Apparently using her imaginary iphone

How (not) to compose music

I made a profile in, and by chance, I saw this article:

How to Compose Music

The people who have written it out have really done a lot of effort, including pedagogical graphics like this one:

She looks friendly

YOUR composition teacher

Unfortunately, the text is a tour de force through all the typical misconceptions you would meet in any presentation about music and composition in education. It seems futile to start and edit the article, – after all it is conform to the most widespread ideas about the subject, so my only reasonable option was to give this comment in the discussion:

“This article is a brilliant example of how to confuse people and block their musical creativity. It stems from the misunderstanding that the analysis of existing music, underlying what we call music theory, IS in fact music

However, music does not come from nowhere, it is embedded in a CONTEXT.
Explaining people how to compose by showing them scales, chords and instruments is like explaining someone how to communicate with another human being by giving them an alphabet and asking them to know the sequence of the letters by heart.

This musical autism is lamentably very widespread, and it is reproduced in education all the way to the conservatories. Being at a higher level of studies does not bring clarification but simply adds complexity to the same confusion.

Using sound as a means of expression MIGHT involve instruments, chords, scales, tones etc, but basically the capacity of composing is rooted in our everyday lives. Composing is something that we humans do all the time. As a collective we build a common world, an assemblage, and one of the most fundamental means we possess to that end is our ability to use language.

In language, we are capable of expressing and perceiving the most minuscule nuances in our interactions through sound.

THIS should be the message to someone asking how to compose music, that you are doing it already, and you can depart from this activity and prolong and extend it into sequences of sound. Use all kinds of existing music and sounds around you, choose according to your intuition, be a whole human being, use your voice and body as impulse giver. Remix, reuse, hack your way into existing technologies – digital as well as acoustic instruments, and build forms in sound inspired by everyday life events, social scripts and narratives.”


Thanks for a very intersting text! And well written. Your debugging of the musicotechnophilia is indeed very important.

In musical education in Scandinavia, you have a trend for the moment I would call ipadialisation, where technoenthousiasts praise the possibilities in a software like Garageband. It simply, – this is their claim – enables the kids to express themselves musically in a natural way.

This is where your criticism about the inbaked bias of the technologies hits bulls eye: no technology has ever been or will ever be value free or neutral.

This is also why, by the way, that it is not a big surprise that the tools are eurocentric. Actually they SHOULD be centered in the culture in which they exist. If exported to other cultures, each local culture should then reinvent the technologies or make new ones according to their context. The REAL problem is that the tools are not eurocentric enough.

The current technologies are build on abstractions like scales, chords, metrum, notes etc., this being reinforced by techniques like autotune, quantization etc. These abstractions come from an analysis of what we used to call music.
They are based on music theory, which is to say that they are focused on an end product, viewed through certain filters, and that they completely overlook 1) the embeddedness in real life materials, – the resistance of musical instruments, of the human voice, of space and of context in general, and 2) the potential generation of new elements to be included in what we might consider as musical, ie noise, gesture etc. and not least 3) the non-conformity of actual musical practices with what musicologists and others have zipped into these abstractions, basically driven by a logico-deductive approach, – probably in an attempt to legitimize the field of study called musicology.

Real eurocentric digital technologies would
A) take the technologies themselves seriously, and use the new media in their own right, while allowing them to combine with existing technologies.
B) be sensitive to humanness, be tweakable for to the user, be open for him/her to express the nuances of everyday life.
C) be open to context, be combinable, pluridimensional.

Matthew Thibeault

I was delighted to be invited to respond to John Kratus’ talk at the CIC/New Directions conference today at Michigan State University.

My response focuses on the importance of a critical perspective and pragmatic approach to technology in music education. To assist those who might like to follow up on some of the ideas, I’ve posted my response, with additional footnotes and references, right here:
Thibeault CIC 2011 Response.pdf

And here’s the picture from the Ellnora Guitar Festival sing-along from my slides:

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Help I’m a bike. Curate me !

So it’s official. I’ve often wondered what I should call what I’m doing. Well. It’s art.

I’ve found out that my participation in a sound art project at the Knippels Bridge (a bridge connecting main Copenhagen with the island of Amager), is in fact part of Copenhagen art festival 2012.

Being a part of a part of something to do with art, I’ve been given the possibility to use the “national workshops for art”. So now I’m chopping up old bikes in the official national workshops for art, and therefore I’m making ….. art!

Art art art art art.

In the outset I was planning on doing what whomever could do, namely take parts of old bikes and set them up in the street, and in this particular case a bridge.

It was supposed to be a sort of ignition fuelling a trend where people start putting up things in public space that can serve as  “streetstruments”, inspiring to engage in collective activities around sound.

