instruments in various ways is very much part of many instruments’ traditions and histories and such labels imply “normal” and necessary versus extended and “unnecessary” techniques. ↩︎

  12. The EBow or Electronic Bow is a battery-powered electronic device originally invented to be used on the electric guitar. It uses a pickup-inductive string driver-feedback circuit, to induce forced string vibrations, which sound similar to a sustained bowing of the string. ↩︎

  13., accessed April 10^th^ 2019. ↩︎

  14. DPA piano microphones 4099, a AKG C411 or K and K sound contact mic and a Dean Markley promag grand guitar pick up. ↩︎

  15. Memory Space (Lucier, 1970), for any number of singers and players of acoustic instruments. “Go to outside environments (urban, rural, hostile, benign) and record by any means (memory, written notations, tape recordings) the sound situations of those environments. Returning to an inside performance space any time later, re-create, solely by means of your voices and instruments and with the aid of your memory devices (with additions, deletions, improvisation, interpretation) those outside sound situations. When using tape recorders as memory devices, wear headphones to avoid an audible mix of the recorded sounds with the re-created ones.” (in Lucier, 1980). ↩︎

  16. Soundman OKM II ↩︎

  17. ‘Auralization’ is a term coined by Mendel Kleiner, to describe the established digital tool within studies of room acoustics to record, represent and model specific spatial-acoustic conditions (Kleiner et al., 1993). ↩︎

  18. For further information see ↩︎

  19. Other computers we tested were either not compatible with the interface I was using (e.g. Raspberry Pi) or provided low sound quality due to the converters used (e.g. Bela). ↩︎

  20. A so called “sweet spot” refers to a focal point between 2 or more speakers, where all wave fronts of a sound arrive simultaneously. It is also used more loosely, referring to an ideal listening position in an acoustic space. ↩︎

  21. Andrew Choate on Accretion, available at, accessed July 28th 2019 ↩︎