Discussion Paper

November 24, 2008 at 4:39 pm (Further Research & Contextualisation)

Sound Analysis; Perspectives on Compositional Modes of Listening

In this discussion paper I will be situating my methods of listening to and understanding sound material in relation to several composers affiliated with electroacoustic music. I will also discuss how these various perspectives on analyzing sonic behaviour can be used to form meaningful relationships between sounds, and how this compares with my own compositional approaches and methodologies. I have chosen to focus on composers associated with electroacoustic music because I share with them a common belief in ‘the inherent musicality in all sounds.’ (Smalley. 1986: 61) At the heart of the genre’s oeuvre lies a questioning of the traditions of Western music; a vernacular dominated by ‘metrically organized harmonic and melodic relationships.’ (Smalley. 1986: 61) This questioning arose in conjunction with the advent of new technologies, which not only expanded the palette of sound made readily available to composers, but also provided them with different means of manipulating this sonic material. (Teruggi. 2007) Technology became a catalyst for the development of new methods of listening, analyzing and composing with sound, and it is these methods that I will discuss in this paper, beginning with French composer Pierre Schaeffer.

Pierre Schaeffer, founder of musique concrete, was interested in developing ways of perceiving sound once it had been removed from its context via recording and playback over the loudspeaker. He used the term sound-object to describe his approach of apprehending sound ‘without seeing the causes behind it.’ (Schaeffer 1966: 91). This method, which he called reduced listening, sought to draw the listener’s attention to the intrinsic properties of a particular sonority (e.g. its texture, timbre and temporal transformation). (Wishart. 1996)

Reduced listening is an extremely useful technique that I’ve learnt to incorporate into my compositional practise. There are simple ways to initiate this mode of listening, such as closing ones eyes and auditioning a sound numerous times until any imagined connection to its source disappears. For me, reduced listening is a method that strives towards a more objective way of perceiving sonic behaviour; away from causality one can really focus on the inner detail of a sound and begin to form links between different sound-objects based on these intrinsic qualities. Whilst linking materials in this way is certainly a valid approach to the creation of a coherent sonic discourse, I feel that disregarding the source of a sound completely can eliminate the possibilities of utilizing the potential meanings inherent within its extrinsic features (e.g. the representational, associative and symbolic). In addition to this, a sole focus on the intrinsic features of a sound perhaps ignores the way people naturally respond to sound, since ‘studies of behaviour and aural physiology would suggest that our mental apparatus is predisposed to allocate sounds to their sources.’ (Wishart. 1996: 129)

Trevor Wishart developed a compositional aesthetic that integrated the Schaefferian analysis of the sound-object, as well as bringing the extrinsic features of a sound into play. He used the term sound-image to explain one of his methods of composition: transforming the visualization of a sound in the minds eye and making use of its extrinsic features to form symbolic links between these evoked images. In his piece Red Bird (1978) he transformed the voice of someone saying ‘Liss….’ (from the word listen) into birdsong (a metaphor for flight), allowing the voice to ‘take flight’ and suggesting a ‘metaphorical link with the concept of ‘imagination’’. (Wishart.  1996: 166)

I try to use a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic methods of understanding sounds when I begin working on a composition. In my piece Window Music (2008), I was initially drawn to the intrinsic qualities of the sound of construction work taking place across the road from my house; rich metallic timbres randomly struck in isolation, accentuating the acoustic character of street. Once I had spliced the recording into singular ‘strikes’, I began thinking about how to approach the material from an extrinsic point of view. The thunderous clanging of pipes and girders were the result of scaffolding being constructed, sonic signifiers of a new material structure forming piece-by-piece. I tried to reflect this in my additive approach to building a rhythmic structure with the construction strikes.

