2 - Composition As Performance

The context of making music in the SPIRAL Studio at the University of Huddersfield and in a nightclub is different, so when I compose again it influences my new works. This process refines my music. It is a music that wants an audience and I get inspiration from the external factors present during a performance. I do not distinguish between my audiences (academic or non-academic), but I favour environments where I can play my music for people used to attending nightclubs since there is a sense of cultural and musical kinship. Regarding performability, there could be issues when I transfer my works for 24 channels to other configuration systems (nightclub environment). I was able to perform on three occasions on various spatial systems that are different to the SPIRAL Studio, and I was pleased to hear positive comments and see the reaction of the audience after listening to my music. After my performance at the Safari Lounge in Edinburgh (December 28th, 2018), a member of the audience shared with me his appreciation for this novel experience of hearing sounds moving in space. He said he was looking forward to hearing more of this kind of musical setup. Another such performance was at the Re.Sound event (on May 18th 2018) (https://youtu.be/AYRv8sBdaSY) in the Atrium of  the Richard Steinitz Building, University of Huddersfield. A video captured the event and we can observe the reaction of the listeners. There are two instances where audience members points the localization of a sound source, at 19:18 and at 19:40. I believe these experiences open the public’s mind for new ways of listening to music and I hope to propagate this sonic environment/experience to more people.

My setup at the University of Huddersfield comprises 24 channels (3 rings of 8 speakers) and compared to most nightclubs, where they usually play immersive music in a Mono format, I can provide an enhanced experience through localization, diffusion, height and trajectories of sounds that Mono cannot match. Of course, with my setup, promoters may not understand why I need all this configuration but if we look around in places such as Ministry Of Sound and the 4DSound System, we can see that the culture in which this music is performed is changing towards more spatial forms. Whilst the industry is moving in that direction, as of yet, there are not many places that have as sophisticated a setup as the SPIRAL Studio. Thus, I always have to make changes and adapt the idealized version that I am creating at the University for live performance. Besides, I face other challenges when I do a Livestream on YouTube or Facebook, where translating 24 channels audio to a binaural (stereo) format is not yet a simple or efficient process.

Previous to my arrival to Huddersfield, my proficiency of composing Electronic Dance Music was rudimentary, thus I needed to sharpen my skills in order to provide works that were on par with my electroacoustic knowledge. My research aspiration was to apply methods of sound manipulation learned from electroacoustics to EDM content, but the early results were not satisfactory. These attempts were not commendable and drove me towards the investigation of new tools (first the Ableton Push, and eventually to the addition of the Novation controller) and methods (using loops and restricting myself to Ableton’s native effects and plug-ins) for creating more suitable EDM.

Over the course of this research, I came across a multitude of research issues and discoveries. Rocket Verstappen (2016) was the first piece in which I was capable of creating a convincing “locked groove”, which is for me a powerful musical idea. The “locked groove” is described in the introduction of Mark Butler’s book as “the ultimate realization of the principle of looping – a manifestation of EDM’s essential structural unit in both physical and musical terms” (Butler, 2006, p. 90). On September 10th, 2016, I presented Rocket Verstappen (2016) during my performance at the Belgrave Music Hall in Leeds. This work did create a real moment of intensity in my performance. At only 8 minutes long, I wanted to capitalize upon this momentum and intensity. EDM’s format of 7-8 minutes tracks restricted and limited my musical flow, therefore I needed to find a way to continue and extend this musical energy. This is akin to what DJs do in a nightclub environment: continuously mixing tracks one after the other. I found that the bass should preferably come out of the lower speakers using a fixed location. As for the mid and high frequency content, depending on the amount of audio loops present, it was astute to use diffusion, height and trajectories of sounds.

In the subsequent piece, So It Goes (2017), I wanted to explore what happens compositionally and formally when you move from 8 minutes to 50 minutes for a track. I was also curious about the idea of the progression of the form and the incremental development of sonic materials; how can I move from one locked groove to another, creating seamless transitions through the concept of emergence and disappearance, whilst maintaining a logical musical progression. Also, it allowed me to use a variety of musical intensities within 50 minutes that explore merging of aspects of Techno, Trance and House, flowing between intense and calm musical passages. I aimed at developing a long form piece that takes elements from each of these three genres and subsumes them into a musical flow that has a coherent structure. This arrangement could be intuitively ordered or improvised, but nevertheless has a sense of ebb and flow. This is where I put to practice this dialectic between ease and discomfort, consonance-dissonance, expectation-release. These are the structural and principles that guided this musical arc, from the beginning to the end. Regarding the spatialisation, I had to limit the number of loops having spatial movement otherwise the piece became disorienting. I have discovered that keeping a limit of 3 sounds is effective in order not to obscure the spatialisation and still being able to segregate the individual loops.

My work relates to a DJ since I am also creating a set, and this set has a name with defined boundaries and a flow of musical ideas (emergence and disappearance).  I want to explore the possibilities of all of the sonic content. This aligns with the idea of “project possibilities” by Butler (2006), where I accept musical resolutions or deny them to the audience. This has a psychological imperative, when people expect things, we can either give it to them, or not. This allows me to interact with the audience when the moment requires it. I am thinking like a DJ about the long form; taking the raw material, exploring it in the moment, and exploit its potential. I choose sounds either because they fit (conforms to a particular texture or rhythm) the sonic content (aligns with the musical style) or because I want to deny it. For instance, So It Goes (2017) starts with a more Techno driven intensity, then calms in its momentum in order to lead to a musical climax more characteristic of the Trance style.

