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Originally published in PLEASURE 2013

Illustration by Nick Hurwitz-Goodman

Ben Kudler
Jamming the multiverse

In 1968 Wendy Carlos released Switched-On Bach, a classic of electronic music. I call the album a classic by way of making a dumb pun; nevertheless, this dumb pun has some value. The record is a classic because it presents Classical music (written well before the advent of synthesizers) in the language of the electronic. Of course, questions about the necessity of virtuosity, the ability of synthesizers to replace acoustic instruments, etcetera do abound from the excellent implementation of Carlos’ concept. The reader who knows little in the way of electronics may ask, “How did Carlos get the synthesizers to play Bach’s music?” or, “How do electronic musicians get the electronics to do all of this?”

I’d ask the reader to look at the question this way: “How exactly did Carlos outsource the laborious task of playing Bach to electrical currents and scientific phenomena?”--in other words, “How did Carlos manifest the realities of the world in which we live in a new version of Bach?” Because indeed, a similar question could have been asked of Bach himself: “How did you get the harmonics that exist in the world to come together to create something so beautiful and evocative?”

Carlos is an early example of an electronic music luminary, one of the first to take the synthesizer out of the ghetto of the strange and the academic and present it to the world at large. Many came after Carlos, and many are coming still--disciples in the field of electronic wiggling, the field wherein one gets the coolest gadget and gets it to do the coolest things. Surely this is, by one definition, exactly what music is: you get a violin, you learn to play, you play--and maybe write--what you feel. Carlos took that idea and, in quite a fateful move, brought it into the electronic realm. The precedent was set: to make electronic music, one purchases an electronic piece of gear, learns to use it, and then plays what one feels with the equipment. The difference between the electronic and the acoustic example, though, is that electronics leaves lots and lots of room for purchasing.

In view of where technological evolution has brought electronic music, many have put all their creative emphasis on simply choosing what to purchase. If these people have the money to buy whatever they want, the art is choosing what they use for a given piece or how to slam it all into one work. It’s not uncommon for a critique or review written by and targeting those in the electronic music world to comprise merely a statement of the gear that made the music. If the gear is in the expensive and rare range and the player is in any way competent, then that’s all that needs to be said. Electronic music is here diluted into a new form of collecting, the creative impulse into coming up with ways of showcasing that collection. Buying--or buying then assembling--has become the game for many an electronic musician. The machines that were once the odd play-toys of occultists, academics, and various mad scientists turned musicians --or not--are now up for those with little imagination and an eBay account.

There is more to be said, however, about these aforementioned figures, these occultists, academics, and mad scientists; the simple fact of their existence, and of their descendants veering from the path, is not all that needs exploring.

Modern music and its child, the synthesizer, has long enjoyed an association with magical figures. One of the first synths, built in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, was named after the famed composer and mystic Alexander Scriabin. But the larger magic lay in the very forces which these machines called upon to do their work. Synthesizers before Robert Moog--who built most of what Carlos used to create her works--were hand-crafted machines that worked with tape or electrical currents without the help of keyboards to determine pitch and envelope. Compositions often consisted of waves running of their own accord, with a human--the composer figure--setting up the parameters within which the waves would run and then gently guiding them, rather than slamming them into action with keyboards and sequencers. The compositions were presentations of electronic phenomena; the fundamental idea--an unprecedented, thoroughly mystical one--was that humans could manipulate naturally-occurring electronic current to create pitched sound.

And yet the vibrations of a violin string are no less mystical than the currents of a synthesizer. The magic in both Bach and Carlos lies in the way that they take realities of the physical world--realities that pervade our everyday life, realities so close to us that they cannot be perceived--and present them in their work plainly, masterfully. What is an exploration of the Mystic if not an encounter with precisely these sort of obvious physical realities, unseen or ignored but in fact there for the touching, for the manipulation? What does such an exploration entail? And what, above all, does it truly mean to touch and manipulate such realities?

The year after Wendy Carlos released her seminal work of reality manipulation, an even more direct expression of this mystical play was created: Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, from 1969. Lucier’s piece consists of one spoken phrase, recorded then re-played inside the titular room. Each further re-playing of the phrase is recorded, until the phrase itself disappears and all that is heard are the room’s own once-silent reverberations. Invisible though they are, these reverberations guide the way we hear everything, a silent phenomenon at once understood--at times seen--and ignored, never viewed as anything more than an incidental companion to the sounds one is supposedly meant to hear. In I am sitting in a room, Lucier committed to record something that was not theretofore considered sound at all: reverberation. That Lucier made a recording--i.e., crafted a sonic document--of something that wasn’t in itself a sound is, plainly, an oxymoron realized; an exercise, you might say, in the Mystic.

