Research Note 008: Improvisation and Composition

Today I had a great rehearsal with the Jazz Connexion Big Band, my reading is finally getting to the stage where I can enjoying it and I was really in the zone for one of my solos in Groovin’ High, a bebop tune that we’re doing a fast samba arrangement of. I’ve been thinking more about the differences between composition and improvisation. I’m not sure why it’s important yet but I think it might unlock some interesting territory when it comes to how we play our instruments, our mindset and attitude.

While improvisation is an ongoing dialogue with others, and is usually based on communication from the very moment it starts, with other improvisers, the audience or even the physical space you’re in. Composing music on the other hand tends to be an individual experience until just before it is performed. Sure, many co-write with others but the act of composition is usually a solitary one.

An improviser works with spontaneity and intuition in real-time, unable to change what has been played. But composers can plan the length and timing of every nuanced articulation in a musical structure if they want to, then change their mind and move sections around.

In Brian Eno’s article “Generating and Organizing Variety in the Arts” (1981), he describes a “scale of orientation” or continuum from right to left between composition “tending to subdue variety in performance” -predetermined music – for example: prerecorded electronic music on the extreme right, and composition “tending to encourage variety in performance” – free improvisation, on the extreme left. In between we find all the facets from classical music, various folk musics to jazz, free jazz etc.

A chart describing different ranges of improvisation from the Psychology for Musicians book

As I search for differences between composition and improvisation many examples come to mind of masterful improvisors that composed intricate melodies while improvising, like Charlie Parker, as I mentioned in Research Note 004.

Also interesting is Steve Larson’s Article “Composition Versus Improvisation” – Journal of Music Theory Vol. 49, No. 2 (2005), he states:

Composition is traditionally regarded as the process in which a composer, with pen and paper, outside of ‘real time’, uses revision and hard work to eliminate or avoid mistakes, the composition builds on tradition

Improvisation is traditionally regarded as the process in which performers, with their voice or instruments, in ‘real time’, use luck or skill to respond to or incorporate mistakes; the improvisation grows out of innovation, exploits freedom, and relies on talent…

There’s a lot more to say about this but I’ll leave that for another day. What do you think the biggest difference are?


Research Note 007: Write drunk, Edit sober

Write drunk, Edit sober”.

Apparently Ernest Hemingway may have said this.

As I work towards developing my own writing practice I have noticed that I’m a much better editor than writer and find it difficult to turn off the editing mode in my mind. I have considerably less trouble with this as a musician. From the minute I pick up a guitar I can easily slip into a stream of consciousness and flow through composition to improvisation and back. But I suppose it hasn’t always been this easy.

As a writer I’ll stop and try to find the right word or phrase instead of flowing and building a better narratives. I seems get stuck in the weeds, deliberating over the way I’m saying something instead of what I’m saying.

Normally I’d do my writing in the morning but I think I’ll try writing at night with a few drinks and see what happens. I’ll be the first to find out.

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 9.46.59 AM

Research Note 006: Anti aesthetic is an aesthetic

I’m curious about what makes a great music instrument. Have you ever wondered why certain instruments are so popular and people find new ways of creating music on them decade after decade? While other, possibly more interesting or technologically advanced instruments seem to get forgotten or dismissed as inaccessible.

As I look at our current landscape of interfaces for musical expression, I’m struck by many poor attempts that seem to be driven by an engineer’s motivation to build something new but not ask the important ‘why’s questions of the possible target user of the new interface. If the process of inventing a new instrument is driven by an engineering mindset it lacks the end user/musician’s perspective and we can probably all think of examples of bad user interfaces that lack a good UX process.

I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the book “Push Turn Move” by Kim Bjorn about interface design in electronic music and the interview with Jesper Kouthoofd of Teenage Engineering is really refreshing like their products. Teenage Engineering a small Swedish company based in Stockholm that seems to be knocking them out of the park with each product they release, starting from their OP-1 to their Pocket Operators and now their newest offering, the PO Modular.

What makes Teenage Engineering’s approach so unique and effective? Let’s take a more detailed look.

The wildly popular OP-1
The PO-33, one of the many Pocket Operators

If you’re not familiar with Teenage Engineering’s products you’re first impression might be that they’re small and quirky, even toy-like. But although the playful approach to their interfaces is at times funny, with the PO-33’s onscreen boxers, PO-12’s sewing machine and PO-14’s submarine, the overall design strategy is welcoming to the new user and diffuses any intimidation that one may have to approaching a synthesizer with many buttons and sliders.

Although there tends to be quite a lot of buttons and controls Teenage Engineering has a very minimalist approach to their interaction design. All of the controls are tactile and well organized, the end result is most people can end up creating music loops and have fun within the first few minutes of playing around. You can’t say that about a lot of new instruments.

