Saturday, 24 March 2007

Suborderly Music: The Victorian Synthesizer, Ohm-My-God and Infra-Instruments

What might suborderly music be? And what could it be good for?

Let us consider suborderly music’s instrumentarium. With Phil Archer, I wrote a paper
suggesting the notion of an infra-instrument as something less than an instrument, something constrained in its gestural repertoire, something which would engender simple musics of limited expressivity and virtuosity. We considered five strategies for making infra-instruments.

Toilet Lyre by Alice and John Bowers

Take an instrument and make it less. Break an existing instrument or restrict its operation or how one interacts with it. The Fluxus artists’ instrument destructions can be reconceived as acts of creation: of infra-instruments. Take materials partway to instrumenthood. Instruments are typically assemblies of multiple components and different materials. Do not go all the way in making a complete integrated, rigid construction. Investigate temporary assemblies of stuff. Build an instrument but include obvious mistakes. Like selecting fresh vegetables as the material for construction (see The Vegetable Orchestra), encouraging fret-buzz or loosely winding pickups to enhance microphony. Take something non-instrumental and find the instrument within. A DTMF phone dialer can be regarded as an infra-synthesizer, a Geiger counter as infra-percussion, and so forth. The percept here is that the instrument you find within something conventionally non-instrumental is likely to be an infra-instrument. Find infra-instruments readymade. Here Phil and I had in mind instruments which already are infra in status because of their low aesthetic or marginal cultural standing. This would include many musical toys or musical boxes and other ‘amusements’. Perhaps historical ‘rejects’ fit here, the antecedent forms of modern instruments which have fallen by the wayside. Bits and pieces of stuff which sound nice just as they are might be readymade infra-instruments awaiting recognition as such.

Perhaps, suborderly music is the music that infra-instruments would naturally play.

The Victorian Synthesizer

The Victorian Synthesizer is an ongoing project of mine to build a musical instrument boasting the kinds of parts and capabilities traditional synthesizers have (oscillators, filters, amplitude envelopes, modulation) but using techniques known to the Victorians. It is this collision of contemporary concepts with outmoded means that creates the Victorian infra-synthesizer as an imagined historical reject. Generally, the Victorian Synthesizer needs to be electro-mechanical rather than electronic, manual rather than voltage control is typically required, and some synthesis units will present especial challenges. Oscillators constructed through feeding back the output from amplifiers are, for example, post-Victorian inventions (c.1920 by Barkhausen and Kurz). Accordingly, I make the most of electro-magnetism (an 18th century discovery much celebrated by the Victorians) and the minimum of circuitry.

As Oliver Lodge (1898, Victorian) had patented moving coil methods usable for sound transmission in our epoch of interest, hacking loudspeakers seems an appropriate strategy for The Victorian Synthesizer. First, connect a battery (no more than 9v) direct to its terminals and enjoy the pops and thunks as the diaphragm moves in and out. The photograph above shows my current ‘concert’ set-up (known as VS-1). Two loudspeakers (for stereo of course) are wired in series with a battery and a conductive plate. I choose loudspeakers of contrasting histories and physical capabilities (I played a lot of prog-rock out of the one on the right, perhaps you can tell). A probe of the sort used in test gear is attached to the battery and when drawn across the plate causes the loudspeakers to jump. Grooves and other markings on the plate give a sonic texture to the probe gestures. Another (parallel) circuit involving a battery and a vibration or tilt switch is connected across the two loudspeakers. If the switch is rested on top of one of the speakers and the cone tapped, the switch will make and unmake its circuit yielding a kind of mechanical-electrical oscillation as it bounces around. The plate and the tilt switch circuits can be manipulated at the same time leading to a variety of modulations. The presence of washers and screws in the left hand speaker makes for percussive rattling. A final addition is a lead connecting the plate with the exposed metal band on the right hand speaker. If the probe touches this band a circuit is completed through the band leading to a squealing feedback sound.

In the service of suborderly music: raw components and random circuitry

Perhaps we can go further and get even closer to manipulating raw components in the service of suborderly music. Ohm-My-God investigates ad hoc assemblies where chance wiring and promiscuous mixtures of basic components create circuitry before our very eyes and ears. Place two electrode plates into, say, a kitchen bowl with each plate connected to a low voltage battery terminal. Pour in arbitrary components: resistors, capacitors, transistors, diodes, lengths of bare wire. Sample the current at selected spots of the mixture with a conductive probe. To keep with the domestic theme, I use a knife or fork or spoon or egg-whisk. Stir the mixture (or maybe agitate it with a Victorian Synthesizer beneath). Run the circuit from probe to whatever you wish to intervene upon with random circuitry: as a control voltage for synthesis or to be amplified so that the electricity through the circuit can be heard direct (electrically buffer through, say, a guitar effects pedal to avoid shocks). Try more than one probe to sample from more than one spot. Five probes for home theatre applications, perhaps.


Consider the suborderly music of infra-instruments as a kind of ideological therapy. A spectre that has haunted our thinking for nearly 200 years is that of autonomous technology. The fear (and sometimes a desire) that technology has its own life, its own history, and little can be done about it. We cannot, or so we are told, uninvent The Bomb and, what is more, we need extended warranties on our domestic appliances as there are no user serviceable parts within. But what if we just wilfully ignored warranties, serviced our parts ourselves, and simply forgot how to make The Bomb, just as how to haul prehistoric stones thousands of miles seems to have slipped our minds. Hacking up infra-instruments is literally a matter of taking technologies into our own hands with the little tunes that emerge being, perhaps, minor celebrations of autonomous technology’s local rebuff. Let these sounds anthemically accompany our anticipation of The End of Technocracy as the whole world is hacked afresh by lawless New Victorians.


