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Repurposing the Compositional Experience

The Spring Guitar and a Kataba saw, a self-built “instrument as sound composition”

Instrument as Sound Composition

It is more difficult for the composer to create the colors of needed sound than it is for the painter to create the colors of needed light, but it is no less important that he find it possible to do so. (Partch 1949, 195)

If music is “organised sound” as Varèse suggested, then composing must be the act of organising sound. Traditionally there has been a strong association between sound and instruments — musical works happened “within” them. Composers created works for a certain combination of instruments with a determined space in mind. Instruments shape musical traditions; they are as much part of them as the music itself. David Byrne believes “that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats” (Byrne 2012, 15); by assimilating them we are already yielding to this affirmation.

With the introduction of 20th-century technologies, the way of perceiving and understating music changed forever. Technologies such as the tape recorder, microphone, radio, amplifiers and loudspeakers made it possible to manipulate and process sound and to work hands-on with it. Consequently, this allowed composers to take a very different approach to making music. All these new possibilities brought music much closer to fine arts. The matter (sound) was there for composers to work with, touch and transform, in a similar way to a sculptor or painter. Historically, the “common practice” of music could be explained as a coded language with a collection of pre-set sounds, “instruments”, and composers produced new works by combining code and instruments. It was not until these new technological developments appeared that some composers began to work in a different direction, designing the sonic environment and then moving on to the various systems and codes of sound organisation they wanted to implement in their compositions (Rivero 2014b).

Instrument as sound composition obeys the need of creating colours of sound by building the appropriate sonic environment. It is an act of sonic empowerment through making that allows us to establish the conditions needed for composition rather than being pre-conditioned by them. The creation of the environment in which the work develops becomes a must — in this context, instrument and work coexist, and “process and work are inseparably bound. The ‘performance’ begins on the workbench and is extended onto the ‘stage’ through live bricolage” (Richards 2008, 25). The integration of maker and creator in John Richards’ creative approach contrasts with the historical division of labour underscored by Nick Collins: “Whereas artists have traditionally made objects, composers and musicians have made sound and left the instrument construction to a slightly lower-status artisan, the luthier” (Collins 2007, 7).

The composer becomes a sort of DIY (do-it-yourself) luthier, artisan or hacker who builds and tweaks their work, composing through making. The process of constructing the sonic environment implies many decisions that are at the forefront of the work. Design and materials are all interpreted from a compositional and performative point of view. They provide critical information to the work: timbre, texture, gestures and performance possibilities are all determined by it. These materials act as the “soil” in which the sound composition will develop and, as with a garden, condition what will grow.

Composing and Performing Through the Object: Making and Transforming

Figure 1. Preparing the neck with wood plane before installing the springs. Image © Anatol Rivero 2016. [Click image to enlarge]

The Spring Guitar is a hacked guitar, a mutant instrument built around the body of an electric guitar and a custom neck made with a pine wood strip (Fig. 1). The original idea was to replace the guitar strings with springs and work with their reverb qualities. There has been extended use of springs in the design of different sound-related objects, from old reverb-type effects and guitar amplifiers to instrument preparations. Examples include Hugh Davies’ Spring Boards, Error Instrument’s RAW Spring Delay, Scott Brown’s DIY Spring Instrument and Eric Leonardson’s Springboard. 1[1.  Eric Leonardson talks about the development and use of the instrument in “The Springboard: The joy of piezo disk pickups for amplified coil springs,” published in eContact! 10.3 — TES 2007: 1st Toronto Electroacoustic Symposium.] On the Spring Guitar, the guitar bridge has been adapted in order to be able to fix one end of the springs to it, and nails have been put in the neck to attach the other ends (Fig. 2). Different springs with various tensions have been used in the instrument. All materials have been chosen by criteria of availability (what was there to use at the time) or budget (trying to keep the build as low budget as possible).

