Skip main navigation

Gerhard’s Process

A discussion of Roberto Gerhard's process of composing electronic music

Like a commander…

In working with magnetic tape Gerhard was aware that he was adopting different working methods from those he normally employed when working in the instrumental realm, and was gaining fresh insights into the nature of sound itself.

In his notebooks he writes:

The composer at the tape machine is like a commander in the field, he is in the very thick of events. … After a full day’s work by the tape-recorder one suddenly discovers that one’s ears have become […] atuned to all manner of sounds, indoors and outdoor-sounds to which, one realizes, one had been completely deaf before.

Gerhard’s approach

Gerhard’s approach to electronic music was far more intuitive than that of his instrumental compositions. In his notebooks there are long lists of sounds that form the numerous mixes or ‘compounds’ that he produced before the final montage of a work. As Gerhard continued to work with magnetic tape it is clear that he began to adopt a coherent personal aesthetic towards tape composition. His notebooks become increasingly filled with ideas about the temporal nature of composition, about timbre and texture. While his radio and theatre productions continued to use Foley sound, Gerhard’s more autonomous sound compositions utilized more abstract or processed sound materials, often instrumental sounds, which in some cases underwent considerable metamorphosis to form hybrid ‘sound families’.

Collecting sounds

For Gerhard, the first step toward creating a sound composition was to gather a repertoire of raw materials on tape. Gerhard’s studio had a single microphone which he used to capture a wide range of materials, from piano effects and percussion instruments, to more abstract sounds produced from objects such as packing paper, paper tissue, combs, and in one memorable case, an ashtray. He also recorded a range of field sounds, including birds, dogs, axe strokes, cracking tree, thunder, wind, rain and storm, whipping gusts, crowds, chatter, laughter, and screams, some constructed deliberately in the studio and others taken from his surroundings. Lindsay Anderson recalled Gerhard’s process:
I remember visiting Roberto in Cambridge, talking about the score, and even assisting him in throwing various objects down the stairs, in an effort to product the right kind of abstract sounds which he felt he needed.

Aside from sound sources recorded in his own studio, Gerhard also recycled fragments of recordings of his own instrumental works. Where the materials he needed could not be easily created in his own studio, Gerhard would resort to commercial sound catalogues or to outsourcing the recordings to a professional facility.

Although Gerhard had a preference for sounds of acoustic origin, this did not rule out the occasional use of synthetic sounds, such as white noise or sine tones obtained from test and demonstration records or from sessions in the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Gerhard would identify sound patterns that resulted from the combination of multiple sources as he developed his compositional materials. Such processes enabled Gerhard to successively build up several layers of sound recordings, creating what he termed ‘multilevel compounds’.

Listening and classification

In the second stage of the production process, Gerhard would listen intently to the internal characteristics of his recordings and abstract the sounds further through processing. These sounds would then be grouped according to timbral or gestural quality, creating distinct sound-families. Through this practice, Gerhard developed a series of clear compositional stages and his own terminology for each:

– small mixes of material (termed sound images or sound aggregates) – these mixes were then combined to form compounds – numerous compounds were combined to form multilevel compounds – these multilevel compounds would be arranged and edited, resulting in the final assembly

Piano, percussion, and accordion were favoured by Gerhard as source materials. Similarly, Gerhard was aware that not all instruments were equally useful. In his notebooks the composer observes that the processing of long wind notes, such as those of the flute and oboe, may result in awkward vibrato effects. This is one reason perhaps that he favoured the accordion so much. Percussion and pedal glissandi on timpani also feature often in Gerhard’s sound compositions.

Over to you

How does Gerhard’s process differ from that of other composers we’ve looked at? What do you think the impact on composition would be from utilising so many stages for the creation of sound materials in the process of composition?


Adkins, M. (2022) “Methods and Sound Sources”.

This article is from the free online

English Electronic Music: Delve into the Digital Archives

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now