Interpretations and Explanations

Actions – an interpretation of Wolff’s 1, 2 or 3 people – Tina Krekels

Performance is an activity or an action taken in a specific environment or situation. Although this might be a crude and reduced statement of what performance is, it will serve the purpose for this project. If one considers the study of Wolff’s score to be a performance in itself then one needs to analyse the process of interpretation to understanding. Meaning, how does the analysis or thorough study of an action score manifest itself as some form of learned vocabulary or tool in order to be reproducible in an improvised performance situation.

The focus of this introduction is the question of how constraints (i.e. an analysis of Wolff’s score) will create a framework of understanding (in terms of embodied action), which can be applicable in improvisation performances. Thinking of ecological-based research especially in improvisation practices then in this case one needs to look at the score as its own eco-system. So similar to when Waters talks about emergence

“Situations in which the behaviours which are afforded cannot be accounted for solely by the designed outcome” [1]

one can define not only the extension of one’s instrument but also the ‘thinking’ (i.e. the action it takes to analyse Wolff) as an act of emergence. This means that the interpretation of Wolff’s score itself will eventually emerge into an understanding that was not given by the score. This is similar to improvisation when seen as a procedural understanding of Self and Other. Hannah Arendt describes her own thinking as something that can only become a process of understanding if an active engagement (i.e. thinking, writing, improvisation) is taken [2].

This means that only through the process of creating or action one understands and comes to an experiential understanding of the tools one uses. So essentially in this case Wolff can be seen as a trigger of a process of understanding, these pre-performance instructions, which can be argued are similar to a learned instrument, will be manifested in our vocabulary and be re-used during a performance. Therefore Wolff (apart from its usual open-score and indeterminate analysis) can be viewed as learning and a process of understanding distinct actions. Essentially we realised that one does not need the score visually displayed, but that the concentration of listening and acting is a vital environment for the learned vocabulary to emerge.

Then the question is how this understanding is manifested within the performer and can be used ‘freely’ within improvisation practices. How is Wolff then still influential to our action taking? How do these constraints and embodied action become part of an ecological performance situation?

Also not forgetting that this particular situation was made for a specific task in mind, this submission, which arguably plays an important role in the evaluation of the process of this particular performance. This certainly shapes the social part of this particular performance and something that should not be neglected. So the fact that this performance has an outcome in mind, might also fit well with the idea of constraint performance and interpretation. This performance certainly wasn’t a free act of musicking, which does not mean that the musical outcome would not be enjoyable, but I would like to state this matter as it is influential.

Generally – at least for myself – improvisation is a practice of instability and the unknown, but as we interpreted Wolff within this performance this instability does not exist as such. We created an already existing ‘environment’ by deciding on learning the instructions as a vocabulary, which was exclusively used in these specific performances. However, constraints within improvisation still offer an engagement with the environment as the actions become somehow precise to the environment, performers and lights. This way of constrained improvisation is also in agreement to Wolff’s score, as the actions taken are always in relation to attentive listening to space, people and lights. Further, this attentive listening heightens the action taking and makes them part of a unified situation.


[1]  Waters, S. “Performance Ecosystems: Ecological approaches to musical interaction.” EMS: Electroacoustic Music Studies Network

[2] Arendt, Hannah. “Denken ohne Geländer. Texte und Briefe”. München: Piper, 2013. p. 11.


Critical Reflection – Cameron MacNair

As we are finishing the first submission for the Action Sound project, it is clear that we need to work on our group’s communication and organization. These factors have impacted our development and documentation standard. There are considerations we can make in order to progress to our final submission more efficiently.

A practical example of how I could have improved my organization is with the Max patches that control the DMX lights. After many revisions of the same control system, it is necessary to have a clearly defined file directory with thorough documentation. This will allow the mapping and rehearsal processes to progress smoothly and with a better outcome. I will spend more time and energy into this process, compartmentalizing the mapping modules, control system, and external resources.

Our documentation needs a critical process in order to help us save time, become familiar with our content, and back everything up. All of our video files, photography, recordings, and written documentation need to be labelled clearly, backed up on several hard drives, and accessible to all group members. This was a huge issue for our first submission, we could have avoided spending hours making up for our lack of organization. This will also dramatically affect our final product by allowing disambiguation between the group’s discussions, expectations, and practice.

Up until recently, our ideas and concepts have been vague. This is not a fault by any member in particular, but it is a dynamic that needs to be controlled in any collaborative work. In order to become more efficient (and allow ourselves the appropriate time and energy) we need to break down our ideas into concrete examples and formal presentations. Mentioning an idea in a discussion is one thing, presenting a formal prototype is another. If we can engage our second submission with formal and concrete resources, our expectations and workflow will benefit.


Action Scores: Philosophical Presumptions, Impulse Flow and Triggering Actions – Daniele Martella

 Philosophical presumptions and their impact on the boundaries between noise and music

 ‘I understand now that boundaries between noise and sound are conventions. All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended.’ Robert Forbisher  (Tykwer/Wachowski/Wachwoski, 2012)

The most basic lexicons of music distinguish music and noise on the basis of a relation to abstract structures. For instance, a tone, which is one fundamental entity of music, consists of periodic sine oscillations, whereas noise is defined as being non-periodic. Furthermore, music is more often related to harmony, which means that frequency ratios of two or more tones mostly comprise of relatively simple fractions (Michels, 2012: 17).

