Eric Leonardson and the
Art of Acousmatic Composition
By Jacopo Andreini
AAJ: Eric, give us a short and
jolly introduction about you and your music.
EL: I'm an artist who makes
and uses sounds that can be received as art, music, or noise among
other things. I started doing this over twenty years ago, when I was a visual art student.
I think the connection of my present-day activity, in relation to my past as a visual
artist, was based on my interest in recorded sound as a material for making art, for
making live art instead of static art objects. Now I work a lot as a free improvising
musician, an electroacoustic or acousmatic composer, a radio artist, and a sound designer.
I've also described myself as an instrument inventor, but I don't have a lot of instrument
inventions to show you, just the Springboard and my personal sound studio.
These are my instruments.
AAJ: What's an acousmatic
EL: Like musique concrète,
an acousmatic composition exists solely in recorded form rather than notation. It
doesn't need to be performed because the composer finished it in the sound studio using
sound recording, and nowadays computer technologies. It only needs to be played through
loudspeakers. I first heard the term used by Canadian electroacoustic composers.
AAJ: Another deep and interesting
description of your Springboard, if you can.
EL: I wanted to make new and
unusual sounds that weren't purely electronic or concrete. I was drawn to coil springs
because they were used long ago to create artificial reverb, and they are sensitive to
vibrations. The Springboard began simply as a way to amplify a bowed coil spring with a
contact microphone. I bought two large eyebolts and a spring at a hardware store. The
board was just a discarded piece of wood lying around my studio space.
The contact mike was purchased at a
surplus store for a few dollars, and it amplified board to a very high degree. This led me
to attach other objects. I was fascinated by its sounds and I kept working on it,
modifying and performing with it. I wasn't planning on making an instrument, but that's
AAJ: How much do you think the
contact mikes have influenced the production of all this new instruments builded with
"discarded pieces"? My friends Cock ESP actually play live shows with just a
couple of contact mikes plugged into 6 distortion pedals, which allow them to have a huge
amount of harsh noise, they can move and act, and (not the least...) travel the world with
a very small and light gear.
EL: Well the weak vibrations
of many solid objects wouldn't be audible without a contact mike. It makes so many more
materials and objects available for sonic exploration, be they discarded or not.
It's interesting to me because this also stretches the definition of an instrument.
What your friends in Cock ESP do
makes me think about not only using readily available objects and materials specific to
the site of a performance, but also amplifying the performance space itself; the
stage, the floors, the windows.... If you think of a room as an acoustic resonator, like a
free improvisation, each concert will be unique to and determined by that site. And so the
room can be used as a temporary instrument.
After I perform sometimes people ask
me why I made this "thing." For me it's a strange question because I imagine, or
would hope, that its sounds and the way I use them make the reason self-evident. But, I
suppose the question deserves to be asked because I use trash, very basic and
insignificant things to make sounds that do touch people in unexpected ways. If one is not
familiar with the history of avant-garde art and non-western, or "folk"
instruments, it will seem absurd, maybe even threatening.
Or maybe people wonder why I like
these sounds, or why I play them in the way I do. I know people are surprised by it just
like I was that very first time: How can something so common and ugly make such intriguing
sounds? I usually explain that percussionists have been using hubcaps and other everyday
objects to make interesting sounds for a long time. There's usually no time to engage
about the philosophical implications.
It requires technique and practice.
I played drums long ago and I have been playing the Springboard for six years. So I have
learned what the objects or materials I've selected for the Springboard can allow me do.
The more potential an object or material yields, the more I'll work with it. It's a
physical process, no different from learning how to achieve a "good tone" or
technique with a traditional instrument, except that these objects are not designed for
Learning how to use it was a long
trial and error process at first. This meant that I had meet it on its own terms: learn
special techniques; how to control a violin bow and later a cello bow. I modified brushes
to get the right percussive sounds, and I learned how to use my fingers to drum on it. And
as I mastered these materials and techniques, I added new objects, repositioned other
ones; broke some and dispensed with others. So in the beginning years the Springboard
changed a lot.
Am I rambling on too much? If you
I think this experience reconnects me to the physical pleasure of drawing, which I stopped
doing a long time ago. I learned a new word the other day, haptic, which means
understanding or communicating by touch rather than seeing, or some other sense. I can
feel the pencil and it's pressure on the paper through in my hand. It's the same with an
acoustic instrument. The actions of your hand or whatever part you use to play, vibrates
you immediately and you can feel the material respond back. It's not just in the ears. You
could say my Springboard experience has taught me how to hold something in my hand and
feel its general sound character.