The fact that So It Goes (2017) was excessively weighty (in terms of CPU usage) when using spatialisation, resulted in me having to reduce and optimize my Ableton sessions in order to be able to improvise with the sonic content and to provide a spatial dimension to my works. The research imperatives drove me to keep the initial development of a musical idea (containing up to eight audio loops) and, when it is well established, to progress and complement it with an improvisation, using several effects (reverb, shuffler and filter) to manipulate the sounds. In assessing the specific loops with their sonic frequencies, I carefully selected the spatialisation role for each of the individual loops. This new practice led me to a novel compositional method and to elaborate my concept of ‘gravitational spatialisation’.

Spatialisation is present in all of my works but my concept of ‘gravitational spatialisation’ (having spectral divisions) was mainly established in my piece Not The Last One (2017). With this idea, I kept most low frequencies loops on the bottom speakers while moving or positioning the mid and high frequency loops on the speakers above. Additionally, in this work, musical loops are, at times, in parallel spatial motion and/or contrary spatial motion in order to draw the listeners’ attention on both the multiple sound sources and motions, around the performance hall. This method helped me provide an immersive musical environment, enhancing the live setting of a concert experience.

In the piece Cyborg Talk (2017), a concept that was explored was that of sonic manipulation – a process in which I take one sound and gradually alter its characteristics so that acts as a bridge from one musical context and another. In doing so, I am selecting pertinent musical features that will enable the processing of loops from one musical context to the next. One of the motivations for this work was to take a certain loop (the cyborg message) and to transform it so that it can blend with the underlying rhythmic pattern. This is imperative in my works; to shape sounds in order to make them fit a particular texture and transform them into another. Furthermore, Cyborg Talk (2017) investigates the idea of metrical localization for certain loops, where I experimented with quantized musical space. The movement of the loops are in synchronicity with the tempo of the piece, on every beat a certain loop changes localization.

With my final two pieces Chilli & Lime (2017) and Stix (2017), the emphasis was mainly on the integration and expansion of my live performance setup. They have helped me structure my working methodology for live sessions using the Ableton Push 2 and the Novation controller, while the previous works only used the Push 2. The aim with these two pieces was to add significant elements of improvisation into their structure and sonic development. Ultimately, these findings have impacted how I think about the notion of composition, where my role has a hybrid of composer-performer started to take shape.

2.1 - Music Styles - Techno-House-Trance

Techno is predominantly built around the rhythm, specifically how the repetition and the rhythm give structure to the work. There is a sense in which the rhythm becomes more complex with the addition of new blocks of material, and then recedes to a simpler musical state to create a sense of expectancy and rebuilding. The looping layers in my music work to highlight this process. The rhythm is akin to that found in Techno (artists such as Joey Beltram and Maceo Plex) but is developed in a different way. Nevertheless, it is this methodology of movement from rhythmic simplicity to complexity that enables me to use Techno as a starting point. The slow transformation of my musical elements allows me to create that sense of euphoria that I want from my music. It is like being in front of a musical buffet and taking certain characteristics and elements from a genre and blending them in order to generate something new.

Although Techno is the rhythmic behavioural template in my work, I also draw influences from House music (artists such as Dennis Ferrer and Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley) and the textural elements come from Trance. My music merges or hybridises these distinct elements altogether. The way my music diverges from those elements is in its continuity, its texture and its linear development. My sense of musical line is more connected with Trance’s long evolution of sounds (artists such as Tiësto and Paul Van Dyk); sweeping filters, sonic drones and continuous looping sounds. We can hear such a sweeping effect in my work So It Goes (2017), where this effect lasts over forty-five seconds (from 21’37”) before culminating in the climactic return of the beat at 22’22”. When I am using the Novation instrument, I am creating more textural lines of sounds, extending the length of my short material through spectral and rhythmic means. The short looping material coming from House and Techno is progressively transformed into Trance-like material through performance with the Novation controller. In Trance music, the sounds often have a sense of gradual evolution, it is more organic, and there is a musical flow, where sounds are spiralling around. In Techno, we clearly hear the rhythmic template as the most important element of the minimal structure around which other elements are clustered.

Figure 18 – Electronic Dance Music genres; EDM - three letters… so many styles (Found at  www.designinfographics.com , 2016). A documentary about the soundtrack of our dance music era:  Can You Feel It - How Dance Music Conquered the World [25]

Figure 18 – Electronic Dance Music genres; EDM - three letters… so many styles (Found at www.designinfographics.com, 2016). A documentary about the soundtrack of our dance music era: Can You Feel It - How Dance Music Conquered the World [25]

My music draws from aspects of different characteristics or components from different EDM genres. In my composition, I take the bass element from House, the rhythmic element of Techno and through performance it hybridises elements of Techno and Trance. This demonstrates the musical innovation that I bring through my research as I am not just writing Techno music or House music. I had to find a way to translate my work that was based on these genres of EDM (see Figure 18 above) but not fully integrated within only one style.  

