MUSICWORKS37: THE CANADIAN JOURNAL OF SOUND EXPLORATION. WINTER 1987. MECHANICAL DISTURBANCES, ESPECIALLY IN AIR. Published by The Music Gallery, 1087 Queen Street West, Toronto, Canada M6J 1H3. copyright 2093w


"Free improvisation is a form of composition. But I dislike the term 'free improvisation' because it's not all that free, as I will discuss later. So I use the term 'real time' composition to describe my musical practice, a term which acknowledges the compositional aspect of free improvisation. My background and training is in composition, so it has always been my attitude that this form of improvisation is composition--in its purest form. But real time composition is not just an intellectual exercise; rather it is a performance practice involving the design and construction of instruments specifically suited to improvisation. As such, I compose/perform and build my own instruments.

In 1975 while a graduate composition student at UCSD, I started an improvisation group called the ID Project. My written music had become more and more improvisatory, so I finally decided to stop writing music altogether and put my complete attention into the most basic, essential form of music making I could imagine; free improvisation using found objects with musicians and non-musicians (the ID Project). I also made an extensive review of the literature on improvisation throughout the history of western music, and in some traditional non- western practices, to gain a better understanding of the many diverse forms and styles of improvisation, and a historical perspective about what I, and others, are doing. Since that time, I have evolved my performance practice and instrumentation, performing with various other musicians in the Bay Area, some of whom also make their own instruments.

I have come to realize that my instruments are key to my musical thinking and are an essential element of my compositional aesthetic. But before discussing the instruments, I would like to describe more about real time composition. REAL TIME COMPOSITION

I speak of real time composition in terms of elements or levels of "influence" because the performer/composer is continually and constantly influenced during performance, and on several levels. Not a moment goes by in so-called "free" improvisation that the performer is not articulating the outcome of multiple influential forces.

It's not so hard to imagine, is it? The body, the musical ear, the conscious mind, and the instrument itself all contribute to force the performer/composer to do exactly what he/she does each moment. As soon as information has gone out, it comes right back in. This immediate and constant feedback loop allows the body, ear, mind and instrument to work together to form the musical composition in real time. In addition to these four influential elements, I would add a fifth: real time itself, the actual experience. Let's consider these influences for a moment.

The 'ear' (musical taste/preferences) determines, first the general style of the music, and second, during performance, the nature of phrasing (emotional responses to the moment)). The 'instrument' provides the musical environment or context within which the performer composes, and thus exerts concrete, logical or semi-logical influences. The 'body' exerts physiological influences through the formation of patterns and habits. The 'mind' exerts its influence in the form of abstract compositional techniques such as those used in written composition. And 'real time' provides what I call the "phenomenologic" influence--an interaction of chance with all of the other levels of influence. Each of these levels has an inherent logic; each is a 'system' of sorts, with its own interconnectedness, and its own means of shaping the outcome of the performance. These influences do not occur individually, but rather in combination at every moment of the composition/performance. Some are conscious and some are subconscious. But all are operative in any given real time composition.

In addition to those just mentioned, there is another element of influence which cannot be overlooked. In group improvisation, the other musicians exert perhaps the most acute and dynamic influence on an improvisor. Each performer is 'composing', adding his/her set of personal influences; thus, the forces involved in shaping real time composition are increased exponentially with the addition of each improvisor.

Real time composition is a skill and an art; in order to develop it, one must be self-critical. As most other improvisors probably do, I make tape recordings, play them back and critique my work. I listen for clarity of idea, quality (degree of interest) of the sound event, musical phrasing, depth (how well an identity is explored), timing (when to change) and larger sense of form, continuity through skilled transitions, consistency of style and concept, and how well I played the instrument.

I often imagine how nice it would be if someone developed the hardware and software necessary to precisely graphically transcribe any sound, and thus give us a 'picture' of the forms and structures of real time composition. This would be no simple task, but such a 'literature' would be fascinating not only to composers, but to psychologists, psychoacousticians, educators, and other professionals interested in forms of human communication and thought.


Of all the elements/levels of influence, the instrument is the most concrete, static and conscious. Therefore, I have always designed and built my instruments specifically for real time composition. And what characterizes such instruments? It is a balance between "known' and "unknown". This sets up a dynamic interaction between the improviser and the instruments, each 'making suggestions' to the other during the improvisation. Creating predictability in an instrument implies a rational, logical system--e.g., one based on tonal centers or sequences. Creating unpredictability implies non-systematic elements--e.g., random pitch sequences, or sounding devices with irrational harmonics or other properties. This dynamic known/unknown in an instrument is what I call "personality".

Over the last several years, I have developed two kinds of instruments with "personality", "Space Plates" and "Electroacoustic Percussion Boards".


A Space Plate (eg. the "Crustacean" and the "Fleur d'Esprit") consists of a stainless steel or steel plate with various length and diameter bronze rods brazed to one surface; the instrument is played by bowing and striking the rods. The plate is suspended on inflated toy balloons in small cardboard paint buckets. The idea of the bowed rods was suggested by the "Waterphone", an instruments invented (and patented) by Richard Waters of Sebastapol, California. The idea of the balloon- suspended plate came from Prent Rodgers, a fellow musician with whom I worked in San Diego, who has also invented several original instruments.