Whilst the sound-object and sound-image are both useful perceptual techniques, my compositional thinking integrates a sense of sound as being specific to a location as well. R Murray Schafer coined the term sound-event to describe this perspective: a sound that ‘occurs in a certain place during a particular interval of time.’ (Schafer. 1994: 131) Schafer was the founder of the World Soundscape Project, a collective of sound artists and composers who ‘drew attention to the sonic environment through location recordings and environmental advocacy.’ (Cox & Warner. 2004: 29) Together they defined an area of study called Acoustic Ecology, which was concerned with how the acoustic environment (or soundscape) impacts the behaviour of the creatures living within it. (Schafer. 1994: 271)

My practise incorporates the locational aspect of studying sound from a fixed position (as in Window Music), but also the transitional, by journeying through an urban environment in order to study the soundscape. The latter could be seen as a sonic interpretation of the Situationist ideas of Psychogeography and Dérive, an approach to understanding urban space through physical exploration, whereby the individual lets himself be ‘drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’ (Debord, 2006: 50) In my Big Ben Composition (2008) I used a combination of fixed and transitional approaches, making two separate studies of the soundscape around Westminster Bridge, before finally amalgamating them both within a single composition. For the transitional study, I developed certain rules for my journey around the area, based on the sonic activity of Big Ben over the course of an hour. This dictated what material I collected, as well as the way I organized the sounds when composing. With the fixed study, I recorded 30 minutes of activity from one position (the bank opposite Big Ben), later analyzing and selecting the three key sounds present in the soundscape to compose with.

As I began working on different mutations of these three key sounds (seagulls, police siren and Big Ben’s gongs), some interesting concerns arose regarding how much I should manipulate them. I used two stages of processing on the three sounds. The first stage involved subtle shaping of the sounds using EQ and re-sampling techniques in Logic, leaving them relatively ‘raw’ and still recognizable in terms of their source and behaviour. The second stage involved random pitch and amplitude manipulation in MaxMSP, which on occasion removed them quite far from their causality. Since I was trying to retain a sense of place, I had to reassess the degree of processing at the second stage; it obscured the source of the sound beyond recognition and hence severed the connection to location as well. Pierre Schaeffer highlighted the perceptual ambiguity a particular sound can take on through technological manipulation in Trois Microsillons d’Examples Sonores (1967), stating that one sounding body ‘“may supply a great variety of [sound] objects whose disparity cannot be reconciled by their common origin.”’ (Cited in Schafer. 1994: 130)

If listened to in isolation, the various forms taken by the seagulls, police sirens & Big Ben’s gongs in the final version of my composition, lie somewhere in between having ambiguous and recognizable sources. However, since the variations of these sounds are repeated at regular intervals in the composition and occur at the same time through layering techniques, I believe a sense of their source is still conveyed, and thus location as well. The repetition breeds a familiarity with the individual sounds in their different guises, whilst the layering allows them to establish a link to a certain place through the contextual recognition of their source; though one particular sound might initially be perceived as an unrecognizable form, its source may obtain clarity through its juxtaposition against the other two sounds and the setting implied by their synchronized occurrence. (Wishart. 1996: 150)


In this paper I have situated some of my compositional modes of listening in relation to three alternate perspectives on studying sound: the sound-object (intrinsic), the sound-image (extrinsic) and the sound-event (specific to time and place). I have explained how these three ways of understanding sonic behaviour can lay the conceptual foundations from which to build meaningful relationships between sounds, and how this compares with my own approaches to composition. Whilst these various perceptual methods and compositional strategies are certainly important to the electroacoustic composer, articulating their use is sometimes problematic. For example, creating the sense of location sonically in my Big Ben Composition is not only reliant on the apprehension of source, but also the familiarity the audience may have with this material. A Londoner may be able to link these three sounds to Westminster Bridge and grasp the symbolic associations with the material, whilst someone who’s new to the City may not. That said, perhaps the visual element accompanying transitional study in this piece perhaps counteracts this problem, as well as the use of repetition and contextual recognition in the sonic element of the locational study.