Figure 2. Detail of a nail used for fixing the springs to the custom neck. Image © Anatol Rivero 2016. [Click image to enlarge]

Once the core of the instrument is “finished”, then comes the tuning stage. Getting to know the environment, how it sounds, the different possibilities it offers in terms of timbre, texture, sustain, volume and sound diffusion are also key to the process. A fundamental question that arose from the Spring Guitar was how to “trigger” the sound and, as a result, what performance possibilities and gestural approaches could be adopted. My main compositional motivation is to try and find out what the environment offers rather than making it do what I want. Or as David Tudor puts it: “The object should teach you what it wants to hear” (cited in Collins and d’Escrivan 2007, 46). All this information provides a clear idea of the possibilities of the environment to proceed with the “action stage” — strategies for composing and performing.

My initial idea for the work was to make use only of the elements that were part of the system and that the performance should be as restrained as possible, almost un-gestural, as if the environment would perform by itself, automatically. I wanted to build a feedback system to create a loop of endless sustain. For this, I taped a small surface transducer to the body of the Spring Guitar and drove the transducer by an alternate output from a guitar amp (Massy 2016). The surface transducer turned the Spring Guitar into a speaker, making it resonate sympathetically (Fig. 3; Audio 1). In a similar way to Nicolas Collins’ Backwards Electric Guitar 2[2.  See the article “A Brief History of the ‘Backwards Electric Guitar’,” available on Collins’ website.], in which the guitar strings vibrate in response to the pickups being fed by the output of an amplifier (Collins 2009), but with a different objective. With these modifications, the instrument started to look increasingly like a hacked guitar. It resembled some of Yuri Landman’s modified guitars, or Bertram Dhellemmes and Daniel Schorno’s Crackle Guitar (2009).

Figure 3. Surface transducer and other objects used for exciting the environment. Image © Anatol Rivero 2016. [Click image to enlarge]
Audio 1 (1:40). Feedback produced by the action of the surface transducer. Audio is from the pickups, not from contact microphones.

This worked well once the system was running, but there still was the problem of the initial triggering, or exciting the spring. To address this, I began a series of tests that included tapping the Spring Guitar in different places with various techniques and objects and observed how the system behaved. I began using my hands and moved on to other objects such as steel rods, percussion mallets, a prepared music box, magnets and hacksaw blades (Audio 2). I found my workbench packed with bizarre objects which reminded me of Keith Rowe’s table full of sound-altering devices: electric fans, saw blades, springs clinging to the magnets in the pickups, rasps, etc. All of these objects brought interesting qualities to the instrument that could be used in performance. In an attempt to stick to my original preferences for the performance to be as un-gestural as possible, I decided to make use of only a Kataba wood saw 3[3. Japanese hand saw that cuts on the pull stroke instead of the more common Western-style saw that cuts on the push stroke.] and one simple gesture: sawing. The sound triggered by the sawing action is carried out in multiple signals. The output from the original guitar pickups is split into three independent signals. There are also a number of contact microphones attached to different parts of the instrument. They are all mixed and routed to two guitar amplifiers through the outputs of a mixing desk.

Audio 2 (0:40). Example of Anatol Rivero’s Spring Guitar being excited by hacksaw blades.

The work develops during the time it takes for the performer to saw diagonally through the wooden neck. The instrument is placed horizontally, as with Keith Rowe’s tabletop technique, breaking with the common guitar practice to generate a different sound lexicon (Schneider 2015). It also changes the perspective of the setup and proposes a different relation between performer and audience — an altogether different and strong statement, in compositional terms. The action of the performer initiates the system and, once the feedback loop is running, the performer interacts with the environment by increasing or decreasing the sawing speed and intensity. The piece ends when the sawed-off portion of the neck falls on the floor and the feedback level decreases to a point where the performer decides to cut the signal. Sound composition, instrument and performance coexist in a process in which each component informs the others. This results in a situation where the composer-performer is “studying with and learning from, with transformations within the process” (Ingold 2013, 3), adopting what Brian Eno tags as the “biological paradigm”, an approach that allows the artist to “create the conditions at the bottom to allow the growth of the things you want to happen” (cited in Toop 2004, 242).

