Permanent Prototypes

Prototype Digital Drum

The ability to define history while it is happening is a rare skill.  For every Democracy in America (de Tocqueville, 1835/1840) that gets it right, there is a Coming of Age in Samoa (Mead, 1928) that gets it wrong.  We don’t often have a Thorstein Veblen to define “conspicuous consumption” or a Marshall McLuhan to define our “global village” or a Gil Scott-Heron to explain that the “revolution will not be televised” while we are in the middle of those massive cultural transitions. 

Arduino MIDI Sequencers

This is especially true for art and what is loosely called the “avant-garde” or ”experimental” art.  Participant observers generate criticism in the moment that help to define it.  For example,  Jill Johnston’s Village Voice reviews of experimental dance and the NY performance art scene in the 1960s (collected in Marmalade Me, 1971/1998) and Kyle Gann’s reviews of minimalist and other experimental music in NYC in the 1980s, 90s, and beyond  (collected in Music Downtown, 2006).  There are after-the-fact first-person oral histories like Patti Smith’s Just Kids or Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me that return you to a chaotic scene long after the amps were unplugged.  But there are few critics or historians able to define a seismic shift in art while the ground is still shaking.    

Breadboarded Musical Circuits (PIC16F84, digital pot, TTL logic, etc.)

In her dissertation Building and Becoming:  DIY Music Technology in New York and Berlin (2016), Lauren Flood captured exactly what was happening in the DIY Electronic Music scene and in the broader maker movement in the 2010s. PDF here. What has happened since then, especially with the culture-circle crushing effects of the global pandemic, is a story yet to be told.  But in 2016, Flood described exactly what was happening in the DIY electronic music scene and was simultaneously able to put it into a coherent context, achieving the rare status of having been able to define history as it was happening.

I argue that the cultivation of the self as a “productive” cultural citizen — which I liken to a state of “permanent prototyping” — is central to my interlocutors’ activities, through which sound, self, and instrument are continually remade.  I build upon the idea of “technoaesthetics” (Masco 2006) to connect the inner workings of musical machines with the personal transformations of DIY music technologists as inventors fuse their aural imaginaries with industrial, biological, environmental, and sometimes even magical imagery.  Integral to these personal transformations is a challenge to corporate approaches to musical instrument making and selling, though this stance is often strained when commercial success is achieved.  Synthesizing interdisciplinary perspectives from ethno/musicology, anthropology, and science and technology studies, I demonstrate that DIY music technologists forge a distinctive sense of self and citizenship that critiques, yet remains a cornerstone of, artistic production and experience in a post-digital “Maker Age.” (Lauren Flood, 2016, Abstract)

The outcome of DIY music technologists’ tinkering can often be considered a kind of “experimental music.” The outcomes vary by participants’ interests in conforming (or not) to any existing genres, so that people who already play rock music tend to incorporate their experimental instruments into a rock setting, people interested in making sound art will pursue projects in that vein (this includes visual, performance, or multimedia artists learning to work with sound), and others who do not intend to perform or exhibit their work might simply build a prototype to see what sounds they can coax from it as an end in itself. I refer to this as a filtered experimentalism, meaning that an experimental paradigm is applied to the creative process but is colored by prior generic allegiances, goals, and experiences.

In the Western avant-garde, “experimentalism” often recalls a canon of twentieth century composers that includes Henry Cowell, Harry Partch, Pierre Schaeffer, Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, David Tudor, Pauline Oliveros, and Alvin Lucier, among others. But just as David Novak found while working with Japanese noise musicians (2006, 350-355), I found my interlocutors are only sometimes steeped in this history, even if it precedes and pervades their work without their being aware of it.  In my experience, once DIY music technologists learn about Cage’s experiments with prepared instruments and Tudor’s opening and rewiring of electronics, they are intrigued and want to learn more. Where this classic lineage of American experimentalism most resonates with my interlocutors, however, is in the role of the “everyday.” As Benjamin Piekut (2011) puts it, “[L]ike any other avant-garde, experimentalism performs not simply a return to daily life but an intensification of it—a peculiar mix of the commonplace and the singular. Experimentalism is both ordinary and extraordinary. It is the everyday world around us, as well as the possibility that this world might be otherwise” (2).27 My interlocutors build with materials that are often part of fabric of their everyday lives—old speakers, empty canisters, light bulbs, circuit boards, toys, et cetera—and turn them into highly conceptual sound-producing objects. (Lauren Flood, 2016, pages 36-37).

There was no way to know in 2016 what would happen in 2020, but it’s also possible that what was intended to be an ethnomusicological analysis of what was happening in the 2010s is actually the blueprint that will allow us to rebuild.  This is how we were; this is how we want to be again.

In the meantime, this post features photographs of some of my many permanent prototypes — from things designed and built and used by hundreds (yes, hundreds!) of people to the half-builts shelved for some hopeful future yet to be defined.

