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Live electronic music (also known as live electronics and electroacoustic improvisation) is any kind of music that can include the use of electroacoustic instruments, various electronic sound generating devices, and computers, but which generally excludes the use of prerecorded or sampled material. Initially the practice developed in reaction to sound-based composition for fixed media such as musique concrète, electronic music and early computer music. Musical improvisation often plays a large role in the performance of this music. The timbres of various sounds may be transformed extensively using devices such as amplifiers, filters, ring modulators and other forms of circuitry (Sutherland 1994, 157). Widespread adoption of mobile computing has led to an increase in the use of computers in live electronics. Real-time generation and manipulation of audio using laptop computers is now commonplace.


Early electronic instruments intended for live performance, such as Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium (1897) and instruments developed between the two world wars, such as the Theremin, ondes Martenot, and Trautonium, may be cited as antecedents (Manning 2013, 157), but were intended simply as new means of sound production, and did nothing to change the nature of musical composition or performance (Collins 2007, 39).

Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939) was among the earliest compositions to include an innovative use of live electronic material; it featured two variable-speed phonograph turntables and sine-tone recordings (Collins 2007, 38–39). Cage's interest in live electronics continued through the 1940s and 1950s, providing inspiration for the formation of a number of live-electronic groups in America who came to regard themselves as the pioneers of a new art form (Manning 2013, 157).

In Europe, Pierre Schaeffer had attempted live generation of the final stages of his works at the first public concert of musique concrète in 1951 with limited success. However, it was in Europe at the end of the 1950s and early 1960s that the most coherent transition from studio electronic techniques to live synthesis occurred. Mauricio Kagel's Transición II (1959) combined two tape recorders for live manipulation of the sounds of piano and percussion, and beginning in 1964 Karlheinz Stockhausen entered on a period of intensive work with live electronics with three works, Mikrophonie I and Mixtur (both 1964), and Mikrophonie II (Manning 2013, 157–58). While earlier live-electronic compositions, such as Cage's Cartridge Music (1960), had mainly employed amplification, Stockhausen's innovation was to add electronic transformation through filtering, which erased the distinction between instrumental and electronic music (Toop 2002, 495).

During the 1960s, a number of composers believed studio-based composition, such as musique concrète, lacked elements that were central to the creation of live music, such as: spontaneity, dialogue, discovery and group interaction. Many composers viewed the development of live electronics as a reaction against "the largely technocratic and rationalistic ethos of studio processed tape music" which was devoid of the visual and theatrical component of live performance (Sutherland 1994, 157). By the 1970s, live electronics had become the primary area of innovation in electronic music (Simms 1986, 395).

Electroacoustic improvisation

Electroacoustic improvisation is a form of free improvisation that was originally referred to as live electronics. It has been part of the sound art world since the 1930s with the early works of John Cage (Schrader 1991,[page needed]; Cage 1960). Source magazine published articles by a number of leading electronic and avant-garde composers in the 1960s (Anon. n.d.(a)) and in Montreal, Canada, there were two live electronic ensembles in the 1970s, MetaMusic and Sonde (Anon. 2012). This field has expanded rapidly with the use of powerful, inexpensive laptop computers.

It was further influenced by electronic and electroacoustic music, the music of American experimental composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman and David Tudor. Other influences include musique concrète and the so-called instrumental musique concrète of Helmut Lachenmann. British free improvisation group AMM, particularly their guitarist Keith Rowe, have also played a contributing role in bringing attention to the practice.

A variety of terms have been used to describe music associated with electroacoustic improvisation such as “lowercase” (a term coined by artist and musician Steve Roden for his own work), “onkyokei” (or Onkyo) (used to describe the Japanese equivalent), “taomud” (meaning “the area of music under discussion”), “New London Silence” and “Berlin reductionism”.

The record labels Erstwhile Records, For 4 Ears, Cut, Durian, Charhizma, Improvised Music from Japan, Fringes Recordings, Mikroton Recordings and Mego have released a number of albums featuring electroacoustic improvisation.


In a press release, concert promoter Arie Altena suggests that a defining characteristic of electroacoustic improvisation is its “anti-virtuoso” æsthetic, arguing that conventional instrumental techniques are rarely emphasized in electroacoustic improvisation, and thus there are few occasions when traditional technical virtuosity is considered appropriate. Critics also note that many electroacoustic improvisers studiously avoid traditional sounds and timbres, and that “extended techniques” (unorthodox playing practices) appear to be standard in performance (Altena 2006). Some EAI music also includes field recordings.

