Improvisation in object-based Sound Installations

© 2019, Iman Jesmi

This paper defines improvisation as a core component and an essential criterion of music composition and performances. The article explores the possibilities of improvisation in object-based sound installations as the main category of sound art that emerges from the intersection of live musical performance and sonic possibilities of the automated musical instruments.

Introduction:                                                                                                                                                                                  Improvisation is a kind of spur of the moment action in music. A flash of inspiration from the audience or atmosphere to the musician. It might be assumed as such microcosmic alterations or elaborations of composed music as ornamentation or the realization of figured bass, or in such music ability of a few organists to extemporize fugue suggested to them on the spur of the moment. Even though we have great historical examples of improvisation in Western music such as melodic improvisation on a pre-existent liturgical chant, in a style called Organum, to chance operations on music-making by John Cage, the customary picture of improvisation, would and should be greatly expanded by an understanding of non-Western cultures. In eastern music especially Iranian music, the performer does not reproduce a written score [1] or pre-composed materials. Improvisation here is a performance in the ‘’ moment’’ and without previous prediction which leads us to the concept of composer-performer.
Although the general literature on improvisation deals largely with the phenomenon in Western classical music and attempts to gain a historical perspective on the role of the process in the performance practice of the past, we can also mention contemporary music practices on improvisation. Indeterminacy composition which was pioneered by Cage was the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways [2].
On the other hand, the definition of music has been changing throughout history. To define music merely as “sounds” would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Gradually throughout the 20th century, all the conventional definitions of music have been exploded by the abundant activities of musicians themselves. Such views were modified drastically in the twentieth century, with

several avant-garde artists interested in the incorporation of less regular sounds into musical compositions. With the huge expansion of non-pitched and a- rhythmic sounds percussion instruments in our orchestras; and use of extended techniques on musical instruments to develop new timbers and sounds; then through the introduction of aleatoric procedures, and finally, in the practices of musique concrete, it becomes possible to insert any sound from the environment into a composition via tape.
Besides using ordinary ensembles and orchestras, composing for objects is a different approach toward orchestration leading to new timbres and textures. Behold the new orchestra: the sonic universe [3]. The composition is usually taken to refer to that creative act of conceiving and organizing the parts or elements which make up the pattern or design of the musical whole. Composers can do this process not only by music instruments but also with every object that reflects satisfactory sounds or even soundscape composition [4]. Gathering the right objects, what composers should do is to create a polyphonic atmosphere by them. In Cage’s 4’33” Silence we hear only the sounds external to the composition itself, which is merely one protracted caesura. Every device that makes it possible to obtain a varied collection of sound objects—or of varying sound objects—while keeping us aware of the permanence of a cause, is a musical instrument, in the traditional sense of an experience common to all civilizations [5]. probing into the sound of the environment, partly, in a manner that can be linked to Cage as well as composer-sound theorist R. Murray Schafer, to encourage us to listen to our everyday environment more attentively; partly to zoom in on the environment and to magnify sounds that we may not otherwise be able to hear.
From the Russolo’s noise-sound reaction against classical tradition music to editing together the concrete sounds of everyday life into sonic montages, and Edgar Varese’s Poeme Electronique, and Cage’s use of performance space to challenge listening habits, sound art has tended to manifest itself as a type of practice that invites people to pay attention to sound in new ways, beyond habitual processing and once again was an organization of sound that questioned the existing boundaries separating music from noise [6].
It is probably time to begin to rethink the idea of improvisation, to see whether it merits consideration as an interactive process, whether it has the integrity as an idea separated from composer’s music, and whether all the things that we now call improvisation are indeed a new way of interaction between composer and audience.
These pages will aim to present, very briefly, some thoughts on the interactive art as a concept and as a process in an attempt of improvisation, then to pose some possibilities of improvisation in sound installations.

Audience as a performer:
Installation art creates a situation into which the viewer physically enters, and insists that you regard this as a singular totality [7]. Installation art, therefore, differs from traditional media (sculpture, painting, photography, video, and music) in that it addresses the viewer directly as a literal presence in the space. Rather than imagining the viewer as a pair of disembodied eyes that survey the work from a distance, installation art presupposes an embodied viewer whose senses of touch, smell and sound are as heightened as their sense of vision. This insistence on the literal presence of the viewer is arguably the key characteristic of installation art. In sound installations, automated musical instruments removed the performer from the performance of music, replacing the instrumentalist with a mechanical and material object. The automated instruments also manifested an exacting clockwork performance, one that could be reproduced again and again without the intervention of human interpretation or error [8]. In this case, the only way to make alterations during a performance is by using the interaction between the audience and sound installation. In making interactive art, the artist goes beyond considerations of how the work will look or sound [9]. The way that it interacts with the audience is a crucial part of its essence. The core of the art is in the work’s behavior more than in any other aspect. This is a technological aspect of the work. It might be just a normal and simple ultrasonic sensor or computer that we are using in our ordinary life, as today, we are often hardly aware of the computers that we use at all. For clarity, I define interactive installations as audio-visual or mechanical kinetic sculptures. And in these circumstances, interactivity is understood as the required physical activity of a viewer. Creating a three-dimensional space in which three values – visual, sonic and time – are required to determine the position of an element.