~Elliot Inman, June 2022

MIDI Drums with PVC pipe, faux leather, and piezo pickups (PIC16F84 brain programmed in assembly)

Electric Banana (or was it a pencil) with Ribbon Resistor and Capacitive Touch Screws

24 Audio Taper Pots Wired in Series with Homemade Metal Faceplate for Some Reason

Director’s Baton (tilt switch embedded in a fishing bobber with a wooden stick, cable to TTL/CMOS logic chip)

Piezo Kick Drum

Dual Square Wave Generator using CMOS 4049 Hex Inverting Buffer

Waiting for Godot Synth Enclosure

MIDI Controller (Arduino)

Very Important Circuit Built for Something Long Ago

Trinket M0 Breadboard for MIDI workshops

Stacks of MIDI Sequencers in Acrylic Colors
Posted in Arduino, CircuitPython, Circuits, Prototypes, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off on Permanent Prototypes

John Cage, the Student: Time at Black Mountain College

Word Cloud of Cage’s Defense of Satie

This is from my talk at the Black Mountain College ReVIEWING conference in November of 2021. That year’s conference focused on John Cage’s ideas and practices. The annual conference draws scholars from around the world to Asheville, North Carolina, near the original site of Black Mountain College, to explore the impact of one of the most unique experiments in interdisciplinary education.

John Cage, The Student: Time at Black Mountain College Elliot Inman, November 2021

In 1948, John Cage delivered his notorious Defense of Satie at Black Mountain College during what students called the “Satie Summer,” a series of performances and informal lectures led by Cage. The lecture is best remembered for the fact that Cage called Beethoven an “error” that had set back the progress of the exploration of innovative uses of time in musical composition. In the talk, Cage described the work of Satie and Webern as counterexamples – true innovators — and proposed those models for the future of music.

This paper argues that the least innovative aspect of Cage’s lecture were his comments on Satie and the use of time in music. Using textbooks written by his two main teachers, Henry Cowell (New Musical Resources, 1930) and Arnold Schoenberg (Theory of Harmony, 1911), this paper documents how Cage’s ideas regarding time and Satie, himself, were those of his teachers. Even Cage’s style of presenting these facts — simultaneously confrontational about current conventions and enthusiastic about an imagined future — was sourced from his teachers who spoke about music in the same way.

What was new about Cage’s Defense of Satie was that Cage had finally found a way he could combine what he had learned in music theory classes and his many experiences in the worlds of art, dance, and the theater and from psychology and from eastern religion to build an integrated aesthetic argument that crossed all of those boundaries. At Black Mountain College, he found a way to deliver that message by engaging directly with an audience, channeling a kind of West Coast vibe, starting with simple philosophical questions, and deliberately trying to simultaneously provoke and charm his audience. Cage had not discovered a new theory of composition; Cage had discovered Cage.

A Manifesto on Time and an “Error”

It is easy to think of John Cage’s “Defense of Satie” (1948) as a major turning point in Cage’s artistic development, a sign-signifier of a Kuhnian shift in his own compositional practices, a public declaration of a radical break from all of the music he had created until that moment.  Cage would turn away from melody and harmony and explore music as an expression of sounds over time — time not constrained by tempos and time signatures or the limits of standard notation, but time expressed as pure durations distinguishing sounds from silences or silences from sounds.  Looking back, the lecture can be identified as pivot point between the work of the 36 year-old Cage and the music he would create over the next four decades.  And it may have been that, somewhat.

On the other hand, the talk is best remembered for a single infamous word.  To make his case for the importance of rhythm over melody and harmony, Cage said that, in the evolution of musical invention, Beethoven was an “error.”  Beethoven’s  entire musical output, his life, himself.  An “error.”  Beethoven had spent his life working to extend harmony and that was a mistake.  He should have dedicated himself to extending rhythm.  Beethoven had led music in the wrong direction and modern composers should not make the mistake of trying to follow him. 

For those unfamiliar with the context of the talk, Cage’s brief “lecture” was delivered as an introduction to a series of concerts featuring the music of Erik Satie at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1948.  Satie was not at all well-known in the United States at the time.  Joseph Albers, who had invited Cage to spend the summer teaching classes and staging various performances at the college, requested Cage provide some background.  All that was needed was the kind of concert notes that usually accompany new music — something about the composer’s methods and intentions and “how to listen” to it.  What Cage delivered instead has achieved the status of mythical notoriety, not because of his defense of Satie, but primarily because of that single word.  In the talk, Cage discusses the purpose, practice, and meaning of art in various fields (visual, theatre, architecture, and so on) before addressing in detail the music of Satie and Webern.  But the talk is remembered because Cage said that Beethoven was an “error.”

That might be a salacious statement for anyone to make even now, but Cage was saying so out loud just a few years after the end of World War II to a roomful of German emigres and the music department chair who was simultaneously staging a set of Beethoven concerts.  Diary entries and later interviews with Black Mountain College students confirm that the talk was shocking at the time, but Cage was known as a provocateur and at Black Mountain College students expected it.  Black Mountain College was an experiment, itself.  Anything unusual that happened in that place at that time was merely another part of the ongoing experiment.