Electroacoustic improvisation sometimes differs significantly from music associated with the established free improvisation scene. One critic has suggested that a new vocabulary may be required to describe certain aspects of the practice. John Eyles writes,

One of the problems of describing this music is that it requires a new vocabulary and ways of conveying its sound and impact; such vocabulary does not yet exist — how do you describe the subtle differences between different types of controlled feedback? I’ve yet to see anyone do it convincingly - hence the use of words like "shape" and "texture"! (Eyles 2006)

Similarly, writing in Stylus magazine, and referring to the "new school of electro-acoustic improvisation," critic Jeff Siegel writes,

In case you are as yet not indoctrinated into this music, there’s no easy road. The closest I know of to a simple explanation comes from the estimable Dominique Leone: “sort of an inverse of noise music.” That sounds about right. If you think of noise as a brick wall, then EAI is like a plaster mold of the cement in-between, an impression, a photo-negative, more silence than sound; it’s a constant hum, the first step up from complete silence; noise stripped down to a single sliver and stretched out, presumably forever. ()


Laptronica is a form of live electronic music or computer music in which laptops are used as musical instruments. The term is a portmanteau of "laptop computer" and "electronica". The term gained a certain degree of currency in the 1990s and is of significance due to the use of highly powerful computation being made available to musicians in highly portable form, and therefore in live performance. Many sophisticated forms of sound production, manipulation and organization (which had hitherto only been available in studios or academic institutions) became available to use in live performance, largely by younger musicians influenced by and interested in developing experimental popular music forms (Emmerson 2007,[page needed]).A combination of many laptops can be used to form a laptop orchestra.

Live coding

Live coding (Collins, McLean, Rohrhuber, and Ward 2003) (sometimes referred to as 'on-the-fly programming' (Wang and Cook 2004,[dance (Anon. 2009). Live coding techniques are also employed outside of performance, such as in producing sound for film (Rohrhuber 2008, 60–70) or audio/visual work for interactive art installations (Anon. n.d.(b)).

Live coding is also an increasingly popular technique in programming-related lectures and conference presentations, and has been described as a "best practice" for computer science lectures by Mark Guzdial (2011).

Notable works 1960–69

  • John Cage - Cartridge Music (1960)
  • Robert Ashley - Wolfman (1964), Lecture Series (1965), Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon (1968)
  • Karlheinz Stockhausen - Mikrophonie I & II (1964 and 1965); Mixtur (1964); Solo (1966); Prozession (1967); Kurzwellen (1968); Spiral (1968)
  • Alvin Lucier - Music for Solo Performer (1965), North American Time Capsule (1967), Vespers (1968)
  • Johannes FritschPartita (1965–66) for viola, contact microphones, tape recorder, filters, and potentiometers (4 players); Modulation 2 (1967), for 13 instruments and live electronics; Akroasis (1966–68) for large orchestra with jazz band, two singers, live electronics, hurdy-gurdy, music box, and newsreader
  • David Behrman - Wave Train (1967)
  • Gordon Mumma - Hornpipe (1967)
  • Steve ReichPendulum Music (1968)
  • Max Neuhaus - Drive-in Music (1968)
  • Larry Austin - Accidents (1968)
  • Richard Teitelbaum - In Tune (1968)
  • Louis Andriessen, Hoe het is (1969) for 52 strings and live electronics
  • Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg, Peter Schat, Jan van Vlijmen – Reconstructie (1969), Morality opera for soloists, 3 mixed choirs, orchestra, and live electronics
  • George Brown – Splurge (1969)
  • Takehisa Kosugi - 712-9374 (1969)
  • Roger SmalleyTransformation I (1969)

