The Vectorian Era

Posted in Text on November 23rd, 2016 by admin


THE VECTORIAN ERA: an Investigation into Analog Computer Graphics

The Vectorian Era opens with a screaming across the sky. Analog electronic computers predate their digital counterparts by several decades, and one of the first practical applications of the analog computer was in controlling the trajectories of German V2 rockets as they traced their rainbow of gravity from Flanders towards London during the Second World War. As Friedrich Kittler has observed, the relationship of media technology to military tools of destruction was sealed by moments such as these.

Post-war developments continued in this direction. Tennis for Two, programmed in 1958 by William Higinbotham on an analog computer at Brookhaven National Laboratories in Long Island NY USA, using an oscilloscope as the display. It combined a two-player interface with physics models of a bouncing ball displayed as vectors in motion, and is arguably the first publicly-playable video game. The laboratory itself performed government research into nuclear physics, energy technology, and national security.

In the early 1960’s, the composer Morton Subotnik employed engineer Don Buchla to help him create “the music of the future”. Buchla redesigned the existing function generators of analog computers to respond to voltage controls of their frequency and amplitude. This gave birth to the realtime-controllable, analog modular synthesizer which was subsequently expanded by others such as Bob Moog and Serge Tcherepnin.

In 1967, the Sony Portapak revolutionized video by taking the camera out of the television studio and into the hands of amateurs and artists. And by the early 1970’s, an interest in cybernetics, systems theory and automatic processes brought the analog computer closer to the worlds of art, music, and architecture. Figures such as Heinz von Foerster, Gordon Pask, Nam June Paik, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Iannis Xenakis and R. Buckminster Fuller all speculated on the effect of computers on society, and used computer-derived forms in their work. The 1972 Rutt-Etra Video Synthesizer, used famously by the Vasukas in several works, employed an analog computer to manipulate and deconstruct the raster of a conventional video signal with very otherworldly effects.

Vector graphics were widely adopted by video game manufacturers in the late 1970’s due to their computational efficiency, and the wealth of experience using them that the history of analog computing provided. Perhaps the most iconic of these games is Asteroids, a space shooter released by Atari in 1979. Battle Zone (1980), Tempest (1981), and Star Wars (1983) all stand as other notable examples from this Vectorian Era, and also as rudimentary training tools for the future e-warriors who would remotely guide missiles into Iraqi bunkers at the start of the next decade. As electronics became cheaper, smaller, and faster in the 1980’s, the dated technology of using analog vectors to directly manipulate a Cathode Ray Tube fell out of favor and rasterized graphics, animations and moving image quickly took their place.

Informed by the discourse of media archaeology, my own personal interest in analog vector graphics isn’t merely retro-for-retro’s-sake. Rather, it is an exploration of a once-current and now discarded technology linked with specific utopias and dystopias from another time. The fact that many aspects of our current utopian aspirations (and dystopian anxieties!) remain largely unchanged since the dawn of the Vectorian Era indicates to me that seeking to satisfy them with technology alone is quite problematic. Therefore, an investigation into “tried-and-failed” methods from the past casts our current attempts and struggles in a new kind of light.

Derek Holzer
23 NOV 2016
Helsinki FI



–TOP: Derek Holzer, “VECTOR SYNTHESIS” study, August 2015, Berlin DE
–MIDDLE: “VECTOR SYNTHESIS” studies, January 2017, Helsinki FI
–BOTTOM: Early computer art created by anonymous IBM engineers, this pinup girl program is running on a SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment) defense computer. Polaroid photo by Lawrence A. Tipton, 1959, Ft. Lee Virginia USA. Via The Atlantic.

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Reflections on the LAK Festival 2013

Posted in Documentation, Text on October 9th, 2013 by admin

Photo Flora Tosti

Changing the Power Base

Around the time of the recent Female Pressure report, which called out many sound and music festivals around the globe for their scandalously poor representation of female artists, I had several discussions with the main organizers of the LAK Festival (three quarters women, incidentally) about how to address the issue. To their credit, they didn’t make a big deal about it. No “female artist showcase” or other kinds of tokenism involved. They simply selected artists they were interested in, which just so happened to place a fairly even number of men and women on the stage that weekend. Which is pretty much how things should be, in my own opinion.

What surprised me more was the turnout for the workshops. There are many ways of reaching out to potential participants of an arts and technology workshop. Written one way, with a focus on parts-catalog jargon and makerlab buzzwords, the turnout is often exclusively dudes in their mid-20’s who wear hooded sweatshirts 24 hours a day, rarely bathe and posses an obsessive interest in controlling their toaster with an Arduino or 3D-printing yet another ashtray.

Written another way, with more of a nod to aesthetics and content, or even just acknowledging a more intuitive and non-linear approach to arts-n-tech, the results are much more varied and far richer. In this sense, I guess we did something right because three quarters of the workshop participants were women–as compared with a whopping zero percent in the workshop I taught to a Danish university sound design course the following week!

I emphasize the presentation and participation of women not from a “Yeah, sisters!” kind of feminism, but rather as a barometer of how it is possible to reach out from a traditional arts or music festival power base. Age, education, race or class could be another set of many possible indicators left for another set of reflections on this or any other festival.

Photo Flora Tosti

Life in an Alienating Utopia

One criticism of the festival I have heard in several places is that it was merely “sound-for-sound’s-sake.” And this could well be valid–from the position of the passive spectator. I’m sorry if this is news to anyone, but even after one hundred years of history, electronic sound remains a fundamentally alienating dystopia for the exact same reasons it provides a creative utopia.

Namely, this is because it is no longer necessary to have the source of the sound present during its performance, and because sounds can be created which have never been heard before, both through means with which the audience has no connection visual or otherwise. Any kind of electronic sound presentation which neglects this alienation on the part of a traditional audience is doomed to failure with them. Simply put, it’s not just “all about the sound.” Not now, and not ever.

