Vague Terrain 19: Schematic as Score

Schematic as Score: Uses and Abuses of the (In)Deterministic Possibilities of Sound Technology

[Moritz Ellerich / Fabelphonetikum (rhizome schematic)]

'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.' – Inuit shaman Najagneq, recorded by Knud Rasmussen1

'If you want to build a modular, my advice is not to do it if you want to have any friends, it takes too much time.' – Jessica Rylan2

Over the past few years, a strong reaction against the sterile world of laptop sound and video has inspired a new interest in analog processes, or "hands dirty" art in the words of practitioner John Richards3. With this renewed analog interest comes a fresh exploration of the pioneers of the electronic arts during the pre-digital era of the 1960s and 1970s. Artists and inventors such as Nam June Paik, Steina & Woody Vasulka, Don Buchla, Serge Tcherepnin, Dan Sandin and David Tudor all constructed their own unique instruments long before similar tools became commercially available or freely downloadable4– often through a long, rigorous process of self-education in electronics.

John Cage once quipped that Serge Tcherepnin's synthesizer system was "the best musical composition that Serge had ever made"5, and it is precisely Cage's reformulation of the concert score from a list of deterministic note values to a set of indeterministic possibilities that allowed the blurring of lines between instrument-builder and music composer that followed.

[John Cage's Fontana Mix (1958) uses a series of transparencies to generate a unique score each time it is performed]

David Tudor in particular has recently become the focus of intense interest, largely through the work of "hardware hacker" Nicolas Collins6. Tudor's transformation from John Cage's concert pianist to an electronic performer and autodidact engineer in his own right is archetypal for the contemporary media artist, who also must oscillate between the creative and the learning processes. His work "Rainforest" also stands out as an exemplary model of the collaborative process within a technically defined, yet socially open system. I will elaborate on this in my section of the current issue.

I consider it axiomatic that, for any art work to be considered experimental, the possibility of failure must be built into its process. I am not referring to the aestheticized, satisfying glitches and crackles valorized by Kim Cascone7, but to the lack of satisfaction produced by a misguided or misstepped procedure in the experiment, whether colossal or banal. These are not errors to be sought out, sampled and celebrated, but the flat-on-your-ass gaffs and embarrassments that would trouble the sleep of all but the most Zen of musicians or composers.

The presence of failure in a musical system represents feedback in the negative, a tipping point into anti-climax, irrelevance, the commonplace, the cliche or even unintended silence. Many artists try to factor out true, catastrophic failure by scripting, scoring, sequencing or programming their work into as many predictable, risk-free quanta as possible ahead of time. (Spacebar, please.) But this unwelcome presence also guarantees the vitality of that hotly-contested territory – the live electronic music performance.

Another central argument of my research is that, in creating electronic music instruments, the builder is in fact simultaneously acting as post-Cagean composer by simultaneously constructing a highly restrictive collection of limitations and an indeterministic set of performance possibilities, each full of as much potential and risk as the builder/composer wishes to allow the performer.

This idea can easily be demonstrated in electronic dance music, where the internal workings of the Roland 808 drum machine and 909 bass generator have cast in stone the aesthetic conventions of that genre. Similarly, the Ableton Live software allows first-time users to easily create risk-free music from any audio sample they like, so long as that music conforms to the rasterized structure of German Minimal Techno. And the largest knob on the popular microKORG synthesizer presents the user with a choice of 8 programs, spanning the range from Trance to HipHop as if all other kinds of music could easily be distilled from them.

The resulting compositions from the most "easy" and "simple" software tools are often nothing more than "digital folk"8 art – the endless and endlessly similar permutations which are possible merely from the tweaking of a few basic presets. Perhaps the artistic tragedy of the digital age lies in the social and economic pressure to immediately release "results" which barely get beyond this initiatory phase.

[David Tudor's 'self-playing' performance patch9 for Untitled(Homage to Toshi Ichiyanagi) (1972)]

The artists selected for this issue of Vague Terrain approach this situation from the opposite angle. Often operating at the extreme edges of the DIY electronics scene (where most, after all, still want to build a "normal" drum machine or keyboard synth), their work represents some of the most radical and idiosyncratic artistic approaches to electronic circuitry of the moment. Their compositions take the form of systems which provide a map of what is possible, but lack a prescribed route on how to get there. The discovery—and the risk—is left to the moment of the performance.

