the improvisor

the international journal on free improvisation

Impnotes.jpg (5397 bytes) WE've MOVED 

see new address and contact email  in ABOUT US   




Hot Links

About Us

What's NEW?



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 composer???

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 what evolved.

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 music.

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 don't mind,
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 same person?)

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 so on...)

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 abilities.

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, 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 also renewed.
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 pre-cognitive level.
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,

This article is published courtesy of All About Jazz Italia:


the improvisor
The International web site on free improvisation

[Home  | Articles  |   ReviewsHot Links   |   About Us]