Two Questions for Sound Practitioners

Jennie Gottschalk

In thinking about the potential of The Change Issue, I was most curious about the mutual impacts of being a person and having a sound practice—how change is registered in each direction. I began with two open-ended questions:

Describe one major change in your sound practice.
Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

I chose the term “sound practice” to avoid limiting the field of response to a particular context. Whatever combination of terms each respondent ascribes to their background or profession, they are engaged with sound in a sustained way. I asked some people di- rectly, and asked the other members of the editorial board to either respond, ask others to respond, or both. I won’t try to introduce or compare the responses, because they speak for themselves and are discrete statements, as unique as the people who made them.

Why do these questions feel important? Behind them is another set of questions I have been wrestling with for several years. What can a sound practice do, or what can be done with it? What does it mean to the person most immediately engaged with it? What we hear as another artist’s output is only a fraction of the story, and I want to know more. These responses are a collection of glimpses of what is possible.

Many of the responses are resonant with a question that Ian Power recently asked:“Is art something we do so we can meet each other and then go somewhere else to work on a better world?” If art is a place where we often do meet each other, where we find like- minded people, it seems to me there is something about its practice that reveals these connections. Is the practice working changes in us, or have we found these other people because of our openness? Both things might be true at once, and the influence can be mu- tual and ongoing. Several respondents spoke of a widening, either of character or of opportunity. Maybe there is a draw to practices that will change us or foster the changes that we imagine within ourselves or in our relationships to others.

In retrospect, we may find that our most significant points of departure were anticipated by a thousand tiny choices. A shift in circumstances, a conversation, a listening experience, or a tool may provide the context for a period of growth at any age. Or maybe change is not the thing that is needed at all, but a settling and de- veloping of what is already in formation.

The responses to both questions bear out the significance of what a sound practice can be and do. I find them both moving and encouraging, and I hope you do too.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

For the past three years, I have developed a personal vocabulary synthesized of musics such as experimental electronics, noise, European free improvisation, new music, and free jazz, deployed through a handheld dynamic microphone and speaker. Over time, my approach has become predominantly percussive and noise-based, with an emphasis on timbral qualities and hyperactive rhythmic permutations. Six months ago, I was asked to perform at the noise/experimental music festival Ende Tymes, and it felt like a timely opportunity to dig deeper into this sound world. I began to experiment with amplification and distortion using different microphones of high and low fidelity.This exploration resulted in the addition of three new microphones—a microphone from a ’90s cassette recorder, a microphone in a mini handheld cassette recorder (from id m theft able), and a contact microphone taped to my throat. The new microphones significantly expanded the possibilities of my sonic palette, while simultaneously compelling me to develop new logistical and musical strategies in order to achieve the level of music-making I was aspiring to.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

Though the additional microphones were driven predominantly by sonic goals, I couldn’t have predicted the life-changing effect it would have on me psychologically, emotionally, and so- cially. I learned very quickly that in order to fully adopt the new set up and by extension the new elements of sound, I would need to question and reevaluate core ideals and practices about improvisation and my approach that had become fundamental to my musical identity. Risk-taking became even more essential to my practice, especially when I realized that the only way to absorb these changes was to experience them in live performance. While such a public display of my growth has brought an intense emotional rollercoaster, it has also led me to meet and collaborate with an in- credible collective of like-minded artists from diverse backgrounds and communities who continue to inspire and expand my imagination and general world view. I know and hope that the development of my practice is constantly in flux, but I’m grateful that these past six months have given me a new capacity to always be open to examining axioms I believe to be self-evident or true.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

I have often strived to present my music seriously. However,

I began to think there was too much of a disconnect between what happened on stage and what happened before and after. I wondered how best to reflect the lightness and humor that seemed to be missing from the performance.

I first saw the Fluxus artist Ben Patterson at the LMC Festival, London, in 2006 and later met him at his home in Wiesbaden. He wrote new harp and ensemble pieces for me, and we performed many concerts and events together until his death in 2016. These meetings were always joyous and life affirming. Without saying it out loud, and sometimes by just being in his company, I felt I gained permission to make more mistakes and to introduce more chaos and humor into my practice.