Another style that relates to my work is Trance music, where “in the section before the breakdown, the lead motif is often introduced in a simplified form and the final climax is usually a culmination of the first part of the track mixed with the main melodic reprise" (Snoman, 2013, p. 268). As Trance music is more overtly melodic and harmonic than other electronic dance music such as House and Techno, it is important to avoid dissonance with a mix in order not to disrupt the flow of a track: “Trance in its early days became known for its long build-ups and explosive climaxes, as well as the hypnotizing or “trance” like feel that the music provokes in its listeners.” (Spin Academy website, 2017)

I appreciate the euphoria that Trance can create that I find missing in House or Techno music. It is a set of ingredients: a low, dark and groovy bass from House, a strong rhythm and sense of repetition from Minimal Techno, the multiple layers of textural loops through performance found in Trance. I am most drawn towards the sustained textural looping elements from Trance and the really slow timbral manipulations from Minimal Techno.

In contrast, since my compositions are “characterized by a stripped-down aesthetic that exploits the use of repetition and understated development” (Wartovsky, 1997), I also associate myself with the genre of Minimal Techno “that focuses on rhythm and repetition instead of melody and linear progression” (Sherburne, 2006). The introduction from my piece Rocket Verstappen (2017), illustrates this repetitiveness, without much linear change, the sonic activity literally kicks in only at 2’04”. My music is also “typified by accelerating peaks and troughs throughout the duration of the track and are, in general, less obvious than in House” (Sfetcu, 2014). A demonstration of this can be heard in my work So It Goes (2017), where sonic climaxes are present at 22’22” and 23’17” for example, as for a relaxing ambient section can be heard at 37’29”. There are over 40 styles associated with House music, thus I am only referencing the ones closest to my aesthetic. “Layering different sounds on top of each other and slowly bringing them in and out of the mix is a key idea behind the progressive movement” (Sfetcu, 2014), which is associated with Progressive House music. For instance, these progressive characteristics can be heard at 7’00” of my piece Cyborg Talk (2017), where multiple sonic layers are intertwined, emerging and disappearing as the piece evolves. I find many correlations with Tech-House music and my music, since “as a mixing style, Tech House often brings together deep or Minimal Techno music, the soulful and jazzy end of House, some Minimal Techno and Micro House and very often some dub elements” (Bogdanov, 2001). There is some overlap with Progressive house, which can contain deep, soulful, dub, and Techno elements which “often become deeper and sometimes more minimal. However, the typical Progressive House mix has more energy than Tech House, which tends to have a more ‘laid-back’ feel” (Bogdanov, 2001). Tech House music tends to “focus on subtlety, as well as the mid frequencies that add variety on the Techno beats and eschews the ‘banging’ of House music for intricate rhythms” (Bogdanov, 2001).

2.2 - Composition Overview

Much of my research has been undertaken in the SPIRAL Studio at the University of Huddersfield. I approach compositional projects with a specific methodology regarding both form and spatialisation. My work conflates notions of composition and improvisation. Coming from an acousmatic training in Montreal, I am used to a non-real time studio mixing environment in which every sonic detail is meticulously hewn. In my PhD research, my compositions could be more described as live electronic compositions, just as J.S. Bach would use a figured bass and extemporize a keyboard part on a pre-conceived harmonic structure. So, in my works I create a repository of sounds specific to a given composition. The form and processing of the materials is pre-conceived to an extent but is deliberately left open, so that the work can be re-configured anew in each performance.

My pieces are predominantly made up of pre-composed loops (coming from my own collection of sounds and from commercial sample libraries) with additional non-looping sonic material providing further layers of detail. I utilise two basic structural methodologies:1) I work with a pre-conceived structure that presents an exposition of the chosen materials for a track and then leads on to a more improvisatory framework using the sonic elements from the exposition; or 2) I start with the improvisation itself and then slowly let the pre-conceived structure emerge from this. Additionally, I employ variants on these strategies, such as multiple iterations of the first method followed by a return to the composed material at the end to close the sonic structural loop.

Figure 19 – Livestream performance setup in the Spiral Studio: Laptop with Ableton software and 2 controllers (Push 2 and Launchpad Control XL), 2018.

Figure 19 – Livestream performance setup in the Spiral Studio: Laptop with Ableton software and 2 controllers (Push 2 and Launchpad Control XL), 2018.

The two main compositional methodologies I utilise are differentiated both in terms of the number of sonic layers I use, and also the technology I use to create them (see Figure 19 above). These models act as an abstract blueprint for all my work in this research project. Neither formal archetype indicates or prescribes what it is going to happen at the moment to moment level, rather they suggest or map an overall strategy to approach my pieces. As such, they demonstrate a commonality of structure and compositional thinking between the pieces in the portfolio.

The most important concepts I use are the ‘emergence’ and ‘disappearance’ of sonic materials. These work on many levels within the compositional framework. At the uppermost musical level, I create layers of material that accumulate, often to the point of saturation at the climax of a piece. The sense of musical flow and overall structure I create is attained through the emergence and disappearance of sonic layers. Often, several mixes or versions are created in real-time in the studio. I am interested in capturing an intuitive sense of play with a seamless (de)construction of layers within the overall musical flow. A compositional sense of expectation is achieved through cutting out or adding sonic layers. Often, I maintain a sense of continuity or musical flow by using one or more layers, either rhythm or more textural, as a skeletal frame while other layers emerge or disappear around them.

As with contemporary producers such as Richie Hawtin (see Figure 20 below) who uses Ableton as an on-the-fly compositional / improvisational software tool (for the Plastikman show) in live performance (Bougaïeff, 2013, p. 8), I often start with a set of pre-composed materials that I have ordered in an Ableton session. I gradually introduce new sonic materials that either complement or contrast with existing materials depending on the sense of flow I am seeking to achieve. The temporal structure of the work is open, dependent on how many repetitions of a given loop or textural combination of loops I desire. The act of listening to new loops in sync, whilst I am constructing the Ableton session for my track, enables me to evaluate the sonic potential of the multiple layers in different combinations.

