Field of Action
(Duos with Piano VII)

Eric Wubbels · Field of Action- index

instrumentation: Charmaine Lee (voice, microphones, modular synth) and Eric Wubbels (prepared piano, analog synth)
duration: 20-30'
written for and in collaboration with Charmaine Lee
album version recorded, mixed, and produced by Weston Olencki, released on Out of Your Head Records

About the Piece

Field of Action
is the first culmination of an ongoing collaboration with vocalist, improviser, and noise musician Charmaine Lee. Written for and in collaboration with Charmaine over the course of two years, the piece explores continuums between freedom and determinacy, openness and precision, composition and improvisation, within an overall framework that prioritizes in-the-moment interaction and foregrounds the expressive and structural potentials of various ways of relating to each other through sound.



Charmaine approached me about writing a piece for her in the Summer of 2018. At first, it wasn't clear to either of us what form the piece would take. We went through a lot of possible options (solo piece? voice and Disklavier? something with video?) before finally coming back around to the feeling that what was actually most exciting was playing together. The obstacle was that we're from quite different musical backgrounds – she's an improviser who's created an entire world of her own in solo performance, in particular really expanding the instrumental and orchestrational possibilities of microphones in live performance. But, she performs notated music pretty rarely, while my compositional world has generally been about super-precise notated music with a high level of detail. And, while I've been a fan of free music for ages, my experience with improvisation as a performer was quite limited at the time (let's be clear – still limited). So I was definitely not ready at the beginning of the process to just start calling or thinking of myself as an improviser; on the contrary I was extremely wary of stepping into that role and doing a shit job of it.

So, the final result – a duo piece with both highly detailed notated music and substantial sections of open improvisation for both of us – was something that was not obvious initially, but instead evolved organically through the process, until it started to feel like a necessity (an intimidating one for both of us, for sure!).

Process → Structure

1. Charmaine's Setup

In the previous duo pieces I've written the first step generally has been to “analyze” the other instrument – to look at it with the freshest eyes I can muster and try to start over from some core set of idiomatic properties, which can be acoustic / haptic / physical / conceptual.

It became clear pretty quickly that the other instrument in this case wasn't “voice,” but instead the complex circuit (of voice, microphones, mixer, volume pedal, modular synth) that Charmaine has developed as her setup. Her setup is highly personal and original, continually evolving, and complex enough to be kind of opaque, initially.

So in this case the process began with getting immersed enough in her sound-world and practice that I could develop a basic understanding of how her “instrument” behaves.

First, I listened to just about all of her recordings, albums and otherwise, and went to most of her live shows for a span of 6-8 months or so. Then we spent a couple sessions at her place in Chinatown just kind of going over her setup in pretty exhaustive detail, until I felt like I understood how it worked, why she had chosen those mics and that hardware, and what the process of getting there had been.

Then, I went away and kind of analyzed her setup (“psychoanalyzed” in her words...) and made some diagrams of it as a kind of half-literal/half-metaphorical electrical schematic, just trying to be able to trace what the properties of the composite circuit she was sending her sound through were:

electrical model

This actually ended up being pretty useful, also because some of the things that popped out were the aspects of the setup that were there but that she wasn't really using, or that weren't fully integrated – we got several really productive zones out of that, in particular pushing to free up her hands a lot more. So instead of just holding the mic, one hand or the other can be really instrumentalized, can play the mute buttons on the mixer to toggle between mic inputs, can tap the contact mic on her throat percussively, etc.

(This is also a good example of a kind of standard creative move I like to use in the material-generating phase, which is to look at something that's idiomatic on one side of the duo and just kind of try to cut and paste it over to the other person's side. In this case, basically like, “I'm a pianist, I'm using my hands, what if you used your hands, too!” – these almost childish metaphorical transfers that can end up in practice being really fertile.)

On my end, this led to an expansion of my setup, or my conception of the “instrument” as a whole, developing a framework of three “zones” of playing – 1) normal, on the keys; 2) inside the piano; and 3) synth – to mirror the timbral zones that Charmaine accesses through her use of different microphones: 1) a dynamic mic; 2) a contact mic held against her throat/larynx with medical tape; and 3) a handheld cassette player with a built-in, very lo-fi, mic that distorts and feeds back very easily.

2. Structures for Interaction

A second main component of the piece derives from Joe Morris's "postures of interaction" framework. In Charmaine's words:

                        The interactive framework for “Field of Action” is inspired by my studies with Joe Morris
                        and the meta-methodology of improvisation outlined in his book, “Properties of Free Music.”
                        Joe posits that during group improvisation, a player can adopt one of five different states -
                        solo, juxtaposition, complementing, unison, or silence.