This change did not happen overnight, and it is not some- thing I can force. It might also not be obvious all the time. But it is possible to glean some of his influence in my work with Hen Ogledd, where we throw ourselves out of kilter and embrace humor with utter seriousness. This makes even more sense to me today, in light of the rise in fascism and far-right populist politics.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

Growing up in Aberystwyth, a seaside town in Wales, I often felt that my life was already mapped out for me by grown-ups who expected me to go into the shop that my grandfather started seventy years ago. My sound practice has allowed me to explore other registers, emotions, collaborations, friendships, and artistic relationships that might not have been available to me had I stayed in Aberystwyth.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

My practice has always been very focused on minimal sources and tools. In the past, I avoided implementing effects or multi-tracking, choosing to focus more rigidly on single sounds and very raw sound. While this still plays an important role in my work, in recent years I have embraced the use of a variety of instruments and tools, which has opened up possibilities for more complexity and unusual terrain in my compositions and performances. This has been a very interesting process, which has freed my ideas to develop with less rigidity, applying whichever tools allow me to develop and guide a work into new territory. Exploring new (and traditional) instruments that I may have never taken up before has been invigorating. My original philosophies and interests will always be central to my work, however I find this more re- cent process has been liberating in many ways that has impacted the way that I work in a permanent way.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

I feel that my sound practice is an integral part of my identity as a person—as an individual. The clearest change that I have reflected on recently is a deep sense of self-assuredness in not only my work but in the broader sense, as a person. I believe that the process of developing my sound work, my artistic language, has been one of the strongest factors in attaining this clarity. Although there are always moments of self-doubt, uncertainty, uncomfortable shifts and pains in creation, there is an underlying concrete change that has occurred. Through the process of experimenting, expressing, developing, and sharing my work over the years, my own sense of self has deepened and the centeredness that comes with this is palpable.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

In the last two years, I’ve developed an improvisational performance practice with MIDI controllers. Live mixing has been especially exciting; using knobs and faders in a personally expressive way has led to a curiosity in the different levels at which one can perceive musical phrasing. Knobs and faders are implements that, in a DAW environment, record automation data—gain level, dry/wet balance, low-pass filter frequency, et cetera. (This automation data, when viewed on a timeline, looks strikingly like a score.)

This has resulted in a relationship to sound—and to my own listening—that can move in multiple directions. It can be sound- forward, which is to say: I can start with a sound and have it in- struct me on how to “play” it, on what parameters of the sound I may want to render alterable (or, to be fanciful about it, alive). It can also be parameter-forward: If I decide to focus my expressive content on, say, a low-pass filter, that decision communicates with the sounds I work with within that filter. This shift has allowed me to think critically about physical gesture, sound, phrasing, time, and composition, all at the same time.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

I’ve been making music in some form for most of my life. I was trained in a traditional classical conservatory environment and received a musical education founded on specific principles of what musical “fundamentals” were. This education did not extinguish my sense of music as play, but it filtered the tools with which I felt able to explore musical expression and possibility. Listening as a teenager to all types of electronic music, but especially field recordings–based compositions by Graham Lambkin, Jason Lescalleet, Zahava Seewald, and Michaël Grébil, signaled to me that these “fundamentals” were dogmatic and, at best, incomplete.

Working with live mixing has gotten me closer to my intuition while also giving me a new vocabulary for thinking critically about my listening. The increased dimensions at which I can con- sider my relationship to sound open up new pathways into those aspects of myself that elude verbalization: intuitions around time, shapes, phrasing, experience.The attendant critical, intentional listening has enhanced my awareness of how music may be alive, and how that aliveness may be conceived of as a sociality, built on relationships. They have given me new clues as to how that sociality may be facilitated compositionally.


Changing from hearing to looking and back again, and then sometimes to stillness and silence. Changing from ambivalent to dark or light, finding discreteness in grayscale and also in special tiny softly colored moments of private intimacy.