Bowers, J. and Archer, P. (2005). Not Hyper, not meta, not cyber but infra-instruments. In Proceedings of New Instruments for Musical Expression 2005 (NIME 05), Vancouver, Canada.

Bowers, J. and Villar, N. (2006). Creating Ad Hoc Instruments with Pin&Play&Perform. In Proceedings of New Instruments for Musical Expression 2006 (NIME 06), Paris, France.

Collins, N. (2006). The Celebrated Jumping Speaker of Bowers County: Twitching Loudspeakers with Batteries. Chapter 5 of Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. New York: Routledge.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Andrew Riley

Andrew Riley was my closest friend when I was eleven years old, and I think I was his. We then went to different schools, my parents and I moved to another part of Ipswich and, although Andrew cycled to see me and I visited him at home, we had parted company within a year. I remember little about him: his dark hair, his intelligence, playing Mousetrap with him and Waddington’s Table Soccer, a game which adapted the tiddlywinks technique and for which Andrew had developed a tactic I could not defeat, only emulate, leading to many 0-0 draws. A chance meeting ten years on revealed that we were both doing doctoral research, Andrew in chemistry, but we had no desire to pick up a lost childhood friendship.

On 2nd January 1992, Andrew was killed in an explosion at SRI International, the Californian research institute. The group Andrew was part of was studying cold fusion, the controversial possibility that energy-releasing nuclear fusion can take place at room temperature. In common with other cold fusion researchers, they were passing electricity through deuterium oxide, heavy water, using a palladium cathode. This simple apparatus was enclosed within a calorimeter so that measurements of heat exchange could be made. The SRI group had pioneered techniques which enabled measurement to great precision through innovative uses of digital technology. On this basis, they hoped to elucidate the arguments which had been surrounding cold fusion, with its promise of a safe non-polluting energy source, since the late 1980s.

What happened on the 2nd January has been the subject of a number of investigations and a variety of different accounts exist. Usenet group rumours rapidly spread that Andrew had died when he manually tried to release a malfunctioning automatic pressure valve. More conspiratorial versions exist with suspicions still lingering over why other electrolysis cells were buried at SRI in the aftermath and why investigators were prevented from accessing equipment and had sections of reports suppressed. Formal forensic investigations have been uncertain about what set things off but agree that the explosion itself was the result of products released from the electrolysis cell reacting with the atmosphere. An article in the journal Forensic Science in 1995 grimly reported that some of Andrew’s tissue could be found on the shattered steel of the exploded cell, indicating the instantaneous nature of the disaster.

Five years ago, on a wet winter day, I decided to walk back into the centre of Ipswich from an appointment at an out of town opticians rather than take the bus. I diverted to some childhood locations including the Brunswick Road Recreation Ground where Andrew and I had played. Much had changed. There were no see-saws, witches hats or long slides depositing children roughly onto tarmacadam surfaces. The rec was surrounded on all sides by housing. The farm whose workers we used to taunt through the boundary fence was gone. The deep hole, fully 30 metres across, into which all manner of exciting waste was dumped, just adjacent to where we played and accessible through a gap in the fence, was filled and a day care centre for the elderly built on these foundations. The tall trees, which are noted on two hundred year old maps, had been felled and a number of new ones planted. One of these had a small plate at its base with lettering affixed. A memorial dedication to Andrew. In the heavy cold rain, I wept.

A few weeks ago I returned to take photographs and to think about writing a little about Andrew to launch this blog. The face of the rusting plate no longer carried the dedication. Andrew’s tree stood marked but anonymous. I took some photographs and walked away wondering what to do. I considered taking a sheet from my notepad and writing on it Andrew Riley, Electrochemist, 1958-1992, perhaps attaching it with chewing gum, but I had none.

I had long been interested in cold fusion as exemplary suborderly science. It drifts anomalously between other orders of thought, between the everyday homeliness of room temperature to deathly explosiveness if badly contained, between messiah and deceiver. As I drafted this account drinking stout in The Dove, with Andrew’s desolate tree much in mind, further thoughts occupied me. How carefully we have to maintain our acts of commemoration. We have to remember to remember. People. Places. Events. No history without diligence.

And from this it is a small move to recognise how tenuous the world of science can also be. Cold fusion is now an area populated by ageing senior scientists who can pursue its research off the back of other monies. Funding bodies are loath to support the field. Young scientists cannot establish reputations in it. In a recent interview, Andrew’s colleague Michael McKubre notes how cold fusion’s scientists and their once vociferous debunkers are now equally dying out. Soon, perhaps, no one will be able to do the experiments with the necessary exactness of technique and, if anyone cares, there may be other fatalities as the know-how is reconstructed.

In an image which haunts and terrifies me from an otherwise dispassionate forensic report, science itself can be as fleeting as Andrew’s grip on the exploding cell and as legible afterwards as his handprint still attached to the steel.

Suborderly Launch

Suborderly was launched on the Ides of March 2007.
O! Caesar! Futue te ipsum!