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Toward “Compositional Reflection”

The electroacoustic community has long been good at sharing the technical aspects of electronic sound (see any program of any major computer music conference — ICMC, NIME, SMC, SEAMUS — for a schedule full of technical presentations) but less forthcoming when it comes to a discussion of the artistic strategies employed in the creation of individual works. The quantity of scholarship on electroacoustic music available in monographs and journals suggests that there is no shortage of theorization within the field. There also seems to be no shortage of music as electroacoustic community listservs are replete with concert and recording announcements. The area where I see the least publicly visible activity is in the area of composers and performers recounting and accounting for their experiences in creating and performing their work. So, while the music exists, as does the impulse to theorize it, composers have yet to develop a robust set of reflective practices that open the compositional work to more effective critical thought. I propose “compositional reflection” as a method for sharing from our rich practices.

This paper identifies a need for a technology with which composers can publicly reflect on and share the techniques they apply in their individual compositional practices. It looks to ethnography, and specifically to Marcus and Fischer’s seminal work Anthropology as Cultural Critique with its renovation of ethnographic writing, as font on which to draw in the development of a reflexive critical practice I call “compositional reflection.” I identify holism and microscale description as key features useful in compositional reflections: accounts should conceive of compositional activities broadly and examine them deeply. Below I describe my vision of compositional reflections as experimental (as defined by Marcus and Fischer and related to notions of experimentalism in music from Cage to Lewis) and discuss some of the primary benefits of such experimentalism, with an example from my own reflective practice.


From Talking Music by Duckworth to the approximately 50 interviews published in 34 years of the Computer Music Journal, the interview is the most popular published format for electroacoustic composers to reflect on their practice. However, detailed conversations about paths taken to individual compositions are virtually non-existent, as questions about the advantages and disadvantages of various computational technologies often dominate the conversation. Still, I know composers to be reflective and interested in talking about their practice and I see abundant evidence of reflective practice in teaching where composers excel at describing how and what they do in both individual and group settings. My work leverages the abundant impulse among composers to reflect on where and how the ideas for their works emerge and channels it to develop a set of practices we can use to perform public conversation about compositional practice.

My interest in developing techniques for “compositional reflection” began with two observations: first, that my keenest moments of compositional learning come when I directly observe the activities of teachers and peers as they create new works; and, second, that the field has a well-developed set of practices for sharing electrical and computational technologies, for sharing the compositional products themselves, and for sharing analyses of music, but relatively fewer detailed discussions of what exactly composers are doing when they work. While our private conversation about composition is robust and many of us regularly teach our students how to compose, I see our public conversation as measured by books, journals and conference presentations lacking sufficient discussion of the “artistic” side of our compositional practices — our phenomenal experiences as we practice and the relationship between our practices and our compositions.

I am interested in defining “compositional activities” to include our endeavours beyond the actions we take in writing down pitches, processing sound or engineering specific technologies. The development of an electroacoustic compositional practice involves learning, practicing and creating new techniques for perceiving that deeply influence the way we engage the world and, thus, deeply influence the resultant compositions. I identify space for composers to expand the way we explicate and discuss publicly the “how” and “why” we come to the making of our work.

I see our compositional actions (broadly defined — all of the stuff we do as composers) as having application well beyond the compositional frame. I see our actions as powerful ways of observing that could be applied in a variety of contexts, including everyday life. The possibilities of our perceptual techniques can only be realized, however, if we develop more robust ways of exteriorizing our activities, both for ourselves and for external readers; “compositional reflection” as envisioned here would serve this purpose. At the least, I believe that making our own compositional processes more visible through compositional reflection will help in promoting the music itself: I observe that the more I share about my pieces and process, the more interested and invested listeners become.

This work contributes to a growing chorus of voices calling for more visible and more detailed explications of compositional practice, all of which would lead to more engaged audience listening and enhanced theorization of our compositional work. Katharine Norman advocates for composers to share their phenomenal experiences to create work that is more open to listeners, and thus, more successful. She argues how, paradoxically, more time spent by the artist considering subjective experience can “[leave] a door open for the listener to participate [in the work], from his or her own experience” (Norman 2012, 117).

The “goal” of compositional reflection is not to judge the composition: it is to proliferate the options available for the experience of the work.