The Importance of Diversity: Repurposing the Compositional Experience

The search for new sonic environments in order to gain control over systems or to expand them has encouraged artists and performers to invent new ones, or to hybridize, hack or repurpose older systems, in order to generate new work. This has been done in multiple ways; relevant to the Spring Guitar I have distinguished three categories:

  1. Extended techniques (instrumental and compositional). Feedback used as a compositional resource provides an important part of the sonic content of the piece, while in terms of performance, the work makes use exclusively of the action of sawing.
  2. Modification and preparation of instruments, inventing new instruments. The Spring Guitar can be considered a modified or prepared guitar, a sort of mutant guitar: a guitar body plus a wood strip neck with springs and nails. Once the work is finished we end up with a mutilated instrument as a result of the “violence” of the performance.
  3. Using objects not primarily built for music making. The instrument makes use of some unconventional elements, such as springs, nails and a Japanese Kataba wood saw.

In my practice, the creation of new customized original environments is a conscious attempt to break from my comfort zone. It serves as a departure from habits and routines implicit in instrumental interfaces and setups, all of them closed systems, in which we choose from the possibilities they offer. To challenge this paradigm, it is necessary to “trespass the framing” to which the environment subordinates the work.

“Traditions exist on the patrimony of standardization” (Partch 1949, xv), and as sound artisans we must try to overcome the comfort of traditions in sound, hack them or transform them in a constant search for diversity. If “music and the organization of sound is an attribute of power” (Attali 1985, 6), sound composing should be an act of individual empowerment, a conscious demand for cultural autonomy that questions the margins established by the creation of new codes or languages. Harry Partch catalogues traditions as “per se suspect” because “they are to the interest of some group that has the power to perpetuate them” (Partch 1949, xv), while the distrust towards new forms and a refusal to the abnormal are common characteristics of totalitarian systems (Attali 1985).

Embedded into the practice of instrument as sound composition is the quality of resistance. This involves questioning established formats and trying to go beyond them, and connecting with the issues of post-digital DIY culture in an attempt to repurpose the compositional experience. A paradigm of lateral thinking where composition, instrument and performer complement each other, coexisting in a transverse environment in which perspective between instrument, performer and composition disappears. Taking a broader view, this impulse to resist standardization and challenge the restrictions of the system has a series of different readings. Implicit to it, there is a critical response to the norms of the system, a form of subversion of the dictates of capitalism and globalisation. This provides a way to “broaden and develop socially transmitted patterns, reinforcing the individual and averting society from an endogamic form of power” (Rivero 2014a). The practice of instrument as sound composition shares a common ethos with social and environmental movements, the empowerment of individuals and communities — DIY vs. corporate, local vs. global — in a kind of biological resistance to imperialism, and what could be considered as a Cardewian anti-imperialist approach. In contemporary society, diversity can be viewed as a threat. The fact that the majority of the world population uses the same platforms for interacting and sharing is a paradox in the era of communication. If the medium influences how the message is perceived (McLuhan 1964), and “we unconsciously adapt to pre-existing formats” (Byrne 2012, 15), then the experience is being minimalized. As a sound artist in a search for cultural autonomy and diversity, I feel that a crucial aspect to be aware of is the medium — it will condition the work, as well as how it will be perceived.

Central to the attempt in questioning this global reductionist approach is the ethos of making, in and out of the virtual world, tangible and intangible. Objects and interfaces bring new approaches to knowledge, allow for new forms of expression and repurpose existing platforms. Many of today’s actions are governed by simple gestures — the use of a computer mouse with the index finger, the thumbs on a smartphone screen — and we are losing many of the more complex forms of psychomotor activity acquired through history involved in the different actions of human life.

Fewer and fewer people actually know how to make the things they use, need or want; or even how they are made. This is one of the most dramatic and unfortunate legacies of the Industrial Revolution. (Charny 2011, 1)

This is an increasing side effect of the technological revolution. If, as R. Murray Shafer suggests, “we perceive only what we can name,” we experience only what we can do. “In a man-dominated world, when the name of a thing dies, it is dismissed from society, and its very existence may be imperiled” (Shafer 1977, 36). By constantly reformulating the medium, instrument as sound composition defies the reductionist tendency of the supratechnological. The creation of new interfaces of expression plays an important role in inspiring a new musical lexicon, helping to resist the standardization produced by the automated iteration of the medium.


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