A hybrid space for technical production and humanistic inquiry.

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Paraphrasing Kittler

“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.

Domestic Robots, Social Robots?

Let me set a scene: A woman kisses her baby’s head, stands up to give her husband, holding their child, a warm smile and comforting pat on the arm as she leaves the house. Moments later, the ubiquitous Alexa (complete with cheerfully neutral feminine voice) chimes in, “Here’s your reminder: Laura left a teething ring in the freezer.” Then, “Laura made a play date for three pm.” Then, “I’m reminding you: Laura loves you, and you’re doing a great job.” This commercial for Amazon’s home robot, alternately Echo/Alexa dependent upon your penchant for anthropomorphizing, displays the continued relationship between technology and gendered household labor by illustrating the embeddedness and invisibility of female emotional and mental labor involved in making life easier for others through the instrumentalization of technology broadly construed to make life easier for everyone. Despite the presentation of Alexa as an independent house helper, in the practice of this commercial she becomes a disembodied extension of the mother, infantilizing the father.



2019 seems to be the moment of the domestic robot, or robotic technologies which often utilize AI and which are designed to make home life and domestic labor easier for the user. Everywhere you look, advertisements boast the time and labor saving benefits of domestic robots. More and more often, these robots are becoming integrated into every day life: a recipe is pulled up by the user without any touch or effort of finding it themselves; an alarm is requested of the robot by a user; a ding notifies a user during work that their vacuuming for the day has been completed; blueberries are ordered by a rogue child.  Why vacuum or take time to order your goods/set an alarm/add events to your calendar manually, when you can merely ask a robot to do it for you? These technologies advertise their ability to make life much easier for their users. As a function of this ‘ease’ of use, these robots are gathering information on the user throughout the course of every day living.

There are many potential courses of analysis delving into the dynamics of the underlying capitalist and financial motivations of this behavior; however, I am most interested in the social aspects of these robots. How do the robots come to “understand” their users through this attention to and analysis of them? How do users come to understand the function and usability of these devices in ways which create them as static objects in relation to the user’s subjectivity? How do interactions between these domestic robots and their users come to define domestic relationships, user subjectivity, and rules of interaction both inside and outside of the home?

These are many of the questions driving my exploration of domestic robots as social robots. Having access to the “space” of the Tactical Humanities Lab has provided me the opportunity to get down and dirty with some of these devices, in order to “play” and explore boundaries and relationalities of these devices with their users. Treated much like a multi-species participatory observational ethnography, I am hoping to expand my understanding of the ways in which these devices function with users, with each other, and with(in) their environments.

Jamie Steele is a doctoral student in Science and Technology Studies at RPI. Her research interests are the intersections of technoscience studies, feminist/queer inflected critical theory, psychoanalytic theory, and popular culture. In addition to her analytic work on the Alien films, she is currently exploring gendered aspects of embodiment and minds in the development of artificial intelligence.

Is the Modernization and Increasing Popularity of Rave Culture Having Negative Effects on the Quality of Dance Music?

Some people are just different, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it’s hard to be different in our society. People bottle up their emotions, their weirdness, what makes them unique. They hold it inside waiting for the night that they can let it all out. The night where people just like them gather in an undisclosed location and go crazy for a couple of hours. The music is loud, people are dancing, and the DJ is killing it. To them it’s not just a concert, it’s not just somewhere you can go and dance. No, it’s more than that. It’s a community. It’s a form of self expression. It’s an experience unlike any other. It is a rave.

Since the early 90’s, in cities around the globe, ravers have gathered in abandoned warehouses and underground clubs. The music may have changed over the years, but the community didn’t. As electronic music became easier to produce and consume, the scene just kept growing. The beats became harder, the genres expanded, and the attendance at once underground events skyrocketed.

With the increase in popularity, the word “rave” started to lose meaning. It went from being a community to just being a concert for a growing trend known as EDM. Electronic Dance Music is a decent overarching description for the type of music played at raves, but the music being attached to this tag is far from something a real raver would consider to be dance music. With artists like Marshmello hitting top 40 with EDM tracks, is rave music losing its individuality? Is it losing its meaning? Are songs now just manufactured to “go hard” and make people dance, or are there still strong emotions coming through in modern music? Is rave music inherently obscure, or is popularity only bringing more success to the rave scene? Will rave music end up other once popular genres like rock and roll, blues, and hip hop? Will I be listening to EDM on the radio when I’m 50?

I’m going to find out the answers to questions like these and more. I’m going to be sampling groups of ravers who listen to different types of rave music and even interview some big name DJs to see what their take on the situation is. I mainly am focusing on the New York City rave scene since there will be many differences in different cities. After drawing some conclusions from my data, I’m going to be designing and prototyping a game that will address the concerns of the community. I want to experiment with games that can be played at raves and games that can function as online spaces to hold raves.

I had previously done research in emotion in electronic music coming from a production standpoint. I produced a series of experimental pieces, learned how to sing, and practiced professional level mixing and mastering to try to make my own production have more emotion. I hope I can show off all the practice I’ve being doing as well as the research I’m doing now to create a meaningful experience for ravers in the NYC community.

Jon Castro is an undergraduate GSAS and CS dual major. His research questions how different people interact with music and how modern pop music differs from years prior.

Check out Jon’s Twitter here & his SoundCloud below!