When implementing the three perceptual methods discussed in this paper, I must bare in mind that I can only obtain relative objectivity towards sound because of the gap between my perception and that of my potential audience. In addition to this, I must consider that these compositional methodologies may be slightly flawed, since ‘Sound-objects do not suggest their own montage in an objective way! There lies, above the process of aural choice advocated in this approach, a set of beliefs as to what it is that ‘sounds right’ in any given situation.’ (Emmerson. 1986: 21) To some artists, such as Francis Bacon, these instinctive reactions to material are paramount in regards to composition; ‘“If you manage to do something following your instinct as closely as possible, then you have succeeded…”’ (Archimbaud. 1999: 80) I feel I must endeavour to find a balance between my instinctual reactions to sound and more analytical strategies to perceive it. In this way I can form a dialectical approach towards composition that allows the various electroacoustic notions of sonic behaviour to play off my own individual understanding of sound and its compositional possibilities.


Archimbaud, M. (1999) Francis Bacon in Conversation with Michel Archimbaud, London: Phaidon Press Limited
Brougher, K. Mattis, M. Strick, J. & Zilcher, J. (2005) Visual Music: Synaesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, London: Thames & Hudson
Cox, C. & Warner D. (2004) Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music London: Continuum
Dann, T. (1998) Bright Colours Falsely Seen: Synaesthesia and the Search for Transcendental Knowledge, New Haven: Yale University Press
Debord, G. (2006) Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, In: Knabb, K. Situationist National Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, AK Press
Emmerson, S. (1986) The Language of Electroacoustic Music, London: Macmillan Press
Harrison, J. (2001) Synaesthesia: The Strangest Thing, Oxford University Press
Nyman, M. (1999) Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, 2nd Edition Cambridge University Press
Schaeffer, P. (1966) Traité des Objets Musicaux, Paris: Le Seuil
Schafer, R. M. (1977) The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment & the Tuning of the World, Vermont: Destiny Books
Smalley, D. (1997) Organising Sound, Cambridge University Press
Teruggi, D. (2007) Technology and Musique Concrete: the Technical Developments of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales and their Implication in Musical Composition, Cambridge University Press.
Wishart, T. (1996) On Sonic Art, London: Routledge

Music / CDs
Wishart, T. (1996) On Sonic Art: Accompanying CD, London: Routledge

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Tutorial Report & Feedback Form

November 14, 2008 at 11:00 am (Tutorials & Workshops)

Issues discussed/Subject:

After losing my work ( through robbery), is my Big Ben piece on my blog enough to constitute a prototype?

Yes, it’s been well documented from the initial conception of the idea to the final developments within MaxMSP.


Clarify what I need to write for the intrim report.


In the intrim report I have to talk about what has changed about my project from initial proposal and why. It doesn’t have to be written in the Harvard style, with references, it’s more my opinion and things learnt through the development of my work.

e.g. 1) My methodology of using the journey to find a space has also become a composition in itself. 2) Sound should be dominant, visuals minimal.


I feel as though my project will still change over the next few months as I begin my journeys again and start gathering my material again from ‘nothing’ (after losing my work!) – is this change, possibility of new directions okay post-Xmas?


Yes, embrace the change for you shouldn’t block the natural development of an idea, otherwise the idea will become stagnant.


Post-MA, Phd / continued research – what are my options?  

Continued research is supposed to be contributing to new knowledge, it is a very specifically defined research project. (e.g. one element or aspect of your Ma proposal explored in depth). You should look at existing sound phd’s.

In regards to the proposal itself, think about positioning yourself (your research) perhaps in between two areas of research (e.g. sound/space audio/architecture).

Funding from AHRC – deadlines in Feb/Mar though.

I can do it part-time, 4-8years.

Post-research you can stay in academia, teaching, get involved with KTP (Knowledge Transfer Partnership) – research/industry cross-over. e.g I could direct a research project towards film-sound, then try and get into industry that way.

Talk to David Toop at LCC, Barbara, Matthew (in research) for more info.