Looking into the future, accidentally, and sometimes seeing the inevitable results of cause and effect, but also trying to ignore those things and provoke giggle fits instead.

Walking balance-beam lines between cringing and crying, solace and solitude, giggling and grimacing—it’s only four feet to the ground, so if you fall it just hurts for a minute.

Take two: this time with feeling.

All you have to do is set your mind to it,and make it up as you go along.

Sometimes life can be a lonely dance. Songs can be lonely, too.

Keep your eye on the ball, don’t stare at the sun, and move forward in a straight line.

There’s no need to cross that uncomfortable line. Don’t forget to brush your teeth, and exercise daily.

Cognitive flexibility is the key to everlasting happiness.


The most radical change in my sound practice has undoubtedly been the discovery of free improvisation.

I’m educated in the realm of classical music, which I loved as a child, and which still fascinates me. It is a comforting and perspicuous world, in which things are predictable and harmonious.

As a child I felt free enough to improvise and to compose. During my studies to become a viola player then, I enjoyed finding expressive freedom in the very narrow harness that the rules of interpretation set out. However, I think the classical mu- sic context with its spirit of concurrence, which I confronted as an average player, was hard to cope with. It became part of my character and was really inhibiting.

As a result, the first time I participated in a free improv session, I felt a paralyzing fear, as if I had to jump from a high-rise. I simply couldn’t do it and had to leave the room. I can still sense the overwhelming feeling of anxiety, of having lost the matrix of right and wrong, of fear of responsibility and potential ridicule.The fear of showing privateness, my inner deficient self.

Well, in the end I jumped, and did it for several years. Now I don’t improvise that much anymore, as I’m in fact not an especially spontaneous person, and my interest moved on to other questions related to sound and music.

But, without any doubt, this experience not only turned my- self upside down, but also in a way inverted my musical practice: In improvisation the most important stance was not the showing and confronting, but the listening and blending.

Practicing improvisation changed my character, or rather, it feels like it widened it, brought sides of myself to the surface, which are quite nice to have: chaoticism, humor, spontaneity, emphasis, and the wish to get in phase with somebody else, rather than be- ing right—to live with contradictions.

And in regard to music itself, it brought me understanding, and sometimes appreciation, for other genres and styles of music. It changed my idea about sound as such, sound as the most im- portant ingredient of music, and in the longer run, a philosophi- cal curiosity for the relation there is between people, their culture, and their music.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

Why do we need music in our lives? Are musical practices forms of life? Why? These became the most important questions for me—faced with the state of the world, with wars and famines, with concrete fears, hunger and grief. The change: These questions shifted the emphasis from the structure of a composition to the activity of the performers. When talking about performance we focus on the performers’ activities.

Together or alone, we do something meaningful for ourselves with sounds; we would like to repeat the action/activity. A mean- ing arises for us through the activities and events in their corporeality and sensuality; this meaning does not need to be verbalized. We understand the world and understand each other in non-verbal communication, in meaningful activities focused on repetition. We can trust in transparency between music and life: Musical practice can become a form of life and give us something to know about life. We understand something through meaningful performance.

As a composer I offer musical practices. While composing musical practices I trust in the chances that our behavior and our activities, our relationships and communications, our experiences and longings point to experiences and longings, relationships and situations in our everyday life world. Musical practice can become “existential experience” (Helmut Lachenmann): The process of musical practice is able to point out to “realities and possibilities” (Lachenmann) within ourselves and within our surroundings.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

The transition from musical practice to the world of every-

day life is not a one-way path. The experience of a work of art can change the perception of the life world as well.

John Cage spoke about musical practice as an activity that is completely involved in everyday life. For him, art is “a way of life” (speaking about Satie). The boundaries between the world of everyday life and the world of musical practice can be blurred. Repeated performances integrate the practice into the everyday life of the performers.

As a performer I could experience that and how musical practice invites us to participate, to meet each other, to fall into a peaceful activity. I am a composer, but I am a performer and a listener at the same time. Boundaries between these activities be- come blurred, too.

We all can experience during a performance that we do not aim at a final version; there is no perfection. There is repetition.