Figure 20 - Point Blank Performance Masterclass with Richie Hawtin July 31, 2015 (Damian Albetto).

Figure 20 - Point Blank Performance Masterclass with Richie Hawtin July 31, 2015 (Damian Albetto).

Although my work is predominantly based on loops I still feel the necessity for my tracks to have a specific direction or musical purpose. By way of illustration, I draw on the similarity between the act of composing with repetitive loops and the act of performing massotherapy; both include repeated patterns of activity, that over time allow additional layers (of music or muscles) to be revealed.

This act of repetition permits a more micro-level examination of a musical (or bodily) structure. The repetitions release the tension. The act of repetition with gradual micro-changes is a fundamental element of the improvisational parts of my practice. Whereas in the pre-composed sections in my work the focus is on the combination of discrete layers, in the improvised part, it is the sound manipulation of these individual layers that is both more important and far more radical. The layering of materials is often less dynamic, rather there is more emphasis on the timbral, rhythmic, and spectral development of the materials. This different approach in thinking in ‘horizontal’ layers of sound or ‘vertical’ manipulation of sound correlates to the technology I use in each section. I am using two different pieces of technology: the Ableton Push 2 and the Novation LaunchPad Control XL (see Figure 21 below). In the pre-composed elements, I use the Push 2 more frequently. In the improvisatory sections, I tend to sculpt the sonic material more with the LaunchPad Control XL. The preference for one technology over the other in each of the sections is due to the ease of parameter manipulation enabled by the Novation’s faders and three layers of pots as opposed to the Push’s design which is focused around trigger pads. Each of these tools offers me, as a composer and performer, the potential to create something unique in the moment that can trigger further musical development and sonic transformation.

Figure 21 – My controllers - Push 2 (left) and Launchpad Control XL (right), 2018.

Figure 21 – My controllers - Push 2 (left) and Launchpad Control XL (right), 2018.

My performance practice with the Push has been clearly around slowly adjusting the volume in order to facilitate the emergence and disappearance of layers into the musical texture to create a sense of flow.  

I have built up a performance practice on the Push and the Novation. These instruments in conjunction with my laptop allow me to generate this prolific creative environment during my compositional process. To elaborate on this topic, Paul Théberge discusses the idea that:

the assemblage is variable, and the same instrument can be used differently and take on different meanings depending on its place within a particular assemblage … I want to introduce the idea of musical instruments as a kind of “assemblage”, a concept that allows one to take instruments into account not only as they are defined by their technical characteristics but also as they are constituted in variable sets of musical practices, genres, institutional settings, social ideologies and discourses (Théberge, 2016, p. 65).

Since my second year of research, I have focused my attention solely on the live performance of my music, specifically examining the performance as composition paradigm. Therefore, I wanted to improve my stage presence and practice in order to deliver a strong music performance. Basically, I wanted to compose-create music in a live setting. My electroacoustic background has taught me about shaping and composing my sound material in the studio and my study of Techno, House and Trance have helped me to create, transform and perform my music in a live setting.

My objective is to have a self-awareness of what it is I am making musically, where it is drawing from, and to demonstrate that what I am doing is synthesizing those key characteristics into something that is compositionally my own: a musical manifesto. A fundamental thing is that I do not have to do all of the same thing in every piece, so I accept that some pieces are more influenced by Techno and House, while certain pieces can be more House and Trance-like. When I combine these musical ingredients, I can identify them. In the track Cyborg Talk, I wanted to concentrate on rhythm and space. The swirling sounds provide an immersive quality in regards of space (at 2’21”). The groove of the rhythm is transformed through the use of a shuffling effect (from 8’30” to 9’30”). As a result, my music sounds and is structured differently to commercial EDM because I am using different sonic ingredients in different combinations.

2.3 - Compositional Flow

A constant flow of emerging and disappearing musical layers allows me to create a sense of immersivity in my music. I want my music to fill a space with sounds that match and connect with the environment rather than work against it. Also, through that musical flow, I want the audience to experience a continual environment of spatial sound with the ebb and flow of sonic layers, creating a dynamic movement of my music. My sense of musical flow enables the creation of a sonic environment that does not draw attention to itself. The audience will experience a sense of immersion within that space, and through articulation points will make them aware of the musical structure. This sense of viscerality and immersion aims to affect the listener physically through the use of low frequency material and rhythmical elements (paying attention to the willingness of the audience to dance). If that sense of flow is missing, then the audience will become acutely aware of their body, and what it should be doing in that space. If the music is changing too much, with too many dynamic contrasts, we lose that sense of flow, because we are constantly brought back to the present moment. Thus, in my works I aim to create sonic environments that are formally articulated but do not contain a strong dynamic gestural profile. I am able to compose music using several layers and rhythms that are not too distracting in the gestural content, keeping the listener flowing in an immersive experience. My musical style is like ebbing water: the water can get agitated, but it never drastically ruptures and is always smooth on the surface with strong currents underneath driving it onwards.

Flow creates the vibe of my music. According to psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi:

Purpose, resolution, and harmony unify life and give it meaning by transforming it into a seamless flow experience’, concluding that those who make the most of the potential inherent in music […] have strategies for turning the experience into flow […] They plan carefully the selection to be played, and formulate specific goals for the session to come (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990, p. 6).