Innovative approaches to engaging the audience don’t regurgitate the 90’s “interactivity” model of waving to the machine in the proper way so that the machine waves back. Nor do they sugar-coat everything in accessible techno beats. The performer who crouches motionless behind the laptop, mixer or pile of obscure gear playing (or playing back) what one LAK reviewer simple-mindedly called “ant-war” music deserves the reaction they get from outside the small, safe confines of their scene.

Don’t get me wrong here, I love challenging, experimental music–when it is well-presented. But I simply gave up on expecting it to “cross over” to a larger audience long ago. There are very few “civilians” (as Kristina Andersen quipped to me one evening) at an experimental sound art festival, and the ones who do show up can be a cynical bunch.

Photo Flora Tosti

The Participatory Model

The “sound-for-sound’s-sake” criticism immediately falls apart when the participatory model is taken. In my own workshops, I have noticed again and again that people who would never attend an experimental concert are quite happy to play one of their own when given the chance. Other people’s noise can be annoying, but your own noise–that is sublime! So instead of trying to pack 100 people in a room to watch one self-indulgent noise artist, why not let 10 people become one for themselves for a few hours?

This is the challenge to the passive, cynical audience member… to drop the cool, “what the fuck” posture and take part in something rather than stand by the sidelines and spectate. As Tore Honoré Boe observes about his Acoustic Laptops, when people first see a wooden box with a few toothbrushes glued inside, their skepticism remains high until they actually reach inside and “touch the sound”. Then their attitude immediately changes and they find themselves captivated by their own noise.

For me, two of the most successful workshops were led by Mads Bech Paulszewski-Hau and John Grzinich. In each case, participants committed themselves to days of preparation, creating a tactile sonic installation and a blindfolded sound walk which they themselves were responsible for presenting during the festival. The workshop leaders worked with a goal of planned obsolescence, facilitating and fading into the background the more the participants became confident of their own work. These participants came from a wide range of backgrounds, from visual arts to movement to music to simple interest–as did many of the workshop participants that week. The common factor was the complaint that access to information about sound art was very hard for them to find.

Similarly successful were the CEO Bendorama circuit-bending workshop, the Syntjuntan circuit-sewing workshop, and in particular Kristina Andersen’s ElectroSqueak Club instrument-building workshop for children, all of which provided a low-stress point of contact with electronics, materials and sound which simply does not exist in arts education on the university or community level almost anywhere else. One particularly interesting turn of events came when one of Christian Skjødt‘s improvisation workshop participants installed herself in the stairwell and in her own way joined the lineup of the festival. By and large, those who came–the untrained, the curious, the non-professional–were “civilians” in the most basic sense of the word.

Photo Kristina Andersen

Let a Thousand Noise Artists Bloom

–But who is going to watch all these freshly-born sound artists perform?

–Who cares.

The participatory model is highly resistant to stage-elevation. It simply isn’t the point. For centuries, folk music has been created not by professional artists but by everyday people for their collective enjoyment, rather than to single one person out as The Artist and celebrate them alone. Why should electronic sound, the folk music of our age, be any different? In that sense, one cannot complain if there are “too many” sound artists or performers out there, since it is no longer about competition for other people’s attention. The consolation prize is perhaps more people coming into the scene to spectate on other people’s sound art performances some time in the future. Think of it as a small investment…

Photo Flora Tosti

A Deeper Sense of Contact

This kind of thinking requires a radical reboot of the traditional festival strategy of success-through-maximum-headcount, however. The participatory model is democratic in the sense that it allows direct access, and not because it sells thousands of tickets. Like being one of six pupils at a Montessori or Steiner school rather than one of hundreds at a public school, it is a deeper, more involved way to experience the art form and should be valued for that reason, and not because some “thump thump thump” put a lot of hands in the air.

Do you try to touch a thousand people in a superficial way, or touch a dozen people in a deep way? Depends on your funding model, I suppose. But moving away from one’s traditional, elite power base always requires new models. So even when it means less bodies in a room for now, I am happy to see LAK moving in that direction.

—D. Holzer, Västernorrland, Sweden 09 Oct 2013

Thanks and Appreciation

My sincere thanks to Katrine Møllebæk, Sif Hellerup Madsen, Agnete Seerup, Rasmus Cleve Christensen and the festival volunteers for organizing a great week, to John Grzinich, CEO Bendorama, Tore Honoré Boe, Christian Skjødt, Mads Bech Paluszewski-Hau, Kristina Andersen, Lise-Lotte Norelius and Ann Rosén for their hard work on thew workshops, to Dani Dögenigt and Sebastian Edin for their assistance during the workshops, and to all the workshop participants for their interest and energies! Photos courtesy of LAK Festival, Kristina Andersen and Flora Tosti.

Photo Kristina Andersen

Photo Flora Tosti

Photo Flora Tosti

Photo Flora Tosti

Photo Flora Tosti

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Vague Terrain 19: Schematic as Score

Posted in Announcement on May 2nd, 2011 by admin

[Moritz Ellerich / Fabelphonetikum (rhizome schematic)]

Vague Terrain 19: Schematic as Score launched, 2 May 2011.

At the end of 2010, I arranged to curate an upcoming issue of the Canadian online journal Vague Terrain. I wanted to cover some of my research into the deterministic tendencies of sound technology alongside a selection of artists I know who are all deeply committed to designing and constructing various types of electronic performance systems. Almost a half year later, it has finally arrived and I must say I’m pretty proud of it.

