Composing Composing Instruments

By Tijs Ham, PhD Candidate in Artistic Research, UiB | KMD | Grieg Academy, November, 2019


This exposition aims to provide insights into my artistic practice and research 'Tipping Points', working within the field of live electronics [1] and focusing on the exploration of tipping points in chaotic processes. The activities associated with my practice are profoundly interdisciplinary and include designing and building instruments, composing artistic works for these instruments, and performing with them. Each of these aspects is interlaced and equally important in the development of new artistic works. 

The preface details my process in the production of new artistic works. Then the text details my thoughts on the term comprovisation and how it informs my approaches to the development of my work. Then, the focus shifts to describe how my use of chaotic processes turns instruments into actant [2] technologies, which has important consequences on both my performance practice and instrument design. These insights are then illustrated through reflections on my work Multiple Minds, concluding that the instrument itself is actively composing, while at the same time, the act of designing and building an instrument can be viewed as composing.



My artistic practice spans across a wide range of disciplines, each requiring different modes of thinking and requiring different types of actions to be undertaken. A new work generally starts out at a conceptual level and involves research into intriguing chaotic processes which can be uncovered from various fields, ranging from physics and mathematics to weather systems, astronomy or music.

“Now that science is looking, chaos seems to be everywhere. A rising column of cigarette smoke breaks into wild swirls. A flag snaps back and forth in the wind. A dripping foucet goes from a steady pattern to a random one" - James Gleick (Gleick 1987, 5) [3]

My interest is pointed specifically towards the sonic potentials of these chaotic processes and how they may be implemented in an electronic instrument. This first phase requires a lot of reading and listening to works developed by peers. 


Once a course has been set, the studio turns into a laboratory where the first experiments are conducted. Designing and building crude but functional prototypes, the concepts are slowly fleshed out and turned into objects that produce sound and can be played with. This phase can last for several weeks or months, testing circuits, debugging software, building mockup designs and searching for the right materials to work with. 

"Performing the instrument is thus an important part of the process of designing the instrument—performing is the exploration of the possibilities of the instrument and gives inspiration on how to improve the instrument for the performance that the creator has in mind." - Marije Baalman (Baalman 2017, 233-234) [4]



At some point, the prototypes become robust enough to be transported out of the studio and onto the stage or rehearsal room, allowing audiences and peers to experience the sonic behaviors. The feedback from these try-out situations is a vital input in the developmental stage of the work. This phase also informs the first ideas about the compositional framework of the eventual piece. After quite a number of prototypes, the instrument takes its final shape. 


Now the focus shifts to the exploration of the wealth of sonic expressions [5] that the instrument has at its disposal and working towards a set of instructions that will serve as a guide during performances. These instructions will have to leave enough variability to account for the unpredictable nature of the instrument. The performances will always display a balance of compositional elements that have been decided upon beforehand and a level of improvisation. 


“[...] composing an “instrument” in the form of a predesigned and predefined interactive musical system. This is one of the two basic species of composition-improvisation relationships intrinsic in working with electronic and computer music” - Richard Dudas (Dudas 2010, 29) [6]

Before diving deeper into the reflections, it might be useful to illustrate this preface with a video of excerpts of the Multiple Minds performance that has been developed as an early result in my research



I am a comproviser


While the term comprovisation has been used in academic writing for well over a decade (Dale 2008, Dudas 2010, Steward 2012), it seems a strangely uncommon proposition for artists to identify themselves as a comproviser, as someone who operates in this middle ground. From my own interdisciplinary perspective, identifying a comproviser clarifies the connections and differences between the activities that shape the studio practice and what happens during concert performances. As Richard Dudas elaborates in his thoughts on comprovisation:

“Very often when working with technology, it is the instrument that must first be composed in order to have performance, and consequently, improvisation” -  Richard Dudas (Dudas 2010, 30) [7]

Comprovisation points to the spectrum of artistic endeavours spanning roughly between fixed composition and free improvisation. Composition generally refers to the artistic activity that is completed prior to the execution of a piece. Improvisation is concerned with instantaneous artistic activity, injected in the moment, throughout its execution. In reality however, neither of these characterizations really hold up. Compositions often incorporate flexibilities, interpreted by performers, while improvisations are often shaped by restrictions. From the perspective of a comproviser, these deviations are not only to be expected, they describe the outlines of the artistic playing field, pointing to a crucial set of questions: 


What is the landscape of artistic choice

When will these choices be addressed?


