Composing Technique, Performing Technique


Scott McLaughlin, Zubin Kanga, Mira Benjamin

Introduction & Framing

This exposition discusses the entwining of ‘technique’ across compositional and performance domains in two compositions by Scott McLaughlin, developed in collaboration with violinist Mira Benjamin and pianist Zubin Kanga respectively. Our use of the term technique is quite specific. Expanding upon Ben Spatz’s definition of technique as ‘embodied knowledge that structures practice’ (2015: 1), technique here implies not only to the skilled processes and knowledges inherent to instrumental performance or composition, but also to the collection of embodied and performative adaptations to what McLaughlin refers to as the 'material indeterminacy' of strings that have emerged from this project. With this inclusion, we are building on Andrew Pickering’s ideas of ‘material agency’ (see below). By collecting around a fulcrum of sustained and rigorous listening, our collaborations in this exposition explore a situatedness of the entanglement of technique across composition and embodied performance. The exposition begins with a framing section where ideas of materiality and agency are unpacked and contextualised. Each of the two collaborations then has its own section to outline the specific techniques involved. The framing and the pieces are then brought together in the section Entangled Technique. The exposition closes with a conclusion pointing to future work and questions. This first section introduces and frames the project. Readers who wish to first encounter the case studies can skip forward to either The endless mobility of listening (for violin and live electronics, 2015) or In the unknown there is already a script for transcendence (for prepared piano, EBows and resonator, 2018) and return to the current section later.



This practice research treats the indeterminacy of instruments as ‘material agency’ (Pickering, 1995; 6-7), which becomes entwined with the human agency of the musician — what Pickering calls a ‘dance of agency’. Here, performance techniques are not simply an aspect of musical material used in the piece, but are fundamental to the compositional technique; techniques of performance and composition emerge from each other via a fulcrum of indeterminacy as a material-epistemic object (Karin Knorr Cetina, 2001: 184–197). The case study compositions take different approaches to this idea, each casting it in a different light. In Theendless mobility of listening Benjamin uses extreme bowing techniques to afford material agency of the string in the form of indeterminate spectral revelation, while for In the unknown… Kanga explores the indeterminate sounding states of prepared piano strings as they are continuously excited by resonators.

This project is influenced by some pieces where material agency is ‘tuned’ in the process of setting up and then left to run by itself: Nicolas Collins’ Pea Soup (1974); many of Alvin Lucier’s installation pieces, such as I am sitting in a Room (1969) and Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977). These pieces foreground material indeterminacy but do not require the interaction of a performer; the dance of agency happens entirely in tuning the setup. Of greater interest to this project are those pieces that include an ongoing tuning of both the human and material agencies during the performance. For example, Lucier’s Music for Cello with One or More Amplified Vases (1993) requires the cellist to interact with the material agency of the vases by very slowly sliding up the cello’s register to reveal vase resonances. The acoustic compositions of Éliane Radigue are written as a very close collaborative process between composer and performer to develop the sounds and structure that allow emergent phenomena. As Radigue describes it, it is ‘as if the sound had an autonomous life which must be respected’ (2019: 55).


Notation too is important here as an actor (in the sense of Actor Network Theory), a force that can both enable and constrain in a complex field of play. Radigue’s pieces rely on the performer to memorise the specific instrument techniques and structure, but the pieces in this exposition use a score to direct and constrain the performance. In this project — as is common in experimental music — the scores are mostly text and graphic notations. This is partly because the things and relationships used are not well-represented by common-practice notation, but also (similar to Radigue and Lucier) because the work relies on the performer’s understanding of the agentic relationships which are performative and not representational. While this approach can yield many different kinds of notational-constraint — from levels of openness akin to free improvisation to the ultra-literal interpretation of text as ‘prescription for action’ (Philip Thomas, 2009: 77–98) — this project is influenced most by what Thomas DeLio describes as ‘circumscribing the open universe’ (1984), that is, allowing an infinite possibility of movement within specifically bounded constraints. Pauline Oliveros’ music also achieves the same openness but through (mostly) a purely textual approach, relying even more on listening to tune into environment and response. Most importantly, in this project the life of the piece demands that the performers are continuously open — via listening and sensing — to the possibilities that change and bifurcate in performance, held in an incomplete state during (and after) the process of performance unfolds them. These pieces are epistemic objects as Karin Knorr Cetina describes them: ‘[o]nly incomplete objects pose further questions, and only in considering objects as incomplete do [researchers] move forward with their work(2001: 185).