“To be honest, we are not interested in design at all, it just needs to work”.

Strange coming from Jesper Kouthoofd, CEO and Head of Design at Teenage Engineering

Koothoofd says “They (Pocket Operators) are a bit ugly, funky and raw. If we had a design perspective on things, we would never release a product like that. The problem about the design community as a whole is that it’s too much about styling and not solving problems. When people solve problems, it can lead to iconic products because you start with how it should work”

Although one would argue that making their products ‘ugly, funky and raw’ is actually a very intentional design aesthetic, I agree wholeheartedly to the second part of that Jesper says.

TE’s products have a lot going for them, it’s no surprise that the small company has been asked to collaborate with international giants like IKEA. We could look more closely at their industrial design approach but I think there maybe more to learn from their interaction design strategies. Their projects seem to all be smaller than you’d expect. According to the interview portability was always an important objective for the Swedish company. “When you didn’t have money, it was things like a TASCAM 4-track Portastudio, BOSS pedals and cheap Roland synths like the SH-101…” says Jesper remembering his teenage exploration of instruments. I’m sure that his earlier experiences with these 1980’s devices shape his retro/nostalgic designs.

The most important aspect of Teenage Engineering’s approach is by far their obsession with minimalism with regard to their interfaces. Many of the buttons and knobs have a dual purpose and the organization is clear and helps people build a clear mental model. “Suppose you have an endless canvas to work on – the result is that you can’t even start. If your choices include everything, you’re not hungry anymore; you lose your appetite. Limitation is everything” Jesper explains about his minimalist design approach.

2019 Teenage Engineering will be releasing the PO Modular

Teeenage Engineering’s latest offering, the PO Modular looks amazing and exhibits all of the characteristics of a typical Teenage Engineering product – accessible, affordable, playful, portable. I’ll write about this more when I get my hands on one!


Research Note 005

Doing this writing thing daily is not easy, after all I’ve already missed 3 days in my first week. I can always work up to being consistent about it. I feel like I’ve got to have something profound to say or why bother, but that’s not the point, is it? I’m writing daily as a practice and you’re my audience coming along for the ride. Playing guitar daily seems to be much easier for me, partly because I’ve done it for so long but also because if just feels good. But if I think back it wasn’t always easy to do and i had to work up to it. Now it’s like a meditation, when I pick up the instrument hours can go by and I don’t notice.

Yesterday I recorded another conversation with Scott Morgan (Loscil) for what I hope will soon become a podcast. We spoke about Artificial Intelligence in music and rather than have any kind of comprehensive study of the topic we discussed our viewpoints. If anything, we seem to both be interested in where it will go and will work on collecting some good examples of AI in the context of music creation. I spoke about my experience of taking an online course called Machine Learning for Musicians and Artists by Rebecca Fiebrink of Goldsmiths, as well as building and using the Nsynth by Google’s Magenta team. I highly recommend both but the Nsynth is a little more involved and requires some serious soldering.

At one point in the conversation I found myself not clearly communicating how the Nsynth actually uses machine learning. To me that’s a clear indication that I will have to take some time to better understand it. Their website does a good job of explaining it in layman’s terms but I think I’d like to take a deeper look.

Also, I’ve begun to work on a new project that builds off some of the work I did in Mirror.fm, a music project with Tom Anselmi. The website has been seriously neglected for years but it was cool when we first built it in 2003. It used Flash, remember that, to randomly create and layer a video and audio playlist into a new full screen experience. I’m going to try to build a new HTML version of that using my own video and music. stay tuned…


Research Note 004

I’m trying to write daily but sometimes there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day to get everything done. Practice guitar daily, Practice composing daily, an hour of learning through tutorials, perhaps I can start out not quite so ambitiously.

Today I practiced guitar for an hour. Trying to learn Charlie Parker’s Anthropology, a well-known melody written for what Jazz musicians call “Rhythm changes”, the chord sequence to Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm. This chord sequence was one of the most popular chord progressions during jam sessions of the Swing and Bebop eras, and is still an important alternative to the 12 bar blues progression and it’s many variations. As I played through the bebop head Anthropology, I thought about when I first read about how Bebop musicians of the time barely ever wrote their own chord progressions and almost always ‘borrowed’ chord progressions from popular tunes of the day, most because all the musicians were familiar with them and could easily improvise over the familiar song structures.

Bird with a young Miles Davis. Photo by William P. Gottlieb Collection

Why are musicians still talking about Charlie Parker 65 years after he recorded?

  • Bird, as he was called, popularized Jazz songwriting format for jazz by borrowing and altering chord changes from existing songs and creating new melodies on top.
  • Parker, along with Dizzy Gillespie was credited for beginning the Bebop movement, which transformed jazz music from music for dancing into a fine art form for listening
  • Charlie Parker was the first true modern jazz virtuoso who defining a new standard in understanding complex harmonies, rhythms, and melodies.


