Figure 1: A model of creative processes – note that the red arrows point in a single direction, black arrows are bi-directional, and the green arrow represents the single path to the work.

Sam McAuliffe

Responding to Sounds of the Environment Through Improvised Musical Performance


Listening can produce a sonic understanding of acoustic territory, outlining the proximity of sound sources, the boundaries surrounding them, and rendering them friendly, hostile, or neutral – an overall complex acoustic experience. The listening subject either hears, or does not [1]; the precise location of perception contains auditory information both immediate and in the periphery – the subject’s experience is not equal to that of the observer. Thus sonic perception generates a unique, personal understanding of acoustic environments [2]. However, this personal understanding of environmental sound becomes problematic should we wish to share or discuss a sonic event. One way of overcoming this challenge is to conduct a field recording within the acoustic location to create a static, sonic reproduction. By isolating sound as an object (field recording), the sonic event can be shared and studied, and its characteristics understood [3]. This understanding can assist musicians to develop strategies for improvised performance that reflect the distinct characteristics of the correlating environment. This article suggests a methodology of developing performance frameworks that enable improvising musicians to engage with and respond to sounds of the environment. It outlines some of the complexities found within the subjective process of developing and realising the final work and offers examples of in-progress works to demonstrate how the methodology has been applied to my own performances.

Situating My Research

Integrating sounds of the environment within musical discourse became relatively common in experimental and avant-garde music practices throughout the 1950s. Notably, contemporary classical composer John Cage [4] and musique concrète artist Pierre Schaeffer [5] championed sounds of the environment. While Cage and Schaeffer were not the first to pursue environmental sound within their music [6], their practices created a nexus for experimentalism in music [7]. As a result, musicians and theorists around the globe became increasingly interested in sounds of the environment.

Within my research, field recordings are sourced from locations that I move through regularly in my everyday lifestyle in Melbourne, Australia. The sounds occurring in these locations (train stations, walking tracks, etc.) produce a sonic knowledge of place. They are simultaneously personal and promiscuous; they cannot be held for long, yet they are able to guide us through shared spaces, imparting knowledge to the community of listeners within proximity of the sound’s sounding. LaBelle states, ‘sound invades my space – it disrespects borders, thereby making explicit the intensity of territory’ [8]. Thus sound is capable of outlining and invading territory; field recordings document the acoustic qualities of these locations as they were at a particular time. Thus the development of musical works informed by sounds of the environment establishes a practice wherein a particular acoustic territory is reflected in performance.

Within the context of my project, sound of the environment can be understood as any vibration that can be heard when a person is present within a particular, static location. Thus ‘environmental sound’ refers to all sounds, regardless of source, including those that are natural, urban, and human-made. Understanding the characteristics of these sounds and responding through improvised musical performance is the primary concern of my project.

The theoretical framework for my research is situated within the overarching disciplines of practice-led research and reflective practice. My approach involves reflecting upon non-linear, trial and error processes to develop performance frameworks for improvising musicians. This research aims to answer the underlying questions: how can sounds of the environment inform improvised musical performance? And, how do improvising musicians interpret referents (performance stimulus such as musical notation, visual image, text, etc.) that are informed by sounds of the environment? Inline with Sullivan’s comment regarding practice-led research, I strive to transition from the ‘unknown to the known’ [9], through constant reflection upon my artistic process. This article discusses an in-progress research project and while I can hypothesise answers to the aforementioned questions, my research is ongoing.

Merleau-Ponty claims that if we subject ourselves to our surroundings and pay attention to them, we will not merely ‘further clarify some pre-existing givens; rather, […] realise in them a new articulation by taking them as figures’ [10]. By studying sounds of the environment we are able to understand their characteristics, which we can then apply to other disciplines, such as music. Environmental sounds are not radical; they display characteristics inherent in all forms of music, such as density, texture, timbre, volume, etc. However, unlike traditional forms of music from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, sounds of the environment do not adhere to the equal tempered system [11], rendering traditional forms of analysis, such as identifying intervallic relationships, unsuitable. Voegelin resolves that this difficulty in analysis ‘simply amplifies the demands of any sound to be considered in its immersive contingency rather than in relation to a pre-conceived system’ [12]. Thus, active listening practices, such as those documented by Oliveros [13] and Voegelin [14] can be exercised, allowing practitioners to recognise the innate musicality of their environment. This allows referents to be developed, which provide frameworks for improvised musical performance.

By engaging with field recordings of select acoustic environments, practitioners are able to re-listen, reflect upon, and document the distinct characteristics of a recording; including both objective and subjective observations. Objective observations constitute those that can be empirically measured, such as volume, density, and frequency range. Subjective observations constitute personal feelings such as whether or not environmental sounds are boring or interesting, or whether the field recording evokes a particular emotion or mood. Both objective and subjective characteristics of a field recording will in varying degrees affect improvised performance.

