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  • Writer's pictureT Lines

Chaotic Conflations: Permeating Identity with Networks of Sound

In late 2022 and early 2023, I spent a lot of time in room at the Electronic Music Studios at Goldsmiths, making noise. This room, which is now, as far as I am aware, a fully kitted out and sound-treated Dolby atmos audiovisual studio, was at the time a quite bare, noisy room with two large genelecs. I was deep into cybernetics, interpreting everything in terms of 'systems', be it my modular synth, the space of a university, or my own body. I was also beginning to realise the true depth of audio feedback, that it was not only the harsh screech of a live mic left by a speaker. I wanted to explore how haunting, dark, and subtle it could be.

This project culminated in Chaotic Conflations, a noise record, made in and with that noisy room at Goldsmiths, incorporating my voice and movements into a bristling ecosystem of electronics, architecture, and vibration. Below is the paper I submitted to Goldsmiths to accompany the piece, minus the footnotes.


My project, titled Chaotic Conflations, is informed firstly by the interdisciplinary field of cybernetics, which has had a significant impact on a wide range of fields, including media studies, ecology, and computer science. Cybernetics in its fundamental form emerged from a series of conferences at the John Macy Foundation between 1946 and 1953, an environment consisting of academics from a wide range of fields. While the field of cybernetics is commonly conflated with digital technology, its framework can be applied more broadly. As Magnus Ramage points out, “many of [cybernetics’] most important early theorists were highly humanistic in their personal outlook, and… it is important to realize that cybernetics has never been a uniform discipline and that it has existed in several strands since its inception.”

Core to the study of cybernetics (labelled by its founder Norbert Wiener as “the entire field of control and communication theory”) is the study of feedback systems. The homeostatic maintenance of a system, beit an animal, machine, population, or the earth itself, relies on processing and responding to information, applying feedback to balance against external and internal change. By understanding organisms, populations and machines as systems or patterns, rather than their material make-up, Wiener avoided what Graham Harman calls the “undermining” tendency of natural sciences that reduces one’s understanding of the world to “physicalism, smallism, anti-fictionalism, and literalism,” leaving no space for fields like anthropology and aesthetics. In short, cybernetics is an approach that can be applied across different scales, from the cellular to the cosmic, and different categories, from the animal to the mechanical. Wiener expands upon this in The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society - “To describe an organism, we do not try to specify each molecule in it, and catalogue it bit by bit, but rather to answer certain questions about it which reveal its pattern: a pattern which is more significant and less probable as the organism becomes, so to speak, more fully an organism.”

The concept of feedback is familiar to any musician who has worked with electronic sound systems. The sudden, loud ring of the Larsen effect, caused by positive feedback between a pick-up or microphone and a loudspeaker, is an unpleasant and often unsafe side-effect of a badly calibrated set-up. Beyond this usually undesirable instance of positive feedback, electronic music has been drawing on cybernetics for almost as long as the field has existed. Lauren Hayes notes that the principle of homestasis “informed the design of early circuit-based electronic instruments by composers such as Bebe and Louis Barron [most known for their seminal sountrack to 1956’s Forbidden Planet], and Herbert Brün.” While David Tudor did not seem to show direct interest in cybernetics, there are definite synergies to be found in his ecologically-minded Rainforest IV (1973), and explicitly cybernetic compositions, as You Nakai has observed, building electroacoustic systems which involve the observer in the compositional process.

