‘No sounds but in things’: Composing from Materiality

Scott Mc Laughlin

Continuing our theme of 'Irish Composers on Irish Music', SCOTT MCLAUGHLIN introduces us to his current compositional research, exploring the indeterminacy of the harmonic series, and how each instrument's harmonic spectrum can itself direct the course of the exploration.


Since 2010 I’ve mined a single idea obsessively, composing at the intersection of materiality and indeterminacy (more on those in a minute). It’s a wonderfully rich seam of ideas that keeps on giving, with each new piece opening new perspectives. Composition is also my research practice as an academic, so this seam allows me a focussed research angle that remains constantly open to new directions and contingent on practice, but with each new iteration acting as a commentary and development on the last. This article is a whistle-stop tour of materiality and indeterminacy through my compositions.

For an overview of spectral terms used in the article, see Anna-Maria Hefele’s wonderful explanation of polyphonic overtone singing here:

The Materiality of Instruments


Before I look at my own pieces, a brief contextualisation of those terms. Materiality is a focus on how the specific physical material of a sounding object behaves in performance. Often this is in relation with a human performer, so we can speak of both the human agency of the performer playing the instrument (making conscious choices about how to direct energy into the instrument), but also the material agency of the instrument responding to that input. Material is not neutral. As Bruno Latour says, “in order to enrol a force we must conspire with it. It can never be punched out like sheet metal or poured as in a cast”. For me, this involves treating instruments cartographically, as an open-ended map of possible sound states, and working with the areas of the instrument that offer the greatest possibility for material agency. This is usually some aspect of the instrument where sound production is somewhat unstable; not so unstable as to be random, but also not entirely controllable. As in the strange attractor, where behaviour can be globally predictable but, from moment to moment, be locally unknowable. At the simplest level, this usually means that decisions about pitch/duration are often outside my immediate control because they depend on the instrument: not just the type of instrument but also the specific instrument, so two different violins could result in different version of the piece, or even the same violin but in a different space or on a different day. Contingency is foregrounded in these pieces.


This bring us to indeterminacy, which for me is a contingency in performance, a reliance on the instrument to make some choices. This indeterminacy is best compared to a Markov-chain, wherein a set of elements each has a set probability of happening. However, unlike an abstract Markov chain, an instrument is not memory-less and has infinitely many possible states, but the highest likelihoods fall generally within a small set of possibilities: a clarinet multiphonic has several pitches that are very likely to be strongly perceivable, and many others that may only be perceivable on rare occasions. It’s important to note though that the set of lower-likelihood outcomes is imperative here to allow the compositions to be truly open-ended.


The upcoming examples of my own practice will make this more clear, but similar thinking can also be read in the works of a variety of composers such as Alvin Lucier (I am sitting in a room, music for cello and one or more amplified vases), Nicolas Collins (Pea Soup), John Butcher’s saxophone and feedback improvisations, Matt Wright (Contact Theatre), John Lely (The Harmonics of Real Strings), Eliane Radigue (Naldjorlak), Patricia Alessandrini (Adagio sans Quatuor), David Fennessy (crying on the inside, laughing on the outside), and others. Outside of music, it’s worth looking at artists such as Andy Goldsworthy and David Nash, while the theoretical background to my particular reading of materiality comes from philosophers such as Andrew Pickering (The Mangle of Practice), Karen Barad (Meeting the Universe Halfway), as well as writings by Tim Ingold, Deleuze and Guattari, and Bruno Latour.


Her Manner of Operation”: The Background to My Current Work

“For the uninitiated, spectral listening to sound involves

listening 'inside' the sound to hear its structure..."

For more background on this subject, including a brief explanation

of the harmonic series, see Scott's blog post on Spectral Listening.


I should also preface this with some brief history of this idea in my practice. From 2005–2009 I studied at University of Huddersfield for a PhD, focussing the project on indeterminacy. I was especially interested in non-metaphorical applications of chaos theory to music, taking as my touchstone John Cage’s dictum that “it is the artist’s duty to imitate in his work not the appearance of nature, but her manner of operation”.1 This entailed a close artistic examination of the behaviours of phenomena such as strange attractors and cellular automata, and trying to find performative analogues for these behaviours that were more than simply imitation/metaphor but actually carried something of the mechanism into musical relationships. See my older pieces such as Lorenz (2008) for strings, which attempted to translate the strange attractor into a game-piece for listening and pitch-matching within constraints, or Whitewater (2007) for saxophone and live electronics, which mapped the partials of multiphonics onto a cellular-automata in a real-time feedback loop with the performer.


From there, I found myself more and more thinking about listening and responding to the instrument, and asking how I could compose autopoetic pieces where the music keeps evolving without new creative input: i.e. no new material, simply letting the music vary as it is ‘mangled’ by human and material agency, infinitely extending without getting larger (See Figure 1). My work with cellular automata was a very strong influence here, and I was fascinated by the ever-changing but never expanding forms evident in something like Conway’s Game of Life. This idea of the strange attractor, the loop of instrument-responding-to-player-responding-to-instrument, started to make me think more about the agency of the instrument, and how the player could respond directly to the instrument. Around this time I discovered the philosophy of Speculative Realism (Object-Oriented Ontology), and then the work of philosopher of science Andrew Pickering, which was crucial in allowing me to extend my thinking into contingency and decentred practices.