AAJ: How does a self-built
instrument influence your way of playing? And do you think somebody could play an
instrument built by another person with the same deep understanding? (More or less I'm
asking: what's the relationship between the builder and the musician, if that's not the
EL: The Springboard
definitely influenced my way of playing. I couldn't play it like a drum. Hitting the
Springboard with a drumstick makes a very loud and uninteresting sound. Unlike the
electronic instruments I was using before its invention, it has no keyboard, keypad,
buttons, LCD display, and recently, only one knob instead of dozens. In other words, I was
unencumbered by the constraints of standardized musical instrument interfaces, by the need
for programming, complicated signal routes, tunings, etc. There was no standard repertoire
to influence me. The Springboard had no history and it wasn't precious. So I had no
worries about making the wrong sound or harming the instrument.
AAJ: This is interesting. I've
seen that you have in your record collection an album by Hans Reichel (the world-famous
inventor of the daxophone) in which he plays an operetta for daxophone. I heard many
others records by him, and that one has been weird to listen to, because it's like as if
he tried to bring the sounds of his particular instrument back to the "old"
music. I think a new instrument should be investigated for its possibilities to create new
musics. What do you think about this? (I was thinking also about the first theremin
performances, trying to reach the perfect pitch and play some classical music melodies and
EL: I don't think there is
necessarily anything wrong with old things, but I do agree with you. I made a new
instrument to explore sounds that were new to me. And these sounds enabled me to make a
kind of music I hadn't before in terms of its form, structure, timbres, rhythms, etc. But
I'm not a purist either, and so with Hans Reichel's operettas I appreciate the
perverse humor of it, and I'm sure he's fully aware of its irony. When you listen and
watch those tapes of Theremin and Clara Rockmore performing classical music on the
theremin it's kitsch, pure and simple.
The Springboard has also changed my
way of playing for the obvious reason that these sounds presented me with musical,
compositional, and aesthetic challenges. Some were easier to use than others. These sounds
make you more aware of your own biases and tastes, as well as you're your physical
I have spent years working with
them. I suppose that's why I haven't built a lot of instruments. This one alone still has
so much I need to master yet. Which brings up an important point. I didn't make the
Springboard with a predetermined sound in mind, like a particular scale or tuning, or to
improve on preexisting designs. I just wanted to find out what an amplified coil spring
sounded like. In fact, I wasn't intending to make an instrument. It's just what evolved.
Regarding your second question, if the builder is also the player he or she will always
have a more intimate knowledge of the instrument's sonic possibilities. The builder has
that advantage initially, but that doesn't mean someone else can't learn what these
possibilities are, and even surpass the builder's knowledge. It all depends on how much
time one wants to spend playing the instrument.
However, making your own instrument
provides a deeper sense of satisfaction than playing one that is made by someone else,
especially one that's mass-produced. And so I think it's most likely that the builder will
also be the instrument's best player.
AAJ: The improvisation mentality
and attitude normally enables very different people to work together. Do you think that
this "language" can now be considered as too old, ...as a language that has
exhausted its possiblities?
EL: If you think of it as a
language and not a style, improvisation can't be exhausted. It's elementary to human
action. Attitudes and styles will always change, and are changing to suit the needs of
people. People get old, and their ideas can become exhausted, but ideas and people are
My friend Jack Wright said he thought of improvisation as relationship in sound
between people and environment. I understand the people part of the equation and I'm
intrigued by the environment part. I could add that improvisation is way of
working, a method. For me it is synonymous with the creative process, be it applied to art
or any other form of human activity.
Jack also said we are well connected in most of this playing, and when we are not we know
it. That is true for me. It can be disappointing when I'm not connecting, because this
relationship depends on trust-in my improvising partners as well as myself.
When I improvise with people I have
never played with before, in a public performance, I feel as if I'm taking a big risk. It
is a test of your abilities to understand the temperament or style of another person in an
instant. I have to be an artist and critic without thinking. I have to respond to my
errors or misinterpretations immediately-without regret or reflection-and go on.
Improvisation is about acting without time for thinking. I'm receiving and transmitting
instantaneously. My action is physical while my listening and interpreting happens on a
I could say more, but maybe I am becoming pedantic now.
AAJ: Is there any kind of sound
you feel more adequate to dialogue with when you play on the springboard? I mean, voice,
guitars, drums, synth... or it's just a matter of who's the other person?
EL: I've played with all
kinds of instrumentalists, except for piano, and so far I don't think there are any
sounds-acoustic or electronic-that the Springboard sound can't work with. My relationship
to a fellow player makes the difference. My instrument can do things that traditional
instruments don't and vice versa. It has its limitations and its unique strengths. So
it's always important that whomever I play with we listen deeply and openly to our
similarities and differences. That applies not only the physical characteristics of the
sounds themselves, but also to the way we're using them. Some people improvisers are
interested in a musical interaction modeled on or even mimicking a verbal dialogue, others
are not at all.
Eric Leonardson's Homepage, pages.ripco.net/~eleon
This article is published courtesy
of All About Jazz Italia: www.allaboutjazz.com/italy