By familiarising themselves with select field recordings, performers are able to singularly or collectively develop a referent and where necessary, multiple referents, to guide their collective, or solo performance(s). The development of the final work, as informed by the referent, is a multifarious, non-linear process, as outlined in Figure 1 (above).  

Figure 1 visualises the complexity (on a macro scale) of developing the works conceived and created for this project. The category Sounds of the Environment (field recording) is situated at the top of the diagram, as it informs all subsequent aspects of the process. The arrows throughout the diagram reflect the possible non-linear steps taken to refine and develop the referent in order to arrive at the final work. Each category (excluding sounds of the environment) can be either skipped, or visited as many times as necessary, in varying order, to develop the referent(s) and consequently, the work. It should be noted that the only path to the performance/work is from the referent (as indicated by the green arrow), however if the performance is not successful (as determined by the ensemble) arrows leading away from the work allow any or all of the categories to be revisited as necessary, to further refine the work. Most importantly, the diagram outlines the multiple pathways between sounds of the environment, the referent, and the subsequent performance/work [15].

Applying the Methodology

Within my project, referents primarily take three forms – audio, written text, and graphic – which are often interconnected. The first and perhaps most important is the audio referent; a field recording created within a selected environment. Audio referents inform those that are text and graphic. Text referents are written instructions that elucidate specific aspects of the audio that should be realised in performance, such as volume and frequency range, or the nature of sounds (gentle, dominating etc.). Graphic referents are images that generate an understanding of the aural experience via visual representation (see here for an example – the text based and graphic referent that informed the work Jetty).

By studying field recordings of acoustic locations, I am able to discern the most distinctive characteristics of each location. Text based and graphic referents were often created to clarify specific aspects of the field recording (audio referents) that should be reflected in performance. The ensemble would collectively listen to the audio referent while I articulated which characteristics of the recording we would endeavour to reflect in performance. This allowed ensemble members to generate their own personal understanding of the instructions and field recording. After listening to the recording, ensemble members were free to ask questions in order to clarify any details of their role within the performance. Characteristics pursued may include performing within a particular frequency range, at a pre-determined volume, interacting (or not) with other ensemble members, or entering/exiting the piece at certain times.

Upon hypothesising this preliminary methodology, I initiated an ensemble workshop with a quintet comprising Tony Hicks (woodwinds), Mark Shepherd (synthesiser), Reuben Lewis (trumpet), Zeke Ruckman (drums), and myself (guitar). By reflecting upon previous rehearsals and approaches, my intention was to clarify and improve upon the following: the role of each performer within the ensemble and different strategies the ensemble might adopt to interpret referents.

In order to collectively understand the functionality of the ensemble, I introduced the group to the idea of a monistic ensemble [16] To contextualise this proposition, we collectively listened to a field recording conducted at Flinders Street Station (Melbourne CBD) (audio excerpt #1) while I indicated particular relationships between sounds and contextualised them within the idea of a monistic ensemble; further explaining how these relationships might be embodied within our own performance. Re-listening to the field recording, the ensemble engaged in discussion, directing one another’s attention to various sounds and critiquing the relationships these sounds have with one another. This discussion outlined aspects of the audio referent that were identified and interpreted similarly by ensemble members and others that elicited varied interpretations. By clarifying which characteristics of the field recording were ambiguous, text and graphic referents were created in order to generate a unified musical approach.

After this discussion, the first piece rehearsed was Station (audio excerpt #2), which was informed by the field recording conducted at Flinders Street Station. We experienced a level of ensemble cohesion that was not evident in earlier performances and we believed the relationship between the field recording and our performance to be clear. Following this rehearsal, Station was performed at The Catfish, a local music venue. While the prescribed time frame for performance (30-45 minutes) was considerably longer than our rehearsal of the piece (10-15 minutes), due to the improvised nature of our performances, we took the opportunity to push ourselves and see whether or not we could maintain our performance framework for the prescribed duration. Upon reflection, the performance had room for improvement in regards to fulfilling our pre-conceived objective of consistently following the referent (we occasionally deviated from our pre-conceived performance framework). However, I was pleased with how the methodology informed our approach (audio excerpt #3). Additionally, I felt that after much trial and error, the ensemble was developing an aesthetic that aligned with the aspirations of the project.