The creation of a performance involves many decisions, touching upon the themes, content, instrumentation, sound, context, facilitation and execution of the piece. At least some of these elements need to be in place before anything resembling a ‘performance’ can take place. If fewer decisions have been made prior to the performance, the performance will take on the characteristics of an improvisation. The reverse leads to a performance heavily guided by a compositional framework. In practice, certain aspects of a piece might be very precisely established while other aspects are left open, revealing the intent of the comproviser. It is important to stress that both specificity and openness are deliberate artistic choices, vital in shaping the end result. The balance between these aspects shape the map of constraints and flexibilities that enable the comproviser to navigate through a performance, realising that each individual performance will exhibit unique qualities, tied to the choices that are left open until the moment of execution.


The following chapters will explore how unpredictability, linked to the design and use of chaotic instruments, is affecting my practice as a comproviser.


working with actant technology


Much of my artistic work is concerned with the experience of sonic discovery, shared directly with audiences. In other words, both the performer and audience will be exposed to an encounter with the unknown during a performance. These encounters are vulnerable situations, best to be approached with curious, open mindsets and a readiness to experience unexpected twists, turns and surprises.         

“[...] the audible result is, to a certain extent at least, unrelated to the corporeal actions of the performers. Hence, they are challenged to react to sonic developments taking place outside of their direct control. Rather than considering this as a negative or impractical side effect, ‘Tubes’ thereby creates a situation of experimentation and creativity. Performers and audience share a space of surprises, discoveries, and unexpected sonic results; they encounter the un-fore-seen” - Paul Craenen (Craenen 2017, 115) [8]

This unknown factor originates in the chaotic processes that constitute the point of departure of my artistic work. This use of chaos is a vital thread throughout my artistic work, stemming from a deep fascination with the wide range of unpredictable, yet alluring sonic behaviors of recursive systems [9]. Expressive sound worlds that fluently shift from frequencies to modulations, melodic phrases, pulses, rhythms and noise. 


A defining characteristic of my artistic process is the push and pull dynamic between my interlaced roles as a comproviser. Working in iterative cycles, a series of operative prototype instruments are developed and tested through play. Slowly but surely the instrument obtains a unique voice with a distinct lexicon of sonic behaviors, able to engage in expressive and unpredictable conversations through play. While it seems counterintuitive, this process eventually accumulates into a form of designed surprise. Although there may be only one human performer present, the situation feels much more like playing a duet. The instrument poses sonic suggestions, reacts to each touch according to its own determination. With each iteration the instrument functions more and more as an actant technology, capable of responding to performative gestures in perhaps disobedient, but nonetheless intricate ways. 


At some point, the development of the technology will be put on hold and followed up by an extended period of playing explorative sessions and try-outs with the instrument, aimed at developing the performative gestures and intuitions that will become helpful skills during performances. This part of the process feels much like learning to understand the language of the instrument and how to respond in conversation. To establish a playful relationship towards the instrument.


Moving from 'inter' to 'intra'


Due to the extremely sensitive nature of chaotic processes, traditional approaches to instrumental interactionare put into question. Where classical instruments allow for the development of mastery through rehearsal and repetition, chaotic instruments refuse to repeat the same thing twice, turning rehearsals into sonic explorations in dialog with the technology, driven by curiosity rather than virtuosity. This crucial difference has deep implications regarding performative intent, as it is no longer possible to assume that the instrument will respond in a linear fashion to the performers input.


“There is definitely a predetermined order in the system, but the order is too complicated for humans to understand. It is hard to understand, for example, how the system develops between stable states, or even how to identify a disturbance” - Rob Hordijk (Hordijk 2009, 36) [10]


One way of approaching this situation could be found by taking inspiration from Karen Barad and think of the sonic output as the result from the intra-action between performer and instrument, each embodying their own form of artistic agency. The use of the word intra-action instead of interaction, stresses the fact that the sound is the result from the exchangebetween the performer and instrument, neither of which are able to impose prior intentions on eachother. The actual sonic output can only be uncovered through the act of play. This requires that the prior intentions of both the performer and the instrument have to be unfinished and open to the suggestions that are offered through the performance.


“The notion of intra-action (in contrast to the usual “interaction,” which presumes the prior existence of independent entities / relata) represents a profound conceptual shift. It is through specific agential intra-actions that the boundaries and properties of the “components” of phenomena become determinate and that particular embodied concepts become meaningful. ” - Karen Barad (Barad 2003, 815) [11]


Because the chaotic processes are recursive, even the slightest performative input echoes through the instrument affecting the sonic behaviors in unforeseen ways. Minor changes of a single parameter could set off a chain reaction that completely readjusts the sonic behaviors into new timbres and patterns. Instead of a clearly labeled interface, where each parameter has a specific functionality, the instrument is played through a collection of inputs, each able to instigate a complex web of sonic repercussions, amplified by the recursivity. Taking some linguistic liberty, these inputs could be viewed as an intraface, allowing the performer to influence the sensitive conditions that, in return, shape the sonic behavior of the instrument. 