The way I treat my material has to do with the fact that I want to have a sense of flow from a compositional perspective. For instance, in Chilli & Lime, at the section beginning at 4’31”, I introduce the new loops at the momentum that I judge appropriate to the continuity of the performance. Inspired by the thinking of Csíkszentmihályi, I build on the sense of flow through spatialisation:

The mystical heights of the Yu [Flow] are not attained by some superhuman quantum jump, but simply by the gradual focusing of attention on the opportunities for actions in one’s environment, which results in a perfection of skills that with time becomes so thoroughly automatic as to seem spontaneous and outwardly. The performance of a great violinist or a great mathematician seem equally uncanny, even though they can be explained by the incremental honing of challenges and skills (Csíkszentmihályi, 1990, p. 151).

This allows the audience to become the center of a larger musical environment. It is as if this sense of flow was an organic bubble that is constantly going around the audience since they are in the middle of it. This idea resonates with Rupert Till’s concept of altered states of consciousness for the performer:

Playing music is itself a trance-like or transcendental experience, one where musicians often feel like they are somewhere else, have an altered state of consciousness or perceive an enhanced level of connection with their emotions, their fellow musicians and their audience in comparison to when not playing music (Till, 2010, p. 58).

One particular DJ whose performance is recognized as having a strong sense of flow and soulfulness is Derrick May. May is known for his strong melodic style and:

spiritual form of DJing. [He] really just loves to be surrounded by “creative people, entertainers, and even people involved in live stage events” basically anything that involves creating something and seeing it grow and flourish (Reiss, 2003).

On his CD compilation The Mayday Mix (1997)[26], Derrick May executes tight beatmatching which hovers between Techno and House music. Another mix compilation that creates a sense of immersion is Richie Hawtin's Mixmag Live Vol. 20 (1995)[27]. His minimal and funky aesthetic was a standard-bearer of its time and it undoubtedly influenced an entire generation of DJs and producers. The way I relate to their practice is in the mixing and matching of several layers of sound. The difference is that I am using up to eight full rhythmical loops simultaneously. Due to my spatialisation it is a greater challenge regarding saturation of the sonic frequency content but when appropriately manipulated, this allows me to expand the musical potential of all the layers by improvising with them. 

As much as a sculptor is constantly touching, moving and shaping his material, I transform and shape my sounds and that is why I consider myself to be more in the flow when composing and performing in the moment rather than in a more passive studio reflective mode about my composition. My compositional process is similar to figured bass structures found in Baroque. Just as figured bass prescribes a fixed harmonic structure without determining the overall details, so I constantly add ornamentation to my musical structure. In my pieces, I use similar types of processes (filters, reverbs and shuffling effects) on the different layers. So, through these processes, I can connect all the sound processes materials – just as Francis Dhomont does in Espace/Escape (1989) in which diverse sonic materials are unified through panning and delay techniques. Similarly, I apply sonic processing ‘ornamentation’ to different layers thus linking these musical layers. With the more improvised elements of the piece, I am applying a fixed set of processes to different layers and they aid the structure of the piece by giving a sense of continuity and colliding of the musical layers in the way which they are treated. This processing creates musical coherence, moving away from a direct sense of repetition.

For me it is important that my work is continuously moving and evolving. I relate this musical objective to Richard Middleton who writes in his essay Over And Over:

Ceasing to repeat is to die: this is true for individual organisms, for genes and species, for cultures and languages. Yet repetition without renewal is also a kind of death — the royal road to extinction. Repetition, then, grounds us in more than one sense — and nowhere more than in music, the art of iteration, whose multiple periodicities choreograph our every level of replication (Middleton, 1996, p. 1).

A musical progression can be achieved through a change in the rhythm, the reverberation, and frequency filtering, adding audio effects or changing a loop’s length, in order to make potent musical changes. I generally do not appreciate having loops repeating constantly without any change, I always try to maintain an active musical flow. In most of my compositions, I create compositional situations where I have a multitude of musical decisions to assess as I am performing. Although, I can prepare the piece in order for me to be less active in the performance, I usually prefer the freedom to interject into the sonic flow and intuitively shape the work into a seamlessly evolving experience.

The way I compose in real-time is more about the process of discovering how materials work together. My musical approach can be compared to Dubspeeka’s Primary K293 (2015)[28]. In Primary K293 there is a sense that structure is built up by introducing layers of materials. These layers are quite discrete, and they have two operational behavioural characteristics: when a high pitch sound is introduced, it creates a musical rupture or change in the musical texture and when there is a cut or ‘drop’ it is reintroduced often with a slight change. In Primary K293, there is a good deal of syncopation (a closed hi-hat at 0’31” and a two-note synth line at 0’50”). There is also a temporal skewing to create rhythmic lines that whilst attached to a certain loop structure, are not always in time with the bass (they work against the bass even though they are looping), so they create a sense of multiple time streams on each of those layers. It also creates a sense of space, of musical continuity that keeps the momentum going. The lines repeat but they create a sense of temporal shifting. Another characteristic of this track is that all of the materials are very short; they are readily identifiable, often less than five seconds long, and the changes within them are to do with discrete processing rather than gradual spectral or timbral evolution. This is quite different to my music in which sound objects and spaces are looped which provide a point of articulation. In my music, I use articulation in a different manner; there is little sense of musical dead space where nothing occurs. My music is loop-based and often texturally continuous. The materials loop in order to create longer lines that evolve spectrally. This is highly stratified music, compared to Dubspeeka’s K293. His instrumental layers are discreet and pristine, mine are loaded and often occupy most of the frequency spectrum, which clearly demonstrates the structure of the piece and we would immediately see how all of those layers are interacting. An example of this musical stratification can be found in my piece Not The Last One (2017), starting at 4’44”, where we can hear a simple beat getting richer and thicker as it progresses and evolves in time. Perhaps Dubspeeka’s is ‘vertical’ placement of discrete sound objects within a loop and mine is about the ‘horizontal’ layers which emphasizes the sense of flow.