Deadline for Unit 2 assessment is 3rd December


Curate blog by Monday/Tuesday (1st/2nd) – show your path through research/project 


Get in touch with Ian Bromilow

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R Murray Schafer and the Vancouver Soundscape Project

November 10, 2008 at 10:16 pm (Further Research & Contextualisation)

The Vancouver Soundscape Project was released as a double CD and booklet which charted the growth of the City via locational sound recordings, short interviews and artistic interpretations of acoustic environments. The project was realised as a comparative study of the soundscape at two different points in time. The first in 1973 and the second in 1993; locations revisited and keynote sounds reassessed in light of the new sonic environment. The study itself sought not only to ‘expand listeners’ horizon towards Vancouver’s soundscape and raise consciousness about its quality, but it also wants to raise questions such as: how do we listen and behave acoustically in everyday life; how can we acquire a “sense of place” and belonging from our soundscapes; are there ways to design liveable soundscapes in urban environments?’ (http://www.sfu.ca/~truax/vanpromo.html)

Their objectives have a huge cross-over with my project. Within my compositions I wish to draw the audiences’ attention to London’s soundscape as a means of encouraging them reflect upon the emotional and physical effect it has on their experience of the City. I am striving to find a balance in my compositional approach which lies in-between portraying the soundscape ‘as it sounds’ (e.g. leaving sound material in a relatively ‘raw’ state) and presenting a more personalised view of the soundscape which is perhaps more explorative and individual; drawing attention to particular sounds that I feel are important (e.g. The bird/insect in my Window Music piece). In this particular composition I used this method to reset the imbalance between natural and man-made sounds observed during the study. This falls in line with sound artist Hildegard Westerkamp’s view of urban development severing the bond we have with nature.

I wish to raise the listeners’ awareness of the plight of natural sounds within the soundscape, instigating the feeling of tranquillity one often associates with natural phenomena. I also want to my work to be a catalyst for the audience to reflect on their relationship with man-made sounds that they might instinctively block out or deem as unpleasant ‘noise’. For example, on the tube people generally mask the sound present with their iPod, but perhaps if they listened they might even appreciate the wide variety of textures, rich rhythm and wonderfully intense timbres. On the other hand they might conclude that the sounds present are thunderously loud and too intrusive. Either way I want the listen to use their ears to decipher their emotional response to spaces and this is my reasoning for the dominance of sound in my audio-visual compositions.

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Reflections on losing my work

November 10, 2008 at 1:40 pm (Experiments, Reflections & Planning)

Many weeks have passed since the robbery, but it’s only these last few days that I’ve regained a sense of mental balance and the motivation to work again. The loss of my computer, my work, has felt like a loss of self. I have been in limbo, utter perplexed by the situation. The accumilation of time spent focusing my conscious thought within the computer – developing ideas, reflecting on my progress, learning about myself – was initially the hardest thing to come to terms with when it happened.


I’ve tried to console myself explaining to many a sympathetic ear that this time spent has not been wasted. My mind can still access all the growth I’ve experienced through my interactions with my now absent machine, everything I’ve learnt through the process of creation is still tangible, it simply doesn’t exist in material form anymore. Much of my work has been reduced to a memory, a figment of my past accessable only through my imagination, its ephemeral qualities solidified under the guise of a drug-fuelled theivery. I have the name of the man who did it; traces of blood splattered against the curtain and murky finger prints on the window sill, his downfall. Hopes of my computer being salvaged however, have all but faded into nothingness.


Since it happened I’ve been searching within myself for comfort, as well as outwards towards friends and family. I’ve tried to take many a positive stance on events, but have always returned to a state of numbness, of dislocation, whenever left to my own devices. This natural tendency to distance myself from what has happened and let my mind seap slowly into a negative refrain is something I’ve done before. This time however my emotional self-awareness is more acute and I have the ability to transform this negativity into positivity. I must embark from this present moment, ground zero, with a fresh perspective. It seems as though this is the perfect time for me to push my work and myself further than I have done before. This is an awakening of the mind, an opportunity to reaffirm my beliefs in the importance of art, the neccessity of creation.


I will make use of these images, creating a new work born out of the horror that has befallen me. Art is therapy, art is understanding, art is the transformation of one’s perspective…

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