The two case studies for this exposition develop differently from the same compositional approach, which McLaughlin calls ‘material indeterminacy’: the inherent indeterminacy of physical materials in unstable states. While much contemporary composition makes frequent use of indeterminate sounds from instruments, our research here is not in the technique of playing or deploying these sounds, but in devising compositional strategies to use this indeterminacy as a generative force within the performance such that the techniques of composition and performance in the piece are mutually entangled and extend each other openly. In this way, the research is only minimally concerned with the aesthetics of such sounds, focusing instead on the relationship between player, instrument and compositional framework or, as Tim Ingold might put it, technique-in-formation. That is: (1) the mechanisms by which the instrument destabilises, and the behavioural topology of its instability; (2) the musician’s techniques for working ‘with’ the instrument (Ingold) and following its material agency (Pickering); and (3) the notational and structural strategies that can productively constrain the musician’s agency such that an appropriate feedback loop is fostered.


The theoretical weave to this research is in thinking about composition and performance cybernetically, invoking the black-box model described by David Borgo as ‘something that does something, that one does something to, and that does something back’ (2016: 7). Such a feedback-loop of score and performance requires ‘a fundamentally performative engagement’ (2016: 7) according to Borgo, which is presented here in terms of a non-representative approach to musical composition that valorises a generative and lively assemblage of the human and the material: the co-constitutional manifold of physical materials in flux with the embodied technique of the musician. Andrew Pickering describes such performative entanglements between human and material agencies as a ‘dance of agency’; ‘the reciprocal tuning of human and material agency, tuning that can itself reconfigure human intentions’ (1995: 21). What possibilities emerge when human intentions are reconfigured in performance by the response of the instrument?


Pickering is writing as a philosopher of science, using the image of the mangle to describe how scientists’ goal-oriented interactions with materials are central to how they ‘do’ science. As such, Pickering’s dance of agency is not a technique in itself but rather an agent-focused reading that could be applied equally to any human-material interaction, from the electromagnetic manipulation of subatomic particles to the eating of a sandwich. Translating Pickering’s performative ontology of science into the performance of music provides a novel perspective on the general interaction of human/musician and material/instrument, and usefully describes the embodied techniques required for the realisation of the rich musical traditions across all cultures. Historical trends in instrument design and performance technique have honed the capture of material agency that affords ‘mastery’ of the instrument via countless hours of learning to negotiate their agential interaction.


Pickering notes that within the mangle, goals are ‘temporally emergent’  (1995: 20), situated as they are in a ‘dialectic of resistance and accommodation’ (1995: 22) with material agency, becoming a ‘goal-revising’ practice. Generally speaking, the Western concert music tradition reproduces the goal-directedness of Pickering’s scientists, arguably even more acutely. However, when Pickering’s model is considered in an experimental music context, it exposes fascinating possibilities for the dance of agency to be applied generatively as a form-giving process. Where Pickering’s scientists may be said to dance to a single temporally emergent goal, experimental music provides a rich context for open-ended structures that afford directedness and revision as multiplicities that can be realised concurrently or as ever-branching paths. In the compositional research outlined here, Pickering’s dance is explicitly enacted in a heightened manner via a score, where the performer’s role is actively shifted between controlling the instrument (by imposing human agency on it) and redirecting human agency to facilitate and support the material agency of the instrument. The material agent is foregrounded as the force of the piece, constrained by varying openness of structure at local and global levels. In The endless mobility of listening, the violin becomes an agent as the player alters bowing into a non-standard zone of sound production. Here, the violin string can choose between several metastable states, where a single overtone suppresses the string fundamental and emerges as the foreground tone in its own right with no specific choice from the player other than to support the string’s agency.