These characteristics in my music are related to Minimal Techno as it focuses on small changes in the sound material. It also deals more with the texture of the music rather than complex melodies. Sam Paganini’s Rave (2014)[29] and my piece Rocket Verstappen exemplify typical Techno features using a kick drum on every beat, having a tempo between 118 and 135 beats per minute, and being instrumental rather than vocal. Regarding the more physical, visceral dimension of my work, I relate this element specifically to Trance since it creates climaxes and rises to play with the sense of tension-release (see Energy 52’s Café del Mar (1997)[30] and my piece Cyborg Talk). As is evident, I prefer taking different compositional elements from these genres to create music. From a musical point of view, it generates a strong sense of flow, an endless stream of continuously evolving sound in which my intuitive mental flow reprocesses, redevelops and reconfigures the musical interplay.

It is important to be able to play with that sense of expectation: knowing what will happen and what has happened. It is that kind of approach that allows me to structure my piece and why I have 8-minute and 12-minute versions of my music (Rocket Verstappen 2016 & 2017). I am using these techniques of multiple layers that create these textural musical masses and it is about the recombination of those layers. In the recombination of those layers, I am able to set up expectations in the listener; what will happen, where it might go, how can I tease the listener by taking them in another direction and finally fulfilling their expectations by bringing in the bass or the kick. When the layers stop, how those materials combine and how they re-combine gives me an insight into how the music is progressing. 

Repetition is key in my music but at some point, strongly profiled musical gestures are essential in order to steer the composition in another direction. I am careful not to over-saturate the listener with the same musical material. Thus, by removing some elements and bringing them back in a transformed manner changes the dynamic profile of the progression of the piece.

2.4 - Structure: process and intuition

In my work, key formal elements are the gradual accumulation and fragmentation of texturally and rhythmically driven loops by means of layering. These ‘layers’ create a sense of musical flow through ‘emergence’ and ‘disappearance’. This process of handling materials functions on several levels. The simplest is on the level of volume, with materials fading in and out. The loops emerge and disappear temporally becoming shorter or longer. Emergence and disappearance also work on a textural level with the layers creating moments of repose, or climax.

In my portfolio of submitted works, the first part of a track is often more composed and constructed and where I expose the main material and then build towards a first climax. There is often a general architectural framework I establish at the beginning of the piece, so by creating that structure at first, I can then play with it in the improvisatory section of the work, de-composing and re-composing layers of material(see Figure 22 below).

Figure 22 – Mixing several loops simultaneously, making them emerge and disappear gradually with the Push 2, 2016.

Figure 22 – Mixing several loops simultaneously, making them emerge and disappear gradually with the Push 2, 2016.

This ‘emergence’ and ‘disappearance’ of material creates a sense of expectation for the listener and is achieved by techniques such as removing the rhythmic content (kick), filtering the frequency content, or playing a rising loop, amongst others. The same process can be seen at the climax of specific sections of a track; it is the rhythm that is increasing in its complexity, sometimes supported by the amount of sonic layering I use, creating a culmination of sounds at the climactic moment. This increasing rhythmic and musical complexity is often presented with a rising filter sweep to enhance the re-introduction of the bass frequencies in the drop. After the drop, more layers and rhythm will be introduced to create a sense of musical explosion or release. Sometimes, I deliberately play with the clichés (such as removing the low content with the “Kill switch”) of the genres in which I work (either Trance, Techno or House music) or by playing with other musical parameters to create similar effects; such climactic moments are not always about rising frequencies, or increasing layers, or filter sweep rises. Like a flowing river, climaxes can be dissolved or elided with the next section through careful crossfading of sonic layers.

The sense of epic viscerality I seek to achieve in my works can also be achieved by gradually filling the full frequency range, to reach a point of saturation. Such music can be regarded as oppressive and physical; it is not just a gradual rise but a discreet filling-in of the spectral content. The multiple layers of materials create that sense of saturation. For instance, in my track So It Goes at 19’30”, a buildup section is progressively introduced, until reaching a musical climax at 20’30” that establishes a dense musical plateau upon which I add even more layers in order to create a sense of saturation. At 21’39”, the removal of all the layers except one, that is ‘washed out’ (with reverb), provides the expectation of the return of all the musical layers at once and this effect will impact the listener viscerally as the re-introduction of the powerful rhythm (the drop) offers such a musical intensity. The technique of having each climax increase in its level of intensity has been heard in tracks such as Swedish House Mafia’s Leave The World Behind (2009)[28] and Martin Garrix & Botnek vs Phatnoize’s Animal Discorrida Mash-up (2013)[29], and it correlates with my music. Where my music differs is in the musical technique that achieves this. Classic filtering of lower frequency content does occur in my work, but the subtler use of saturation uses notions of spectral density, frequency blocking, rhythmic complexity, and increased spatial movement to achieve this musical effect.