George Lewis argues that effective theorization of improvisatory music requires a robust body of work reflecting on practice. Speaking at Brown University in 2011, Lewis called for more autoethnography by practitioners to assist critical improvisation studies in developing new theories of improvisation. In his 2007 Parallax article, Lewis describes his careful and thoughtful exposition of his improvising musical environment Voyager as “auto-ethnography” necessary to “give the work a voice” and to “complement the ethnographies of technology that people such as [Lucy] Suchman and Bruno Latour have performed” (Lewis 2007, 113).

As an example of the impacts to be had of exposition of practice by composers I would point to Joanna Demers’s 2010 monograph Listening Through the Noise and its use of access to the thinking and writing of composers. Demers’s most powerful conclusions are drawn when she compares the composers’ writing with the music that results. The lesson is that the possibilities for theorization of our music are enriched by greater access to practices as exposed by composers describing their phenomenal experiences, intents and actions. I believe our practices would be greatly enriched by more of this type of intense theoretical engagement by theorists — we need, however, to enable it.

In an attempt to find a model for a reflective writing practice I have turned to anthropology and ethnography. In the 1980s, as part of their program of ethnographic reform, Marcus and Fischer proposed a set of principles to help identify “a ‘good’ ethnography”: a good ethnography should give “a sense of the conditions of fieldwork, of everyday life, of microscale processes…; of translation across cultural and linguistic boundaries…; and of holism” (Marcus and Fischer 1999, 24–25). In the section titled “The Spirit and Scope of Experimental Ethnographic Writing,” Marcus and Fischer discuss the benefits of an explicitly experimental practice, suggesting how experimentation might function within ethnography. Writing in the preface to the second edition, the authors emphasize that anthropology’s hybridity as a “human science” positions it to draw simultaneously on the modernist avant-garde from the humanities and Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigm shifts from science studies. They see experimental ethnography as ideally drawing on both senses simultaneously, with the benefit being that:

The ambiguity cuts both ways: experimentation as critique and “pushing the envelope” of conventional understandings: experimentation as a mode of intervening in the world, and changing it. (Marcus and Fischer 1999, xxxii)

Despite high regard for experimentalism, Marcus and Fisher identify potential pitfalls: readers of experimental ethnographies should not hope to find new paradigms but should be able to “[pick] up ideas, rhetorical moves, epistemological insights, and analytic strategies generated by each different research situation” (Ibid., 41). Ultimately Marcus and Fischer see experimentation as driving “continued innovation”, marking how it “can be a tool in the development of theory” even as they warn of the risk for experiments to be “mistaken for models, that they will establish a mechanical trend of imitators” (Ibid., 42). Throughout I see important insights useful for developing compositional reflection.

In calling for “experimentalism”, Marcus and Fischer provide a bridge to a domain in which composers have deep experience: composers have contributed strongly to the notions of the experimental within the humanities the authors refer to. For example, we can make direct links between the proposed writing practices and the “experimental” as discussed by Cage in 1955: “not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as an act the outcome of which is unknown” (Cage 2011, 13). Writing compositional reflection as an experimental process respects some of the biggest lessons learned in the history of experimental music, as it demonstrates the application of the compositional technique beyond the frame of composition — in writing, if still in the service of music. Electroacoustic composition, as a discipline, understands experimentalism as a technique for radically proliferating our options for experience; we should exercise this attitude in writing, reading and applying compositional reflection.

Nascent Guidelines

With the above in mind, I propose some nascent guidelines for compositional reflection. First, compositional reflections should give a sense of the climate and culture in which the composer is operating — a sense of the context of the work, of the composer’s phenomenal experiences of everyday life and of the microscale actions of the composer. Second, writing should reflect a pursuit of holism: it should attempt to account for the whole set of conditions of the composer and should make an effort to provide a complete picture of the circumstances of the work, not just those that are immediately apparent as directly relevant to the sonic output. Third, composers must seek ways to distinguish between effective and ineffective compositional reflection; subjective interpretation cannot be used as a shield from criticism. Fourth, new methods for reflecting on composition and reading reflections should remain in service to the larger goal of innovating compositional methods, not become the focus of practice in their own right. Fifth, composers should create new conditions for compositional acts with influence from prior reflections while remaining alert to the dangers of unthinkingly reproducing a given approach with the idea that it will yield a predictable result.

