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Ghosts in the Machine / Voices in the Synthesiser

A lovely reading this week introduced us to post-phenomenology, a wide ranging topic that is only just sinking in now as I approach my research project (and write this blog! handy).

“Voices in the Electronic Music Synthesizer – an essay in honour of Don Ihde” by Trevor Pinch zoomed in on the development and impact of the electronic synthesiser as a method to explain post-phenomenology.

The essay begins by sketching out the broad framework of phenomenology (as opposed to POST-phenomenology). A primary point (made in the essay “Listening and Voice: a phenomenology of sound” by Don Ihde ) is a rejection of cartesian perspective. Instead the author makes the point that listening and voice are always part of the “world”. Sound is a part of context, and context is a place in the world, and therefore the ambient sounds of an environment are an active participant in the dialogue of a place and culture.

Don Idhe makes the point “sounds are in a broad sense “voices,” the voices of things, of others, of the gods, and of myself. In this broad sense one may speak of the voices of significant sound as the “voices of language.”

He then moves into the history of the synthesiser, and how the development of the oscillator chip allowed the developer Moog to fashion a new kind of sound..

“Different instruments and senses combined in the way Moog worked. With the aid of an oscilloscope he used his eyes to see the shape of the waveform, with the aid of a loudspeaker he used his ears to hear the sound of the waveform, and with the aid of a voltmeter he used his hands to tinker with the circuit producing the waveform. “

The crucial thing is that there is a direct link between the amount of voltage going through a circuit and the musical note it generates. With voltage control came tonal control, and new means of expression and creation of sound.

The new synthesiser changed the relationship musicians would have with their craft and their idea of what music could be. In post phenomenological terms, it changed the human-technology world relation.

Post phenomenology makes it possible to make micro-scale analyses of the mediating roles of technologies in human-world relations and as such it can be said that it truly takes us back to the things themselves. (Rosenberger and Verbeek, “A field guide to post-phenomenology”)

It is grounded in concrete examples of human-technological relationships and gives us a framework through which we can understand and interrogate those relationships more clearly. Idhe identifies four broad categories of relations, these are:

– Hermeneutics (Interpretive relations) involve a technological interaction that involves a symbolic change in meaning. For example a watch face changes the user’s perception of time – time is a set amount of distance on the watch face, vs the perceptual effect of time feeling slow or fast.

– Alterity (the other), where you interact with technology in a similar fashion as you would with a human, for example Siri.

– Embodiment relations may be involved when a technology is literally being worn or affecting the body of a user. For example glasses, a walking stick – how do these change our relationship with the world?

– Background Relations are where a technological presence is constant but backgrounded, for example a smoke alarm’s beep, Roomba Vacuum or WIFI network.

These relations provide a useful framework for analysing an experience somebody might have with (and through) technology.

Looking back at a person interacting with a synthesiser. Analysing the webs of relations post-phenomenology identifies we might find:

– Hermeneutical relations – The musician may observe the interface of the Moog and have a new understanding of possible sounds that may be created, plus a new relationship with concepts of electrical current, power, and voltage that may have not existed before.

– Embodiment relations in the case of an instrument like a theremin which uses a beam of light and interference from the “player’s” body to change the sound (“voice”).

– It seems harsh to include background relations here as I haven’t been at that many parties where someone would keep playing “good vibrations” but I’m sure it’s happened somewhere.