Research Note 003: Podcasting & Skeuomorphism

Podcasting with Scott Morgan of Loscil

I woke up this morning feeling good about last night’s experiment. While watching my daughter’s soccer practise I recorded a conversation with Scott Morgan (aka Loscil). We’re considering creating a podcast about creating music and instruments and thought we could start by making a pilot of our podcast. I’ll edit the conversation down we’ll discuss publishing it at the further date. For now I’d like to know if the topics we talked about are something you’d like to know more about.

The banter was lively, moving from discussing themes for the podcast like:

  • What constitutes an musical instrument and how important is its tangibility. This subject is core to the workshops that I’ve been facilitating in various locations over the past few months. The Sonic Interactions workshop is about creating new sound interfaces using existing instruments like ukuleles, drums and thumb-pianos along with open source tools like RaspberryPi, PureData. I’ve been documenting the workshops at SonicInteractions.org.
  • “artificial nostalgia”, how are kids nostalgic for vinyl records when they didn’t even grow up with them? I’m sure we’ll expand on this topic and it’s something I’ve been curious about.
  • Skeuomorphism in music & instruments. Skeuomorphism is a common Interaction Design term to describe when an interface mimics the physical attributes of a its real-world counterpart. A good example is how early digital books had the top right corner of each screen. It is useful as an affordance for people unfamiliar with digital books but limiting if you’d rather have an endless scrolling read. Here are some examples:
The once-ubiquitous “page curl”

Is the Page Curl of a digital book an affordance or an useless ornamentation from a time when users needed a visual cue to explain the metaphor of a book?

Fetishizing shiny stereo components
Wood paneling is a new trend in digital synths

Skeuomorphism is a contentious topic in the Interaction Design industry and worth thinking about.


Research Note 002: Tactility & the Jammy

Tactility in instruments

Back in the 1990’s when I lived in Montreal I practiced guitar daily, sometimes for hours but usually for at least two hours. I’m working on getting back into that habit because it was so rewarding in ways I had not imagined at the time.

During today’s morning guitar warmup I started thinking about how tactile the guitar is and what happens when you lose some of that tactility or haptic feedback that comes with an instrument that resonates and indicates how it’s being played.

The warmup exercise is easy and can be done on any instrument but it’s particularly great on the guitar. I have to credit my former mentor and guitar instructor, Bill Coon for this exercise. The idea is to focus on your sound and your body as you play. Set a metronome to 80 bpm and play whole notes. Try to play exactly on the beat and breath regularly. Once you are comfortable play up and down the instrument’s range inclining and declining by one semitone. First play in quarter notes, then eighths, then 8th note triplets, 16th notes. I’ll post a quick video of me playing the exercise soon, it’s sounds much more complicated when written. An aside: maybe using the English language to describe a musical concept isn’t an appropriate channel. Perhaps we can talk about how Alan Kay, proposed that we learn using the most appropriate channel as his analysis of how to play tennis illustrated. See this video for reference. There’s something that happens when you’re playing an instrument that binds the player and the instrument. As I play I notice that the string vibrates under my finger tips and give me a subtle indication of the timbre and quality of the sound through my body.

While I was in LA for the Ableton Loop conference in November 2018, I tried out a new folding guitar called the Jammy. I wasn’t thrilled by the name of it but I was excited and ready to love it but was quickly disappointed on playing it.

The Jammy, travel guitar in action

Here’s why, it uses two sets of strings, one for the neck and another for the strumming or picking hand. These detached strings was so disorienting for me that I took a double take, tried it again but failed at playing the most basic scale. Playing the Jammy, travel guitar made it so difficult to feel where you are on the neck and synchronizing both hands. The entire sensation of playing a tactile instrument was completely lost.

It seems like such a basic requirement for an instrument but so many instruments are launched that take away this tactility. My thought is that the concept testing phase of these products are not explored enough. Perhaps these products are driven by technology or engineer driven teams and they human-centred design process is overlooked. How do position the value of interaction design into the instrument creating industry?


Research Note 001

Writing about thinking, as opposed to thinking about writing…

As an effort to collect thoughts, practise writing and share ideas I’ve decided to journal my progress with my personal and professional research. If you’re interested in any of the ideas, experiments or projects I’ll be sharing please let me know in the comments below.

Right Tool for the Job

I’m beginning this open journalling approach on my personal WordPress blog because I believe its the right tool for the job but I’m also interested in perhaps using a newsletter, which is more of a ‘push’ – outward dissemination or an online forum like the one I’ve set up for Sonic Interactions here at talk.sonicinteractions.org.

