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.


kai said...

…how to haul prehistoric stones thousands of miles seems to have slipped our minds.

This guy seems to have remembered again.

John Bowers said...

This is very interesting, kai. I am struck by simple things that produce marvellous results if we persist with them. Our friend has remembered. Perhaps an excellent suborderly blogmeet would involve moving very heavy stones surprising distances accompanied by the tones of the toilet lyre.

cyberviking said...

Why not heat the pot with a gas flame and make it a pyrophone as well?

John Bowers said...

Exploring the effects of heat on random circuitry would be promising, cyberviking. I have done things like pouring fluids into the bowl. Also wax to 'pot' a favoured random circuit. This doesn't work too well. Sometimes things are better left.

cyberviking said...

Wax wouldn't be good. Try Epoxy....
You can then mod the circuit by drilling through it with a power drill, or chop it with an axe or smash it with a sledge hammer. Good show. Live!
(perhaps you get a really poxy sound then)

cyberviking said...

Check out Reed Ghazala’s Bent, Magnetic-Patching Yamaha Keyboard; More Bad News for DIY.
I really like the magnetic patch bay...

John Bowers said...

Thanks cyberviking. Magnetic contacts for experimenting with circuits are not a new idea. I have a bunch of them that I bought commercially years ago. Reed Ghazala's design, though, might make for an interesting 'touch' in making and unmaking the contacts, encouraging more gestural playing of the patch itself. Generally, making the very material stuff of musical electronics playable is what this is all about.

Marcelo Kraiser said...

Hello there!
Your infrainstruments are very inspiring and influenced my work as an artist.I invite you to see my own infrainstruments at improvisions.blogspot
Best regards,