But Cage’s deliberately provocative statement that Beethoven was an “error” has distracted from the actual content of the talk and a serious consideration of the antecedents of the ideas the 36 year-old Cage was presenting as his own.  What did Cage actually say?  What was it intended to be?  A careful description of a new musical methodology or a one-person performance piece of semi-serious bomb-throwing we might now call “trolling” for the “lulz.”  Cage was already known for both.  Which was it? Fortunately, unlike the other concert series talks Cage gave that summer, the Defense was preserved, a printed copy of the text published later by Kostelanetz  with Cage’s approval (Kostelanetz, John Cage, An Anthology, 1968).  A careful reading of the text supported by text analytic methods and a return to the writings and work of Cage’s own teachers (Weiss, Cowell, and Schoenberg) provides a clearer understanding of the themes, content, and purpose of the text.

A Text Analysis of the Text, Itself

The printed essay from the Kostelanetz anthology was converted to machine-readable text, a computer file of the text that could be examined using data science (primarily C++ and Python code) to illuminate the words and phrases that establish the meaning of the text.  Sentences and paragraphs of words were converted to a linear flow of individual words and phrases that could be ordered, counted, and considered in their relationship to one another in the text.  Punctuation from periods to em-dashes were deleted, although they do, we know, help to convey meaning. 

What was Cage’s Defense of Satie?  The short, silly answer is that it was 3,041 words.  There is a bit of variation in that count due to how the code processes hyphenated words, numbers, and other text elements.  But one answer to the question is:  It was 3,041 words beginning with “A” and ending with “self-knowledge.”  More advanced analyses reveal aspects of the talk that might have been overlooked, even by careful human readers.

There are some caveats with this kind of analysis.  This was a speech that was converted to text and we don’t know to what extent this was actually a speech written word-for-word before Cage delivered it.  But it seems unlikely, reading the text of the speech, that it was strictly written and delivered as if on a teleprompter.  Knowing Cage, that seems actually impossible to believe.  But, for any speaker/writer, interpreting text from speech has some unique challenges.

We know what was said, but not how.  Speed, intonation, tone, and inflection – all of which speakers use to communicate meaning – are lost in written text.  Even the punctuation writers use to convey meaning may not have been apparent when the text was spoken out loud.  Well-rehearsed speakers, like actors working from a text, may have carefully prepared timings, but most speakers do not precisely and consistently measure every pause between sentences or paragraphs.

Speech often exists in a contemporary context and references that context.  For example, at one point in the text, Cage writes/says, ““Last night in a discussion, I was willing to grant that there may be different physical elements of structural principles. Today, I will not be so pacific.”  We don’t know what that conversation was about or who was there or who there that day might or might not have known what was said the night before.  And we don’t know if the word “pacific” there was delivered with a wink as a pun as Cage, himself, had come from California (a Pacific coast state) to North Carolina (an Atlantic coast state), but “pacific” also meaning “calm” or “tranquil.”   

Furthermore, speech includes repetitions, more accentuated parallelism, asides, simplifications, and other conversational qualities.  For example, Cage writes/says, ““What kinds of things in art (music in particular) can be agreed upon?”  The parenthetic aside is the kind of moment a reader might look up from the podium or it may have been written down years later as part of a transcription to clarify something Cage thought should have been said.  We don’t and won’t know.  The text does include the speech-like repetitions:  “In the field of structure, the field of the definition of parts and their relation to the whole…”  It includes the kind of parallelisms that are consistent with speech.  “I answer immediately and unequivocally…”  What we don’t know is whether Cage was grinning when he commented on the experimental works of composers like Partch when he wrote/said, “However, we need not take innovations of this kind too seriously, unless somebody tells us to.”

So, we have to be cognizant that text mining a text that was delivered as a speech (essentially a play from a script) sets aside certain aspects of the oral presentation that affected its meaning. Habits of speech make this kind of text different from formally written communication.  We won’t know some things we wish we knew when trying to interpret this speech.  But our analysis begins with a curious problem. This text is called Defense of Satie, but it doesn’t seem to be about Satie.

Where is Satie?

One of the most curious aspects of this 3,041 word Defense of Satie is how little it is actually about Satie. A reader might ask: Where is Satie? “Satie” does not even appear until “Erik Satie” starting at word 1,539 of 3,041 words when the lecture is already half over (50.6%). Below is a word cloud of the entire text. A word cloud enables us to visualize the frequency of individual words in the text. Often, common words like “and” and “the” are omitted as they provide little additional meaning. In the word cloud below, some themes are readily apparent: life, method, structure, time, music, form, measure, but Satie is to the side, bottom right, almost hiding out of sight.