When composing in real-time, there are particular characteristics to the layers that I use that serve different types of musical function. Textural layers are often contracted with more directed rhythmic loops. Textural layers enable me to concentrate on the spatial element whilst rhythmic material enables me to build convincing climaxes. The layers of material that I am working with have specific musical functions. The layers themselves have two purposes: complexity and progression. Initially, the layers are often more textural but as they get closer to the climax, those materials are often developed to be more impactful. In order to achieve a sense of musical climax, textural loops are often removed from the mix and gradually replaced with more rhythmically impactful loops that lead to a structural point of musical intensity. There are normally two or three primary rhythmic loops at the beginning of a track and then a series of loops that contribute more spatial, melodic, or textural elements. In my composition So It Goes, from the beginning until 1’51”, the musical development of impactful loops directs the music toward an initial climactic section of the piece. Following this, I mix freely between these loops and then cut out certain ones with rhythm and then build up the track again.

The ways I choose to expose my layers of material in a piece is through a focus on processing parameters such as EQ filtering, reverberation and beat shuffling. All of these techniques and materials are connected so there will always be references back and forth to previously introduced musical loops. For me what is important is how the new elements are able to provide a different perspective on materials within the layers. These sonic variations coalesce to create a musical complexity and sense of progression as layers are recombined in a multitude of new configurations.

The sense of climax is not solely about the material itself and their combination but emerges from the combination of layers that create evolving musical textures through which I can achieve a climactic emotional flow. This idea is echoed in Garcia’s (2015) Beats, flesh, and grain: sonic tactility and affect in electronic dance music:

Texture of an object (or sound object) can thus be understood to carry the affective resonances of its past encounters while also engendering a sense of potential ones in the future. […] Texture can thus function as a node of articulation between material encounters and affective experience, through the sensate apprehension of past and future action in the present (Garcia, 2015, p. 72).

By adding layer upon layer, I am able to create the sense of epic emotional impact that I desire akin to a sublime experience in which the individual ego is subsumed into a collective experience. Compositionally in this layering of material musical climax is often reached through frequency saturation rather than layers of gradually rising pitch materials. In my piece Rocket Verstappen, from 4’39” until the climax at 6’34”, we can hear the application of this method in order to create an effective, albeit untraditional, musical climax.

The layers in the horizontal development of the piece create an impression of rhythmic independence. The off-beat syncopation of certain layers gives the feeling that they are tied to that four beats per bar (4/4) metric structure throughout the composition. When the layers work horizontally, they create a rhythmic complexity that is not just a vertical beat going all the way through the piece. The layers are often made of variable loop lengths, and although mostly continuous, these loops are subject to contraction and expansion. This allows me to use the sense of emergence and disappearance within the loops themselves as well as on the more global layer structure.

By having layers emerge I am able to create variety in both textural and rhythm layers. An example of textural emergence would be through deconstructing the whole mass of musical elements at a climax section and restart building another musical flow that will lead to another climax or return to the initial texture of the sounds. An example can be heard in the improvisation section of my composition Cyborg Talk, starting at 9’21”, where, after deconstructing and reducing the musical layers to a single beat I reintroduce loops slowly one by one and transform all the musical layers by the use of filters, reverberation or rhythmical effects, before ending the piece with the original sound materials so as to close the symbolic master loop.

Examples of complex rhythmic patterns created through simultaneous layers in my music can be heard clearly in the piece Stix (2017), between 1’45” and 2’15”. The loops contain several rhythms that generate a dense musical bed which provides a composite beat in order to continue the piece’s momentum. As for textural layers, we can hear the construction and deconstruction of textural elements that produce a musical structure that develops and engenders a smooth progression between the different layers. For instance, in my piece So It Goes, starting from 26’05”, we can hear an expansion of musical ideas where the additional layers selected create a detailed mass of loops that support the momentum of the composition. In the piece Chilli & Lime (2017), there are differences in my approach to layering materials with different rhythmical elements - how I use space in between these elements and their interaction when superimposed. These become immediate moments of difference that illustrate how my work is more textural than articulated. The introduction from 0’00” until 4’33” clearly demonstrates this difference particularly.

It is the structural use of musical layers and how I balance textural and rhythmic materials that differentiates my music from other artists from an operational perspective. Additionally, the introduction of new musical ideas is often achieved through a process of emergence and disappearance. There is no use of block-like contrasts as is commonly found in EDM.    

2.5 - Improvisation

When I begin a piece, the opening musical material is often more composed. In this first part, my musical thinking is more horizontal, having to do with the layers of sonic material and the temporal relationship within those layers adding nuance and exposing the material (see Figure 23 below). The second, more improvisational part focuses more on the vertical aspects of composition: harmony, textures, adding and removing different elements, deliberately playing and cutting out parts of the sound, changing the parameters of the sound. This is the way I think about musical structure and it is a recurring element in my compositional methodology. This approach of playing on the horizontal and vertical aspects of musical materials happened as I developed my proficiency when experimenting with the Novation Launchpad Control XL as an addition to the Ableton Push 2, altering filters, reverb and shuffling effects (and other audio effects). When I compose sounds for a track, I extend them by reshaping them through diverse effects. Concerning the vertical aspect of a composition, I tend to play with the spectral evolution of sounds. This occurs more in the improvisational part rather than the exposition part, thus my method of composing starts usually by creating more dramatic evolutionary sections in the first part and I frequently focus on audio effects in the second part, where it is more about sonic interventions into the musical layers, rather than the combination of layers.

