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  • Thor Magnusson


This article examines the techno-philosophical aspects of how we create and understand musical systems in twenty-first century computational media. Arguing that processor-based media have exploded the compositional language of new music, the article proposes a set of concepts that might help us navigate this new space of instrumental possibilities. The term ‘ergodynamics’ – and related concepts – is proposed as a useful concept when describing the phenomenological, historical and aesthetic aspects of musical instruments, as well as a lens for looking at new compositional practices that can be defined as being either ‘idiomatic’ or ‘supra-instrumental’. The article explores the difference in composing for acoustic, electronic and digital instruments, and suggests that new musical practice can be characterised by a move from composing work to inventing systems.



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The author was supported by the AHRC-funded Sonic Writing project (AH/N00194X/1) in this research. Further information can be found here:



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1 See Ermi, Laura and Mayra, Frans, ‘Fundamental Concepts in the Gameplay Experience: Analysing Immersion’ in Worlds in Play: International Perspectives on Digital Games Research, ed. de Castell, Suzanne and Jenson, Jennifer (New York: Peter Lang, 2007). Also, see Drachen, Anders and Canossa, Alessandro, ‘Towards Gameplay Analysis Via Gameplay Metrics’, in Proceedings of the 13th International MindTrek Conference: Everyday Life in the Ubiquitous Era (New York: ACM, 2009), pp. 202–9.

2 See, for example, Duns Scotus: Philosophical Writings, translated by Wolter, Allan B., OFM, (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987).

3 I have written about affordances and constraints in musical instruments elsewhere, see Thor Magnusson, ‘Designing Constraints: Composing and Performing with Digital Musical Systems’, in Computer Music Journal 34/4 (2010), pp. 62–73.

4 Hendrix was clearly not the first guitarist to explore and use feedback, but he can be said to have popularised the technique.

5 Magnusson, Thor, ‘Ergomimesis: Towards a Language Describing Instrumental Transductions’, in Proceedings of Live Interfaces Conference (Porto: University of Porto, 2019).

6 Magnusson, Thor, Sonic Writing: Technologies of Material, Symbolic and Signal Inscriptions (New York: Bloomsbury Publishers, forthcoming 2019).

7 Horwood, Wally, Adolphe Sax 1814–1894: His Life and Legacy (Baldock: Egon Publishers, 1983).

8 Pinch, Trevor and Trocco, Frank, Analog Days: The Invention and Impact of the Moog Synthesizer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002).

9 Wang, Ge, ‘Ocarina: Designing the iPhone's Magic Flute’, in Computer Music Journal, 38/2 (2014), pp. 821.

10 Musical organics, or the critical analytics of musical instruments, are explored in Magnusson, Sonic Writing, and also in Magnusson, Thor, ‘Musical Organics: A Heterarchical Approach to Digital Organology’, in Journal of New Music Research 46/3 (2017), pp. 286303.

11 Peirce, Charles S., ‘On a New List of Categories’, Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 7 (1868), pp. 287–98.

12 Rebecca Fiebrink has explored how machine learning can be applied in mapping of new musical interfaces. See, for example, Fiebrink, Rebecca, ‘Machine Learning as Meta-Instrument: Human–Machine Partnerships Shaping Expressive Instrumental Creation’, Musical Instruments in the 21st Century, ed. Bovermann, Till, et al. (Singapore: Springer, 2017), pp. 137–51.

13 Nyman, Michael, Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974).

14 On epistemes in history and music technologies of Europe, see Foucault, Michel, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1970) and Attali, Jacques, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985).

15 Vasquez, Juan Carlos, Tahiroğlu, Koray and Kildal, Johan, ‘Idiomatic Composition Practices for New Musical Instruments: Context, Background and Current Applications’, in Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (Copenhagen: Aarlborg University, 2017), pp. 174–9.

16 Cadoz, Claude, ‘Supra-Instrumental Interactions and Gestures’, in Journal of New Music Research, 38/3 (2009), pp. 215–30.

17 Schulenberg, David, Music of the Baroque (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

18 Goehr, Lydia, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).

19 Auslander, Philip, Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture (London: Routledge, 1999).

20 Stiegler, Bernard and Hughes, Robert, ‘Programs of the Improbable, Short Circuits of the Unheard-of’, Diacritics, 2/1 (2014), pp. 70108.

21 I explore this further in Magnusson, Thor, ‘Sound and Music in Networked Media’, in The Routledge Companion for Sound Studies (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2019).

22 I deliberately prefer the word ‘musician’ to terms such as composers, producers, designers, performers or instrumentalists.

23 MacDonald, Michael J., The Oxford Handbook of Rhetorical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).

24 Plato, Cratylus 406a.

25 Plett, Heinrich F., Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), p. 141.

26 Impett, Jonathan, ‘Situating the Invention in Interactive Music’, Organised Sound, 5/1 (2000), pp. 2734.

27 Goodman, Nelson, Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1968).

28 Creating a sensor glove in the 1980s required access to well-equipped research labs like STEIM, but today a £25 microchip computer can be ordered online and tutorial videos followed in how to program and solder it into a unique musical system.

The author was supported by the AHRC-funded Sonic Writing project (AH/N00194X/1) in this research. Further information can be found here:

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