And although Satie does get more mentions (n=13) than any other composer, Webern (n=12) is close behind, with Beethoven (n= 7) and Schoenberg (n=3) getting mentions, too.

Although Satie does get more mentions (n=13) than any other composer, Webern (n=12) is close behind, with Beethoven (n= 7) and Schoenberg (n=3) getting mentions, too.  Given the salacious attack on Beethoven, readers might expect that he would have even greater prominence in the text, but not so.  What is more surprising is the appearance of Webern as a close second, a composer whose pursuit of 12-tone methods seems so very different from the methods of Satie. 

In fact, Satie and Webern are almost always mentioned together, as one.  Satie is mentioned 13 times and Webern mentioned 12, but, of those, Satie and Webern are mentioned together 11 times with Webern taking top billing 7 (“Webern and Satie”) over the 4 times Satie (“Satie and Webern”) appears first.  Both composers took an unusual approach to time, but it seems odd that they should appear together so often here, especially in a speech titled “Defense of Satie.”  It is not a coincidence.  It a letter from Cage to Peter Yates in 1948, Cage questioned his own admiration of Satie and wrote, ““I do not know if I am being rabid about Satie or not. However, I give him first place with Webern and I fight for them both” (Martin, John Cage and Peter Yates: Correspondence on Music Criticism and Aesthetics, 2020).

So, was it a defense of Satie or a defense of Webern or a defense of them both?  Cage, himself, in 1948, said we would “fight for them both.”  But the concert series was primarily for the music of Satie.

Before and After Satie

Using the data structure from the speech, we can map the primary words and phrases before the first mention of Satie and after. The word cloud below shows the keywords from before the first mention of Satie, the halfway mark in the text. The word cloud illustrates what the reader encounters: A talk about music, structure, life, art, poetry, artists, method, language, work, and the individual with a subtext based on “contemporary,” “difference,” “different,” and “new.”

Before Satie

After the first appearance of Satie, the focus of the text shifts significantly. Suddenly, Satie is front and center with Webern and numerous keywords related specifically to music: rhythmic, harmony, measure, sound, music, structure, and to the bottom right, “time.”

After Satie

You could argue that perhaps half of the text is a defense of Satie, but it is also not accidentally a defense of Webern and, in fact, very little about the “error” of Beethoven. Considering the entire text again, below is the frequency of certain keywords across the entire 3,041 text.

As the critic James Pritchett notes in a footnote of his book on Cage, this text is actually the only place where Cage so strongly advocated for duration (time) as the only important variable in musical structure. In fact, the frequencies generated from the text for this project demonstrated that “duration” was, within the text, mentioned only 3 times; time, 9; rhythm(ic), 5; and silence, only 3.

Which raises the question: Is this about time and duration or not? This text is only partially a defense of Satie and, in that respect, equally a defense of Webern. But a careful (computer aided) reading of the text reveals that it is also apparently not about “time.” And even the ideas Cage espoused here were perhaps not as radically original as they seemed. A careful look at the writings of three of his teachers shows that the ideas here about composition were very consistent, sometimes surprisingly so, with the theories and practices of his three teachers: Adolph Weiss, Arnold Schoenberg, and Henry Cowell.

Adolph Weiss has been summarily dismissed as a minor composer who may have been completely forgotten if not for his intersection with Cage.  The one thing scholars acknowledge Cage learned from Weiss, based on Cage’s own statements, is that Cage did not want to write music that was never performed.  Weiss had composed a large number of scores that were played once or never and Cage did not want to face the same fate.  But that overlooks two aspects of Weiss’ work that might have made a much more significant impact on Cage. 

First, Weiss was the composer who “discovered” Schoenberg in Germany.  Weiss is the one who wrote the Musical Quarterly article about the “School of Schoenberg,” (1932) birthing it into existence.  Weiss is the one who created a series of concerts to introduce Schoenberg to audiences in the United States.  Weiss was a composer who was simultaneously serving as a new music impresario, concert promoter, and publicist for a composer unknown to American audiences.  What was Cage doing in his concert series on Satie at Black Mountain College in 1948?  The exact same thing.  After that summer at Black Mountain College, Cage continued to serve as hype man for Satie, writing enthusiastic articles and staging concerts.  To what extent was Cage merely following the model Weiss had set with Schoenberg?  It is worth noting that it is the same model Cage extended to his own work with essays and even radio and TV appearances to promote Cage, himself, and concerts that included his own compositions, thus avoiding the never-performed problem he saw in Weiss.  But Cage’s methodical approach to promoting Satie and later his own work closely resembles the plan Weiss put in place for Schoenberg.

Second, Weiss may not have generated groundbreaking pivotal compositions, but he was not someone completely mired in the status quo.  He had “discovered” and promoted Schoenberg who was a radical at that time.  He was also exploring alternative methods of notation that would free composers from the bounds of standard time. Consider the following proposal made by Weiss in the Bulletin of the American Musicological Society in 1940.