See also


  • Altena, Arie (2006). "Jeff Carey / Jozef van Wissem, Tetuzi Akiyama / Martin Siewert: Three Sets of Strings & Electronics in Different Combinations". DNK Amsterdam: Concert Series for New Live Electronic and Acoustic Music in Amsterdam (press release, 27 November; Accessed 2 May 2013).
  • Anon. (n.d.(a)). " (list of issues with Notes “from Deep Listening's website”). UbuWeb: Sound (Accessed 2 May 2013).
  • Anon. (n.d.(b)).
  • Anon. (2009).
  • Anon. (2012). "Musique nouvelle—Sociétés et ensembles de". L’Encyclopédie canadienne / Encyclopédie de la musique au canada. Institute Historica-Dominion (Accessed 2 May 2013).
  • Cage, John (1960).Imaginary Landscape No. 1: for Records of Constant and Variable Frequency, Large Chinese Cymbal and String Piano. S.l.: Henmar Press; New York: Sole Selling Agents, C. F. Peters.
  • Collins, Nick (2003) "Generative Music and Laptop Performance", Contemporary Music Review 22, no. 4:67–79.
  • Collins, Nick (2007). “Live Electronic Music.” In The Cambridge Companion to Electronic Music, edited by Nick Collins and Julio d’Escriván, pp. 38–54. Cambridge Companions to Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-68865-9; ISBN 978-0-521-86861-7.
  • Collins, Nick, A. McLean, J. Rohrhuber, and A. Ward (2003), "10.1017/S135577180300030X.
  • Emmerson, Simon (2007). Living Electronic Music. Aldershot, Hants.: Ashgate.
  • Eyles, John (2006). "". (21 June) (Accessed 2 May 2013).
  • McLean, A., D. Griffiths, Nick Collins, and G. Wiggins (2010). "]
  • Manning, Peter (2013). Electronic and Computer Music, fourth edition. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-974639-2.
  • Schrader, Barry (1991). "Live/Electro-Acoustic Music: A Perspective from History and California,” in Live Electronics, edited by Peter Nelson, Stephen Montague, and Gary Montague,[page needed]. CRC Press. ISBN 3-7186-5116-5.
  • Siegel, Jeff (2006). ]
  • Simms, Brian R. (1986). Music of the Twentieth Century: Style and Structure. New York: Schirmer Books; London: Collier Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 0-02-872580-8
  • Sutherland, Roger (1994). New Perspectives in Music. London: Sun Tavern Fields. ISBN 0-9517012-6-6.
  • Toop, Richard. 2002. "Karlheinz Stockhausen". In Music of the Twentieth-Century Avant-Garde: A Biocritical Sourcebook, edited by Larry Sitsky, 493–99. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0-313-29689-8.
  • Wang, G., and P. Cook P. (2004) "] New York: NIME.

Further reading

  • Andraschke, Peter (2001). “Dichtung in Musik: Stockhausen, Trakl, Holliger.” In Stimme und Wort in der Musik des 20. Jahrhunderts, edited by Hartmut Krones, 341–55. Vienna: Böhlau. ISBN 978-3-205-99387-2.
  • Bernal, Alberto, and João Miguel Pais (2008). “CEC.
  • Burns, Christopher (2002). “Realizing Lucier and Stockhausen: Case Studies in the Performance Practice of Electronic Music.” Journal of New Music Research 31, no. 1 (March): 59–68.
  • Cox, Christoph (2002). “The Jerrybuilt Future: The Sonic Arts Union, Once Group and MEV’s Live Electronics.” In Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music, edited by Rob Young, pp. 35–44. London: Continuum. ISBN 978-0-8264-6450-7.
  • Davies, Hugh (2001). “Gentle Fire: An Early Approach to Live Electronic Music.” Leonardo Music Journal 11 (“Not Necessarily ‘English Music’: Britain’s Second Golden Age”): 53–60.
  • Giomi, Francesco, Damiano Meacci, and Kilian Schwoon (2003). “Live Electronics in Luciano Berio’s Music.” Computer Music Journal 27, no. 2 (Summer): 30–46.
  • Lindborg, PerMagnus (2008). “CEC.
  • Marley, Brian, and Mark Wastell (eds.) (2006). Blocks of Consciousness and the Unbroken Continuum [Book + DVD]. London: Sound 323. ISBN 978-0-9551541-0-2.
  • Neal, Adam Scott (2009). “CEC.
  • Nowitz, Alex (2008). “CEC.
  • Stroppa, Marco (1999). “Live Electronics or … Live Music? Towards a Critique of Interaction.” Contemporary Music Review 18, no. 3 (“Aesthetics of Live Electronic Music”): 41–77.
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