Bildschirmfoto 2014-02-28 um 02.40.50

The musicologist Eric F. Clarke however undermines this classic distinction by the introduction of a concept that expands James Gibson’s ecological theory of perception of music and meaning. In his introduction he writes:


‘Musical sounds inhabit the same world as other sounds, and while the majority of writing on music, and music perception, has tended to cordon off music from the rest of the acoustical environment, it is self evident that we listen to the sounds of music with the same perceptual system that we use for all sound.’ (Clarke, 2005: 4)

Bildschirmfoto 2014-02-28 um 02.40.57This does not exclude the fact that complex and abstract psychoacoustic schemes that are related to form, tonality, scale systems etc. would not have an influence on the categorisation of meaning within our mind. The fact that we perceive music and noise with the same auditory system narrows the field in these categories. Because our mind is already categorised and structured in a certain way (schemes!), it will automatically assign meaning to abstract and complex sounds.  Besides this, abstract mental schemes and their inherent structures are not purely a product of an isolated human mind (comparable to Kant’s apriori schemes). It is the environment that provides structure already (such as pitch, gain etc.).

Clarke furthermore states that perception is not a passive or purely contemplative process, but rather an event that is guided by action and interest (Clarke 2005: 15).  Human beings have an interest in exploring the environment, which is why they are constantly seeking for stimulations that can help them providing specific information.Bildschirmfoto 2014-02-28 um 02.41.03 They interact (connoted with the word ‘resonance’) with the environment and thereby adapt to certain constellations in order to understand better the source of an impulse or generally said, the constantly changing environment (Clarke, 2005: 19; 20). At the same time human beings influence their world of perception in order to


sustain (…) existing behaviours and to make new behaviours possible. This mutual adaption between human beings and their (musical) environment is neither reducible to conventional evolutionary principles, nor is it independent of them: culture and biology are tangled together in complex ways, but nonetheless constitute a single connected system.’ (Clarke, 2005: 22)

With regard to Clarke, as a group we do believe that also the distinction between noise and music is based on a certain mental adaption. On an abstract level it predetermines the way we actively follow certain impulses but also pre-assigns different categories of sound, and thereby subtly selects what we subjectively perceive. This circumstance, as Clarke states, does not only have biological but also cultural reason and is, therefore, not only represented in our behaviour or in our psyche, but also in the places, where we perceive sound and music in a social context. Bildschirmfoto 2014-02-28 um 02.41.11The photograph shows the “Opera Frankfurt”. The architecture of this space is designed to focus on the spectacle, which will be located on the stage. Background noises that derive from movements of the audience’s bodies thereby become “invisible”. As perception is an active process that is also rooted in attention and concentration it also gets inaudible. The distinction between music and noise thereby subtly becomes a perceptual convention.

In sum, for our attempt to interpret Wolff’s action score, two things are relevant: Firstly, the distinction between music and noise has no physical legitimisation because they are both perceivable with the same human senses and they are both part of the same physical world (although they do have certain physical and structural characteristics). Secondly, cultural and social behaviours – for example manifested in the architecture of concert hall – support that differentiation. As a result we acknowledge that the boundaries between music and noise are arbitrary.

 Christian Wolff’s Score

 Before dealing with our final submission, we were given a composition by Christian Wolff. In comparison to classical scores, this one differs, as it is not based on a clearly defined and classical musical order of its entities. Instead, it emphasises more the creation and the use of aural impulses that derive from other players and their subjective interpretation of abstract symbols. Those symbols are explained to a certain amount, but they leave a lot of freedom to the players. Besides unusual creations of sound, the score provides a specific interaction system: the input of each player is determined by the output of every other player. However, not only the player can be the cause of an impulse; randomly created background noises – this is where the connection to Clarke becomes clear – can also function as impulse generators, because they are part of the same aural and world. We do not have that clear distinction between noise and music anymore, which we had in the concert hall example. The room and its related noises become part of the performance.

Own experiences within the group

The emphasis on a strong interaction with other players and with the environment was a new experience for some of the players for a couple of reasons. Firstly, like I stated before, in comparison to classical scores, the interpretation of Wolff’s symbol provided freedom in a much bigger sense. In classical scores symbols are usually clearly defined. Definitions like ‘a high note in some manner’, for instance did not provide a clear instruction and were the reason for some disorientation. Secondly, we had to learn to listen to what was happening around us in a very specific way. As we – the players – are products of the cultural differentiation between music and noise as well, we had to develop sensitiveness towards our environment and the noises that it produces. These noises had to be integrated in a network-like trigger and noise array, which was complicated in the beginning, because not everyone was able to focus on the same environmental impulses. That experience, in my opinion, confirms again the existence of certain perceptual patterns that are by no means inter-subjectively standardized, but still relying on habitual action and concentration schemes.

 Algorithmic visualisation of sound

 In order to somehow rely on Wolff’s ideas, but still expand them in our own creative way, we were thinking about implementing another signal that can both function as an impulse generator and as a product of the given sounds: Synchronic Light.

The synchronic connection between noise and visuals (that are based on light) has a long tradition that goes back to the Avant-garde of abstract filmmakers from the 1920s. Pioneers, such Walter Ruttman (Light-Play Opus I-IV) and Oskar Fischinger are only two persons that envisioned the aesthetic compatibility of light and music. The gap between these two however needs to be filled by an interpretatively reasonable copula.

Although Emons (2011: 11) is referring to a more abstract link between those entities here, the connective possibilities that derive from technological developments allow us to algorithmically link the produced sound (especially its gain) directly to certain characteristics of light. This light again can be seen as an entity within a network-like sender-receiver model.


Emons, H. (2011) Für Auge und Ohr. Musik als Film oder die Verwandlung von Komposition ins Licht-Spiel, Leipzig: Frank & Timme.

Michels, U. (2012) Dtv-Atlas Musik . Systematischer Teil. Musikgeschichte von den Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart, Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuchverlag.

Tykwer, T. / Wachowski, A. / Wachowski, L. (Dir.) (2012) Cloud Atlas, X-Filme Creative Pool.

Clarke, E. F. (2005) Ways of listening: An ecological approach to the perception of musical meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.