I catch myself thinking about the tools we use as creative people. We’re quick to jump to one side or another when it comes to operating systems, software and hardware, why is that? It seems, for some that have invested time and effort into a specific tool, that you have poured yourself into that tool and are justifying your own personal creative approach. Whether we realize it or not the tools you’ve chosen will shape how you create. Let’s use a specific example to illustrate: If you use Photoshop to design a website the design decisions you make will be very different that if you were to use Sketch to create a site mockup or even HTML and CSS, the material used to make websites.

Why is this relevant to what I’m researching, you may ask. Well, I’m interested in how we create/design new musical instruments and the tools that we use to think through the complexities of creating an instrument. To explore this topic in design we first need to take a look historically at how we invented instruments and then have a current survey to get a better grasp. I’ll write more about the history in future postings as I summarize and review some of the books that I’ve been reading during my sabbatical.

Research Summary

In the fall of 2018 I began my sabbatical, the plan was to create a short workshop to teach people what I had learned about creating musical instruments. Why am I doing this after years of working in and teaching Interaction Design? The answer is both simple and complex. The simple answer is that I’ve been a musician most of my life and the interactions I have had playing music with others and by myself with my guitar have been rich and nuanced. These interactions while playing music are profound, to some magical and worth studying to help us create new interactions. There’s way more to say but let’s leave it there for now.

Ideas to write about

  • A full progress log of my work over the past 5 months (it’s all in a txt file now)
  • Books I’ve read
  • Courses I’m taking
  • Instruments I’m making
  • Music I’m creating
  • People I’m talking to

If you’re reading this and have got this far, you must be a friend or very interested in this topic. If so, please share your thought below in a comment.


Installing the latest PureData on a Raspberry Pi

After a fair bit of deliberation I was able to install Pure Data 0.49 on the Pi running Raspbian Stretch. I’ll walk through this step by step in case you’re not familiar with command line in Linux.

The default way to install PureData (Pd) is:

sudo apt-get install puredata

The only problem with this method of installing Pd is that you’ll get 0.47.

STEP1. Open Terminal

STEP2. Creating folder to organize compilation (optional):

mkdir src

STEP3. Enter in src folder / install dependencies / download pd source code / unpack downloaded file:

cd src
sudo apt install build-essential autoconf automake libtool gettext git libasound2-dev libjack-jackd2-dev libfftw3-3 libfftw3-dev tcl tk
wget http://msp.ucsd.edu/Software/pd-0.49-0.src.tar.gz
tar -xzf pd-0.49-0.src.tar.gz

STEP4. Compiling Pd:

cd pd-0.49-0
./configure --enable-jack --enable-fftw

STEP5. Confirming if compilation are ok:

cd bin

STEP6. If it run, you can install Pd in your raspbian:

cd ..
sudo make install


Sensors into OSC with Python

How do we move from analogue to digital? There seems to be quite a number of ways including 2D & 3D scanning, photography, and sensors. For the purposes of intentionally limiting our options we’re going to create a physical interface with potentiometers and buttons. We’ll be using the LOP board with a Raspberry Pi.

Once we’ve soldered the potentiometers and header on the LOP board we have to install a few things and enable some of the system level software on the RPi.

Starting with enabling SPI

  1. Run sudo raspi-config .
  2. Use the down arrow to select 9 Advanced Options.
  3. Arrow down to A6 SPI .
  4. Select yes when it asks you to enable SPI,
  5. Also select yes when it asks about automatically loading the kernel module.
  6. Use the right arrow to select the <Finish> button.

Installing the Python Tools:

sudo apt-get update
sudo apt-get install python-setuptools
sudo apt-get install python-pip python-dev

Now we're ready to run the code, wait! we need to 


import spidev
import time
import os
import OSC
import RPi.GPIO as GPIO

# Open SPI bus
spi = spidev.SpiDev()

# Open osc

send_address = "" , 9000
c = OSC.OSCClient()

# Function to read SPI data from MCP3008 chip
# Channel must be an integer 0-7
def ReadChannel(channel):
 adc = spi.xfer2([1,(8+channel)<<4,0])
 data = ((adc[1]&3) << 8) + adc[2]
 return data

# Define sensor channels
l0 = 0
l1 = 1
l2 = 2
l3 = 3
l4 = 4
l5 = 5
l6 = 6
l7 = 7

# Define delay between readings
delay = 0.1

while True:
 # Read the light sensor data
 ll0 = ReadChannel(l0)
 ll1 = ReadChannel(l1)
 ll2 = ReadChannel(l2)
 ll3 = ReadChannel(l3)
 ll4 = ReadChannel(l4)
 ll5 = ReadChannel(l5)
 ll6 = ReadChannel(l6)
 ll7 = ReadChannel(l7)
 print("channel 1: ",ll0)

# send off the OSC message with sensor values

msg = OSC.OSCMessage()