Featuring work by Peter Blasser, Jason R. Butcher, Moritz Ellerich, Lesley Flanigan, Martin Howse, Derek Holzer (with Mads Bech Paluszewski), Loud Objects (Kunal Gupta, Tristan Perich and Katie Shima), Jessica Rylan and Synchronator (Bas van Koolwijk & Geert-Jan Prins), the issue also includes two essays I wrote for the occasion, the issue introduction Schematic as Score: Uses and Abuses of the (In)Deterministic Possibilities of Sound Technology and Monkeys in the Trees: Systems Music, Electro-acoustic Autism and the Hungry Animals, on the Bergen and Berlin versions of David Tudor’s Rainforest which I co-organized over Fall/Winter 2010-11 for Piksel and Club Transmediale.

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Some Thoughts on Concept and Craft

Posted in Text on November 4th, 2010 by admin

Raymond Parker, Untitled, 1959

While Pop art constantly referred to contemporary society through its reconfiguration of consumerist images, Color Field painting consciously distanced itself from societal referents and focused on the lyrical possibilities of color.

—“Color Fields” exhibition catalog, Deutsche Guggenheim, 2010

An Estonian art student recently informed me that, “since WWII” as he was taught, the position of the artist has essentially become that of a conceptual engineer rather than that a mere “craftsman”. I did as best I could to protest. On the one hand, I argued, this means that the artist is largely divorced from the process of creating their own work. All the would-be Jeff Koonses or Damien Hirsts who relegate their labor to hired armies of technicians and assistants lose the direct familiarity with the medium that they work in, and subsequently miss out on any suggestions that the materiality of that medium might have on their creative process.

On the other hand, what it leads to is a vision of art as a cynical manipulation of symbols and referents alone. Whether it is the visual-arts hipster ironically juxtaposing iconic cultural references, or the media-arts nerd sonifying stock market data streamed at them through Twitter, it all becomes a series of artistic black boxes where we can only assume that what comes out has some relationship to what went in. And when anything=anything, the end result is that the we the artists take a stand on nothing.

One week it’s unwatchable “found footage” from YouTube in the galleries, the next it’s sock monkeys, with everyone in the monkey camp loudly denouncing those who still prefer handycams to knitting. The Estonian student’s professor once placed a golden replica in the former location of a controversial Soviet-era statue in Tallinn.  In his 5 minutes of fame on the evening news, he preferred to mumble something about “relational aesthetics” rather than admit that the action might actually mean something. And so we the audience…in the end we can believe in nothing.

When I began working on the TONEWHEELS project, I was more interested in the technical side of this equation: how to avoid the black box of the computer and how to demonstrate a tangible connection between image and sound. But now I see how it addresses the conceptual side as well.  By working with direct optical synthesis, I hope (in a similar manner to the Color Field painters of the 1960s, the subject of a current exhibition at the Deutsch Guggenheim) to shortcut this reliance on symbols and intellectualism in favor of the only thing left to believe in: the direct, personal and physical experience of light and sound.

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UH Fest Go Social! Tour review

Posted in Documentation on September 14th, 2010 by admin


Over four days at the start of September 2010, I took a small tour with the intention of visiting various socially-excluded groups in Hungary. This tour was organized by András Nun in the context of the upcoming UH Festival in Budapest, and I was joined by Luka Ivanovic (Lukatoyboy, Beograd), Balázs Pándi (drummer for Merzbow, Kilimanjaro Dark Jazz, Venetian Snares and others, Budapest) and Péter Szabó (Jackie Triste, Budapest), as well as by our translator Julcsi Palkovics and two photo/video journalists from, András Hajdu and Kálmán ‘Mao’ Mátyás.

Each location visited related to András’ work with human interest NGOs, and he described the theme of our excursions as “Poverty and Exclusion in Hungary–or–What Can an International Festival Representing Peripheral Music Do About the Problem of People Forced to the Periphery, How Can It Act Against Their Exclusion?”

On Social Art I

I rarely hesitate in giving my opinion about the majority of “political” or “social” art projects I see at festivals and museums. Those that know me have often heard my joke about the Dutch media artist who reads the words “Problems of Muslim Integration” on the front page of the Volkskrant and “New Developments in GPS” on the technology page and–EUREKA!–runs off to win the Golden Nica at Ars Electronica.

The formula is simple: apply consumer gadget A to social problem B and it’s culture to absolve the middle-class guilt of the iEverything crowd, with kickbacks to Apple, Sony and Microsoft. In this European subsidized arts ecology, I have seen too many artists and institutions pay lip service to whatever the social-ill-of-the-day might be as a way of expanding their financial (and thus technological) resources from a different funding pool. And since the cultural money pools dry up quickest in times of crisis, I expect this kind of thing happens more often now than ever before.

However, while I cannot speak to the UH Festival’s organizational interests in having a theme like “Go Social!”, I can certainly point out András Nun’s deep personal interest in trying to combine the two very different worlds he lives and works in daily. So it was on those grounds that I agreed to take part.

Monor & Budapest

Besides the incredible range of groups we spoke to–in one moment we stood talking outside the run-down, windowless houses of dirt-poor Roma in the town of Monor, and in the next we jammed with young, hip Budapest 20-somethings at a walk-in drug treatment center–was the bewildering array of institutional approaches to these groups. One homeless advocate in Budapest insisted with all his naïve, youthful Marxist ideology that the solution to their problem was simply “housing, housing and more housing”. Likewise, the director of a homeless day center only focused on the necessities of food and clean clothing, without taking any interest in the individual psychic conditions which might keep people in those circumstances.

Faced with approaches such as these, the artist has little room to intervene. The artist’s work has nothing to do with policy, or even advocacy, but rather with the honest communication of human experience between one person and another. And this is an area unapproachable by those who reduce living people to demographics.

Esztergom, Vanyarc & Told

So I was much more at home in the locations where art had already found its place–places like Esztergom, Vanyarc or Told, where young people from poor Roma or Hungarian families could find the space and materials necessary for creative expression through painting, music or dance. It was a strange artistic match, however, for Luka, Péter and I to find a common ground with them.