Agostino Di Scipio’s compositions follow a similarly ecosystemic approach. He builds digital systems which utilise internal feedback, while also responding to the ambient sound of the environment they are placed in. To Di Scipio, “no autonomous system exists if no direct access to the external is available to it (in other words: no context, no text).” Instead of programming electronic systems which a performer can interact with in a one-directional hierarchical manner, Di Scipio “composes interactions:” interactions between DSP algorithms, performers and the acoustic space in which each part takes a compositional role. In such a way, the human performer loses a certain amount of control, being forced to share the performance with non-human systems. Meanwhile, the audience cannot uphold the role of detached observer, since their effects on the ambience affects the response of Di Scipio’s DSP concoctions. Importantly, rather than having system components communicate via the quite stable and predictable language of MIDI or OSC, “all exchanges between system components take place in the medium of sound [or, in other words] sound is the interface.” In his work, there is an inherent critique of human forms of control, specifically the anthropocentric myth that humans are inherently separate from and possess mastery over the natural world. Instead the human performers (and audience members) are reminded of their situatedness within a wider environment - “a complex dialectic takes place here between ‘autonomy’ and ‘heteronomy’ in all living systems, either human or social (a dialectic that may eventually bring the reader to issues of a socio-political nature).” By incorporating the observer in their compositions, Di Scipio, and Tudor before him, expresses the developments of the cybernetics in the second half of the 20th century. In the second wave of cybernetics, the concept of homeostasis is partially replaced by autopoesis, an understanding that a system can act autonomously to its environment and simultaneously capable of changing and adapting to external factors. This shift in understanding could be expressed, in the words of N.K. Hayles, as “change over constancy, evolution over equilibrium, complexity over predictability.”

Lauren Hayes is another theorist and musician who composes in a cybernetic framework. In her body of work Sounding Out Spaces, she creates site specific compositions which embed machines in outdoor spaces to respond to and amplify the latent sound of the environment. In Garden Ecologies, she “developed a modular system of sound and sensor processing devices using portable microcomputers… which were distributed through a large public garden.” These components were arranged to interact and respond to the stimuli of the wider ecosystem. Digitally procressed audio feedback took on the resonances of objects that held microphones and speakers, while, like Di Scipio, the acoustic qualities of her more complex installations incorporated the sounds of the surrounding environment. Her work is made to be embedded in eco-systems, expressing sound which could only exist in that location, but importantly she does not pretend that these composed interactions tell a reductive ‘truth’ about the environment they are located in. Hayes writes,

Sounding Out Spaces diverges from soundscape composition and the established practices of acoustic ecology as it is not concerned with with the collection, measurement, and representation, nor the evaluation of acoustic activity. Despite this, it is fundamentally concerned with the relationships between living beings, machines, and environments.

I took an approach similar to Di Scipio and Hayes in Chaotic Conflations, the result of of various experiments in the 7:1 space at the Electronic Music Studios, Goldsmiths College. At the time of writing, this space is a brick room, measuring roughly three by six by three meters, with untreated acoustics which result in a unusually reverberant environment for a music studio setting. Each of these experiments consisted of one or two feedback loops, each consisting of a stereo PA, a custom hardware synthesiser, a compressor and a dynamic microphone (with the exception of one experiment which used omni-directional microphones, resulting in a more sensitive and noisier configuration).

Unlike Hayes and Di Scipio, who work with digital sound processors,

I decided to use my instrument of choice for this project: the modular synthesiser, a conglomoration of simple electronic modules by a range of designers and manufacturers, collected and patched together to my own design. Modular synthesiser manufacture developed in tandem with the popularisation of cybernetics in the arts. For example, Peter Zinovieff, producer of the Synthi and VS3, had work exhibited alongside cybernetic composers like Herbert Brün in the 1968 ICA show “Cybernetics and Serendipity,” while Serge Tcherepnin designed his modular synthesiser system to incoporate low-level analog programming functions, allowing for chaotic, feedback led patches. My own modular system consists of Serge-inspired modules such as slew limiters and comparators, which lend themselves well to feedback processing, as well as more typical analog and digital synthesiser elements like voltage controlled oscillators and filters. In some experiments I used the synthesiser as a sound source, with the feedback from the microphones modulating the timbre of the oscillator. Within the feedback loops, the modular system functioned mostly as a signal processor, applying effects like filtering, wavefolding, resonation, ring modulation. Some parts of the system monitored amplitude levels over time, influencing other sections at low and audio rate frequencies. In this way, the modular system used internal feedback to maintain an aural homeostasis that maintained a dynamic level of audible feedback and preventing a loud and constant tone.

