Working Primarily/Exclusively with Acoustic Instruments

Does anyone here work primarily or exclusively with acoustic instruments? I have been thinking a lot of working primarily with acoustic instruments again, while adopting some of the aesthetics of electronic music, which to me is largely repetition and textural manipulation.

Personally, I find it difficult to perform meaningfully solely using electronic tools and have become uninspired over the last year. To clarify, this is my own personal experience and there are plenty of people who perform meaningfully with electronics (needed to get that out there just in case…). I played drums for 10 years and I’m thinking of picking up a hammered dulcimer and xylophone this year.

I have built some acoustic instruments in the past, but an instrument building habit takes a lot of space! Still, I think that is my ultimate end goal.


I would say my experience is paralleling yours right now, at least to the extent that I understand your experience based on what you’ve written.

This make me think of the Steve Reich interview on Red Bull Academy. In one part he essentially says: when synths came out I wasn’t really excited about them. But when digital samplers came out, I knew that was something that was important to me.

So recently I’ve just been playing guitar and chapman stick (let me get this right out there, playing guitar is hardly a precursor to being able to play chapman stick) and just trying to write music that I like using “electronic” elements. Maybe it’s minimal music, I don’t really care. It feels really good to be able to play a short motif and shape the phrasing with my hands with a lot of subtly.

And to be really honest, I haven’t done anything recently except work on chord melody Christmas carols.


Repetition and textural manipulation are very much not my aesthetics. My electronic music is about improvisation with a wider tonal range than I could otherwise achieve. e.g., playing a bunch of instruments simultaneously.

I’ve been considering building a probablistic sequencer whose output is converted to sheet music and displayed on music stands. Performers on acoustic instruments would then sight-read.

The challenge, for me, is that I’d have to give up too much control to the computer. Putting enough sheet music onscreen to be useful means knowing where the chord progression is going to be in a few seconds. Or rather, it means selecting between the following compromises:

A ) hearing what you composed a few seconds ago while you’re working out what’s going to happen a few seconds later.

B ) wearing some serious noise cancelling headphones – the composer hears MIDI, and does not hear the live performers.

C ) there’s simply no human at the center. The chord progression is either probablistic, or pre-composed. Neither of which are terribly exciting to me.


That’s not really what you were asking.

(But there’s a very real part of me shouting “I must make this happen at Expo74” in my ear.)

** shrug **


@greaterthanzero you might be interested in @Rodrigo’s dfscore.
I feel it grapples with several of the problems you mention.

Yeah that sounds like in the ballpark of what you have in mind. There’s quite a bit of tools out there like that, so easy enough to find the one that’s the closest to what you want and then building off that.

Coincidentally I’m aiming to go a different direction with dfscore, going towards a more screen-less vibe and trying to reduce everything down to purely haptic feedback (based on using some B-stock Basslets). Nothing against screens and sheet music, but since it’s more about an immediate and communicative improv I’m after, I want to reduce the flow of information that isn’t coming from the performers.


Definitely some overlap there.

I was looking at leveraging musicxml and opensheetmusicdisplay, as an extended Node For Max demo. The building blocks are readily available now; it’s mostly a question of figuring out how we want to perform.

Get a piano!

Having a piano in the house is a great way to stay inspired, you can play around with multiple melodic lines and harmonies and you can do all sort s of interesting things with recording, etc.

You can leave some sheet music on the music stand to play/practice/analyze (I’ve got some etudes by Ligeti which are fkd) and because it requires dedicated space you never have to set it up before you play.

You obviously can’t really play with it live but enough venues have pianos so you can just rock up commando.
Or depending on the kind of music you end up making sometimes just sampling it will be enough.


acoustic loops (and i’m playing drums …or that’s my snare buzzing) :slightly_smiling_face:
'usa cards are for free…when you’re born here -l.alvarez


If you will forgive me being a bit silly, one observation since getting back into electronics is that many people immediately think of dance music when the hear the term “electronic music”. While that isn’t what I do, I do have the dirty secret of playing dance music on the banjo:

The accordionist is my partner and I am fortunate to play in an experimental quartet (Figure From Ground) with her as well as a duo and occasional trio doing improvised electronics.

Not surprisingly, my friends that are into experimental music are probably more receptive to “old time music” than vice-versa.


For me there are mainly two things that I am missing in electronic music compared to acoustic music and one of them is rather cultural and the second one is physical.
Culturally I think that electronic music is mainly solo work and this can put a lot of pressure on composer/performer. In a band setting you mostly focus on your own instrument and you can play what you want when other people play on instruments they know and it is much easier to come up with compositions that way. While composing electronic music you must be a part drummer, part bassist, part singer etc. Maybe a solution for something like this would be performing more of electronic music in a band setting?
Physically when playing synths I miss feeling of instrument “working”. For example when playing classical guitar I can feel the whole body resonating, strings pressed in different places feels differently agains my fingers etc. while synthesizers (even analog ones) feel rather disconnected. Hopefully things like La Voix du Luthier will fix this in the future.
Because of this I am thinking right now how to incorporate classical guitar into my electronic music making in a way that will be the best of both worlds.