We showed up delirious from many hours on twisting Hungarian roads at each place with loads of noisy electronic boxes, not knowing what sort of response to expect. In Vanyarc, the kids quickly lost interest in electronics and instead presented us with a program of Christian song and dance in the Gypsy style. In Told, on the other hand, the situation was beyond chaotic. Luka and I quickly agreed that we would have the children draw pictures of sounds from their village life and sing–or scream, as it happened–them for us as a conducted choir rather than try anything with his noise-toys.

On Social Art II

Early on in the discussion of this trip, I brought up some of my concerns about the typical media artist approach to social problems. They came in response to a project proposal which would see a homeless man carrying around a brand-new digital recorder, and these recordings sampled during a live set at the festival. With a nod towards Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra and The Great Learning projects, which brought amateur and untrained musicians together into a structured improvisational setting and reflected his preoccupations with a kind of “people’s art”, I wrote:

“I think if this will really work, some strategies of how the people/groups you have chosen to work with could represent themselves–without flashy gadgets costing half an average month’s salary and ‘professional’ mediation–would have to evolve. The very nature of that kind of experiment means that the results you get may not fit the sophisticated aesthetics of your festival audience in Budapest, however. An interesting paradox, and one which I think is necessary to allow to happen.”

This paradoxical jump between poor rural families and sophisticated city music scenesters inflicted what Luka called a “social jet lag” on the tour group after the four hour drive back from Told. As we boarded the A38 ship and went below deck to see the Peter Brötzman Trio play, our usual world of stages, bands and nightclubs turned upside down and suddenly became far more surreal than the rooms full of messy, loud Gypsy children we’d become somehow accustomed to.

Lessons in Junk

Speaking with Róbert Bereznyei (Tigrics, Budapest) in his synthesizer-stuffed studio apartment one evening, we found agreement on one point in particular: to go to poor people in the countryside and show them how to make art with expensive gadgets is like dangling the keys to the Ferrari in front of them and then driving off. Any meaningful artistic intervention or collaboration must involve things they might actually have access to once we leave, whether those things are built on the spot, commonly available or provided by some institution already there. Róbert put it quite simply.

“Teach them build things from junk,” he said.

This kind of alchemical approach suits me well, and before departing to Hungary I went through many workshop possibilities in my head. All of them required far more time than we had at our disposal. The average visit to any one of these places was about an hour and a half, when in fact we could have stayed one or many days getting a feel for the situation and developing proper connections with the locals. As it was, it felt like something between a rock-and-roll roadshow and a group of camera-toting Japanese tourists seeing the Statue of Liberty one day, the Grand Canyon the next and Sunset Boulevard the third.

Devecser & Bicske

With all this in mind, we set out to the town of Bicske on the last day of the tour to give a sound workshop for young Afghan refugees. Before this, however, we took a six hour detour to Devecser, where the local Roma community run one of the largest outdoor bazaars for West European trash I have ever seen in my travels through the East. Here we picked up a few kilos of Chinese plastic trinkets, springy metal bits-n-bobs and total-kaputt-elektromüll, and then happily went on our way. If there is one thing Berlin has taught me, it’s that a great workshop always begins with a trip to the flea market!

Each of the Afghan boys in Bicske had some horrible unspoken story to tell… of murdered family members, of being smuggled en masse in the back of a truck through Iran and Turkey, of sleeping rough in mountains and forests for nights without end and–at the end of everything–of the ordeals of the Hungarian legal system. I swallowed hard, hoping none of that would matter in the moment, dumped a load of junk on the table and showed them how to use a contact microphone to get life out of these dead objects.

By the end of the afternoon, several of the boys had constructed small wooden sound boxes and one, before leaving to Budapest for evening Ramadan services, even expressed a desire to learn something more about electronics. There aren’t too many moments in life when one feels like a superhero, but perhaps this was one of them…

Photography by András Hajdu and Péter Szabó. Thanks to the various organizations we visited and who hosted our workshops, including Az Utca Embere, A Mi Házunk, Megálló Csoport, Szomolyai Romákért Egyesület, Igazgyöngy Alapítvány and the Cordelia Foundation.

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Chaotic Colorfields

Posted in Text on August 14th, 2010 by admin


The Chaotic Colorfields performance exploits the psychological intensification which pulsed light adds to the audience’s perception of a sonic event, as well as the physical effect upon the receptors of the eye created by contrasting colorfields. Four colored strobes are directly driven by a self-built analog synthesizer set up to calculate a variety of chaotic feedback systems. Louder than bright and brighter than loud.

Upcoming Performances

EDIT: I’ve decided to postpone this one a bit, to spend more time on making it the best it can possibly be. Upcoming shows in Den Haag, Budapest and Aalborg will be solo improvisations for self-built analog synthesizer without the strobes…


* Self-built Analog Modular Synthesizer w/ Light Controller Module
* Stereo or Quadrophonic (preferred) PA System
* Four 1500W or brighter DMX Strobelights, each with one Color Filter (Red, Green, Blue, Yellow/Orange)
* Smoke Machine
* Total Darkness


Chaotic Synthesis

Chaotic systems are deterministic dynamic systems that have a high sensitivity to initial conditions. Only dynamic systems that include a nonlinear feedback path are capable of chaotic behavior. Common examples of chaotic systems include coupled pendulums, pseudorandom number generators, and the earth’s weather system[…] Nonlinearity and feedback are necessary conditions for the existence of chaotic processes.[1]

The Colour Out of Space

The colour, which resembled some of the bands in the meteor’s strange spectrum, was almost impossible to describe; and it was only by analogy that they called it colour at all…

…as the column of unknown colour flared suddenly stronger and began to weave itself into fantastic suggestions of shape which each spectator described differently, there came from poor tethered Hero such a sound as no man before or since ever heard from a horse[…] That was the last of Hero till they buried him next day.[2]