The need to hang things in public space is strong, judging from the padlocks that people put everywhere, inadvertently enhancing the omnipresent focus in public space on reproduction. Well instead of (biological and other) reproduction, streetstruments should inspire people to engage in productive action beyond the twosomeness of the nuclear family and co.

And now I do art. Which is the same as saying I’m a name and a nationality. As in “John Cage (USA)”. Although I have been invited to participate in the festival, I’m not in the programme, for some reason,  – as opposed to John Cage. Looking forward to meet him.

I haven’t even been curated. The so-called curator, curating the sound art events at the Knippels Bridge hasn’t contacted me. So I have not had the chance to adhere to some sort of ‘overall concept’, which is generally the way these things work.

So I’m only halfway participating in the festival. Which makes me a halfway artist. And what I’m doing is consequently halfway art.

Which in the end might save my project.

Since it is not really art after all, then it is not really mostly an individualistic project promoting its creator, who is in the programme with a name and nationality (dead or alive), and who has been curated according to the overall so-called concept of the festival, which in the case of Copenhagen Art Festival 2012 is “Art in community”, a concept which is put into play through a large number of individual artists’ individual artworks in (mostly) solo exhibitions.

Since I’m not really an artist after all, I’m not really an expert producer of works of art, that the consumers-recipients-of-works-of-art will consume, after appropriately being guided by an expert knower-of-art or curator. Therefore there is a smaller risk that what I’m doing could not be done by anyone, and that it will actually be done by someone, that there will be people using the street as an instrument, without being curated, without having their name and nationality in a programme.

Analogue illiteracy in the Urban garden

I was at a workshop in urban gardening. In this collective of people sharing an eagerness for ecological and economic sustainability, I experienced a situation that would have required a similar interest in cultural sustainability. In the break, with mint tea and home baked cookies, one of the facilitators – a 2 meter tall man – was engaged in a vivid conversation with one of the participants about home gardening, herbs, and other important issues. They stood right in front of the table with tea and cookies leaving very little space for the participants to serve themselves. Someone with basic skills in reading analogue information would now experience a flood of messages about potential movement and intention emanating from the participants fighting there way to the tea and cookies. The central characters noticed nothing, engaged as they were in ensuring the world’s food supply through urban gardening. Why didn’t they make room for the 10 – 12 people having a clear intention of getting to the table? And why didn’t anyone supply their analogue communication with a digital one, emitting the following line of phonemes: “excuse me, could you maybe step back, so that we can all get to the table?”. I suppose it’s because of shyness, or maybe nobody actually noticed anything?

In our culture, we use the body as a vehicle for bringing our brain to where we need it to engage in digital communication. If another brain-vehicle comes in our way, we either wait until it has moved by itself, or  – when pressured – resort to digital communication. “Could I get by, please?”. Our incapacity in reading the intentions and potential movements of the other is an example of what I would call analogue illiteracy.

“I have never experienced anyone belting before I have put the little divider up, but I can not abide people that feel the need to go heel-to-toe with me in a queue!

I have terrible anxiety and any sort of crowd or claustraphobic enviroment makes me pespire, shake and feel nauseous.

More than once I have had to dump my shopping and walk out because of some one literally breathing down my neck as if it is going to get them served any faster!

Claire L(571) on

Not being aware of the other’s physical space, because you cannot read the other’s potential movements, is parallel to lacking awareness of the other’s mental space. Analogue illiteracy is threatening the physical and emotional well-being of people. It means wasting a lot of energy on unnecessary actions and detours. Being unable to attune to the situation, we develop overcompensating behaviour, and we all end up like Claire L.


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How do we store the analogue?

Why is it so important to store analogue knowledge? Because our collectives with their extended analogue illiteracy waste to much energy and develop too many negative behaviours, instead of inspiring people to solve common problems in sustainable ways. Developing sustainable forms of analogue interaction is crucial to our collectives, but without an efficient method of storing this knowledge, it is soon lost in our ephemeral societies.

If you are confused about my use of the terms analogue and digital, please read my blogpost Analogue and digital processes

In collectives sharing a strong folklore, dance, music and storytelling are efficient sites for developing, storing and retrieving analogue knowledge. The activities are inclusive, cross modal and open ended. Participants are guided by a common knowledge about steps, rhythms, scales, etc., and possible ways of combining them. Events develop according to a number of open factors, being sensitive to context and to the participant’s intentions. They are improvised, and may turn in several directions, like a dinner conversation.

A strong, inclusive and open ended culture for dance and music gives a collective the means for  developing a refined attunement to the physical and mental space of the other, giving the participants a common, codified language for analogue interaction.

In our welfare society, our capacities for dancing, music-making and storytelling have been colonised by market economy, setting up clear boundaries between producer and consumer.

