Sound-based Composition

In sound-based composition, sound replaces the musical note as the fundamental structural unit. Sound is the main form-bearing musical element. It is important to emphasize first the significance of a single sound only, and then its relationship with two or more sounds. Notes are abandoned in favor of delicately carved gestures, warm fizzing sounds, forcefully distorted sonorous variants and instrumental acoustic experimentations. The functionality of the diatonic interval, harmony, motive and melody ceases to exist. Instead, it reconsiders and reevaluates those proposing gestures, figures, textures, articulations, postures, symbolisms, and degrees of energy often grouped into a single composite sonic entity. The notion of the thematic idea seeks solutions in sound objects with distinctive atmosphere, motion, mood, context and timbre.

Sound composition develops and manipulates the morphoplastic attributes of the sound object to a great extent. An ‘Ecriture du Son’ is based on sound-to-sound structures, on transformation strategies from one to another, on functional classification sound modes, as well as holophonic textures of fused-ensemble timbres.

The musician should focus on the making (not playing) and controlling of a single sound and then transforming it into another. This is somewhat different from the ‘note-based music’, whereas most of the time a note by itself has no meaning, but only in relationship with others. Sound-based composition requires a different type of virtuosity, a virtuosity of sound, a concentration not on the accurate rhythmic motives at the exact tempo and intonation, but rather on the minutiae details of each and every sound. It demands the precise production of variable sound possibilities and the clear distinction between one timbre and another to convey the musical ideas and the structure of the piece.


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Listening Sound Composition

To appreciate a sound composition, the listening experience should transcend to a rather interpretative and multidimensional level. The gestures of the performer, the movements, the figures and the postures, while he/she produces sounds, all together provide to the listener, the performer and the composer alike a valuable source of information for a better understanding and appreciation of the work.

The way a sound is produced becomes an integral part of the sound, the compositional idea and the structure of the piece. This insightful way of listening provides a unique focus to the audience and engages them to an even deeper connection and participation with the performer and the music.

The movements a musician makes to produce the sound are not disconnected with the sound, are not the reason for the sound, but are in fact the sound all together. In ‘Acousmatic’ terms, a violin cadenza could potentially be described as a bouncing back and forth motion of the bow which transforms into arotation that slowly dissipates towards the higher partials as a helix. Energy, movement and timbre become one. Sound source identification, cause guessing, sound energies, gesture decoding, and extra-musical connotations are not independent of the sound, but are vital internal components of it.

Parncutt writes, ‘performers’ perceptions of timbre cannot be separated/disassociated from their perception of the gestures used to achieve it.’ Lachenmann says ‘you hear the conditions under which a sound or noise-action is carried out, you hear what materials and energies are involved and what resistance is encountered.’


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Performing Sound

In sound composition, the relationship between performer and instrument is deliberated upon from the limitations of the traditional classical constraints of “idiomatic” playing or writing. When performing sound, one explores sound possibilities of the instrument beyond its classic sound. It establishes a musical culture where traditional instrumental training in the west has been forgotten or ignored. The classical instrument is challenged out of its long historical context, its repertoire and its traditional training methods. In order for a performer to touch the essence of sound composition, one should totally deliberate oneself from the past and completely redefine the relationship between performer/instrument, present/past, right/wrong, beautiful/ugly, stable/unstable, predictable/unpredictable.

The default sound of each instrument, which usually is the ideal homogeneous, rich and stable sound, is not excluded from the pallet. However, it is simply a sound among the numerous ones an instrument can produce. To this extent, a number of questions arises which seeks answers. The answers may not be universal or standardized, but they will certainly be suitable for a particular composition:

  • How do I play an acoustic instrument?
  • Where do I touch, hit, strum, hummer, press, strike, blow, tap, bow or scratch an instrument?
  • What is the sound this instrument is supposed to produce?
  • How many sounds can one instrument produce?
  • What is the ‘right’ position, posture or way to play it?
  • What is the suitable position to play this particular group of sounds?
  • Do I need a bow, how should I hold it, how do I use a bow to make sound and how much tension should I use to set the bow hairs?
  • How much tension can I give to the strings and in what order?
  • How much can I develop the virtuosity of this sound?
  • How much time do I need to practice in order to reach a high level of virtuosity for this sound?
  • How can I produce an expressive, musical sound?

When performing sound, there is no single answer to all of the above questions and many more, but all the possibilities are equally open. There are as many answers as each composition demands. In one piece, the violin may not be a bowed instrument or in another piece, the classical guitar may not be a plucked instrument. Furthermore, the guitar could be coupled with the use of ‘unconventional’ objects, such as brass or glass slides, metal sticks or brushes or could be tuned fourteen semitones down, in order to obtain better control, development and transformation of this particular sound.