Practice preserves the open time horizon of the future, while perfection is put to rest as complete. An ideal of perfection would destroy the liberating openness.

Thus, musical practice changed my own life as a composer. I became strongly oriented towards the future: “There is hope” (Antoine Beuger).


The music instrument is a technical object with its own tech- nical mentality. Most of the given technique would rather constitute a counter technique, a vicious usage, in Simandon’s words. For example, looking and listening closer to the dynamics of bowed string, over a 35-year period, I had noticed a number of harmonic criticalities in a virtual state. To access them up close entailed a turn away from those counter techniques that I had grown attached to, literally, as part of a viola-human apparatus. Since there is appar- ently no way to undo the various practices with which I adjoined the technical mentality of the instrument to my own cognition, an ethical problem seemed to emerge and subsumed the technical problem. This in turn led to a more general musical problem: that of “a composition which must take the form of an improvisation.”

This was back in 2013 or so.

Hitherto my perspective on practice had become almost medical; after all, why not a healing modality as a musical practice? An analytic of sound, time, and thoughts, which I dubbed “time medicine” written in the form of what I thought of as signatures and tablatures, formed the basis of certain compositions and improvisations from that time period. In all truthfulness, it was a kind of prayer. However, leading the practice with the concept— with the naive concept—proved to be too rigid of an approach: it shattered. I repeat: Starting from a naive notion of music, I had gone from technics to ethics to musics, via a non-music that abandoned the concept of resonance and of communication, along with all musical values.

Now another turn became possible, from practice to common practice, from duration (Bergson) with its emotional intensities to rhythm (Lefebvre) with its moral responsibilities.This means musical rhythms (any actually existing musics) but also biological rhythms (internal organs) and all social and historical rhythms. It certainly did not mean to accept historical divisions of time from outside the field of music. Rather, it would require a close listen to and participation in any actually existing musical practices but from an alien or exomusical perspective. Each music was a specimen, a cadaver. Musical practice becomes necromusicology. It matters little whether high or low, good or bad. What is more important: Who or what is being oppressed, who or what is oppressor, how can they be freed or brought to justice.

Here too, a certain humor guided the way. Nature to culture, culture to nature—I enjoyed flipping these.All my pieces from then up to just a few years ago flipped them around, over and over, for fun. But those days are over now.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

I have trouble naming major changes, it seems that my sound life moves in more gentle waves, and to choose a change as major is almost arbitrary. I could go back to initial encounters with unknown pieces and new thoughts; these affected my listening and contributed to changes, but they happened 30 years ago. More recently, changes are incremental, a chance encounter with Hollis Frampton’s Nostalgia from 1971, that I didn’t know, made me wonder what a sound metaphor for burning pictures would be, and how can it be left to the elements and not be controlled in advance.And can his powerful use of delay between two sets of information (the image appears with the sound/verbal description of the following image) be employed, especially at this point where I seem to work a lot with clear spoken texts? This all may produce a change.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

Practicing sound changes me, or so it feels most of the time.

There was the time when I slowly accepted that I wasn’t hearing everything that I could be hearing in any given situation, it was harder to learn that it was a choice I was making, and not a natural phenomenon. Recently, I have been a little more aware of how I make these choices, between listening and skim-listening, with sounds that I think I already know; I listen to them with half the attention (at most), thinking that I can replace the missing information from my memory. I am reminded of it when I do sit down and focus on what I am hearing. I find myself listening with full focus to something that seems like it is happening in the background, and realize what my memory is missing. Just last week Eyal put on an album of Concha Buika before dinner, and something caught my ear and I just listened. She has an amazingly interesting sound- ing voice. Despite knowing the album quite well, it felt as if I heard the voice as if I never heard it before.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

My parents putting their old stereo in my room when I was a kid. I started recording music off the radio, and by accident I found out I could record my voice on top of it by plugging the headphones into the microphone input on the front of the tape deck. I started making silly radio plays with my friends, but it taught me the principle of multi-tracking and editing in the most crude and basic way. Later when I got an urge to start expressing myself through sound (having spent most of my childhood drawing and making collages), but had no one that shared my interest in weird music, I intuitively turned to that method for making music. I had no idea about musique concrète, John Cage, or even industrial music—this was my version of heavy metal and punk rock. I joined a school of thought by accident. Pure luck.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