This was a radical re-imagining of a notation without lines, notes, or staves with a transparent piano roll score that is played by photocells reading the score and playing the desired timbres and durations over a loud speaker. Note Weiss’s copyright notice for 1940. This is a proposal for what is very close to a modern sequencer, a piano roll editor played by a electronic device for which traditional notation is obsolete because the composer has complete control over time and timbre.

This is an idea that Weiss had already developed to the point that he was publishing his plan — eight years before John Cage even came to Black Mountain College. Considering the compositions Cage was working on at that time, his teacher, Adolph Weiss, was already thinking decades ahead of Cage, the student.

Cage may have learned much more from Weiss than scholars have acknowledged. 

Arnold Schoenberg’s Treatise on Harmony (1911) is almost 450 pages long with just 5 scant pages on rhythm in a chapter of its own.  Schoenberg described some of the contemporary experimental work with rhythm, but declared such pursuits to be fake originality.  “Nevertheless — and this cannot be emphasized strongly enough — even though the use of unusual meters may be eminently suitable for producing the halo of originality, something truly new is scarcely attainable by this means alone. One eighth note more or less does not revitalize a worn-out idea.  On the other hand, rhythmic originality can appear in ordinary four quarter time.” 

“…But as soon as the system professes to be a yardstick by which to judge some artistic innovation emerging from the rhythm of nature, we are justified in extinguishing the feeble spark that gives an aura of vitality to this phantom [i.e. to this artificial, quasi-mathematical inbred system, with only a spark of life]. And this spark is indeed feeble…”

But Schoenberg then seems to contradict himself by saying that there will be a rhythm of the future.  “Hence, our metrical subdivisions, with their primitive imitation of nature, with their simple methods of counting, have long been incapable of satisfying our rhythmic needs.  Our imagination disregards the bar line, by displacing accents, by juxtaposing different meters, and the like. Yet, a composer can still not give a performable picture of the rhythms he actually has in mind. Here, too, the future will bring something different.”

A careful look at one of the first of Schoenberg’s twelve-tone pieces that demonstrated his new approach to tonality reveals his own radical experimentation with rhythm. “Klavierstücke” is a 40 measure composition that lasts less than 2 minutes. But within it are 8 time signature changes and 11 different directions to change the tempo.

Consider just these four measures from the score. It is easy to be distracted by the complexity of the notation regarding sharps and flats, but that is 5/4, 9/8, 6/8, and 4/4 with one measure each over four measures and some additional notes about slowing down in the third measure.

So, while Schoenberg was emphasizing the importance of harmony and, in his own text on the subject, deriding as trite contemporary experiments with rhythm, he was also imagining a future with a different kind of rhythm and, in his own compositions, attempting far more complex experiments with time and duration, even in 1928/31. Almost two decades before Cage, the student, spoke at Black Mountain College about a radical new approach to composition that relied on a new approach to duration and time, Schoenberg was already composing using that method.

Cage may have learned much more from Schoenberg than scholars have acknowledged. 

Henry Cowell was, like Weiss with his new notation and Schoenberg with his Klavierstücke, a strong advocate for a new approach to time, meter, and rhythm.

Note that Cowell, in 1930, had already turned to Satie as an example of what could be done. As with Cage’s other teachers, this was an idea Cowell was enthusiastically advancing almost twenty years before Cage gave his own “defense” of Satie at Black Mountain College.

Returning to the work of Cage’s teachers, it is easy to find the antecedents of Cage’s own thinking about time, duration, and rhythm. Whereas Cage was seemingly trying to distance himself from Schoenberg, it was Schoenberg who had already proved himself more radical in his use of time than Cage, himself, was in 1948. The idea of composition without any formal restrictions on notation was something already being copyrighted as a new technology by Weiss. Weiss’s new notation had no lines, no staves — nothing but durations. Even the identification of Satie as the exemplar of this new approach was something proposed by Cowell. And, right alongside Satie is Webern, another Schoenberg student.

So, if the “Defense of Satie” was not really about Satie and it was not a radical turning point from which Cage advocated for duration or time as the only important variable in composition and, in fact, many of the seemingly radical ideas Cage was proposing were exactly the same ideas his teachers had been teaching and practicing for decades before 1948, including even the championing of Satie, what was Cage’s “Defense of Satie?”

What was the “Defense of Satie?”

One of the weaknesses with word clouds as a visualization of text is that they, by design, illuminate the most frequent words and phrases in the text.  That can help demonstrate the equal weighting Cage gave to “Satie” and “Webern” and the emphasis on certain themes like “time.” 

But part of what Cage was doing in this text was connecting many different kinds of artists and ideas.  Within this one text, each of these receives only one or just a few mentions:  Hopkins, Joyce, Stein, Cummings, Stravinsky, Mozart, Hába, Partch, Varèse, Gothic architecture, Buckminster Fuller, Balinese dance, psychology, Esperanto, architecture of Baltimore row houses, fashion of GI clothing, Indian Tala, the Orient, Freedom, Law… Statistical summaries of the most frequently mentioned words and phrases miss the fact that Cage was actively bridging a very wide set of things together to bolster his case.