Another work that trialled the methodology was Jetty, a duo featuring Mark Shepherd (synthesiser) and myself (guitar). The field recording (audio excerpt #4) was conducted beneath a fishing jetty located on the Port Melbourne beach. Again, three referents (audio, text, and graphic) guided our performance. Reflecting upon our first iteration of the piece, both Mark and I agreed that our music did not reflect the guiding referents. We established that what characterised the audio referent was its minimalist, repetitive, and ambient qualities, and we endeavoured to pursue these further within our performance. Although stylistically varied from Station, we deemed our second attempt successful (audio excerpt #5); we were confident that pursuing the methodology through additional rehearsals would result in our performances reflecting the characteristics of the audio referent while simultaneously satisfying our ‘tastes’ as musicians.

This project involves the conception of a methodology that allows improvising musicians to respond to sounds of the environment. By studying the characteristics of selected acoustic locations, our performances reflect and document particular environments and territories, as they were at a particular time. While my research is ongoing, I believe this iteration of praxis has generated results that align with the aims of my research: to acquire a deeper understanding of environmental sound and generate musical works that reflect characteristics derived from particular locations. Specifically, the contrast between Station and Jetty demonstrates the positive effect this methodology has in regard to directing musical performance.


[1] Voegelin, Salomé. Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] LaBelle, Brandon. Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

[4] See Cage’s Silence: Lectures and Writings. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

[5] See Schaeffer’s 5 Ētudes De Bruits – Ētude Aux Objets, Disques Dreyfus, 2010. LP.

[6] As early as 1913 Luigi Russolo wrote of noise as music (Russolo, 1913) and in 1924, Australian composer Henry Tate published Australian Musical Possibilities (Tate, 1924), a text outlining Tate’s opinion that Australian composers must turn to their natural environment to create a distinct national repertoire.

[7] LaBelle, Brandon. Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Inc., 2015.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Sullivan in Dean, T. Roger, and Smith, Hazel (eds). Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice in the Creative Arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 28.

[10] Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception (New York: Routledge, 2012), 25.

[11] Equal temperament refers to a tuning system whereby every pair of adjacent pitches is separated by the same interval. For example, traditionally, in Western classical music, the octave is divided into twelve equal parts (or semi-tones).

[12] “Pondering a paradox: The seduction of noise.” Salome Voegelin. Accessed May 22, 2015.

[13] See Oliveros’ book Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. New York: Deep Listening Publications, 2005.

[14] See Voegelin’s book Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

[15] It should be noted that once field recordings have been studied and referents created, whether or not the final work resembles the source material is of no importance. Thus, the aim is not to reproduce or replicate sounds from the environment; instead the importance is placed on transferring characteristics of these sounds to a performance context.

[16] Within this project, the final work, as perceived by the listener is referred to as a monistic ensemble. Within a context of listening to and perceiving sound, Voegelin describes a monistic ensemble as individual elements that complete each other without abandoning themselves – the ensemble appreciates the individual element and brings together their particularity (Voegelin, 2013). This infers that listening is not experiencing the production of a work, but perceiving a work in time and space. Additionally, in relation to theatre actors, film director and theorist Sergei Eisenstein states that the individual elements of a monistic ensemble ‘do not accompany (nor even parallel) each other, but function of elements of equal significance’ (Eisenstein, 1949. 20). By acknowledging both Voegelin and Eisenstein’s presupposition that the term can be applied exclusively to the functionality of a specific ensemble, at the exclusion of the larger, encapsulating world, monistic characteristics can be embodied within musical works.


Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1973.

Eisenstein, Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory, trans. and edited by Jay Leyda. London: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1949.

LaBelle, Brandon. Acoustic Territories: Sound Culture and Everyday Life. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

LaBelle, Brandon. Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice. New York: Deep Listening Publications, 2005.

“Pondering a paradox: The seduction of noise.” Salome Voegelin. Accessed May 22, 2015.

Russolo, Luigi. The Art of Noises. New York: Something Else Press, 1967.

Schaeffer, Pierre. 5 Ētudes De Bruits – Ētude Aux Objets, Disques Dreyfus, 2010. LP.

Tate, Henry. Australian Musical Possibilities. Melbourne: Edward A. Vidler, 1924.

Voegelin, Salomé. Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.


Sam McAuliffe is a research masters student at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. His research interests include sound art, experimentalism in music, improvisation, and cultural theory. Recently, Sam completed an honours research project at Monash University, researching the textural approaches exhibited by Australian guitarist David Brown; Sam graduated with first class honours receiving both the ‘Writing Up’ award for best thesis and the ‘Ernst Morawetz Prize’ for best academic result. Sam performs widely throughout Australia in improvised noise, rock, and sound art disciplines, and has performed at international festivals including Nocturnal, Tilde, and SoundOut. He is currently working towards an audio CD release of works conceived and created for his masters research.


Download the PDF