Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





David Grubbs

Committee Members

Douglas Geers

Jeff Nichols

Jaime Oliver La Rosa

Subject Categories

Composition | Musicology | Music Performance | Music Practice | Other Music


electroacoustic improvisation, improvised music, organology, AMM, Group Ongaku, EAI


In their radical departure from conventional instrumental technique and standardized instruments themselves, the practices of electroacoustic improvisation present a particular challenge to prevalent Western concepts of musical instruments. These concepts—which generally treat instruments as fixed objects—are ill-equipped to account for the ways in which electroacoustic improvisers foreground the agency of their instruments and abandon the quest for “mastery” typical especially of classical attitudes. Additionally, electroacoustic improvisers often approach instruments not as singular, self-contained, and static in their materiality, but rather as modular instrumentaria capable of myriad states and ever in flux, similarly problematizing conventional conceptions that view the physical constitutions of instruments as static and circumscribed.

After considering common concepts of musical instruments, presenting apparent failures of these concepts, and arguing for the necessity of a new organology, I introduce the practices of electroacoustic improvisation, situating their emergence in Group Ongaku (formed in Tokyo in 1958) and AMM (formed in London in 1965). Drawing from the writings and interviews of the musicians of these groups, I suggest several significant attributes of electroacoustic improvisation, including the formative influence of electronics, the incorporation of free improvisation, the tendency toward a composite group sound and away from featured soloists, and especially the ways in which electroacoustic improvisers cultivate instrumental agency and modularity. After tracing connections between the development of these practices and their flourishing in the work of subsequent generations of improvisers in Berlin, Boston, London, Tokyo, Vienna, and elsewhere, I examine how these practices reveal themselves in performances by contemporary electroacoustic improvisers, paying particular attention to the dynamic relationships performers exhibit with their instrumentaria. At the heart of this study are in-depth analyses of three performances: first, a performance by the longtime duo of Otomo Yoshihide and Sachiko M; next, a first-time collaboration between Olivia Block and Maria Chavez; and finally, a performance by AMM celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. In presenting these analyses, I attempt to focus attention on a significant movement in contemporary creative musical practices and suggest ways in which these practices may be understood. I furthermore propose concepts of musical instruments suitable for addressing the ways in which these musicians use them but that can also be applied to uses of instruments in diverse situations. I argue that, although electroacoustic improvisers foreground instrumental agency and modularity, these aspects always already exist in myriad contexts.