Pickering’s concept of tuning becomes key here, since it describes how the generative possibilities of interaction are both initialised and maintained by reciprocal interaction between agencies. More conventional approaches to the musical instrument ‘tune out’ indeterminacy via ‘craft,’ the management of instrumental technique to maximise efficient production. Equally, twentieth-century avant-garde music of many stripes has actively tuned against this to destabilise instrumental sound. While it is certainly the case that these practices often ossify into production-friendly objects (so-called ‘extended techniques’, a representational idiom where sounds evoking chaos and instability are made reproducible precisely upon request — what anthropologist Tim Ingold would describe as ‘the reduction of things to objects and of their consequent “falling out” from the processes of life’ (2008: 3— the door is always open for these techniques to be un-tamed. Such radically unruly sounds fit readily into Ingold’s anti-hylomorphicontology that assigns primacy to processes of formation as against their final products, and to flows and transformations of materials as against states of matter’ (2008: 2). The historic tendency in composition has been to activate these sounds and let them roam free, untethered from their embodiment and environment. Ingold’s conception of materiality is important here because of its Deleuzian focus on materials in flux, underpinning a move away from unstable sounds as fixed and knowable objects, and towards a lively ‘thingliness’ that is not simply pinned down and instead must be engaged with. The ‘thing’ Ingold says ‘is a “going on”, or better, a place where several goings on become entwined. To observe a thing is not to be locked out but to be invited in to the gathering. We participate, as Heidegger rather enigmatically put it, in the thing thinging in a worlding world’ (2008: 6).


This continuous engagement with the sound thing relates back to Pickering’s tuning and dancing. The dance of human and material agency is the interaction of the musician and instrument intertwined in an unstable zone of sound production, making moment-by-moment actions to tune into the ‘thinging’ to balance and sustain the ongoing sound: Pickering describes material and human agencies as ‘mutually and emergently productive of one another’ (1995: 566). This tuning happens both in the compositional process of building an appropriate environment for things to flourish, but also in performance through the active engagement with sensing, listening, feeling, and to a certain extent anticipating: as Ingold describes it, ‘an improvisatory joining in with formative processes’ (2008:3). Thus the compositional impetus here is to investigate objects in their thingliness, and design a set of open-ended interactions that braid the musician’s technique and the instrument’s more distant affordances in a feedback loop. In the case studies, In the unknown… exemplifies Ingold’s ‘joining in’ as the primary activity of the piece, where the player manoeuvres continuously sounding electromagnetic resonators to explore tipping points in the resonance of the prepared piano. In both case studies, the ‘joining in’ is an embodied technique that essentially is the piece, with the score acting secondarily as a structuring device for either different techniques of ‘joining in’ (In the unknown…) or different positions on the material topology (The endless mobility of listening).


To put these ideas in a wider musical context (and expanding the references to Lucier and others above), the most similar research is in new approaches to electronic music incorporating concepts from cybernetics, as well as interactivity with extended-instruments (Overholt, Berdahly, & Hamilton, 2011: 154–165). The cybernetic approach builds on ideas from Norbert Wiener and Gregory Bateson. Most notably, David Tudor’s Rainforest pieces (developed during the 1960s) created interactions between large feedback ecosystems of electronic sounds (some electronically generated, some acoustic sounds amplified and filtered) and human operators, aiming for levels of autopoiesis through the careful balancing of inputs and outputs to ensure a foregrounding of the system’s own sonic workings (material agency). Daren Pickles quotes Tudor and colleague Gordon Mumma:


With respect to Rainforest IV, Tudor said: ‘the object was to make the sculptures sound in the space themselves. Part of that process is that you are actually creating an environment. […]’ Furthermore, Gordon Mumma reiterates the ecological nature of the piece: ‘the entire electro-acoustic apparatus [was] an ecologically balanced sound system.’ (2016: 27)


While much excellent work has been done in designing digital systems with inter-agential qualities (see for example Magnusson 2010, Bowers 2002, Chadabe 1997, Carey 2016, Pickles 2016, Blackwell and Young 2004, Di Scipio 2003), this project is more concerned with physically interactive systems, whether this means purely acoustic instruments or electronic sound centred on a physical component (feedback is the most common example). This area of practice is sparser than the digital, but has a strong history emerging from the same cybernetic concerns that were in the air when electronic music and experimental music were much closer communities.


The following sections of this exposition will explain how the two pieces function, exposing the research component of the composing and performing technique in relation to the ideas outlined above. 

→ Introduction

→ Technique I: The endless mobility of listening

→ Techniques II: In the unknown there is already a script for transcendence

→ Entangled Technique

→ Conclusion

→ Bibliography

Fig 1.: Mira Benjamin 'drone-bowing' technique example.

Fig 2.: Scott McLaughlin exploring resonance tipping-points on prepared piano with EBow resonator.