One of the major appeals of the modular synthesiser to me is the explorative nature of patching, in which listening often plays a large role, and the physical act of building a sonic system from scratch every time I make a patch. The disadvantage of having no digital storage or preset capabilities, combined with the limited processing power of CV based systems, encourages a different compositional approach which requires a more improvisational and economical form of playing. As Andreas Kitzmann and Claes Thorén put it, “it is not a question of technology, but a question of analogue (sound) practice… arguably a misnomer for tactile and largely non-progammable/ preset interfaces that encourage exploration, chance and the opportunity to work outside the ‘boxes’ provided by normative digital platforms and tools.” In this state of exploration, I set up feedback interactions between low level functions, and systems emerge, transitioning into complexity. As Mattias Peuch writes, “from transmission there emerges communication, from the inanimate there springs something alive… it is there, tucked away in the nich, in the precarious balance of the interactions between emerging life forms, that I have found a music.” This emergent behaviour, integral to the modular system, is what leads Kitzmann and Thorén to aptly describe it as “a musical device… in a constant state of becoming.”

I also positioned my body in the feedback path, adjusting the distance of the microphones from the speakers and rotating the microphones in relation to the speakers, affecting the volume and tone of the feedback, which I found to be interlinked. Singing into the feedback path distorted and filtered my voice, but also triggered sound events. I usually calibrated the feedback system to be on the verge of self-oscillation, so that my physical input ‘activated’ the sonic network. Set up in this way, I could play the feedback with my body and my voice, letting it ring out and develop even after I removed my input.

My decision to place my body in the sonic feedback path was informed by the increased integration of the human body with technology that began to emerge from cybernetics throughout the 20th century. David Tomas succinctly outlines this geneology: from McLuhan, who saw technology as “an extension of man,” to the conception of the ‘cyborg’ by Manfred E Clynes and Nathan S Kline in 1960 as a military technology, and beyond to Donna Haraway’s subversion of the concept in the 1980s: 

In contrast to the Clynes/Kline cyborg, which was conceived as a ‘superman’ capable of surviving hostile non-earth environments, Haraway’s cyborg was a product of late-capitalist earth. In keeping with its traditional ecology, it was re-fashioned along the lines of an entity that could transgress earth-bound social/symbolic boundaries between human and animal, animal-human (organism) and machine, and the physical and non-physical

To Haraway, each of us is a cyborg by virtue of existing in a society that is contingent on personalised technology to function. Wiener’s understanding of the human and non-human as analogous systems, and its implicit deconstruction of the rigid binaries of animal/machine and human/animal, is a freeing prospect to Haraway, allowing for cross-category mixing and a proliferation of new identity expressions. She writes, “There is no fundamental, ontological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic,” so “we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras.” This understanding of human-embedded cybernetics tangles myriad cultural norms with the technology we interface with. Lauren Hayes, acknowleges this in her practice research, writing that,

while feedback systems can be useful creative devices, [Haraway’s perspective alows us to understand that] they do not enable us to discover any kind of ‘natural’ or ‘objective’ sonic reality. These musical systems are necessarily constructed by means of culturally informed choices of materials, hardware, and importantly the embodied actions of the artists and other participants involved.

I was aware of the cultural baggage my feedback work would carry and that my personal presence would complicate its ‘objectivity’ even further. I integrated my voice into these aural systems precisely to play with the social coding of my voice, to augment it, to hybridise it in search of identity. This approach drew on my identity as non-binary, a label which acts as a statement of intent to explore and define my gender for myself. As Michel Foucault puts it, my relationship to myself “[is not one of] identity, rather… of differentiation, of creation, of innovation.” My voice is deep, and would invariably be coded as male, but inserted into a complex, cascading system of electronic function, it mangles. The pitch, timbre, amplitude and length of my utterances take on distinctly electronic qualities at times, monstrous and organic textures at others, quickly crossing thresholds between human, mechanical, animalistic and beyond, disrupting the stability of my identity. Tomas encapsulates my approach nicely,  arguing that “under such circumstances [that a human body integrates or interfaces with a technological environment], technology becomes… the material foundation for its sense of performed identity.”