Since it came by itself and so early, my early teens, I can’t say my sound practice has changed me. It’s been a constant all my adult life. I don’t know any other way.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

When I started performing music, I was a focused cello player who loved to discover and create extended techniques using the materials associated with the instrument itself: wood, metal, hair. As I began composing music, I wanted to think of my sound practice as the organization of any and all types of vibration. This allows for the inclusion of light and the manipulation of objects and bodies in space to the roster of possible materials: illumination, physical gesture, smell, touch, heat, electricity.

We can then think of re-mapping the concept of amplification to include costumes amplifying our skin and bodies, video projection amplifying, and animating of light. Further, we can harness and direct electrical flow not just as a tool for powering our machines, but as an organized and creative platform for the electrical impulses in our brains—carving out and illuminating a lively performative space within our imaginations.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

I’ve been caught up in this idea about making pieces that can only exist in your imagination. Sounds that are impossible to perform in a physical acoustic space—but totally possible to envision in an imaginary landscape. When I get in the habit of try- ing to describe an impossible listening situation (what would it be like to listen to sounds made for the acoustics of a system of blood vessels?), I take special care of noticing the sensorial input around me in a new way. I focus my listening to a new location in my body, imagining what it would be like to listen through my big toes in- stead of my ears—thinking about how I could emit a soft, pure tone through the skin of my back—tracing the exterior line of a my own perceptive habits and trying to reach just a little bit further.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

Over the past few years I have configured an operational methodology that allows me, and a group of young musicians at New England Conservatory where I teach, to make improvised music in a different way. I’ve arrived at this by deciphering existing seminal operational methodologies that are the basis for the existence of what is often called free jazz, free improvised music, free improvisation, etc. Through decades of studying and performing these methodologies I have worked to break them down into a concise list of meta-properties that define types of objects and the ways in which they might function. Using a non-linear combining objective I am able to engineer different behaviors for these musical objects. I define improvisation as making decisions (employing operations) when faced with contingencies in real time. Under- standing all of this has enabled me and my players to have what is for us, a precise and lively engagement in performance.

While this is a system for improvisers, I have used it to compose three new works, Instantiation, Paradox, and Hreidmar, that each include either specific pitch notation, invented notation, or text content that can be used with creative flexibility and/or not at all.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

It’s provided me with a means to go from being a person with no possibilities to becoming a productive person, artist, and educator. It’s provided a structure for me to contemplate my existence, and so it’s enabled me to remain curious and engaged with abstraction throughout my adult life. In that sense, sound has been the gauge with which I measure my growth as a person. In more practical ways it’s been completely transformational, which means that I have been able to support myself using my ideas and creativity instead of doing less rewarding work. I have tried to honor these amazing gifts by trusting the ideas I have, trying them out, understanding when I think I have arrived at a decent result and then trying a new one. So music has enabled me to attempt to change over and over again. In fact, I have intentionally tried to be at a new beginning all the time. Sound marks time in many ways. My life has been a series of sonic statements that reflect who I am/was now and then.

There is a strong chance that you, the reader, are also engaged in a sound practice. Hopefully the questions below, starting with those first two, will provoke some useful lines of thought about the development of your own work.


Describe one major change in your sound practice.

Talk about how your sound practice has changed you.

What are the forces (events, character, circumstance, exposure, people, etc.) that propelled those changes?

Would the trajectory of your practice be represented in more jagged or smooth lines?

Were there directions that you considered or tried and then abandoned? Can you understand why in retrospect?

What gives you assurance about your choices?

Has your practice been influenced by personal or professional or social or political shifts? If yes, have those shifts had a long-term influence on the development of your practice?

What kinds of change in your practice do you hope for in the future?What would enable you to make those changes?

Two Questions for Sound Practitioners