Strategies Against Progress: New Materialist Models to Resist Obsolescence in Technological Sound Practices

Full Dissertation - UCSD, 2017

Electronic sound artists and musicians, in their choice of the tools of their craft, have a close, working relationship with a specific form of mass-produced commodity, that of technological audio devices. Like other manufactured goods, they originate from a global production system that is historically exploitative, and environmentally unsustainable. The nature of electronic and digital technology, however, warrants an additional layer of scrutiny: they are beholden to the expectations of continuous technological improvement and obsolescence.

To counter these continuing tendencies, I offer a reading of new materialist theory with an eye toward how it may be specifically applied to electronic and digital musicians. New materialism projects a monistic perception of the world, in which the differentiation between humans, non-humans, and objects is called into question. Applied to technological audio devices, porous boundaries allow a vision of audio technology that is inclusive of all the bodies with which it has come in contact, and urges a limited sense of anthropomorphic identification with its users. This sense of interaction is extended into the realm of audio feedback, in which all audio processors, regardless of their intended functionality, contribute to a common sonic end. Seen in this way, sound technology that was once subject to the whims of constant development, becomes imbued with a personal sense of vitality, making it more difficult to be perceived as a disposable and obsolete.

“Designing Intent: Designing Critical Meaning for NIME Practitioners.”

In: Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression. Copenhagen, Denmark 2017

The ideation, conception and implementation of new musical interfaces and instruments provide more than the mere construction of digital objects. As physical and digital assemblages, interfaces also act as traces of the authoring entities that created them. Their intentions, likes, dislikes, and ultimate determinations of what is creatively useful all get embedded into the available choices of the interface. In this light, the self-perception of the musical HCI and instrument designer can be seen as occupying a primary importance in the instruments and interfaces that eventually come to be created. The work of a designer who self-identifies as an artist may result in a vastly different outcome than one who considers him or herself to be an entrepreneur, or a scientist, for example. These differing definitions of self as well as their HCI outcomes require their own means of critique, understanding and expectations. All too often, these definitions are unclear, or the considerations of overlapping means of critique remain unexamined.

In this paper, I offer five broad cultural categories for understanding contrasting histories, as well as creative and technical discourses surrounding musical HCI production, specifically relating to the New Instruments for Musical Expression community. These are offered to spur conversation toward a more complete and complex definition of the self as a designer and the objects of creation within this context, and are not intended to propose hard limitations or boundaries within the community. To the contrary, they are for consideration as porous and available to permutation and change as circumstance and the community at large sees fit

“Paying It Forward: Sound Art Strategies For The Post-Anthropocene.”

In: Proceedings of the Australasian Computer Music Conference. Brisbane, Australia 2016

In the 1980s, geographer Eugene F. Stoermer coined a term that has achieved pronounced attention in the 21st century. Known as the Anthropocene, the conception refers to a geological period of time from the late 19th century to the present, in which the most profound force affecting change on the earth is the collective, often unconscious action of humanity.

In order for sound art to sustain meaning and functionality across epochs, new conceptions of time and materiality and their relationship to sound must be examined. In this text, I will use the conceit of the Anthropocene to provide a framework for envisioning and designing sound art that is informed by the prospect of the end of an era in which human activity is identified as being the primary agent of change on Earth. In doing so, I will outline strategies that can be put into place to evoke, for inhabitants of the far future, a very personal and aural sense of the contemporary moment.

"The Breath Engine: Challenging Biological and Technological Boundaries through the Use of NK Complex Adaptive Systems"

In: Proceedings of the ICMC|SMC. Athens, Greece 2014 pp. 767 - 771

The Breath Engine is an interface and performance system that draws focus to the ephemeral nature of the actions of living beings and how they intersect with the world of the artificial and computational.

The piece relies on human respiration to create and affect a generative sound synthesis system modeled on evolutionary algorithms. The respiration system is controlled by 1 - 3 participants, who wear oxygen masks that transfer the breath of the performers into electromechanical pressure sensors mounted in the project enclosure. These sensors convert the respiration levels of each performer into digital information, which is then used to affect a self-generative audio synthesis system. This generation is based on NK complex adaptive systems, which mathematician Stephen J. Lansing purports to be a potentially important factor in determining long term changes in mechanical and natural systems, such as biological evolution. This system generates iterative arrays of timbre and frequency that are perturbed by data received from the breathing sensors, causing chaotic reactions that eventually coalesce into repeating patterns.

In this way, the piece will enact an evolving visual and sonic environment that questions the boundaries between the biological and the technological.