“[...] observing one’s own influence on a system seems clearly more interesting than aiming to exert full control.” - Alberto DeCampo (DeCampo 2014, 219) [12]

Eventually it becomes clear that the recursivity expands to encompass the entire performance as the act of listening becomes the score that guides the performer to either engage with the instrument or, perhaps, to take a step back and allow the instrument to express itself. An intricate dance of actions and reactions ensues, in acknowledgement that each step is fragile and irreversible, as the dance itself reshapes the dancefloor.

Artistic practice as a comproviser designing actant technology

Excerpts of a performance of 'Multiple Minds' as part of the Blue Rinse Concert series at Lydgalleriet. Notice that the performance moves back and forth between moments of play and moments where the instrument is left to perform by itself.


[1] STEIM webpage:

[2] & [8] Cobussen, M. 2017. The Field of Musical Improvisation. Netherlands. Leiden University Press

[3] Gleick, J. 1987. Chaos: Making a New Science. USA. Viking Penguin Inc.

[4] Baalman, M.A.J. 2017. Interplay Between Composition, Instrument Design and Performance. Musical Instruments in the 21st Century. Singapore. Nature Springer Pte Ltd. 225-241

[5] Gurevich, M., Trevino, J. 2007. Expression and its Discontents: Towards an Ecology of Musical Creation. Proceedings of the 2007 Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression. 106-111

[6] & [7] Dudas, R. 2010. "Comprovisation": The Various Facets of Composed Improvisation within Interactive Performance Systems. LEONARDO MUSIC JOURNAL, no. 20, 29-31

[9] Toshimaru Nakamura webpage:

[10] Hordijk, R. 2009. The Blippoo Box: A Chaotic Electronic Instrument, Bent by Design. LEONARDO MUSIC JOURNAL, no. 19, 35-43

[11] Barad, K. 2003. Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 28, no. 3, 801-831 

[12] DeCampo, A. 2014. Lose control, gain influence: Concepts for Metacontrol. Proceedings ICMC|SMC, 217-222

[13] Tudor, D., Schonfeld, V. 1972. “From Piano to Electronics”. Music and Musicians. no. 20, 24-26

[14] Schnell, N., Battier, M. 2002. Introducing Composed Instruments: Technical and Musicological Implications. Proceedings of the 2002 Conference on New Instruments for Musical Expression


Reflections on practical work

Multiple Minds is an audio-visual performance, developed as part of my artistic research, investigating the origins of the artistic minds behind the piece itself. The setup consists of an analog, chaotic synthesizer, digital manipulations and visualisations that respond to the behaviors of the synth and myself as the performer. As the title already suggests, the investigation leads towards the realisation that the mind of the instrument is present just as much as the mind of the performer. 


The instrument is composing. 

During performances there are moments when the instrument is left untouched and given space to display its own sonic expressions. At other moments, when the instrument is actively played, its sonic behaviors and responses contain surprises and non-linearities. The instrument doesn’t merely execute instructions, instead, it processes performative input through its own chaotic logic. Multiple Minds requires a deep and unaverted attention by the performer, who can not fully rely on the knowledge gained through prior experiences. The instrument has to be explored and discovered anew each time it is performed. The music of the piece itself begs to be uncovered, examined, inspected, extended, diminished and concluded.   


“I try to find out what’s there - not to make it do what I want, but to release what’s there. The object should teach you what it wants to hear” - David Tudor (Tudor and Schonfeld 1972, 24 - 26) [13]

The process of designing and building instruments that manifest these types of behaviors is quite peculiar and counterintuitive. Through many iterative cycles, a range of prototypes are produced, played, evaluated and adjusted, working towards an expansion of the sonic expressions of the instrument. At the same time, the final goal remains unclear, or perhaps, unknowable. There is no sense of a fixed point at which the development is completed, yet slowly but surely the instrument begins to speak in a voice of its own. The instrument begins to think with a mind of its own

The process described above involves extensive research into the timbres, rhythms, textures, frequencies and behaviors that will eventually become part of the sonic signature of the instrument and thus the piece. It also points to the compositional nature of designing such an instrument (Schnell and Battier 2002) [14]. 

The composing instrument is composed.

Initial explorations of the sonic behavior of the ATOX chaotic synthesizer, forming the basis of 'Multiple Minds'. Notice how tiny changes of the parameters can lead to vast differences in sound. These types of improvisations are an important step in the development of the instrument. 

The ATOX chaotic synthesizer. Notice that the labels next to the knobs give no information about the sound, but instead it reveils information about the influence on the chaotic process.

Documentation of the development of the instrument. It could be considered that each resistor, capacitor, IC and jumper wire is a physical manifestation of a compositional choice.

Performance of 'Multiple Minds' during the Fjord Summer School organized by the Grieg Research School. 'Multiple Minds' is an audiovisual work, but for the sake of simplicity the visual element has been left out of the conversation.