A key distinction between the ethnographic practices and the compositional reflections is that the evaluation of compositional reflection must be considered in relationship to the musical output. To consider the “study” exclusively through the written word would be to miss the music that practices the ideas of the reflection and bears the results of the experiences discussed. The reflective writing generates a text that accompanies the musical works. The text should be used to generate new perspectives within the music as the music is used to generate new perspectives within the text. As the reader-listener engages the music and the text, he or she must work to keep in mind the warning against developing models — the experimental spirit of the text and music need to be continuously refreshed. In the words of George Lewis writing about Voyager:

[T]he aim is to present a glimpse into one way that such pieces might be constructed, not to show how it must be done, or to aver that this program “proves” that this is the way we think about or hear music. (Lewis 1999, 110)

Such ideas remind us that the “goal” of compositional reflection is not to judge the composition: it is to proliferate the options available for the experience of the work. This notion of proliferation — of opening or expanding — is the one that should be used as a criterion for judging the success of compositional reflections. The question is: does the reflection serve to open the work to further insight and interpretation, leveraging the phenomenal experiences of both the composer and the listener? If so, it represents successful compositional reflection. Or, does the reflection close the work, stifling alternative interpretations or work to maintain the composer’s control over the sonic experience? If so, it is unsuccessful compositional reflection. The reflection impinges upon electroacoustic composers to read in some of the same ways and with the same effort we apply in listening to experimental music: we should take responsibility for our own experience within the reflective text and work to discover and play in the same ways that they do when we listen to music.

Excerpt from the Compositional Reflection for “Awakening”


As with our music, compositional reflection makes most sense when experienced directly. Below, I share an excerpt from my own developing reflective practice. Though we would expect the writing style of different composers to vary as dramatically as their music, the reflection should pursue the goals outlined briefly above. The text relates to my piece Awakening, a structured improvisation for clarinet, electronics and 8‑channel diffusion centred on a soundscape recording of a weekday morning in the Bairro Popular, Luanda. It focuses on the short morning period when the street transitions abruptly from private, inside-the-compound activities to more public, street activities through an eight-minute soundscape recording on Rua (Road) Mavinga featuring the vocal calls of Luanda’s street vendors. Throughout, we hear neighbours working and talking, pop music playing in the distance, dogs barking, cars and trucks occasionally passing the house, and the steady thrum of slow-moving traffic on the busy, nearby Rua Machado Saldanha. The clarinettist plays in response to these sounds with an evolving sonic vocabulary dictated by a score. The recording and clarinet are processed with filters and reverb, and distributed through a spatialization system that initially presents a focused sound at the front of the concert hall but which makes the sound increasingly diffuse through the end of the piece when both components slowly dissipate.


In December 2005, I was roused from a few hours of unsettled sleep to jet-lagged haze by the then-surreal sounds, smells and brightness of the Luanda morning. My body was stuck to the sheets on top and below, and the air under the mosquito netting was stuffy and stale. My ears were partially blocked from the ascent and descent of two long international flights which made the sound of sweeping immediately outside my bedroom window muffled and feel surprisingly close. Arriving late at night to a dark, empty house, I had little sense of the layout of the interior of the home, let alone the surrounding compound and courtyard where two other families — one of which was the landlady’s — made their homes. The neighbour’s unexpected presence at my bedroom window made me feel exposed and vulnerable, accenting my confusion. A growing realization of my surroundings gave me a surge of adrenaline and I began to wake more fully to the sounds of the Bairro Popular in the morning: compounds and sidewalks up and down the street being swept with long brooms, neighbours calling to one another, pumping music near and far, the thrum of slow moving traffic two blocks away, and, floating above it all, the high, nasal calls of the zungueiras (vendors that walk) announcing their wares as they walked through the neighbourhood streets.

