Technique I: The endless mobility of listening

The endless mobility of listening (for violin and live electronics) was written for Mira Benjamin in 2015: the title is taken from Salome Voegelin's Listening to Noise and Silence (2010)As an overview, with details expanded and exemplified below, the key research in this piece formalises performance technique around material indeterminacy and listening. It also uses the score as both a description of this technique and as an external structure that bounds the piece. Material indeterminacy is achieved through ‘drone-bowing’ which allows indeterminate harmonic partials to emerge prominently in the sound. Listening is vital here in ways that are different from the performer’s usual listening, to the extent that listening becomes a technique in itself. The piece is the entwining of player and instrument via material indeterminacy and listening, amplified by a structural process of repetition moving through iteratively altered materiality. 


Drone Bowing

The ‘drone bowing’ technique is a method of generating indeterminacy in the harmonic spectrum of an open string through changes in bow pressure, angle, and position. The bowing technique causes the spectrum’s fundamental to collapse and other partials to become prominent, but it is not knowable in advance when the spectrum will change and which partial(s) will emerge. While the technique is not novel in itself — it is used by many improvisers to play their instrument timbrally — its use here is novel as a source of indeterminacy within a form of improvisation constrained by compositionally defined forces and listening behaviours.

While these bowing techniques are a primary technical focus for the violinist, the broader mechanism of the piece is to use them as part of a responsive listening strategy where the player must be in sympathy with the string. Rather than trying to ‘dig’ or ‘mine’ sounds from the string, the player is a facilitator who provides energy to the string, and a supporter who enables the string’s material agency to be foregrounded. By continuously playing on the edge of timbre like this, Benjamin invites material agency to the foreground as something she simultaneously supports and responds to, an embodied process of becoming. Tim Ingold describes similar processes in the flux of forces and materials:


[...] movement along these [paths of form-generation] is creative: this is to read creativity ‘forwards’, as an improvisatory joining in with formative processes, rather than ‘backwards’, as an abduction from a finished object to an intention in the mind of an agent. (2008: 3)


Ingold invokes the improvisatory, not so much as musical free improvisation specifically, but rather as the larger understanding of improvisation as a creative response to shifting circumstances. Improvisation here also implies an application of the knowledge and experience of those that live in that environment. Material agency in the unstable string is not simple randomness, rather the string exhibits a hierarchy of preferred partials in its spectrum. In any given performance, the string will tend towards certain partials, but always with the possibility that highly unlikely partials may also emerge – nothing is fixed. Agency is further entrenched by the fact that these preferences shift from day to day due to changes in environment (air temperature and humidity) and material (string tension and temperature). As the players listen and respond over time, they become better acquainted with the phase-space of the string’s behaviours. As such, the player’s listening and supportive approach are the core of the piece, curating the indeterminacy that affords a rich interaction.


Form / Procedural Elements

While material agency plays-out on a local, moment-to-moment level, the indeterminate harmonic partials that emerge from this process are captured electronically to be sustained indefinitely as an ever-growing ‘carpet’ of electronic harmony (see Fig. 5). This is a directed but knowable harmony contingent on the dance of agencies. The piece is structured as an iterative process to undermine the player’s knowledge of material agency, revealing further novelty as the player adapts in each cycle. The structure is a cycle of three procedural elements repeating throughout, determining the duration, pace, and form of each realisation. The cycle consists of:

  1. (re)Tuning
  2. Seeking/Capturing
  3. Chorale 

Fig. 3: Structural diagram of The endless mobility of listening showing repeating cycles and changing physical configuration (string tuning). Click on an element to listen to it.

Each cycle takes a different open-string scordatura (see Fig. 4), in which the string is retuned at the start of each cycle; the retuning slackens the string and resets its hierarchy of preferred harmonic partials. Fig. 4 shows how the tuning schema of each string relates to a common anchor pitch: B5 (-14¢). Initially, this is the fifth partial of G, with each subsequent retuning chosen so that B5 or B6 is present as a low-order partial. In each section, this B will be potentially present, but whether it emerges as an available partial is contingent on various material or environmental factors. At this point, it is useful to understand the anchor pitch as an entwined agential nexus that focuses the dance of human and material agencies. The anchor pitch both directs human agency (as a beacon rather than a required sonic element) and acts as a variable potentiality of each string configuration.

The piece’s duration can be altered according to the performance context: it has been performed live many times in short versions with two or three cycles (circa 15 minutes). The long structure shown in Fig. 4 has not been performed live to date. Even longer versions are also possible, limited only by the viability of increasingly slack strings producing stable isolated partials. 

Of the piece’s three procedural elements ((re)tuning, seeking/capturing, and chorales), the listening/capturing phase is the longest in each cycle, usually lasting between 5–10 minutes as the player explores the string’s material agency. Benjamin here exercises agency in choosing which emergent partials she finds interesting, guided by the beacon of the potential B -14¢. The chorale is a short recurring structural device that foregrounds the violin, acting as a break between long sections where the violin and electronics essentially merge together. Also, the chorale explicitly connects the harmonic identities of adjacent fundamentals (i.e., the next open string to be bowed). The chorale is flexible, changing each time due to its de-tunings; the score provides a set of basic models to work from. In live realisations, strings are re-tuned in real time at the end of each section as a discrete but performative act. This process is omitted in the studio recording.


To summarise, The endless mobility of listening uses an iterative process to apply the embodied techniques of extended violin playing to an instrumental environment where the material agency shifts from section to section. Benjamin renegotiates her technique in each section in relation to both the issue of changing string tension and also the consequent changes of material agency. The piece is the interaction of material agency in unstable drone-bowing and the embodied technique of the violinist. The external structure is like a pinhole camera capturing an extended long-exposure audio trace of these agencies playing out.


→ Introduction

→ Technique I: The endless mobility of listening

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

→ Entangled Technique

→ Conclusion

→ Bibliography

Performance (video)


section 1

Fig. 4: The structure of The endless mobility of listening as a series of cycles of re-tunings of the violin strings II–IV. Each column shows the new pitch of that string, and which partial is B(-14¢).

Fig. 5: The build-up of captured/sustained partials in The endless mobility of listening.




section 2

78 min studio recording




Score (PDF)

section 3