Indeterminate Improvisation

One of the issues with improvisation that i have been (and doubtless will be) grappling with, is the issue of non-intention, and indeterminacy. As a bit of a Cage devotee, I of course, find these things to be very important in the kind of music I make, but there is always the question of how and why they are utilized. Initially I think my instinct in music making was toward picking up instruments with which I had no relationship, and exploring the sounds they made as a total novice. While this approach can certainly be effective, even very effective at times, I found that it never ended up growing a real relationship with the instrument that continued past the initial novelty. At some point, the stumbling about as indeterminacy, wears thin, as you become more familiar and therefore more determinate in your playing. You either have to resist this, or become more focussed in your approach, and there are plenty of arguments for both sides (but that’s not what I want to get into here).

I suppose then, that this may be a good explanation, for why I appreciate accidental sound sequences so much. They get to be so fresh and sometimes so beguiling, with no effort to remain true to any praxis, and no overanalyzation. The sounds don’t worry about themselves.

This interest has lead me to experimenting with various strategies for incedental sound making and recording. One device i have been using a bit of late, is the utilization of contact microphones to pick up the sounds of othwise mundane activity. An example of this technique could be contact micing your dinner table, while you and a friend have dinner, thus transforming all of the incedental movements you make into a sequence of pseudo-random sound. Sometimes these techniques work surprisingly well on their own, but often times they really work well, when combined with other sound sequences, so that the sounds “collaborate” in interesting ways.

Here are a couple of examples I think work particularly well, and that I have found very enjoyable to listen to:

Accidentals 1 (4:34)
Stereo contact mic recording of myself working on the computer/Stereo contact mic recording of myself unloading dishes from the dishwasher.

This piece is full of interesting moments. The space between sounds becomes very charged at times, and may be intereupted by forceful and precise bursts of sound. I find this piece to have a delightfully in-human sense of space and timing. It upsets my expectations still after multiple listens, something I have been appreciating a lot recently. I also like how small each “instrument’s” pallette is. There is a relatively small variety of sounds, and yet somehow this restriction works as more an asset than a drawback.

Accidentals 2 (6:08)
Edited stereo field recording/Shortwave radio scan

While the first piece is thick with charged silence, this piece has none. The shortwave scanning is constant, and was not initially intended to be an improvisation. It was recorded up at a friend’s cabin in the Poconos, as I searched for interesting signals. The field recording is assembled from incedental sounds resulting from the disassembly of an oil tank and the silences that surround them. Sometimes the sounds are gentle, sometimes not. The radio here forms a range of sounds from soft pads of detailed texture, to blasts of unruly static, distant voices, and contaminated music. While the field recording plays agitator with unpredictable pin pricks of sounds and occasional sheet-metal roars.


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3 Responses to “Indeterminate Improvisation”

  1. startlingmoniker Says:

    Did you see this?


  2. erm Says:

    i like these pieces a lot. i’m curious as to what actually created the sounds from the “contact mic recording of myself working on the computer” track. the second piece was less dense than i expected it to be based on the description, and pleasingly so.

    i relate a great deal to the approach you described as “picking up instruments with which I had no relationship, and exploring the sounds they made as a total novice.” this is a very accurate description of the approach i took when i first began experimenting with sound. i also grappled with similar dilemmas in respect to approaching experimental music in this way. i’ve wrestled with similar demons as a visual artist as well, as my ideas about creating visual art are similar are similar to my ideas about creating sound. i’d got so far as to say these ‘creative hobgoblins’ have lead me to long periods of creative inactivity at times.

    it is quite often contact with art and/or other creative individuals which inspires me to think of things in new ways and move past my old barriers. you are most certainly one such creative individual.

    • howsthatsound Says:

      thanks for stopping by evelyn!
      to answer your question, i contact mic’d my desk. so you can hear some keyboard clicking and mouse swishing in there. it picked up a lot of hum from my computer, so i used noise reduction to make it cut in and out the way it does. i kind of like the recurring hum sounds.

      i’m glad you enjoy the tracks, and i’m honored you take inspiration from them. i think no matter what the doubt in your mind, there’s always a place to go and new things to do. i just try to keep going.

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