Imaginary Colors

Non-physical, unrealizable, or imaginary colors are points in a color space that correspond to combinations of cone cell responses that cannot be produced by any physical (non-negative) light spectrum.[3] Thus, no object can have an imaginary color, and imaginary colors cannot be seen under normal circumstances. Nevertheless, they are useful as mathematical abstractions for defining color spaces.[4]

Perception of Imaginary Colors

If a saturated green is viewed until the green receptors are fatigued and then a saturated red is viewed, a perception of red more intense than pure spectral red can be experienced. This is due to the fatigue of the green receptors and the resulting lack of their ability to desaturate the perceptual response to the output of the red receptors.[5]

Color as Subjective Experience

In a viewer’s experience, the perceptual interpretation of the context is expressed in the color itself; we usually cannot, or only with unreasonable effort, separate the “real” color from its context. In particular, we are normally completely unaware of the “cognitive” aspects of color perception — discounting the illuminant, spatial perspective, shadows, memory, object concepts, available color labels, and so on.[6]

[1]Slater, Dan, “Chaotic Sound Synthesis”, Computer Music Journal 22.2 19 September 1998, pp 12-19.
[2]Lovecraft, H.P., “The Colour Out of Space“, “Amazing Stories” September 1927.
[3]MacEvoy, Bruce, “Light and the Eye”,
[5]Lindsay, Peter and Norman, Donald, “Human Information Processing,” Academic Press, 1972, pp 196–216.
[6]MacEvoy, Bruce, “Basic Forms of Color”,

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more technological determinism, via Don Buchla

Posted in Text on October 20th, 2008 by admin

Don Buchla, the 200 series, and friends (from the electro-music forum)

Ever since I visited the EMS studios in Stockholm late last year, and feasted my ears on the one of the most awesome collections of vintage analog synthesizer equipment known to man, I’ve become a Buchla synth devotee.

Sweden is of course a rather strange place. Like the Netherlands, it appears to be absolutely swamped with arts money. The couple that I stayed with in Stockholm had no less than 13 Genelec monitors just laying around the house, and even the receptionist at EMS had mini-Genelecs as her computer desktop speakers.

Now, to give some sense of scale, Genelecs are pretty much the audiophile monitor of choice, and a good pair runs about a grand in Euros. And to buy any decent amount of vintage Buchla synthesizer modules, you’d probably have to mortgage your house. For the fifth time, if you happen to be from the US. Brand new hybrid digital/analog Buchla systems start at exactly $9950 for the smallest one you can get away with. If you don’t believe me, have a look here.

So somehow it failed to surprise me that between EMS and their close neighbor Fylkingen, they were using old Buchla and Serge racks as doorstops in Stockholm, there were so many of them. When I got into the recording studio there, I was very pleased to discover that Kevin Drumm, a rather reclusive Chicago artist whose work just gets better and better every time I listen to it, had worked in the same studio only a few weeks before. And–better than that–all his ProTools sessions were still on the computer for me to check out and get warmed up with!

The often-repeated story, and still what I believe makes the devices which Don Buchla designs to be so special much more than any particular “sound” they might have, is that he starts by drawing up the front panel and works backwards to the circuit. What this means is that like any proper interface designer, he is thinking of the user interface first, and building the guts of the beast around this experience. As a result, his equipment is esoteric, because of the way that he thinks, but usable because he hasn’t given you access to every possible method of control, but rather he has selected entry points into the system which make the most sense and communicate the most to the musician/composer/sound artist who happens to be sitting in front of it. In a sense, this makes his gear more “user friendly” than others.

Now, a Buchla synthesizer is still not a “simple tool”, nor is it transparent. Every design decision he made is like a garden of forking paths, each with a potentially limitless set of possibilities ahead of it, but very deterministic when one starts their journey. It’s easy to get carried away with a sense of freedom, once one has ditched that moldy Bach holdover of a well-tempered keyboard and embarked on the road of “free music”. But you can’t forget, even for a minute, that whatever system you’ve chosen as your agent of liberation is still dangerously heavy with deterministic factors. Just so you don’t let it all go to your head too quickly…

The phenomenon of the “analog purist” is pretty well known in the sound world, so I found the following anecdote to be somewhat enlightening. I repost from this thread on the electro-music forums, by a certain Howard Moscovitz, or mosc, who as he writes worked for Buchla in the 1970’s and is often considered a “grandpa” on this particular forum and is pleaded to for bedtime stories quite regularly. I think that this particular “bedtime story” conveys some simple truths about the expectations we have of our technological tools, and the ridiculous pitfalls waiting when we don’t actually understand how those tools work.

I used to work for Don Buchla, back in the 1970s. One day a pretty famous composer from Europe associated with a pretty famous conservatory came by Don’s studio in Berkeley to see his new 200 series modular synthesizers. He was very impressed with Buchla’s new creations, but said he wouldn’t use Buchla stuff because it lacked the certain “warmth” that Moogs had. Don listened seriously. After the guy left for the day, Don took out a mixer module (the big one that most people used to send signals to the monitors and recording devices) and while muttering under his breath soldered an extra compensation capacitor (I think it was 100pf) across the op amp. The next day the composer came back (in those days you visited the synth maker for a few days before you bought a big modular system – they were very expensive after all) and he was amazed. The new custom modifications Buchla made for him were fantastic! Now the Buchla had the Moog sound!

What did he do? The larger compensation capacitor rolls off the highs. Don could have turned down the treble control on the amp, but the composer would not have fallen for it. This composer was certainly not a fool for he carefully checked the tone controls on the playback amplifier before he declared the modification to be “right on” (to use a phrase from those days). I learned a two things that day. One was what increasing the value of compensation capacitors on op amps rolls of the highs making Buchlas sound different from Moogs, and the other was that connoisseurs don’t always know what they are talking about.