At the same time, although the text includes many words about the power of the individual artist, Cage used the word “I” only 14 times compared to the 42 times he used the word “we.”

What was the “Defense of Satie?”  It was not about Satie.  It was not a radical personal statement in which Cage broke away from his formal training to forge a path of his own.  It was not an original manifesto on the importance of time and the challenge it poses to composers.   Given a homework assignment by Albers to include some introductory notes for the Satie concert series, John Cage was a student trying to synthesize what he knew and what it might mean.  But it wasn’t even a lecture. 

In 1959, a decade after his talk at Black Mountain College, Cage described his methodology in his Preface to Indeterminacy.

What, then, was Cage’s “Defense of Satie?”

It was poetry.

~ Elliot Inman, BMC ReVIEWING conference, November 2021

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The First Makerspace?

At some point in our evolution, human beings started sharing tools.

We know from biologists that many animals make some kind of tool, but many tools provide only latent solutions — a specific tool to accomplish a specific task. At some point, human beings began to make multi-purpose tools that could serve many different functions. Some of those tools became useful in ways that far exceeded their initial intended use: a stick and clay led to a symbolic lexicon for documenting the collected knowledge of humanity, a glass lens for “seeing” became a microscope for fighting disease and a telescope to see into origin of the universe, a TCP/IP protocol for digital communication became The Internet, whatever that is. Somewhere along that path, human beings began to make tools that became useful in ways unexpected.

But how long was it before the first human being with a useful tool handed that tool to another human being? Ten thousand years ago? Fifty thousand years ago?

A hundred thousand years later in 1958 in New York City, sharing tools was a good idea. Maybe ask everyone to throw a dollar in the pot in exchange for a place to work, access to tools, and some good advice. Not a bad idea then, or now.

New York’s Greenwich Village is famous for the “unusual,” and The Audio Workshop definitely falls into this category. It’s a place where just about anybody who wants to build a kit can rent workbench, soldering iron, nut drivers, etc., for a total of $1.00 per hour. Use of scopes, meters, audio and RF signal generators is on the house — as well as plenty of expert advice.

The workshop idea was dreamed up by Dave Muirhead and Elliot Gordon, two experienced audio men, who rented a loft at 732 Broadway and parlayed it into a kit builder’s home away from home. Habitues include attorneys, mailman, a concert violinist and a lady psychologist — kit builders all.

The note above is from Electronics Illustrated in 1960. But the article below is from Audiocraft magazine in August of 1958. See here for a PDF of the issue.

Although the language may seem dated, it is interesting to note that, from the beginning, efforts were made to make the first makerspace an inclusive space for all.

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Let’s Get Small: Python for Microcontrollers

Let’s Get Small: Python for Microcontrollers

Elliot Inman

In the world of Big Data, some of the most prolific data generating devices are also the smallest – microcontrollers that gather data from sensors and pump out an always-on highspeed bitstream.  Traditionally, these microcontrollers would have been programmed using assembly language or C.  In the past couple of years, Python has been ported to the microcontroller world, providing Python programmers an opportunity to get much closer to bare metal and experiment with very small scale computing.  This talk is a quickstart overview of MicroPython and the BBC’s Micro:bit board, CircuitPython and Adafruit’s Circuit Playground Express and Trinket M0 hardware, and the Mu Editor, a small footprint interface for programming these devices.  The focus is on practical advice for how to get started and join the growing community of programmers using Python on microcontrollers.  

PyData Triangle, Wednesday, November 6, 2019, 6PM, Valassis Digital

Apologies to Steve Martin. Let’s Get Small. 1977.

~ WEI 11/2019

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High Speed Computing for Poets

Natasha Goldowski: Science, Cybernetics, and High Speed Computing at Black Mountain College

Elliot Inman

Paper presented at the Black Mountain College ReViewing Conference 2019 held on the campus of UNC-Asheville.

The success of any interdisciplinary curriculum often depends on a few individuals who are able to translate their expertise for a novice audience.  At Black Mountain College (BMC), Natasha Goldowski taught Chemistry to dancers, explained Cybernetics to poets, and published articles on “high speed computing” in the literary journal.  “When she lectured, her passion for the numerical mysteries of theoretical physics made it all momentarily clear to me… [T]he magic unrolled in a narrow band of clarity catalyzed by her marvelous intensity (Lyle Bongé).”

Born in Moscow in 1907, Goldowski earned a Ph.D. in Physics in France but fled the rise of the Nazi regime.  She immigrated to the US, taking a job at the University of Chicago and working as scientist on the Manhattan Project.  After World War II, with the rise of the Red Scare, she lost her security clearance due to the fact that she was Russian-born.  She taught at Princeton and then joined BMC in 1947.  Active in professional societies like the American Physics Society, Goldowski brought to BMC some of the most profound scientific ideas of the time.