We decided to adopt this framework, not wholesale or orthodoxly, but as a starting point for structuring some palpably different points across a conceptual space of interactivity. I made two adjustments for this context: 'Expenditure' instead of “Soloing” (based both on our mutual interest in noise music, and on my sense that moments of solo improvisation here might be less about an expression of personality per se and more “burning the flame of your life force,” or something like that), and 'Joint Effort' instead of “Complement.”

3. Form, Timbre, Notation

Putting these elements together, I felt like we finally had a way of connecting form and material in the piece, and could generate and specify moments in the piece according to what had become the main meaning-bearing parameters: timbre, sound sources, and ways of interacting and relating to each other.

I represented this in a formula, because I am a fucking nerd:

In text form this means

- which zone or zones (microphone/microphones) is Charmaine using [A, B, or C];
    Zone A- dynamic mic or "shotgun" mic
        Zone B- contact/throat mic
        Zone C- "hand" zone: mixer, modular synth, or handheld cassette player-mic

- which zone or zones (area of overall "keyboard space") am I using [X, Y, or Z];

        Zone X- piano (on keys only)
        Zone Y- inside piano
        Zone Z- synth

- what is our basic "posture of interaction"

    (= juxtaposition, = unison, ! = expenditure, || = "joint effort," = silence)

- which elements are fixed, which free;


Zone also maps strongly to timbre, so this represents a much more structural use of timbre than in any previous piece of mine (for those keeping track at home...). As the framework for the division of my composite "instrument" into zones is derived in part from Charmaine's setup, there are some nice conceptual echoes between them:

Zones A and X are "default, ordinario";
Zones B and Y (contact mic on throat and inside piano) are "internal, interior";
Zones C and Z involve "auxiliary" objects and sound sources, for Charmaine especially things that involve the hand in an instrumental way, for me the synth as a kind of auxiliary oscillator within the piano's acoustic sound circuit.


Eventually the form came out something like this:

1. screen:                       [ABC! Z]
2. signal:                       [AC || YZ
[AC || YZ]
3. empathy // cassette:  [C XY]
... [A X]...   (many zones, but all unison, almost all fixed)
4. tether:                       [ABC {!, ||, ,,∅, ⋃, ⨂} X]
5. index:                       [ABC || XYZ]   [ABC /∅]
6. resistor:                    [C  XZ]
[AC!/∅]  → ... [CZ]

Collaboration, Creative Agency, Authorship

score excerpt

Field of Action is the seventh piece in the "Duos with Piano" series. Close and extended collaboration with the individuals I'm writing for has become an absolutely integral and necessary part of the process in making these pieces, and yet the leap into a more substantial engagement with improvisation in this case has opened up the creative dynamic even further.

I share the authorship for this music with Charmaine, and “for Charmaine Lee” in this case is both a dedication and an instrumentation... I see this piece as an encapsulation of a moment in our musical and personal relationship, a period of growth and exploration, of a real, sincere, and dedicated attempt – born of mutual respect and admiration – to make something together with someone else without an obvious shared way of working. I learned a tremendous amount in going through this process with her and feel that it's opened up new areas in my playing and artistic personality that I'll be exploring for many years.

In the recorded form of the piece, major creative credit is also due to Weston Olencki, who brought incredible technical skill, creativity, and dedication (and countless hours) to the editing, mixing, and production of what was basically a high-COVID home-recording session. The album version really could not have existed without him.

I'll let Charmaine have the last word:

                                            For two years, I worked with Eric to dissect and analyze my musical set up, from my gear
                                            to the inner workings of my vocal anatomy. Eric helped me organize my language into units
                                            of actions and vocabulary and integrate them in both our duo and in my own solo practice.
                                            Over the course of our collaboration, I was inspired watching Eric apply new methods of interaction,
                                            creation, and technological application stemming from our conversations and from observing my
                                            approach to improvised music. I realized an important lesson: that the substance and clarity
                                            of one’s creative voice depends heavily on a lifelong and rigorous process of self-questioning. ...

                                            The piece feels like a circular hallway of doors, where each opening explores the extremities of interaction,
                                             frequency, sonic subtlety and joyful intensity. “Field of Action” was designed for the recorded medium.
                                             It comes as no surprise that this collaboration represents one of the most intense personal and creative
                                             growing periods I have had in my life thus far. I am deeply grateful to Eric for crafting such a sensational
                                            doorway for us to walk through, and to Weston for the care and love poured into the far corners of the
                                            recording process.