Figure 23 – Ableton’s software in conjunction with the Push 2 instrument allows me to develop the structured and arranged sections of my compositions, 2018.

Figure 23 – Ableton’s software in conjunction with the Push 2 instrument allows me to develop the structured and arranged sections of my compositions, 2018.

There is a sense of intuitive musicianship when developing or performing an improvisatory section in the studio through mixing the musical layers live, selecting the elements that are more impactful or relevant to the direction of the composition. The use of textural sonic elements helps build up the piece, but I always introduce additional material towards the climax that has sonic characteristics that are different from that used for developing the preceding textures.

The improvisation section is more drastic in the removal of sonic content than during the exposition of the piece. At the beginning, it is just one or two loops that are added, juxtaposed or removed to create forwards movement. This can be compared to the improvisation sections, where the sense of movement and transformation is mostly concerned with how layers are subject to gradual effects changes and transformed by my intuitive decisions. These sonic developments take place on the top surface output layer. They are achieved by three layered effects: 1) on the rhythmical content using a buffer shuffler effect which allows the musical progression to drift and shift to a different rhythmic pattern; 2) on the spatial effect (reverb) by making the sounds appear closer or further away; and 3) on the frequency spectrum (filters). These effects create greater transformation on the musical content than the more subtle use of filters in the exposition of the piece, which are linked to the emergence and disappearance of material rather than their transformation.

The improvisation section allows me to deconstruct the piece and rebuild it in a new way in order to highlight the musical potential of the loops, be it the rhythmic, spatial or spectral content. The manipulation of these parameters allows me to create new possibilities and directions for the music to evolve, change and transform. I never know what exactly the outcome of my improvisation will be. I have to listen carefully and balance intuition with my preconceived ideas for the musical direction of the track. Although I am thinking more from a compositional perspective, I am aware that this particular practice is important when it comes to performing in front of a large crowd. My compositions are influenced by and derive from my performance practice. When I am in the studio, I will establish certain sonic elements in the development of my piece, but it is only in the ‘flow’ of the performance that the understanding about what works or not, musically, will be realised, and thus what actions (remove the bass, filter the high frequencies, add reverb, etc.) I should take in order to achieve the desired effect to progress my musical ideas.  Including pre-composed elements and improvisation in my work allows me a certain freedom to feel what is happening with the crowd and let this direct the musical flow, as well as proposing a certain musical direction through more profiled, pre-constructed material. Both elements have the intention of communicating a musical journey, one in which I chose the materials, but the overall formal shape is open and designed in the moment to create an immersive experience of sound and space.

My use of musical layers has a kinship with the work of Dubspeeka. When analysing Dubspeeka’s Techno-influenced Primary K293, we find that the use of shorter sonic gesture and silences creates a rhythmic interplay between discrete musical layers between the loops. I work in a similar way with musical layers when producing my compositions. However, my work is more influenced by Trance and hence, is more sonically linear, whereas Dubspeeka’s block-like handing of rhythm can be derived more from House music. In my piece Cyborg Talk at 6’35”, there is an emphasis on a synthesized melody and a House-style 4/4 beat. This section of the track is based around a heavily quantized melody, with a Trance-like, hypnotic and often repetitive feel. Basically, I use both musical ideas of Techno and Trance to compose a hybrid genre of music.

In my work, the improvisatory section is built around the development of a maximum of eight musical elements. Improvisation will focus on either spectral, rhythmic or spatial elements and it usually occurs after the presentation of the opening composed section. Having a pre-conceived compositional structure generated from a pool of materials is a common feature of my music in the portfolio that allows me to generate a ‘fresh’ version of the piece depending on my emotional state while reading the crowd when performing. I have a pool of material that I can do anything with, but that material is already composed into a loosely-defined structure. It is up to me to navigate interesting ways through that structure anew in each performance.

2.6 - Conclusion: outlets and dissemination

I do not necessarily sit and work in the studio, producing a track that comes into fruition as a studio musician would. When I am talking about composition and improvisation, there is always an element of live performance in the studio. The pieces that I am submitting for my PhD are versions that I am satisfied, but they are one version of many. They are open (having a pool of material and I have the choice to do what I wish with all the sounds from that piece). The performance of that piece will always create a slightly different version of the piece, but several versions will reveal the piece’s identity. Overall, for me, there is no such thing as the final version of that piece. My creative process is a circular approach with regards to my practice when I compare with other artists who work differently or similarly (GusGus[30] and Jon Hopkins[31]).

My research also concerns finding a suitable means of dissemination for my work including a multichannel Livestream on YouTube. This works in an unusual way, it can not necessarily be performed in 3D every Friday night since there are not many systems to perform with, thus I am searching further opportunities. One is the multichannel dissemination of fixed versions. This is why I have binaural versions of the work on my YouTube channel. Looking for alternative routes to a commercial market is also a valid part of the research and to investigate possible new means of disseminating such music not supported by current commercial formats. The type of music that I perform is usually played in mono format and I wish to create a multichannel content comprising the 3D space that is written into my music. I have assessed Dolby’s and other spatialisation systems that can provide this kind of sonic experience, as well as looking at different digital platforms. What I am doing is using the knowledge from those systems in order to disseminate my work, because if I create 3D EDM I need an outlet for it.