To this measure, I took influence from contemporary feminist explorations of corporeality. Legacy Russell is a proponent of the dematerialised corporiality of cyberspace, specifically the slippages, breakages, or ‘glitches’ within that space which “[jar] us into recognition of the separation of our physical selves from the body.” To Russell, “the glitch encourages a slipping across, beyond, and through the stereotypical materiality of the corpus… [offering] new transfigurations of corporeal sensuality,” leading to disruptive expressions of identity that challenge patriarchal hegemony. Stacy Alaimo, on the other hand, bemoans “the predominant trend in the last few decades of feminist theory… to diminish the significance of materiality,” a criticism that could be levelled against the commonly dematerialing bent of cyberfeminisms. However, both these theorists, in a fashion similar to Haraway, express a keen interest in the entanglement of the human body with its environment, material or immaterial. Haraway provocatively asks, “Why should our bodies end at the skin?” Similarly, Alaimo posits, from an ecological perspective, the concept of “trans-corporeality,” a state “in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human-world… inseparable from ‘the environment.’”

My approach aims to act as a synthesis between post-structural feminism and new materialism, challenging essentialised gender identity with spatially rooted and eco-systemic sound experiments. Luca Soudant followed a similar route with her project On Sonic Intimacy, exploring the physicality of highly amplified low frequency sound waves as a form of feminist practice research. She writes that “[s]ound is not selective in which bodies it vibrates and therefore encourages us to material-philosophically horizontalise the hierarchies between the human and nonhuman,” and that taking a practice research approach to sound can lead to “trans*formative thinking… dedicated to a messy, a queer, world-in-becoming in which phenomena, such as gender, are not fixed…” Soudant illustrates that sound, by nature of travelling through human and non-human matter equally, can challenge the illusion of human exceptionalism. Hugh Pickering and Tom Rice also explore the permeation of sound through the body in their study of noise as “sound out of place,” an adaptation of Mary Douglas’s theory of hygeine. Douglas writes of the disgust that a sticky material can illicit, writing “[i]ts stickiness is a trap, it clings like a leech; it attacks the boundary between myself and it.” Similarly, the potential for noise to permeate the body can cause sound to take on negative moral connotations. These bodily boundaries function at a social level, maintianing rigid norms around gender, class and race. In my improvisations my voice crosses from embodied sound into noise, sometimes becoming indistinguishable from the melange of synthesised and spatialised sound, in an attempt to spend time in uncomfortable liminality.

I would like to return to the space briefly as it plays an equal role to the body and electronics in Chaotic Conflations. I specifically chose to use a space with acoustic characteristics that would be considered undesirable in a traditional studio setting. It resonates noisily, and voices bleed in from the corridor outside, resulting in strangers accidentally becoming part of the piece. I emphasised the space to achieve a quality that Mark Fisher ascribes to hauntological art, “[to resist] the contraction and homogenization of time and space” common to the internet age. Fisher derives this theory from Marc Augé’s ‘non-place,’ a concept that Alexander De Little also draws upon to polemicise our currently despatialised forms of listening - “there is a prevalent rise in ‘non-places’ that lack history or relationality… An abundance of handheld digital technologies [that], despite the utility and connectivity they afford, bring users out of their bodies and away from a sensory experience of the environment.” I set out to use sound to generate a relationship with my environment, to hybridise my body with space, technology and sound. To De Little, engaging sonically with a space enables one to recognise its “sensory, embodied and socially-connected” qualities, a view which parallels Di Scipio’s engagement with heteronomous systems and their ‘ambience.’

My piece emerged from a range of fields, unified by permeable boundaries. That it is a hodgepodge of ideas is only suitable for the creation of a cybernetic, hybrid composition. To quote Bruno Latour, “[t]he imbroglios and networks that had no place now have the whole place to themselves.” Chaotically mixing previously demarcated fields through sonic assemblage feels like a necessity. These various socio-political, systemic and material elements do not disappear by virtue of focusing on only one aspect of sound creation. Or as Heather Frasch writes, drawing on Latour to describe her own quite similar practice -

I… am part of a human/nonhuman inter-folding network of electronics, objects, ideas, power structures, buildings, audiences… There are objects and materials… There is the electricity running through the amplifiers and the transducers. There is the motion of the objects that change as the vibrational patterns shift when materials heat up. There is my deciding which objects to use depending on the performance and the composition. There is the room I play in. There is the temperature of the day, the time of the day, the audience… I am co-creating with all of these elements.



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