Recording as composing

Recording as composing

Recording a piece of (improvised) music is different from documenting it.

I support the practitioners of experimental music in the 1960s that, according to David Grubbs (2014) claim that “audio recordings are at best curiously incomplete representation of their efforts.”1 There are a lot of choices to be made in order to record and save what’s being played onto some kind of storage media. And all of these choices alter the situation it is supposed to store. Microphone positioning; microphone choices; preamps; the mix. Everything adds to, or reduces something from the original event.  

It may be that opponents and supporters of improvisation are defined by their attitude towards the fact that improvisation embraces, even celebrates, music’s essential ephemeral nature. For many of the people involved in it, one of the enduring attractions of improvisation is its momentary existence: the absence of a residual document.2

Even if I am attracted to the referential aspects I claim is part of our music, I am also drawn to ephemerality and the momentary existence of a piece of improvised music.  

And I agree that recordings can never fully represent a given situation. So why record improvisations, at all? To me, the obvious answer and solution is to consider the recording as something that deviates from stage improvisation, and not purely consider it as a documentation of a situation on a stage. Instead I prefer to take full advantage of the recording studio and consider the recording situation as a different method of making music. It can still contain a lot of improvisation. And it contains innumerable possibilities for both pre- and post production techniques, methods for de-construction, re-composing etcetera. Stage improvisations and studio-produced improvisations may still inform each other mutually.

All of the releases by both Huntsville and Dans les arbres have, to varying degrees, been results of post-editing techniques like: erasing dull transportation, altering and enhancing the dynamics, cutting longer sections into shorter parts, splicing parts etcetera. Sections on Huntsville's recordings have been edited more radically: sections have been looped, instruments have been edited completely out, overdubs have been made etc. As mentioned in Form, we also record different takes on the same musical ideas. None of this is controversial, seen from a rock or pop studio production perspective, but may be so, seen in the light of the above quotations.  

Both releases that are part of the final artistic result in this project have also been a result of recording as composition. POND by Huntsville to a lesser degree3, whilst some sections on my solo album Stop Freeze Wait Eat are results of heavy editing and re-composing.

Again, I would like to compare recording as composing to how I imagine Alexander Calder is building his mobiles, how I imagine he must have tried different materials, weights, positions, rod lengths in order to achieve balance.     

The painter may work intuitively at the canvas, take a step back to look, reflect, re-consider, return to the canvas, edit, remove, reduce, repeat. On some of the sections on Stop Freeze Wait Eat I have tried to apply a similar kind of thinking and approach in the recording process. I recorded improvised sections, edited and re-recorded, re-arranged. Unscrupulously. The opening track “Stop Freeze Wait Sing” has sequential improvisations: small edits from an original improvisation on acoustic guitar, was re-improvised in the MAX MSP tool described in Loop, edited and re-arranged in my studio, improvised overdubs added, overdubs moved and removed, original material removed, moved.

Working in the recording studio also offers a combination of different temporalities. I can step out of the playing time, and listen and reflect detached from doing.

Note to self: try to paint


David Grubbs, Records Ruin the Landscape, John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording. London 2014. Duke University Press, iv

Derek Bailey, Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. Ashbourne, England 1992 (1980). Moorland Pub. in association with Incus Records, p35.

The opening track “(ER)” has some orchestral overdubs: snare drum to provide a fatter drum sound and a more complex rhythm, a disarming pedal steel guitar and subtle strumming on an Iranian setar in the middle section.