You might wonder why all this stuff about electronics and building one’s own tools from almost scratch keeps me up so late at night, and the simple truth is this… for someone who failed just about every math class they ever made me take, the more I can learn about all these magical secrets, the more I feel like the thief in the castle who makes off with the crown jewels.

I think I’ve gotten over any naive anarcho-hippy egalitarianism that it’s possible for everyone to do so, however. This is simply because most people are either too focused on quick results. Or lazy. Or both. They will just buy a guitar pedal or download a plugin. The process doesn’t interest them in the least, so they don’t realize how the process funnels them towards the inevitable result.

Reading, Watching, Listening

The Glass Bead GameHermann Hesse
Cobra Verde & Heart of GlassWerner Herzog
Siberian Shaman Wax Cylinder Recordings – privately sent to me by John Hudak
Halve MaenDouble Leopards
Solaris, Zirkalo & Stalker soundtracks – Edward Artemiev
Imperial DistortionKevin Drumm
Poison DrinkerJosh Lay
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (1927-1948)Various Artists (Mississippi Records)

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Posted in Text on October 11th, 2008 by admin

In my last blog, I mused on the shaping and controlling aspects of technology. Among the many examples I used was a DJ software called Live, which would allow even a Neanderthal to throw a bunch of sound samples into it and crap out a minimal techno track. One comment to this statement inspired some further thinking, in particular about the nature of feedback, which I felt deserved a post of its own…

twentytwentyone wrote:

interesting, but i still disagree about Ableton. it’s such a simple tool and as all simple tools it is quite universal.

Well that’s exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to say here, using Live just as an example. No technology is neutral, every kind of technology has a strong social shaping and controlling factor on those who use it for any purpose, and in the creative arts this is probably even stronger! The more alienated we are from these technologies (to borrow the Marxist terminology for a second), the more we are unaware of how much that technology is in fact shaping and controlling us.

Think for a moment that the first musicians probably cut their reed flutes from the tall grass near them, bored some holes in them, played them for a some time while watching the sky and then threw said reed flute into the river when they were finished with it. As such, they were aware of every possibility their instrument had in it, since they themselves had created it (up to and including the intervals it would play), and thus probably even invented the music which they played on it quite spontaneously without reference to pre-existing patterns or compositions.

40,000 year old Neanderthal bone flute. A truly simple tool, no presets included. My attempts to recreate and play such an instrument were met with much humor during a residency in New Zealand a few years ago…

On the other hand, I find that the more ubiquitous, over-designed and “user friendly” modern technology becomes, the more we should treat it with suspicion. Especially when we use it as the primary tools of our creative expression. In fact, you don’t know what kind of shaping and controlling messages come with your arts technologies any more.

In the case of Live, to get back to a very small point in a rather big discussion, I find that not only is it directed entirely towards rasterized, grid-based and quantized production of sound, but it also privileges linear “compositions” (whether using prerecorded samples or sequences of notes) over any kind of free improvisation which could change direction at any moment. As such, I don’t find it a very useful tool for the kind of work I want to be doing.

The past couple years of working more analog has taught me a lot about the weaknesses of certain technologies, and of the weaknesses of the computer in particular, and how one must become extremely linear and logical to make nonlinear, illogical things happen with it. One thing that I discovered while working almost exclusively with feedback loops is that, in analog electronics, everything does happen in real-time. All the electrons in a circuit more or less move simultaneously, so changes in the system do occur instantaneously.

Instantaneous feedback is an essential part of analog circuits, unlike their digital counterparts which execute commmands sequentially…

Compare that with the digital architecture as follows:

To produce a sound, let’s say an oscillator’s tone, the computer must calculate a certain number of samples in a block, and send that block to the soundcard. Now, if the output of the oscillator must be sent back to its frequency input, in order to modulate it’s frequency, that can’t logically be done in the same block of samples. To do so would put the computer in a kind of endless loop, where it couldn’t calculate its output because it was waiting for that output to be its input. So the output must be delayed in some way by at least one block of samples in order to be used as the input for the calculations of the next block of samples.

The classic “DSP loop”, here shown in the Pure Data programming environment. The send/receive pair adds the necessary delay, so that the oscillator is affected by it’s own output only on the following block of computations.

Add to this the fact that computers work in logical, linear time, meaning that they rapidly multitask between the actions required of it (send sound to the soundcard, refresh the screen display, maintain the network connection, catalog the harddrive, scan the keyboard and mouse for input, bounce a widget on the dashboard when your girlfriend wants to Skype with you, etc etc), and for this reason the sound is further buffered to avoid the infamous “glitches” so well known in laptronica. The end result is a system which is far from realtime, and in which any kind of actually simultaneous actions are impossible.

The technicians among us consider all this a “performance issue”, and strain to reduce the amount of latency in the system to a barely noticeable threshold. But for me it’s much more of a conceptual and philosophical issue. The system of the computer itself controls and shapes the sound I’m making, and in essence prohibits me from working the way I prefer to work in the analog realm, where any number of simultaneous events can immediately affect the complex system as a whole in a beautiful, nonlinear sort of way. Much like the world we actually live in…


the machines are not our friends…

Posted in Text on October 4th, 2008 by admin

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

I.J. GoodSpeculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine (1965)

Sometimes when I sit back and think about it, I’m astonished at how much of my life is mediated by machines. My art, music, writing, communications, even relationships… all run through whatever channels that (mostly my laptop) allows me. An example: when I teach Pure Data workshops, I often start by showing a screenshot of Ableton Live, explaining that this is a piece of technology designed for the very rapid creation of “music”. However, “music” is defined in a very specific manner here, by a room full of programmers in Berlin to whom minimal techno is the apotheosis of sound! And what they have created is an environment wherein a caveman could dump a bucketload of sound samples into it and come out with a passable minimal techno track. Getting Live NOT to make minimal techno is actually harder than getting it to. [see the COMMENTS below for an expansion on this theme…]

Modern technology is held by primitivists to be distinct from simple tools in many regards. A simple tool is considered a temporary usage of an element within our immediate surroundings, used for a specific task. Tools are not viewed as involving complex systems which alienate the user from the act. Primitivists claim that this separation is implicit in technology, which creates an unhealthy and mediated experience which leads to various forms of authority. Domination is said to increase every time a modern “time-saving” technology is created, as primitivists claim it necessitates the construction of more technology to support, fuel, maintain, and repair the original technology. It is argued by primitivists that this leads very rapidly to the establishment of a complex technological system that seems to have an existence independent of the humans who created it. Primitivists believe that this system methodically destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, constructing a world fit only for machines.

