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Live-Electronics, Improvisation and Interactivity… What distinguishes one of these practices from another? How are they similar? eContact! 10.4 tackles these thorny questions from the perspective of history, pedagogy, artistic practice and descriptive and socio-political analysis. Complementing the discussion in a concrete manner are a number of audio and visual examples.

“Some practices … are resistant to definitive analyses” (Green)

Before we begin to compare them and explain what distinguishes one from another, it would be useful to clarify the terms live-electronics, improvisation and interactivity on an individual basis, and specifically in relation to electroacoustics. However, right from the start we encounter problems in defining what distinguishes one from another. The problem of clear and “timeless” definitions of artistic practice is much more problematic since the middle of the twentieth century than it ever was, because of the incredible explosion of genres and the various bifurcations and convergences of practice since that time. Not only do practices evolve and sometimes merge into or cross-pollinate other practices, but artists also appropriate the terms in very different ways, as shown by Danny Dursley in a reflection on the diverse comments he received in response to the question “What is Interactivity?” on <cec-conference>.

The range of roles that can be assigned to the technology employed in interactive works is perhaps endless. Drawing on his own work as examples, PerMagnus Lindborg illustrates three approaches to the use of the computer in interactive practice: as a sort of “Hyper-instrument” (control), as an “Expert Assistant” (dialogue) and as a “Synthetic Musician” (intelligence). Here we might be tempted to consider that a performer-technology relationship specifically characterizes Interactivity, but it is difficult to argue that the relationship in Lindborg’s first (or even second) example is any different than is commonly encountered in projects mounted under the banner of Live-electronics or Improvisation. And as some form of improvisation on one or more levels is employed in the majority of live-electronics projects, an attempt to definitively establish the distinction between the two is also bound to fail. Making the situation even more complex, the question of determining the point at which interpretation actually becomes improvisation is the cause of much heated discussion for a range musical genres.

Perhaps then we might instead look at some aspects that are common to these three practices. An obvious place to start is with the performer, as this is what distinguishes (in most cases) each of these three genres from pieces performed using fixed media (the discussion of the diffusion artist will be reserved for another time).

The Body and the Interface

Many artists today, concerned with “the discrepancy between the visual and acoustic results” (Bernal and Pais), have developed tools or interfaces which take into consideration the corporeal aspects of performance with electronic interfaces (laptop, live-electronics or other). For Alex Nowitz, the “correlation between movement and sound” is an important factor in communicating “the specificities of the creative act” to the public, to which end he works with a performance interface which uses Wii Remotes for gestural control of his voice and live-electronic performance.

Another commonality often found across the three practices is the interconnectivity of interface and result or intention, particularly with self-built instrument-interfaces in the digital domain. Discussing the findings of a survey on the different possibilities acoustic and digital instruments afford the improvising musician, Thor Magnusson and Enrike Hurtado note: “designing an instrument often overlaps with the musical composition itself.” With the electronic improvisation trio Endphase, (Bernal and Pais), this interconnectivity manifests itself in the way the creation of a new piece is influenced by reflection upon the performance conditions and “the original function of the space” in which the piece will be performed.

In site-specific interactive works by Agostino Di Scipio, the influence on the interpretation of the work, or the “source of dynamical behaviour” (Di Scipio), comes not only from the acoustical profile of the body of the viewer-visitor, but also from the space itself. Owen Green uses the work of Di Scipio and John Bowers as a starting point for a discussion of the interface as a measure of “value in electroacoustic music” and points out that the technological tools selected or required to present a work are by no means neutral, but are rather charged with socio-political meaning and participate actively in the definition of the work’s identity.

The APART project is a study and musical project mounted by Franziska Schroeder et al and presents the results of an “analysis of musical interaction under network conditions”. The project involved the performance of Jazz standards as well as free improvisation in determining the effects the networked interface had on the performance or interpretation of improvised works.

Improvisation? Composition?

In all three practices, we encounter works which can be (or at least could be) performed several times and which are characterized by a pre-defined “substructure of materials, ideas or approaches that remains constant” (Bernal and Pais, also see Nowitz); despite great variance in the nature of their articulation, we recognize the work throughout its various manifestations. Similarly, we have witnessed creative approaches which can only lead to a unique and unrepeatable presentation of the work: site-specific interactive installations and “free” improvisation, for example. For Gordon Fitzell, one of the interests of free improvisation is its potential as a pedagogical tool. He formed the XIE (pron. shay : eXperimental Improvisation Ensemble) to help his composition students develop subjective and tactile creativity and musicality.

Arne Eigenfeldt, on the other hand, makes a clear distinction between computer improvisation and real-time composition. He looks at how the computer can be used by the composer as a tool for “improvisation within composition,” and proposes his Kinetic Engine as an intelligent software solution to real-time composition.

Historical Perspective

The written score has had various roles to play in the history of electroacoustic practice. In “An Overview of Score and Performance in Electroacoustic Music,” Aki Pasoulas shows the breadth of these roles: from the descriptive or analytical (post-composition) to the prescriptive (similar to the function of traditional notation) to a mere set of instructions that offers considerable interpretative freedom to the performer, or even invites her to participate in the final stages a work’s composition.

An article by Julieanne Klein also offers an historical perspective on electroacoustics. An overview of the history of live-electronics, touching on the development of interactive software, is followed by a discussion of several works for voice and live electronics and of composers who have written for this medium. This article will be of particular interest to teachers and students, and of course to singers working with or starting to work with live-electronics.

Reviews and a New Column

Justin Yang reports on the goings-on at ICMC 2008 (Belfast), while Peter Castine and yours truly offer a report on SMC08 (Berlin) and a photo essay of Inventionen / SMC08, respectively.

A new column is launched with this issue, “Rediscovered Treasures.” Initially intended as a pedagogical tool for his students, Eldad Tsabary revisits the “classics” and lesser-known works from the past with a renewed, or simply nostalgic, appreciation.

And finally, in tribute to Michel Waisvisz, creator of The Hands and recently passed away, some kind words are offered.


It has been shown that a number of similarities exist across the practices of Live-electronics, Improvisation and Interactivity, and the importance of these similarities would suggest that a definitive answer to the question “What distinguishes each of these three practices from another in the electroacoustic domain?” is hardly likely. The authors in eContact! 10.4 have however stimulated and contributed to this ongoing discussion, and have clarified to a certain extent, if not the identity itself, at least the problematic of identity across Live-electronic, Improvisation and Interactivity practices in the larger electroacoustic realm.

We hope you enjoy the reading!

jef chippewa, 29 September 2008.

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