Music is a time-based media. The impact of music is dependent on the time that the audience spends on it. As a composer who is not its performer, I have to write what I want from the performer very clearly. “One should never forget that notation is the composer’s only means of conveying his ideas to the performers: it must be as explicit as possible. Even if ambiguity or total freedom is intended, the signal for it must be explicit [10].” Even there are some elements and graphics for the indeterminate events in music. But when we are looking to the all graphic signs of music notation, we should consider the hermeneutic of music notation. The possibility of discovery of meaning by a performer from the text. We all know about the ambiguity of music notation which in my opinion, is its advantage. Even at the most accurate elements, we can find another way of understanding by an approach to a text that is empathetic rather than empirically verifiable. Most of the western music composers make their best effort to be as accurate as they can, even by using click track playing to the performer. This action is an obstacle in the way of interaction between a performer and the situation in the concert hall. As a composer who come from an improvised music culture, I have always preferred to make a capability of alteration in my composition during performances. To fulfill a condition of improvisation, I always try to use wide range of possibilities for a performer in my musical score. I allow performers to finish my pieces with their choices. Choices that they make during a performances due to circumstances beyond my control. I cannot control their feelings if they have had a sad day to perform a happiness, or I cannot expect from performers to play slowly if they have had stressful experience before the concert.
Instead of the performer, in sound installations, the computer controls the whole process [11]. Instead of musical instruments, here, we have objects that make a sound. In the absence of a human being as a performer to interpret musical elements as real-time feelings, I found a computer and sensors to capture audience movements as a compiler. In this context, the audience plays the role of a music performer which is to make alterations to musical elements in my sound installations. In interactive installations, we are creating an atmosphere that people can explore their situation and discover how they can create something while they are interacting with musical work. Interactive music frames moving-thinking-feeling as embodiment. In the case of interactive music, however, it will be the audience response to the works behavior that will be of most concern. Audience engagement will not be seen in terms of just how long they look or listen. It will be in terms of what they do, how they develop interactions with the piece and so on. As a composer, I do not make a final, completed piece of music, instead produce an area of activity for the receivers, whose interactive actions bring to life my artwork-event. In making interactive art, the artist goes beyond considerations of how the work will look or sound. The way that it interacts with the audience is a crucial part of its essence. The core of the music is in the work’s behavior more than in any other aspect. The creative practice of the composer who chooses this route is, therefore, quite different from that of pre-composed music, for example.

Creating an audiovisual atmosphere that viewers can interact with it and also have an impact on other viewers’ experiences leads us to be new and original in contemporary interactive art. Juxtapose social interaction with art objects variations according to its history, will make a unique experience for our audiences. Refers to those aspects of a musical performance, improvisation can be made by audience gesture and physical activity to alter in sound pitch, dynamic, and length. As a result of my experiences in interactive object-based sound installations, I notice that contrary to fixed-media and installations that have only a minimalistic approach toward music and merely influenced by huge post romanticism’s musical orchestration [12], improvisation can lead to a first- hand experience of interaction between the audience and music composition. Based on cultural diversity, the outcome of each performance of the piece would be unique and distinctive.



1.   Nettl, Bruno. “Thoughts on Improvisation: A Comparative Approach.” The Musical Quarterly60, no. 1 (1974): 1-19.

2.  Cage, John. 1959. Indeterminacy: New Aspects of Form in Instrumental and Electronic Music. Ninety Stories by John Cage, with Music. John Cage, reading; David Tudor, music (Cage, Solo for Piano from Concert for Piano and Orchestra, with Fontana Mix). Folkways FT 3704 (2 LPs). Reissued 1992 on Smithsonian/Folkways CD DF 40804/5 (2 CDs).

3.   Schafer, R. Murray. The New Soundscape: a Handbook for the Modern Music Teacher. Don Mills, Ont.: BMI Canada, 1969.

4.   Akiyama, Mitchell. “Transparent Listening: Soundscape Composition’s Objects of Study.” RACAR: Revue D’art Canadienne / Canadian Art Review35, no. 1 (2010): 54-62.

5.   Schaeffer, Pierre, Christine North, and John Dack. Treatise on Musical Objects: an Essay across Disciplines. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017.

6.   Sexton, Jamie. Music, Sound and Multimedia: from the Live to the Virtual. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.

7.   Bishop, Claire. Installation Art: a Critical History. New York: Routledge, 2005.

8.   Rose, Ethan. “Translating Transformations: Object-Based Sound Installations.” Leonardo Music Journal23 (2013): 65-69.

9.   Anderson, Stephen P. Seductive Interaction Design: Creating Playful, Fun, and Effective User Experiences. Berkeley, CA: New Riders, 2011.

10.  Stone, Kurt. Music Notation in the Twentieth Century: a Practical Guidebook. New York: W.W. Norton, 1980.

11.   Murphy, Jim, Ajay Kapur, and Dale Carnegie. “Musical Robotics in a Loudspeaker World: Developments in Alternative Approaches to Localization and Spatialization.” Leonardo Music Journal22 (2012): 41-48.

12.   Zimoun



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