Using the galley proofs from Norbert Wiener’s book on Cybernetics, she lectured and led a non-credit seminar influencing poets Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and others.  At the same time, in the first issue of The Black Mountain Review, she wrote of high speed computers, long before the ascendance of modern AI:  “They can learn, they can invent, they can compute an extraordinary amount of data, and they have an almost unlimited memory.  Their behavior is analogous to human behavior…”     

After BMC, she continued her work as a physicist and educator until her tragic death from meningitis in 1966.  But her impact at BMC resonates in the work of students and fellow faculty inspired by Goldowski’s teaching.

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Deliberately Disorienting Design

Inman PS Getting Started

Deliberately Disorienting Design:  Using the Scientifically Sound Principles of Experimental Psychology to Create a Confusing Musical Instrument
Elliot Inman
Pint of Science at Indendiary Brewing, Winston-Salem, NC May 22, 2019

DeliberatelyDisorientingDesignAs we strive to optimize every aspect of our lives, we surrender ourselves to learning machines that attend to every intimate detail about us to make decisions for us.  In world of artificial intelligence guided by always-on precision ultraomnipotence, is there still a place for spontaneity and serendipity?

We can code a musical instrument that automatically generates an infinite array of pleasing melodies with acceptable harmonies.  We can autogenerate variations on rhythms and timbres found in the music human beings have written and recorded in the past.  But will such a machine ever produce anything more than a mildly amusing mutant clone of a clone, a shadow of a shadow of music?

What if, instead, we build a musical instrument so clumsy that it forces us to abandon our quest for perfection and rely only on inspiration and ingenuity?  In this talk, we will discuss how to use the science of the human mind to create musical instruments that have the power to confuse and delight us.


Pint of Science CoasterThanks to the Science of Winston-Salem for hosting the event and the other speakers: Dr. Paul Laurienti (Director and Co-Founder, Laboratory for Complex Brain Networks at Wake Forest University) who spoke on “Googling Dynamic Functional Brain Networks” and Shalisha Morgan (CEO/Founder, Geek in Heels, LLC) who spoke about “The Right to Repair.”


Inman Pint of Science 3


Matt Brady Pint of ScienceMatt Brady, our Master of Ceremonies, Founder of TheScienceOf and Author of The Science of Rick and Morty.

And Shalisha Morgan of The Geek in Heels and iSee Tech for Kids.

Inman with Shalisha Morgan Pint of Science 4

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CircuitPython for DIY MIDI Microcontrollers


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CircuitPython for DIY MIDI Microcontrollers
Moogfest 2019
Session 1:  11:30 AM – 1:00 PM | Friday, April 26, 2019
Session 2:  2:30 PM – 3:45 PM | Friday, April 26, 2019

For years, the Arduino, programmed in C, has been the standard platform for creating DIY MIDI hardware controllers. Now, a port of MicroPython to microcontrollers allows Python programmers to create their own DIY MIDI hardware, taking advantage of newer, faster, more powerful chips that include USB MIDI as standard. In this workshop, we will use the Mu code editor and CircuitPython to program a MIDI controller. We will cover how to load libraries, access digital and analog inputs, connect to external hardware like potentiometers and switches, and implement basic note and timing controls as well as control change messaging. Participants must bring a laptop for programming, but all other materials will be provided in the workshop. Led by Elliot Inman of Musical Circuits.

This zip includes all files loaded to TrinketMO, including the main and sensor programs as well as the file necessary to run this code with the 4-23-2019 bootloader:  Moogfest_TrinketMO_Workshop_4-26-2019 .

Continue reading

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Sums of Squares Breadboard Synth


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Sums of Squares Breadboard Synth
4:30 PM – 5:45 PM | Saturday, April 27, 2019

A single digital square wave produces a buzzy musical tone. A second slow square produces a slow-rolling LFO. A third fast square produces a tremolo. And a stack of summed squares begins to sound like something entirely different. In this workshop, we will breadboard a square wave oscillator, generating multiple square waves that can be combined to create something beyond a basic bass buzz. This is a make-and-take workshop. No computer, no soldering, no electronics experience required. Please bring your own earbuds to listen to the output. All other materials will be provided and you can keep what you make. Led by Elliot Inman of Musical Circuits.



Note:  Be careful plugging earbuds into this as there is no volume control on the speaker.  Electrolytic capacitors have the long leg closest to the 40106 chip and the short leg attached to GND.