The beauty of this research process has been watching how the idea spreads from instrument family to family, opening itself each time, recursively enriching the whole project.


Figure 1. Koch Snowflake’s edge becomes infinitely longer without increasing the area


Neither the Whole Nor the Parts: Composing with Materiality and Indeterminacy


Initially there was the set of pieces called there are neither wholes nor parts (hereafter NWNP) for multiphonics on clarinets and saxophones. The performer explores the multiphonic, trying to maintain a single stable pitch across different fingerings and multiphonics, listening and responding as they explore. The notation crystalised in NWNP-II, with gestures notated (the gestures were arrangements of (a) single pitches/partials, (b) ‘ghost’ multiphonics, and (c) full-bloom multiphonics), but also with the addition of instructions to repeat each gesture a number of times using a set number of different fingerings (see Figure 2). This acts against the primary instruction to maintain the same pitch, thus creating a complex set of interactions between human and material agency as both struggle to balance conflicting imperatives. Several versions of this piece were completed, working with saxophonist Iain Harrison and clarinettist Jonathan Sage. Single-reed instruments offered the necessary inharmonic richness in their multiphonics to allow a wide range of harmony, and also the flexibility of sound production to allow different partials to be isolated within the sound complexes. In these pieces, each multiphonic fingering is treated as a universe in itself, with an open set of harmonic possibilities that can vary non-linearly depending on performance variables such as breath pressure, embouchure, vocal-tract tuning etc.


Listen here to a comparison of the end of NWNP-II played by Jon Sage, on Bb clarinet and bassett horn respectively.


Figure 2. NWNP-II sketch notation


The final version of the piece NWNP-III was for tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, played by Duo Hevans (Ann Eleri Evans and Henri Bok). In the duet version it was possible to analogise the classic dictum of chaos theory, its ‘sensitivity to initial differences’. Both instruments start on the same sustained pitch but the materiality of the different instruments pulls them inexorably apart as the score demands they vary fingerings, which inevitably introduces pitch differences and bifurcations.


 Figure 3. NWNP-III score extract


While the NWNP pieces were initially written for multiphonics on any wind instrument, I had to give up on the winds that weren’t single-reed because they didn’t fit the requirements (though I’m open to trying them again if anyone’s game). Double-reeds seemed too inflexible. The multiphonics are always ‘whole’ because the system needs too much energy to kick it into life, so the possible bifurcation points never appear: oboe multiphonics are generally either on or off. Flutes seem to be too simple a system, and too unstable. After going through the 1000+ multiphonics in Karin Levine’s book, I found only a handful that weren’t simply mistuned harmonic spectra—mostly mistuned octaves and 12ths—which just didn’t offer enough possibility for connection between objects.


Resonant Systems


Alongside working with wind multiphonics I was exploring ways to make my cello more inharmonic. As an experiment, I tried attaching a small splash cymbal to the bridge, hoping the cello would excite sympathetic resonances in the cymbal and reveal unusual harmonies. This didn’t work…but in the process of working out what harmonies were possible in a cymbal I used a basic piezo transducer to excite the cymbal with sine waves and discovered that at certain frequencies the cymbal exploded into life. I got my hands on a more powerful transducer and starting experimenting in earnest, which resulted in the set of pieces called Resonant Systems. Here the performer explores the resonances of a cymbal using sine waves like a probe. When the sine excites a resonant frequency at the right amplitude then it can excite a whole set of related inharmonic frequencies, forming a cymbal multiphonic. Because of the large amount of vibrational modes of a circular cymbal, there are multiple overlapping spectra, and high frequencies will often be close to the harmonics of several different modes. In performance it can take a while to find a resonant frequency, but often then it takes only the tiniest movement (often less than 1Hz) to shift the harmony onto a new mode. This process is truly performative because the cymbal system is hysteretic, the amplitude and frequency of the sine wave must be carefully ‘surfed’ to keep the metastable harmony balanced in place, and avoid the cymbal overloading into completely chaotic vibration. More background on that project can be found on my website.


Listen to a live recording of Resonant Systems on Scott's Bandcamp page.


Exploring the Harmonic Spectra of Open Strings


After the rich inharmonic spectra of clarinets and cymbals, I was surprised to find myself turning to string instruments. This was the joint influence of having a cello at home to experiment on, and working with wonderful players; Quatuor Bozzini, and most crucially Mira Benjamin (violin). Previously, strings hadn’t been interesting to me because they lacked the rich inharmonic spectra I’d been working with: strings have a relatively predictable harmonic spectrum. However, through experimentation I found that it was possible to have both the spectral ambiguity I was looking for, and a very interesting form of indeterminacy. Working on the string quartet a metastable harmony (2012), I found that slow and gentle drone bowing sul pont on open strings allows the string fundamental to collapse and reveal instead one or more higher partials: it can be difficult to control specifically which partial comes out, but bow-position definitely plays a role. The string spectrum moves from being whole (single percept of the fundamental) to something more bell-like where partials become audible as objects in themselves, often subtly shifting and overlaid against each other, fluctuating between single and multiple percepts.


