“There is no comment”

Ezra Teboul – you can point out my mistakes at t e b o u e   a t r p i d o t e d u

Modular synthesizers have been right on time for their latest cyclical comeback thanks to a combination of things:

  • the relative affordability of making someone else assemble surface-mount-components for your hip new sound-making circuits.
  • the convenient and contagious standardization of Doepfer’s eurorack specifications.
  • the ever-increasing amount of “open” relevant resources, material and intellectual, available to those with disposable time and income on the internet, including access to relatively affordable and well documented parts.
  • (glibly) the general realization that, after all, maybe disco was cool.  

However, for all its increased cultural capital, and a general movement in music to implicitly and slowly attempt to come to terms with its deeply embedded exclusionary practices, the vague category of artifacts called “synthesizer” (hereafter, affectionately, synth) has received mostly occasional and fragmented critical attention (Sterne, Rodgers, Pinch, Bijsterveld, Born, Theberge, Taylor, Diduck, Nakai, Kuivila, Collins… if most of these cite each other they are usually operating independently). The situation is that those best situated to appreciate synths’ cultural / economic significance often tend to be ones least likely to also boil down exactly how synths’ dual status as artistic and technical objects may or may not make the required transdisciplinary reading difficult. The electronics themselves, and the practices (electrical engineering, computer science) they imply are challenging to apprehend on their own terms (please feel free to point me to studies of electronic music that deconstruct circuit schematics and code to prove me wrong and make my dissertation easier).

In other words – as Jessica Rylan, a synth designer, maker and user who also used to work for Don Buchla, bluntly pointed out when I interviewed her for my master’s thesis, electronics theory and circuit assembly / troubleshooting are hard and not everyone is particularly interested in dealing with them (although I believe everyone could if they had the resources and time they wanted). The less considered converse phenomena is that circuit designers’ work is rarely documented as making “cultural” references through their technical work. Challenges go both ways: making circuits is hard as well. You have to be a special kind of self-sabotaging to want to spend the time necessary to write down where every circuit idea, inspiration, decision came from, let alone share that information or figure that out for someone else’s work (although, in some ways, there are exceptions).

And in a sense, this intentional cordoning off of some questions makes self-preserving sense. Musicologists, operating in a well codified milieu, gain relatively little from reading into synthesizers (a thoroughly undeveloped scholarly subfield) as they might read into musical scores or ethnographic documentation. Designers don’t need much more than basic comparisons to pre-existing systems to advertise their latest hardware or software work (for behemoths like Ableton or Cycling ’74, they don’t even need to advertise that much). Understanding the cultural implications of technical decisions in electronic music, is, in a pragmatic-economic sense, the “basic research” of the field: it might make your music better and your scholarship more accurate, but for fields as cynical as small scale music hardware entrepreneurship and academia, those were never clear objectives in the first place anyways.

The arbitrary waveform generator is not a solution to these issues as much as it’s an acknowledgement of their existence and an opportunity to try and answer them as best we can (with questions). What does it mean to consider technical decisions as more or less explicit position statements? Is picking 1N400X series diode the same as writing a song with a mixolydian mode in any meaningful way? In turn, how do these decisions compare to writing songs about parents, doing dishes, or a time of your life so grim it is best portrayed as an apocalypse? Questions of scale and agency are at play here. Each of these decisions carries cultural baggage at different levels, with meanings as varied as there are listeners. There is no reason to expect consistent responses at the individual level. But technical work – in synthesizer design and beyond – won’t come to terms with those shapeshifting and scale-sliding meanings if it doesn’t develop the appropriate modes of acknowledgement and expression at all scales.

As discussed in a previous post, some scholarship around and outside music have acknowledged the potential and possibilities here (see the Rodgers or Haring pieces mentioned there). Since then, the waveform group has also read pieces by Alexander Weheliye and Katherine McKittrick or Alejandra Bronfman (unpublished, sorry). These detail how audio electronics eventually acquire cultural and individual meanings which its makers have very little control over home and back again. This is while they also detail the mechanisms taken by such processes in the past, and at various scales. For the tactical humanities lab, we’ve focused on the arbitrary waveform generator because it offered the most meaningful connections to imagined and actual communities.

Because musical electronics serve the vague purpose of helping with art making while being commodities hopelessly reliant on and symptoms of global manufacturing and consumption chains (Taylor , Theberge), they offer an interesting meeting point for ambiguously ambivalent interests which are rarely acknowledged by designers and makers (again, exceptions). The arbitrary waveform generator suggests what this might look like at the aforementioned multiple scales:

  • justifying arbitrary decisions in comments.
  • making references to music we think is relevant by copying the designs of the systems used to make that music in our digital environment and detailing that in more comments.
  • finding out ways to comment circuit schematics in addition to more traditional code or visual coding environments.
  • the open sourcing of our whole process so you can actually read those comments.

Our hope is a combination of small changes in design and documentation practices can help assess the reality of our current setting, if not change it (yet). In other words, if there is no such thing as an ethical electronic device under capitalism, what is our responsibility as designers in this privileged space of the “not-quite-as-essential” devices embodied by “synths?” How do we respond to it? Does it affect the functionalities of the system we are designing? Does it affect the characteristic of music made with that system?

Ezra Teboul is HASS fellow in RPI’s Tactical Humanities Laboratory researching labor and agency in musical electronics.