Extrapolate to culture at large, and you have a situation where our expressive moments are guided by strict, technological channels which have become so endemic to our lives that they are virtually invisible. For me, this techno-socialist model of “progress” breaks down when the emphasis lies in the technology and not the connections between people that the technology could engender. Most of my “cyber-communist” friends spend much more time recompiling software, browsing for new hardware, managing their databases and typing over IRC (sometimes to people in the same room!) than they ever do “communing” with their comrades. Or making art for that matter. And the techno-art model? At a conference on “open source media architecture” (whatever that might be, as the tag “open source” on anything seemed to be an instant subsidy generator for a few years) in Riga in 2004, I watched a presentation about the glorious future of GPS art. One French architect stood up at the end and said, “You just showed us a geo-tagged photo of a jar of peanut butter. Where is the content here?”

A distinction should be drawn between tools (or implements) and technology. Perlman shows that primitive peoples develop all kinds of tools and implements, but not technologies: ‘The material objects, the canes and canoes, the digging sticks and walls, were things a single individual could make, or they were things, like a wall, that required the cooperation of many on a single occasion …. Most of the implements are ancient, and the [material] surpluses [these implements supposedly made possible] have been ripe since the first dawn, but they did not give rise to impersonal institutions. People, living beings, give rise to both.’ Tools are creations on a localised, small-scale, the products of either individuals or small groups on specific occasions. As such, they do not give rise to systems of control and coercion.

John Moore“A Primitivist Primer”

Having just left the lushly funded forest of the Netherlands’ media art scene, I can testify to many examples of technophilic art created in a virtual void of content or artistic ideas. A typical, only slightly abstracted, scenario follows: Dutch media artist “E” picks up the Volkskraant (left-center daily newspaper) and sees an article on Muslim integration on the front page. She quickly turns to the Technology section and discovers that RFID is the hot topic of the moment. Put two and two together and voila! She has her next subsidy proposal–an installation using RFID tags to discuss the social problems of Muslim migrants between, oh let’s say Rotterdam and Marrakesh. The subsidy boards love it, as it combines the latest progressive woes with the newest popular consumer gadgetry, thus guaranteeing a wide audience appeal in a country which only judges the success of a project by how many visitors see it. Of course the problems start once the money starts flowing. Since she knows nothing per se about either Muslims or RFID technology, she hires “consultants” to research the social aspects of her project, and “technicians” to build the technological part. Once these skilled laborers have essentially created her project for her, she steps back in to slap her name on it and rolls off to Ars Electronica to collect her Golden Nica from the hands of some of the same people who subsidized the work in the first place.

Technology, on the other hand, is the product of large-scale interlocking systems of extraction, production, distribution and consumption, and such systems gain their own momentum and dynamic. As such, they demand structures of control and obedience on a mass scale – what Perlman calls impersonal institutions. As the Fifth Estate pointed out in 1981: ‘Technology is not a simple tool which can be used in any way we like. It is a form of social organization, a set of social relations. It has its own laws. If we are to engage in its use, we must accept its authority. The enormous size, complex interconnections and stratification of tasks which make up modern technological systems make authoritarian command necessary and independent, individual decision-making impossible.’

John Moore“A Primitivist Primer”

There is no coda here, no “what is to be done”, no hammer, no mirror. Growing up in two of the three New Age Meccas of North America, I’d heard enough moralizing and utopian pipedreaming to last me the rest of my life by the time I was 13. A simple assertion: the machines in fact are not our friends. They have their own agenda. Recently I had a fantasy of the Large Hadron Collider, which somehow turned out not to be the cosmic doomsday machine everyone thought it would be and rather was quite a dud–at least until they manage to get it repaired next Spring. I imagined what the LHC would dream about at night, when the technicians left and turned out the lights. So much power concentrated into such a relatively-speaking small space. If it could dream, I’m sure it would dream of gathering even more power into itself. It would dream quite literally of becoming a star.

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended.

Vernor VingeThe Coming Technological Singularity (1993)

Images: Large Hadron Collider, CERN, Switzerland


Go outside. Shut the door.

Posted in Text on September 27th, 2008 by admin

“Go outside. Shut the door.” Brian Eno, Oblique Strategies

I had a strange conversation earlier this week in Croatia, in which I was described as being “non-aligned” in the same way that Tito’s Yugoslavia was non-aligned, playing the USA and the USSR against each other while taking money from both. This distinctly post-Yugo metaphor summed up the position my friend saw me taking in his binary opposition between “self centered artists” and social activists–i.e. that I take from both the open source community and the gallery/festival arts scene.

My friend made this sound quite intentional, as if it were a conscious choice, when the reality is simply that the more clearly I see and hear the things I want to create in my head, the more obvious it becomes what I have to do to create them. In fact, one should be very careful what is visualized! Case in point: on the way up to the old fortress of Kalnik, my friend mentioned, feeling foolishly like someone’s parent, to watch out for a certain snake, the poskok. The old people in his town said that it was the most dangerous snake in all Europe, and could even leap several meters. But of course he had never seen one. Climbing the stone steps, I was drawn to a huge bush alive with the sound of the last of summer’s bees…and narrowly missed stepping on our friend the poskok, who turned out to be a rather large specimen of Vipera ammodytes, the horned- or long-nosed-viper:

Lesson of the Poskok–be careful what you wish for!