I found the zungueira calls immediately striking, as do many expats in Angola. 1[1. Though they were new to me, vendor calls are not unique to Luanda — I’ve had listeners tell me of similar calls in North Africa and India, and an internet search quickly reveals a variety of stories on ambulatory vendors in England, China, South Africa, Cuba, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The existence of this work is, generally, negative — a mark of the populations’ poverty; the work itself is gruelling and dangerous. Like elsewhere, the sounds of Luanda's vendors are under pressure and disappearing. Ideally zungueiras would disappear because economic progress would lead to their finding safer, less physically demanding, more stable gainful employment. In Angola, the government and police are trying to cut down on the informal economy by harassing, beating and arresting zungueiras to stop them from working in the streets.] Even though the character of the total soundscape was unfamiliar, most of the sounds were at least identifiable. The zungueira calls were clearly vocal but stood out as utterly unique: I didn’t know why they were being made and though I recognized them as language, I couldn’t make them out in the least. The confusion about the content of the calls is something that persists for many — it took me months to figure out some of the more highly stylized versions and I know expats that lived in Angola for years and despite tremendous facility in Portuguese were never able to parse the messages. The style of each announcement is cultivated and consistent; whether you understand them or not, you can recognize different vendors based on their call. The calls are dynamic — the vendors adjust them in response to environmental sounds. The calls are made at regular intervals and establish clear rhythms, but the timing is adjusted if needed to avoid overlapping with other sounds such as the calls of other vendors, passing vehicles, or construction noise. Zungueiras adjust the register of their call if another woman is calling with too similar a pitch. Their identity, however, remains clear through the modifications.

Audio 1 (3:07). Excerpt of Matthew Peters Warne’s Awakening (9:00), for clarinet and electronics. Featuring the improvisation of Joseph Butch Rovan on clarinet. Recorded in concert on 5 November 2010 at Grant Recital Hall, Brown University, Providence RI, USA.

Listening to the calls became a morning ritual for me as I sat on the veranda with a breakfast of coffee and day-old bread. The calls came from everywhere, moving slowly through the neighbourhood streets. I especially enjoyed hearing the mix of sounds change as the zungueiras walked at different rates and in different directions. 2[2. Awakening presents a sound recording from the Bairro Popular, a sort of middle class “suburb” on the edge of Luanda, made as the morning awakes and my neighbors make the surprisingly short transition from private activities to more public ones. In live performance, the primary compositional action in this piece is spatial: the sound recording and the lightly processed sounds of the clarinet start focused at the front of the concert hall and gradually expand throughout the piece to become increasingly diffuse and fill the concert hall. (Programme note from the composer’s SoundCloud webpage)] In the first days, I was unable to hear from which direction sounds where coming: my acoustic confusion reflected my lack of knowledge about the layout of the streets and the sonic impacts of the local architecture. As I explored the surrounding area and as I learned the routes the women walked, I could eventually visualize the neighbourhood’s streets by the sounds. I could tell which direction each woman was moving, predict where they would go next and even where they would stop to make regular sales. Later, when the rains brought their annual chaos, the routes changed. When I paid attention, I could know which streets were choked-off by flooding simply by listening to the zungueiras’ paths.

I first heard and listened to the zungueiras as I was trying to figure out the neighbourhood and its layout. As I think about it now, I consider this style of listening key to my decision to make a piece like Awakening which not only features the calls of the zungueiras prominently, but also features a changing spatialization as one of its primary compositional axes.


Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings, 50th Anniversary Edition. 2nd Edition. Wesleyan, 2011.

Demers, Joanna Teresa. Listening Through the Noise: the Aesthetics of Experimental Electronic Music. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Duckworth, William. Talking Music: Conversations with John Cage, Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, and Five Generations of American Experimental Composers. New York: Da Capo Press, 1999.

Lewis, George E. “Interacting with Latter-day Musical Automata.” Contemporary Music Review 18/3 (1999) “Aesthetics of Live Electronic Music,” pp. 99–112.

_____. “Mobilitas Animi: Improvising Technologies, Intending Chance.” Parallax 13/4 (November 2007) “Techniques and Chance,” pp. 108–122.

_____. “Improvisation as Way of Life: Reflections on human interaction.” At Improvisation as a Way of Life: A Symposium (Providence RI: Cogut Center for the Humanities, Brown University, 18–25 February 2011).

Marcus, George E. and Michael M.J. Fischer. Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences. Second Edition. University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Norman, Katharine. “Conkers (listening out for organised experience).” Organised Sound 15/2 (August 2010) “Organising Electroacoustic Music,” pp. 116–124.

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