A major obstacle for our communities to have an efficient replacement for our lost folklore is our fragmented way of life. What about the new technologies, can they be the glue that restores our lost proximity?

Since analogue processes are gradient and embedded in context, storing information about them is an enormous challenge. We might think that the new technologies for making traces of visual and auditive elements give us the sites necessary for storing and retrieving analogue information. To some extent, I believe they have the opposite effect. Since film, sound recording and photography are so seemingly close to our instantaneous perception, we are easily tricked into believing that what they depict is a somewhat true picture of the actual event. This is of course only a surface point of view since we all know that a movie actually just consist of many pictures/frames taking in a row, – remember the root of the word: moving pictures – and a sound recording is a “mechanical inscription of sound waves” as it says in Wikipedia. Whether done by what we call ‘digital’ or ‘analogue’ equipment, these inscriptions are basically digital, in the sense I use here, since they proceed from a linear approach, taking one frame or sample at a time, storing them in a long row, on a disc or a tape. The procedure shares its conceptual framework with writing, and you might say that we merely have rebuild the (phonetic) typewriter into an audio and an image typewriter. It is true that the bitrate of our devices makes these small images/sound samples appear so rapidly one after the other that our senses are completely tricked into perceiving movement. Nevertheless, the linear character of this method for storing analogue information makes it inefficient when it comes to building up a culturally sustainable collective:

  • A recording is myopic. It can only collect information that it is constructed for collecting, ignoring all the other types of analogue information we receive in an event. The hegemony of the video recording, as stated by the success of Youtube, boosts the existing  hierarchy of the senses, where the visual is by far the most foregrounded sense.
  • A recording is uni-directional. The different interactions in an event flow in multiple, and often contradictory directions, and since the one who produces the recording must make a choice about which stream(s) to follow, the consumer is left with limited if any possibilities to follow other streams of interaction. These underprivileged streams might be present as traces, but you cannot follow them further since they are cut away or continue outside the frame. New supposedly revolutionary technologies like 3D video and surround sound broaden the field of the linear recording, but they do not come with a solution to the basic problem about the decision of the viewpoint, which still lies in the hands of the producer of the recording.
  • A recording petrifies potentiality. In a given event, there is an infinite number of potential combinations of interaction between the participants, whether human or non-human, animate or inanimate. In order to interact adequately in a situation, you must be able to read the potential intentions, movements and reactions of the other participants.

Directors , photographers,  and composers are tweaking their respective media in order to challenge these build in limitations. Just like the writers tweak text in order to convey the totality of an event. Being a competent user of text requires years of study.


For some reason we believe that visual literacy and auditory literacy is easier  to achieve. Although the technologies are available to everyone now, the users’ possibility for  impregnating the process of recording with significant analogue  information is limited. The abundance of apps, programs and gadgets that should help us do ‘as the professionals’ result in an enormous amount of works that appear ‘professional’. Nevertheless, since these tools are generally based on a surface understanding of the choices in artistic processes, they give you ready made options that will mimic (commercially) successful works, while impeding you from making choices according to an understanding of the context your process is embedded in, with all its potentiality, agency and … analogueness.

Our folklore-deprived collectives  need new sites for analogue storing. Although the new technologies for recording sound and image are now completely democratised, their capacity for giving the average user a site for storing and retrieving analogue information doesn’t compete with the capacities lying in a strong culture for dance, music and storytelling.

Our current level of analogue literacy leaving us with an almost autistic society, where we are challenged in reading the non-binary information in our interactions, a need for new methods is apparent. We allocate most of the time available in our childhoods to the development of (phonetic) literacy and numeracy, and it seems improbable that this is going to change in the near future.

Can we develop methods and tools that will shortcut the steepness of the learning curves for analogue literacy?

Music, dance and storytelling didn’t come out of thin air. They are rooted in our inherent competencies for prosody, gesture and speaking. Everyone is capable of expression through these modalities, and this is where the key to new sites for developing analogue knowledge lies.

These tools and methods for developing, storing and retrieving analogue knowledge must enable the extraction of information about the existing (rudimentary) analogue infrastructure of a collective, providing a site for the playing around with these elements, and
offering simple methods for reassembling them into enhanced and sustainable analogue infrastructures. The tools and methods must deliver intelligent, humanised interfaces, ready to read the analogue information in gesture, movement and speech, while being sensitive to context and the agency of the participants, not only human, but also non-human or inanimate. They must be open ended, open for the users to tweak and hack them, developing extensions or ‘plugins’, including new elements from the local context, and the surrounding processes in society, in popular and elite culture. And finally, they must include storing methods that facilitate the sharing, distribution and efficient  retrieving of analogue know-how in the collective over time, and between collectives working with similar processes.

Related reading:

“No ear, no piece of apparatus could grasp this whole”  (


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