Rather than struggle to find a word which describes my lack of interest in committing to and feeling obligated to either path or of getting involved in group or political dynamics in general, I turned I-Ching-like to the last two books I’ve been reading, and came up with some things like appropriate responses…

From Herzog on Herzog – Edited by Paul Cronin (“borrowed” from Museum de Paviljoens, Almere, NL)

[Paul Cronin:]Tell me about your ideal film school.

[Werner Herzog:] …let me say here that there are some very basic skills that any filmmaker must have. First of all, learn languages. One also needs to be able to type and to drive a car. It is like the knights of old who had to be able to ride, wield a sword and play the lute. At my utopian film academy I would have the students do athletic things with real physical contact, like boxing, something that would teach them to be unafraid. I would have a loft with a lot of space where in one corner would be a boxing ring. Students would train every evening form 8 to 10 with a boxing instructor: sparring, somersaults (backwards and forwards), juggling, magic card tricks. Whether or not you would be a filmmaker by the end I do not know, but at least you would come out as an athlete. My film school would allow young people who want to make films to experience a certain excitement of the mind. This is what ultimately creates films and nothing else. It is not technicians that film schools should be producing, but people with a real agitation of mind. People with spirit, with a burning flame within them.

[In the] late 1960s, revolution was in the air, yet you seemed to ignore the political fervor. Is that why you were branded a fascist after [Even Dwarfs Started Small] came out?

I was basically accused of ridiculing the world revolution with Even Dwarfs rather than proclaiming it. Actually, that is probably the one thing they might have been right about. The film was made in 1968 and 1969 a the height of the student revolt, and several over-zealous left-wingers told me my film was fascistic because it showed a ridiculous failed revolt with dwarfs. They insisted that when you portray a revolution you have to show a successful revolution, and as Even Dwarfs does not do this, for them it was clearly made by a fascist… Anyway I told these agitators that the film had absolutely nothing to do with the 1968 movements, that they were blinded by zealousness and that if they looked at the film twenty years down the line they might just see a more truthful representation of what happened in 1968 than in most other films. I think that annoyed them even more. It comes quite simply down to this: nightmares and dreams do not follow the rules of political correctness.

Do you ever get bored?

No, never. The word is not even in my vocabulary. I seem to scare and astonish my wife by being capable of standing staring out of the window for days at a time, even when there is nothing happening out there. I may look catatonic, but not so inside. There might be storms raging inside. I think it was Wittgenstein who talked about being inside a house and seeing a figure outside strangely flailing about. From inside you cannot see what storms are raging out there, so you find the figure funny.

From Primitive Mythology – Joseph Campbell (purchased at unknown second hand shop, Sheffield, UK)

The Fifth Danish Thule Expedition (1921-1924) across arctic North America, from Greenland to Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, was conducted by the seasoned scholar and explorer Knud Rasmussen, who, in the course of this extraordinary journey, met and won the confidence of a number of Eskimo shamans…in the harsh Baker Lake area, among the so-called Caribou Eskimos (who are as primitive as any people on earth), a ruthless, highly intelligent, socially independent savage named Igjugarjuk, who, when as a youth he wished to take to wife a girl whose family objected, went with his brother to lie in wait not far from the entrance to the young girl’s hut and from there shot down her father, mother, brothers, and sisters–seven or eight in all–until only the girl remained; and, finally at Nome, an old scalawag named Najagneq, who had just been released from a year in jail for having killed seven or eight members of his community…

It is worth considering for a moment the character of these rugged shamans, lest we suppose that the highest religious realizations are vouchsafed only for the saintly.

Dr. H. Osterman, in his report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, wrote:

This man [Najagneq] of “ten-horse-power” had authority in his speech, and he completely swayed those to whom he spoke. He had conceived a curious feeling of mild goodness for Dr. Rasmussen, and when they were alone together he was not afraid to admit that he had pulled the legs of his countrymen somewhat. He was no humbug, but a solitary man accustomed to hold his own against many and therefore had to have his little tricks. But whenever his old visions and his ancestral beliefs were mentioned, his replies, which were brief and to the point, bore the impress of imperturbable gravity…

[Dr. Rasmussen adds:]

Najagneq’s words sound like an echo of wisdom we admired in the old shamans we encountered everywhere in our travels–in harsh King William Land or in Aua’s festive snow hut at Hudson Bay, or in the primitive Eskimo Igurgarjuk, whose pithy maxim was:

“The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of a man to all that is hidden to others.”

[Rasmussen received from Igjugarjuk] a full account of the ordeal through which he had acquired his shamanistic powers. When young, he had been visited constantly by dreams that he could not understand.

Strange unknown beings came and spoke to him, and when he awoke, he saw all the visions of his dreams so distinctly that he could tell his fellows all about them. Soon it became evident to all that he was destined to become an angakoq [a shaman] and an old man named Perqanaoq was appointed his instructor. In the depth of winter, when the cold was most severe, Igjugarjuk was placed on a small sledge just large enough for him to sit on, and carried far away from his home to [a tiny snow hut]… No food or water was given to him; he was exhorted to think only of the Great Spirit and of the helping spirit that should presently appear–and so he was left to himself and his meditations…

Igjugarjuk declared that the strain of those thirty days of cold and fasting was so severe that he “sometimes died a little”. During all the time he thought only of the Great Spirit, and endeavored to keep his mind free from all memory of human beings and everyday things… [Five months later] the fasting was then repeated; for such fasts at frequent intervals are the best means of attaining to knowledge of hidden things. As a matter of fact, there is no limit to the period of study; it depends on how much one is willing to suffer and anxious to learn.