Beyond finding its way through a semantic impossibility, I am sitting in a room tapped into a phenomenon simultaneously too close to be seen and, thereafter, impossible to ignore. In so doing, it opened up the entire universe’s spectrum of phenomena to be instrumentalized. Lucier jams on the universe, man, pretty tripped-out stuff--but it is. By setting the physical realities of the planet toward a musical goal, I am sitting in a room offered a proud answer to the question of how the machines managed to do all the work, one plainly visible in its very construction. The score of the piece is present in the piece. The words being recorded over and over again are Lucier’s, explaining the process and serving as the instructions with which one can make the piece for oneself. No longer some lone Great Genius figure, the composer is here one lightning rod upon which this physical phenomenon may strike. I am sitting in a room doesn’t lash back at the ‘machines’ question, it answers plainly. “Neither the machines nor the composer does all of the work; the universe does.”

In the aftermath of I am sitting in a room, this field of jamming the universe was ripe for more work, but only from those who could dig, who were ready to step into a role that was a far cry from the Great Genius composer. Maryanne Amacher’s pieces consisted of two closely-tuned sine waves banged together, the collision of which caused the inner ear to create an audible--even recordable--pitch. These sounds lay not in the human psyche, but in a physiological phenomenon of the body itself. Following in Lucier’s footsteps, Amacher answered the “How is it done?” question directly:

"In all of our musical background I don’t know what we learn, really; it’s as though, when I was studying music, to learn about overtones or the physics of sound was something only for scientists or psycho-acousticians... I wasn’t learning anything about these very basic physics things, and it’s not that I wanted to know them very much, but these are things that exist in this world! It’s a major concern in my work now to compose with these factors in mind." [1]

The composer, in a traditional conception, is not supposed to learn about the realities of sound; that, he or she is told, is the role of the scientist. But say a composer were both?

Or even more preferably, neither?


Moog’s democratization and commercialization of the synthesizer was no blow to the Mystic. Neither were Carlos’ brilliant works with classical music and Hollywood movie soundtracks. Rather, their consumer-oriented approach was part of an attempt to further the cause of beautiful and evocative music--a goal which has succeeded and failed as many times as a different producer has taken up the call. When one takes a purchase as the starting point of a creative project, dealing in money rather than thought, perhaps after the fact applying a patina or aesthetic that suggests mysticism--itself a consumerist creation--that is when the Mystic pushes back.

This fact only becomes clear when the alternative is presented. Technological innovation has progressed to the point at which the electronic composer no longer needs to work with electronic current and the explicit physicality that goes with it in order to Jam the Universe. This work can now happen on computers with cheap or free software, obviating, to a certain degree, the largely consumer bent. Although to be sure, computers and software are consumer items, the end result, the music, emerges from only that smaller measure of consumption, rather than being spun out of a frenzy of collection and assembly oneupsmanship. One can build one’s own computer; one can use only free software, or--alternately--one can subscribe wholeheartedly to the electronic collecting ethos, dive headlong into the world of the Euro-Rack modular synthesizers nicknamed--and this not by coincidence--‘Euro-Crack,’ spending big bucks and never quite shaking the feeling that there is always more to buy. The choice is one’s own.

This is not to discount acoustic instruments, whose utility at presenting physical phenomena remains, even in this electronic age. Swiss composer Jurg Frey finds new ways to work with physical phenomena with acoustic instruments, as in the piece “Zwei Violenen,” a piece for two violins playing the exact same score. The piece is slow, melodically simple; the violins quickly fall out of time and out of tune, revealing an entirely new world of sound, one wholly distant from the composer’s instructions--just as Lucier’s spoken score in I am sitting in a room vanished into its own sonic labyrinth.

Other composers--Florian Hecker, the group SND, Russell Haswell, Yasunao Tone and Marcus Schmickler--craft music by creating complex systems that they set loose on a variety of sonic material, variously mimicking, attacking, supplementing or simply presenting the physical phenomena present all around us. Schmickler and Hecker’s recent works have dealt explicitly with unseen and largely unknown physical phenomena: through the use of custom built software Schmickler has made use of Shepard tones (which continually rise or fall in pitch yet ultimately seem to get no higher or lower), while Hecker has trafficked in a new process called Chimerization--switching DNA strands around in the sonic make-up of speech--as well as continuing the exploration of the inner ear tones pioneered by Amacher. Jamming the Universe in the 21st century.

These creators don’t deal in purchases but ideas. Their works are presentations and explorations of the next level of physical phenomena. Rather than demonstrations of the ways soundwaves interact, they are exhibitions of the way whole systems do; rather than proud assertions of some top-down Great Work, they are illustrations of how far a composer can get from his or her work, of how intelligent his or her instrument can become. They are demonstrations of what we cannot see but cannot ignore, what we cannot speak about but can illustrate in code, in hardware, in sound. These modern mystics are on the same trail as their early electronic forebears, crafting evocations of deep physical truths in new and unforeseeable sonic worlds.


[1] From Amacher’s 1989 lecture at Ars Electronica in Linz, Austria.

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