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Confluence: Tom Nunn’s Sculptured Musical Instruments For Improvisation

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This dissertation examines the work of Tom Nunn (b. 1946), a musician who has spent the past thirty-eight years developing new musical instruments designed specifically for playing improvised music. The culmination of his research is the Electroacoustic Percussion Board (EPB), consisting of a soundboard, amplified with contact microphones, to which sound making devices are attached. Electroacoustic Percussion Boards are an entirely new type of musical instrument: free improvisation embodied in sculptural, functional objects. Nunn’s efforts represent an uncommon approach to creating new music: challenging traditional musical hierarchies by building instruments with little or no resemblance to conventional instruments, thus freeing performers from expectations embedded in histories of playing technique.

Nunn’s instruments and music are the result of a lengthy period of refinement of instrument design that began as a freely improvised process of experimentation and discovery. The foundations of Nunn’s work were laid in collaboration with Prent Rodgers, Jonathan Glasier, David Poyourow, and Chris Brown between 1975 and 1979.

As graduate students at UCSD’s radical Department of Music the young musicians formed two ensembles in search of new musical resources. The first, the ID Project, was devoted to exploring music as social practice, primarily though inclusive group improvisation and audience participation. The second group, Confluence, described themselves as a group of musicians who unite instrument building, composition, sculpture, and performance into an integrated, whole expression. Confluence explored experimental instrument construction as a means of creating new sounds, new music, and new experiences. Innovative instrument building allowed Confluence to develop groundbreaking notions, challenging traditional musical conventions with non-hierarchical group improvisations, audience participation, and instruments presented as sound sculpture. Since Confluence disbanded in 1979, Nunn has continued to develop instruments, playing techniques, and a conceptual framework of improvisation. This dissertation documents Tom Nunn’s catalog of invented instruments to ensure the inclusion of his work in the historical narrative of contemporary music, improvisation, and experimental musical instruments.

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