Space Plates are extremely resonant instruments for two reasons: the plate is allowed to vibrate freely because of the elasticity of the balloon membranes, and the rods provide sympathetic resonance. Each rod is capable of producing one or more of several tones depending on the size of the rod and how it is bowed (point along the rod, bow pressure, bow speed). the tone(s) a rod produces in a single bow stroke can sustain as long as 20 seconds. Because of this, Space Plates are more harmonic than melodic.

Any given rod will more readily sound the one of its tones which is most sympathetic to the tone(s) already sounding in the plate. Because of this, the instrument tends to take its own harmonic direction and can be unpredictable (personable). The harmonic direction taken by the instrument can be diverted, however, by bowing a rod to produce a tone which is not sympathetic to the tones already sounding. The original harmony shifts toward sympathy with the rod being bowed, that is, non- harmonic tones are overcome by the new, harmonic ones.

(Example is given on the cassette.) Therefore, the performer/ composer can determine "when" to move harmonically (assuming a knowledge of which rods produce which tones), but the instrument itself determines "how" that shift is made because of the particular harmonics inherent in its rods.

I have found tuning the Space Plates difficult because of the numerous and prominent harmonics of the rods. These harmonics cannot be altered, but I do attempt to "fine tune" the rods, once they are brazed to the plate and cut to their approximate length, by listening to the most prominent tone and cutting small portions off the end to raise the pitch. (To lower the pitch I must replace the rod with a slightly longer one. ) So I consider Space Plates as "quasi-tuned" instruments.

Since I enjoy the surprises, I have not felt a need to systematize the Space Plates any further. There may be ways to make them more systematic and precisely tuned. In fact, a friend (Chris Brown) is currently making a Space Plate using bronze rods threaded on the end, bolting (rather than brazing) them to the surface with small nuts and lock washers to allow for tuning and easy replacement of rods. Years ago, I bolted 1/4 inch steel rods to a strip of stainless steel (approximately 8 inches by 7 feet) but found the nuts dampened the plate too much. But with smaller rods and wider plates, it should be more feasible and could offer advantages over brazing.


An "Electroacoustic Percussion Board" (such as the "Earwarg" or the "Varion") is a 3/4 inch plywood sheet (usually a table) with various sounding devices attached, such as nails, combs, 1/4-inch threaded steel rods, strings (music wire), textured surfaces, springs, and "friction twister (loose piano tuning pins). These devices are played in a number of ways (striking, twisting, strumming, plucking, scraping, rubbing, bowing) with various implements including fingers, fingernails, guitar pics, small sticks (wood and metal), small curved threaded steel rods (1/8"), small mallets (with latex rubber tubing for heads), combs (plastic and nylon of varying size and shape), and small plastic bows (about 9 inches long) with nylon strings.

The table is amplified using two contact microphones ( the "Shadow" and the "Frap") attached to the underside. The amplified sound may then be extended with the use of electronic processing. I use a Yamaha 1500 Digital Delay/Echo, a Boss Delay/Sampler, and a Boss Flanger.

The strength of "Electroacoustic Percussion Boards" is their timbral variety. The threaded steel rods, strings and nails are all tunable. (The "Earwarg" also utilizes "horizontal bronze rods"-- 1/8 inch bronze rods bent at a 90 degree angle at each end forming legs which are embedded into the board; these are only grossly tunable.) I use both tuned pitch sequences (for the threaded steel rods, strings and some of the nails) and random pitch sequences (nails). Thus, the instrument actually gives me suggestions in the moment through its random sequences, which may be grounded by a tonal center or tuned pitch sequence.

The threaded steel rods are tuned to create interlocking pitch sequences, one sequence in the left row of rods and another sequence in the the right row. Both harmonic and melodic elements are present, and either row can be played individually or the two rows in combination. The strings are tuned in a similar way (there being a set of five strings on each "wing" of the board) to complement the pitches of the threaded rods. On the Varion, a center (spinal) row of nails are tuned to complement the threaded rods and strings, while the left and right curved row of nails are randomly tuned, though parallel in general pitch contour (see photo).

Finally, my use of electronic processing has extended my timbral repertoire and has brought my style closer to "electronic music". But being microacoustic rather than electronic, the sound sources are more complex, giving these instruments a rich as well as varied sound.

Tom Nunn received his Bachelor Of Music Degree with Honors in composition from the University of Texas at Austin in 1968; after serving four years in the U.S. Air Force., he received a Master of Arts Degree in composition form the State University of New York, Stony Brook in 1974. From 1974 to 1977 he was a composition student in the Ph.D program at the University of California, San Diego.

Tom moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1978, where he has continued to develop his instrumentation and performance practice, playing numerous concerts with other improvising musicians. He currently holds a bi-monthly series of concerts in his basement studio entitled NEW INSTRUMENTS/NEW MUSIC which feature designers, builders, and performer/composers of experimental musical instruments.

Tom is currently working on a solo performance entitled ChromaZones for Varion and Fleur d'Esprit.


Typed by Barb. Golden. Oct 96