Some of these artists, such as Peter Blasser or Jessica Rylan, are skilled electronics engineers, well-versed in the mathematical mysteries of the transistor and the integrated circuit. Where Blasser strives for a personal mythology and original iconography to represent his systems, Rylan evokes a logical and intellectual relationship with the instruments she creates in constant tension with an emotional and intuitive one.

The circuits employed by Lesley Flanigan, on the other hand, are deceptively simple. Lifted almost directly from the datasheet of the LM386 1/2 Watt audio amplifier, her schematic/score only hints at the range of possibilities within the beautiful speaker-feedback systems she constructs with it.

Even more deceptive are the systems soldered together live by the Loud Objects; Tristan Perich, Kunal Gupta and Katie Shima. Initially confronted with the overhead-projection of several anonymous black chips, the audience must wait for the process of connections which activates the circuit and awakens the sound within it to reach completion before their eyes.

The meticulously detailed "self-playing" chaotic synthesis patches of Jason R. Butcher likewise concern themselves with an interconnection of discrete operators in a complex network. In this case, the ready-made system of the Buchla 200 analog modular synthesizer provides Butcher an almost boundless territory to explore.

A young, autodidact instrument builder, Moritz Ellerich has chosen the phonemes of the spoken German language as core elements for his system. His Fabelphonetikum prototypes a rigorous approach towards manual and performative speech synthesis using a bare minimum of signal sources.

While speech between one person and another has concrete features which can be analyzed and modeled, speech between the living and the dead remains far more nebulous. Artistically building on the Electronic Voice Phenomenon research of Dr. Konstantīns Raudive10, Martin Howse sets up delicate electronic systems in "charged" locations. These systems can involve radio transmitters and receivers, noise generators, various recording devices, geiger counters, lasers and photo-receivers, all sensitive to the slightest disturbance in the hopes of receiving some signal from "the other side".

The Syncronator project, by video artist Bas van Koolwijk and sound artist Geert Jan Prins, also investigates a breakthough communication between the realms of the analog audio and video signals. For them, the ability to seamlessly transmit a signal between the two domains opens up a vast range of live performance possibilities.

And finally, I concern myself with communication through the use of David Tudor's classic schematic-score, "Rainforest". Here, the greatest possibility of failure ended up not in the technical realization of Tudor's drawings, but in the communication between the performers playing that system and from them to the audience assembled in the space to listen.

In every case, each artist or group was invited to submit a schematic or other graphical representation of their chosen composition system alongside audiovisual documentation of that system at work. Each instance of these compositions is not definitive, but only represents the relationship of that system to the performer under a certain set of circumstances. Future performances could and should evolve in an altogether different manner.

I would like to thank Greg J. Smith, Neil Wiernik and Corina MacDonald of Vague Terrain for this opportunity to guest-curate an issue and put my entirely-too-complex thoughts on this subject into some coherent form. I would also like to thank the invited artists for opening up their practice to scrutiny, particularly those who created original works for this survey. I welcome comments and correspondence, and look forward to future discussions expanding the topic.

Derek Holzer, Berlin
April 2011


(1) Rasmussen, Knud (1927). Across Arctic America: Narrative of the Fifth Thule Expedition.
(2) Rylan, Jessica (2004). "IRFP Presents: Modular Synthesizer".
(3) Collins, Nicolas (2009). Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-99873-4.
(4) Vasulka, Woody ed. (1992). Eigenwelt der Apparate-Welt: Pioneers of Electronic Art. Linz: Ars Electronica.
(5) Prema, Krsna (2008). "How I Became a Monk".
(6) Collins, Nicolas ed. (2004). Leonardo Music Journal 14.
(7) Cascone, Kim (2002). "The Aesthetics of Failure: "Post-Digital" Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music".
(8) Schultz, Pit (2003). "Computer Age is Coming into Age". Read_me 2.3, ed. Goriunova, Olga and Shulgin, Alexei. Helsinki: NIFCA, Lume, m-cult. ISBN 951–8955–74–3.
(9) Image source: Kuivila, Ron (2004). "Open Sources: Words, Circuits and the Notation-Realization Relation in the Music of David Tudor", Leonardo Music Journal 14 pp 17-23.
(10) Raudive, Konstantīns (1971). Breakthrough, an Amazing Experiment in Electronic Communication with the Dead. London: Colin Smythe, Ltd. ISBN 0900675543