Old Instruments New Sounds Composing at Home (Young Instrumentalists) >

In this activity you will find and compose with unusual sounds on your musical instrument. Inspired by A Visible Trace by composer Rebecca Saunders.

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A Visible Trace


Throughout history, composers have been interested in finding new sounds to realise their imagined musical ideas. Sometimes this has meant new instruments, sometimes creating new sounds electronically and sometimes it has meant asking traditional, old instruments to do new things

Rebecca Saunders is a British composer based in Berlin who recently won the prestigious Ernst von Siemens Music prize for composing. Much of her music involves traditional instruments making unexpected and unusual sounds. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) has performed a lot of her music over the last few years. In Autumn 2019 BCMG performed A Visible Trace by Rebecca. Here is Ensemble Linea performing it:

Rebecca Saunders is interested in finding out all the sounds an instrument can make and often learns the instrument for which she is composing, so that she can understand it better. This includes a fascination with the sounds we might consider to be mistakes or ugly such as bow scratches or unwanted clicks. One of the musicians who performed with BCMG was guitarist Tom McKinney. Here he is talking about the sounds he makes on the electric guitar in A Visible Trace. As you listen, note down all the different ways Tom plays his guitar.

Rebecca gives the dictionary definition of a 'trace' as the programme note for A Visible Trace. Trace is both a verb and a noun. To trace is to follow a mark, a line or path and a trace, is a sign, mark or other indication of something having existed. As well as using unusual sounds, in A Visible Trace, Rebecca explores sounds on the verge of silence as if only a trace of the sound has been left behind.

Your Turn!

Explore your instrument and find as many unusual sounds as possible. What interesting ways can you find to make sounds/notes/noises? Everything is allowed but not melodies or rhythms. Be inventive!  Draw a simple symbol for each idea on some paper. Here are some ideas to try:

trumpet extended

Brass: mouthpiece bop, growl/flutter tongue (roll your rrrrs while playing as normal), tapping bell, buzzing into mouthpiece, different mutes. Additional: trombone - glissandi, French horns - handstopping and key rattling, trumpet - blowing over end of valves while moving them.

Flute: key slaps, wah-wah using the headjoint and hand over end, then you can flutter tongue (roll your rrrrs) or pitch bend using the whole flute or just the headjoint.

Recorder: using nails to tap, or whole hand on the bottom. Covering and uncovering the labium (top part) with your hand. Unusual or false fingerings. Sucking instead of blowing.

oboe extended

Oboe: pitch bending on the instrument or reed alone, cheat multi-phonics, blow directly down the bore hole, key rattling.

Strings: pizzicato, mute, tapping the wood, playing with the wood of the bow, bowing behind the bridge, on the bridge, the sides of the instrument and the tailpiece (cello/double bass), glissandi, ricochet - bouncing the bow on the strings, wide vibrato, pressing too hard on the strings with the bow.

Have a play with the sounds you have discovered:

  • Make sequences of your sounds - note down ones you like
  • Add silence into your sequences - what is the effect of adding silences?
  • Can you transform one sound into another sound or a normal sound into an unusual one?

Another feature of Rebecca Saunder's music is that she often uses just a few pitches/notes. Choose just 3 notes to use for the next bit: 

  • How many ways can you find to play one note?
  • How quiet can you play a note?
  • How quiet can you play a high note or a low note?
  • Can you make a note emerge out of total silencedisappear into silence or both?

Find a line or shape to trace on a map, a photo, a picture. Using your sounds and notes decide on a sequence of them to trace your line or shape. Add your symbols to the line or shape to make a score. Perform and record your piece.

Please send any music you create to learning@bcmg.org.uk