Performing sound emphasizes the production of sound ecologies, where unstable acoustic systems, musicians and musical notation interact in real performance. The consequences of a single simple choice, that of the use of sound as the main form-bearing element, are vast and unpredictable. They go as deep as the fundamentals of music and challenge every aspect of music making, performing and listening.


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Timbre Techniques

This project proposes the use of the term Timbre Techniques, as opposed to the commonly used Extended Techniques. “I consider the so-called Extended techniques somewhat obsolete and confusing in our days”, wrote Henry Cowell in 1969, although he continued by calling them “unconventional playing techniques”. This is an improved term and less reactionary, clumsy, and disorientating than “extended techniques”.

So, what does the word ‘extended’ really mean? According to the Longamn Dictionary of Contemporary English, the word ‘extended’ is defined as:
– Made longer or bigger
– Long or longer than expected or planned
– Long and detailed

Apparently, none of the above descriptions is not even close to how extended techniques are used in the new music world. So, why bother using it? Moreover, this word creates a real confusion when it comes to translation. It makes no sense in most languages.

The term ‘timbre techniques’ is proposed because the focus is on the sound itself, as well as on all the sound possibilities an instrument can potentially produce, all weighted on a deliberately equal basis. Apparently, you need a technique to produce a sound, but not necessarily a difficult and awkward extended technique as the term suggests. The word ‘extended’ implies something difficult, unnatural, even negative, which is not true. Many of these techniques are particularly simple and straightforward in their production, although not common.

Timbre techniques may imply complex behaviors of instrumental sounds deployed to lead the listener and performer beyond the actual sound itself. The deliberation to all sound possibilities an instrument can produce makes the term obsolete, as the exception becomes the rule. The ‘ordinary’ standard sound is now equal among all other possibilities. Therefore, the contrasting relationship of the ‘ordinary way of playing’ has no meaning against the non-ordinary. In other words, there is no need for any distinction to be made between the extended techniques against the non-extended or the ‘ordinary’, classical way of playing.


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The project’s ensemble consists of musicians who may or may not have a completely traditional conservatoire type of training. It is necessary though, to be able to read new music scores and interpret the various notational symbols and instructions. There is a continuing search for new ways of playing acoustic instruments and a continuous experimentation with new sounds.

On the one hand, there are no compromises in terms of the instrument’s safety and care issues. On the other hand, there is no need to use a rare and expensive instrument. The good instruments are optimized for the classical ordinary sound. They have been designed to perfectly serve these attributes and must be kept as such. The use of inexpensive instruments is fully recommended and encouraged as there should be no barriers between performer and instrument whatsoever. The instrument should be open to mutation, hybridization, the use of found or constructed objects, the preparation in favor of mutating, including sometimes teetering and exploding sound complexes. Distortion noise and violence may become an intention with a musical scope.

Slight timbre differences or similarities are delicately mixed, transforming the ensemble to a single-timbre instrument or segregating it apart. Only the precise control, production and comprehension of each sound reveal its potential and its structural role.

There are no geographical limitations because the project’s idea is to develop a viable model for internet-based collaboration. The musicians don’t need to meet, rehearse and perform at a specific place, but only play through the internet in real time or deliver recorded tracks for post-production. As a result:

  • The rehearsals and recordings may take place on a one-to-one basis.
  • Concerts, when agreed upon, will only occur online with the use of accessible, yet sophisticated tools.
  • Round tables or workshops on given topics will be webcasted online.

The project deals with all of the three main stages of music: composition, performance and listening. Each of these stages has its own group of individuals involved: composer, performer, audience. Normally, each of the stages will take place in a different space. The composer in his composition studio, possibly in front of his/her home desk, the performer in his rehearsal room and the audience in the concert hall. However, this model is different from its third stage because the common ground is the internet.

Activity Group Space Cyberspace
Composition Composer Studio Homeroom
Performance Performer Rehearsal Room Homeroom
Listening Audience Concert Hall On-line mix from homeroom

Electronics, both fixed and live, are often part of the ensemble’s repertoire. In addition, they are also used in a way that do not process or drastically change the acoustic source sound, but only augment its character in the form of sound reinforcement, dynamic effect processors, and/or reverberation, delay, etc. The use of amplification is not aimed to make the instrument sound louder, but rather to reveal its softer qualities and sonorities. Often, the score requires a superficial amplification, which results in the loss of the neutrality of the classical known instrumental sound. However, it is this microscopic point of view which makes it possible to turn forgotten instrumental sonorities into new sonic territories for the instrument. In addition, dynamic processors compress level differences in a way that piano and forte sounds are mostly defined by their timbre.


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Panayiotis Kokoras