But to be honest if you think that playing acoustic music right now will make you feel better then go for it. Even if in the future you will decide to return to electronic music you will have experience from playing acoustic music which maybe help you play electronic music in different way :slight_smile:


I’m trying to bring some electronic elements to my primarily acoustic world, I play trumpet but have written music for all kinds of instruments. I found that working at the edges of what is possible with any instrument, like extended technique, or playing the instrument in a way that wasn’t really intended (banging the body of a violin bowing the bell of a tuba) gave me a huge amount of material. You don’t need to have a load of technique to do these kinds of experiments but they can be very rewarding. It gives a sense of the original instruments without following all the rules, and is great for exploring timbre and instrumental sound


a subject near and dear to my heart! i love electronic music of many kinds, and i sort of cut my teeth on synths, tape loops and effects. currently i continue to putter with electronics, but the bulk of my work is with the hurdy gurdy (vielle à roue, Drehleier etc), and i often find that i work best without any effect or processing at all.

for me, it all comes down to a few things:

  • immediacy
  • tactile control and interface
  • physical feedback/haptics (for lack of a better word)
  • an ever-evolving mix of control/predictability and surprise/unknown. perparations are fun.

oh, and i can keep playing with the power goes out.

all of these things are possible with electronics too, it’s just that i’m too lazy to figure it all out, i think. and i’ve invested so much time and work in the hurdy gurdy.

the ‘Mystery and Wonder’ track is an example of such an approach. you’re just hearing the HG, plugged in, but otherwise unprocessed. mics picked up the room.

looking forward to reading/hearing more here!



the ‘Mystery and Wonder’ track is an example of such an approach. you’re just hearing the HG, plugged in, but otherwise unprocessed. mics picked up the room.

listening now, this is AMAZING stuff!

I started getting into electronic music listening and making pretty early (my parents took me to ‘keyboard lessons’ with a cheap keyboard [yamaha? casio? cheaper knockoff?] in 4th grade, i started doing cassette tape collages in 8th grade), but my first love and trained instrument is percussion/drums, and I’ve played them in classical, jazz, rock, and experimental contexts for many years. a drumset is still the most musically dynamic and expressive thing I’ve ever encountered, and it pains me that most rock drummers play a single velocity of around 11 out of 10 when it’s such an instrument capable of texture and atmosphere if you can just dial things down and keep the ‘fucking loud’ moments to a rarity and a surprise. in retrospect I got really into the mathy/complex./polyrhythmic stuff in drumming pretty early, and that kicked into overdrive once I heard what Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, and uZiq did with their feverish, microstructural drum programming, where it seemed like there were entire song ideas tucked away in single bars. was into dense lit like Joyce and Beckett around the same time and everything solidified into a very inspiring moment, and my acoustic drumset work around the time was pushing further and further to getting as fast, complex, and crazy as “Boy/Girl Song”, “Journey to Reedham”, Lunatic Harness, and other music the IDM scene was putting out at the time. I still have a bunch of recordings of that drum work, though I didn’t know any musicians or band people at my high school who could do anything with the stuff I was producing, so all I had was drums and nothing else.

The downside was that I found myself bored with the limited timbre of the instrument, even with the wide variety of techniques and mallets I used. The only way forward would be to follow one of my drum instructors and inspirations, Glenn Kotche (famously of Wilco as well as great solo work) and literally invent my own weirdo singular drums and percussion instruments for getting into interesting timbre and texture, but that’s a lot of work, knowledge, and trial & error in itself, maybe more so than building a modular synth or programming in Max!

Got further into electronic music production starting in college (dorm room = no drumset), initially with the intent of going that Squarepusher route of complex percussive/rhythmic insanity, but I found any form of drum programming to be unbearably tedious, mechanistic, and frustrating (why would I take a month to program what I can improvise in 5 minutes with my kit?) and no controllers or electronic drumsets were really doing much for me at the time. I hadn’t figured out how to work with MIDI in a good way, but it was limited for what I wanted to achieve anyway. But I liked ambient music too, and out of necessity and pushing sonics further I drifted toward beatless ambient and noise, which has been the bulk of my work.

I lived in small 1-bedroom apartments (and thus couldn’t play drumsets outside of practice spaces which I’d go to once a week or less, usually for band practice and not solo time, so I lost my chops and interest in pushing the envelope) almost exclusively from the age of 22 up until literally last month at 36, and can finally start making use of a private home where I can get loud, with a dedicated lovely space for music setup and recording.

But I’m in deep with electronic music after all those years growing with it, and the modularity and timbre and depth that come with it. Discovered MPE a few years ago, which (via Madrona’s excellent Soundplane) allows for much of the expressivity and dynamism my favorite percussion instruments allowed. The BopPad is something I bought recently but haven’t really spent time with yet, and it appears to fit a lot of my interests at once - expressive, improvisatory drumming, but with MPE providing x/y/z axis customizability and instant modulation and timbre movement/alteration, all of which can be very easily patched up to samplers, modular, etc. through my other newfound love, Bitwig. I think I’m closer than ever to finally making a complex drums-heavy electronic record for the first time ever. But who knows… maybe it’s time to get back into the acoustic world that by default (even for my baby banging his hands on a kitchen pot) offers musical expression most synth heads can only dream of…


@drehleierguy Love the composition and tones! Thanks for sharing.

This Fall I started a project of playing electronic music with two old friends with whom I have played in non-electronic bands, improvising, collaborating. This made me respond to @karol 's comment about performing more electronic music in a band setting.

I’ve been getting into a lot of banjo, bluegrass and flat picking guitar lately. I’m finding it hard to combine these with electronics. I’m finding it more interesting attempting to recreate the electronic textures acoustically.

These guys blew me away…


Really loving this, amazing sounds Ben

thanks for your kinds words, folks!

Not sure where to post this profile of a master violin maker, which has certain resonances with the Lines approach…

at the moment I’m involved in a heavily programming-oriented (music) project so my ears are drawn to acoustic sounds (I guess, as some kind of counter balancing act)

so, here’s my input!