See a short video demonstration of open string harmonics here:


What I enjoyed about this was that the specific partials that the string tended to favour were changeable, but weighted. For example, a given string might tend to favour the 5th and 7th partials, but occasionally a different partial would become more prominent. This seemed to be largely unpredictable in the same way as the multiphonics described for NWNP, and differed for every string. The technique was not completely arbitrary, the player could influence (though not strictly control) the pitch choice through various bowing changes of weight/speed/position. For a metastable harmony I notated this using what I called an ‘effort’ stave which indicated how far into the indeterminacy the player should push. The lowest level indicates the easiest partial, the one that comes out with minimal effort, while the higher levels of the stave ask the player to seek increasingly less-likely partials: of course higher levels of the stave become increasingly subjective since the player can’t know what the limits are until they cross them.


 Figure 4. The ‘effort stave’ in a metastable harmony


What was more interesting, and found its way into the solo cello piece intra-actions (2013), was that detuning the string changed the preference for weighting of partials: obviously the specific pitch of the partials would change due to tuning, but also the string’s ‘preference’ for which partials can be isolated. A landscape metaphor is appropriate here, wherein each string presents a different arrangement of a familiar terrain to explore, and retuning the string then alters this arrangement, resetting it. In this piece I continued the structural listening and pitch-matching from the NWNP set where the player structures the piece by revealing a pitch indeterminately, then uses that as a target to find the next stable sound. Here, the player uses the stable cello partial as a reference point for the next string, while the previous string is arbitrarily detuned in real-time.



 Figure 5. model of performance decisions in intra-actions


Intra-actions tried to import the listening and pitch-matching from NWNP, which was partially successful, but this worked better with The Endless Mobility of Listening for violin and live electronics. This piece is based on the same string technique of drone-bowing on open strings to reveal upper partials, with the listening aspect now shifted to using a footswitch to trigger the electronics to ‘capture’ the current partial. The electronics infinitely sustain the briefly isolated partials in an ever-growing ‘tapestry’ of harmony as the detuning changes the environment. Endless… was developed with violinist Mira Benjamin, a good friend and fiercely dedicated collaborator. Initially we planned for a 10–15 minute piece, but it soon became clear that this should be a concert-length work or an installation. The extended duration is a consequence of the indeterminacy and the type of listening required. Echoing anthropologist Tim Ingold’s writings on materiality, in this piece Mira works ‘with’ the string, its material predilections, to encourage material agency. This requires that Mira take her time, listening inside the string and gently coaxing different partials into emergence. Similar to intra-actions, she works to allow partials to emerge, but here there’s a fixed point to aim for, the pitch B5 (5th partial of G-string), the anchor point for the whole piece. Each successive section of the piece detunes a string to a new fundamental that has a B somewhere in its series, so a B partial is always possible, but at different levels of likelihood. I should clarify here a vital but somewhat subtle point. The objective is not to play the B5 (to do that, she would simply play that harmonic), but to use the B5 as a distant point to aim for, a structuring intention. Knowing that any partial that emerges confidently is a worthy addition to the piece, but that any emergent partial will have some distant or close relationship to the B5, and this emerging network of relationships structures the piece. The B5 acts as a filter on the performance, guiding Mira’s choices about when to move on to explore a new fundamental. To structure the long periods of revealing, which make up much of the piece, each detuning is preceded by a short chorale of double-stopped harmonics, explicitly connecting the harmonic worlds of the previous and upcoming strings.


See a short concert performance of The Endless Mobility of Listening here:


 Figure 6. Sections in Endless… ordered by detunings to new fundamentals with a B partial.
(The B partials on each string are numbered using the degree symbol, e.g. 5°.
The re-tuning of each string is indicated using the name of the pitch, and the number of cents by which it is tuned sharp or flat, e.g. F+36)


Upcoming Work


Since these pieces were done, I’ve moved on to a new technique of using preparations on string instruments to make the string spectrum inharmonic. The bowing techniques used in the pieces above have transferred onto the prepared strings in a wonderful and wholly unpredictable way. Different bow positions along the prepared string give completely different filterings of the spectrum. Where the unprepared strings would collapse into a single partial, or maybe an unstable multiphonic, the prepared strings are much more likely to default to a multiphonic sound, with many possible versions of this along the string, as well as single partials. I am currently working on several new works in the next year which focus on this technique. The first of these is a new piece for the Manon Quartet in London on May 6th as part of the 840 concert series. https://www.facebook.com/events/236332820103945/


Scott McLaughlin is an Irish composer and improviser teaching composition and music-technology at the University of Leeds.

Scores and recordings of most of his pieces mentioned below can be found on his website at http://lutins.co.uk/works.html



John Cage, cited in Nakai, Y. ‘How to Imitate Nature in Her Manner of Operation: Between What John Cage Did and What He Said He Did’, Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 52, No. 3 (Autumn 2014), pp. 141-160