SoS Board 1

SoS Board 2   SoS Board 3


Pictures from the workshop…

SoS Workshop 2

SoS Workshop 4



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The Makerspace as 21st Century Bauhaus: A Black Mountain College in Every University

At the 10th Annual Black Mountain College ReVIEWING conference (September 2018), I moderated a panel with three innovative makerspace leaders — Adam Rogers (NCSU), David Romito (UNC), and Lauren Di Monte (U of Rochester).  We talked about how the modern university makerspace is a continuation of the interdisciplinary hands-on educational philosophy that guided the Bauhaus art school in Germany (1919-1933) and Black Mountain College in Black Mountain, North Carolina (1933-1957).  Responding to quotes gathered from BMC student and teacher interviews, memoirs, essays, and other artifacts, we connected the voices of the past with the voices of the present to discuss everything from the challenges of implementing Neo-Bauhaus pedagogical philosophies to whether a 3D printed pot is still pottery.

BMC Brochure NC Archives

Black Mountain College Brochure 1938/39:  The college also offers art courses…music courses…

The conference was hosted at UNC Asheville, September 28-30, 2018.  This year’s focus was the Black Mountain College Summer Art and Music Institutes, summer programs that brought together creative artists, designers, and happening makers like the composer John Cage, dancer Merce Cunningham, poets Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, designer R. Buckminster Fuller, painters Willem and Elaine de Kooning, and too many others to list here.  It was “galaxy of talent,” as painter Ray Johnson described it, gathered to, as Martin Duberman said, break down the false differentiation between “curricular” and “extracurricular.”

Below is the abstract for our panel and brief bios of our panelists with links to the makerspaces in which they carry on the work of providing students an open opportunity to pursue interdisciplinary projects in the tradition of Black Mountain College.

The Makerspace as 21st Century Bauhaus: A Black Mountain College in Every University

The modern university makerspace carries on the mission of Black Mountain College and its Bauhaus roots by providing a space where students and faculty can explore interdisciplinary projects both as part of degree programs and in shorter, non-credit workshops and project-based programs. Makerspaces provide students an opportunity to learn traditional crafts like sewing and woodworking, modern methods like 3D printing and digital design, and the creative use of microcontrollers and other computer technologies – providing a combination of art and science, theory and hands-on skills. In this discussion with members of three university makerspace programs, we will highlight the similarities between the modern makerspace and BMC from the challenges of finding a space (and then, sometimes, having to find another), how to engage faculty and students from multiple disciplines, how to build a sustainable community of interdisciplinary studies, the relationship between the business of making (or sustaining such a place) while retaining the freedom to pursue esoteric aesthetic adventures, and even how some modern technologies like 3D printing are more like hands-on crafts like pottery than people may imagine. We will discus similarities and differences in the well-established makerspaces at NC State (NCSU Makerspace) and UNC (BeAM makerspaces) and a newer space at the University of Rochester (TinkerSpace) with three people working in those programs whose own backgrounds in visual arts, biology, and cultural anthropology are as diverse as the cultures they help to create.




Adam Rogers
Head of Making & Innovation Studio, NC State University
North Carolina State University Libraries Makerspace

Adam Rogers is an innovative, user-focused librarian who works at the intersection of public services and new technologies. In his role as Head of Making & Innovation Studio for the NCSU Libraries, he directs the library’s Makerspace program, which includes spaces at the James B. Hunt Jr. Library and the D.H. Hill Library, and makes 3D printing, 3D scanning, laser cutting, and electronics prototyping tools accessible to all at NC State.



David Romito
Science Librarian, University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)
Kenan Science Library, BeAM Makerspace

David Romito is a science and makerspace librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He works with students, faculty, and staff in all disciplines, helping them enrich their research and learning experience with technologies such as 3D printing, electronics, and virtual reality.

Lauren Di Monte
Director of Research Initiatives, University of Rochester Libraries
River Campus Libraries TinkerSpace

Lauren Di Monte is the Director of Research Initiatives at the University of Rochester where she works to engage and support faculty in interdisciplinary research. In 2017, she founded the library’s TinkerSpace with workshops that included such diverse skills as creative coding with microcontrollers to basic electronics skills like soldering and data science skills like data visualization and creative coding projects. In the 2018 academic year, the TinkerSpace program will expand from the River Campus Libraries to include workshops in the Rettner Fabrication Studio, part of the new Roland Rettner Hall for Media Arts and Innovation.



Elliot Inman

Elliot Inman
Musical Maker / Experimental Psychologist / Data Scientist
Musical Circuits (aka, where you are now)

Elliot Inman has led workshops in electronics and creative coding on topics ranging from basic electronics and Arduino programming to Fast Fourier Analysis, 8-bit chip synths, MIDI controllers, and the Internet of Things. He developed and led the “Musical Circuits” series as Maker-in-Residence at UNC (spring 2016) and “Quantification: The Art of Making Data” workshop series at NC State (fall 2016). At Moogfest (2017, 2018) and Knobcon (2016), he led workshops on experimental musical instrument design. He is an active participant in the maker faire scene, having participated in Burlington, Charlotte, Greensboro, Raleigh, and Rochester. He earned his undergraduate degrees in English and Psychology at North Carolina State University and his PhD in Experimental Psychology at the University of Kentucky, completing his masters thesis on text processing and a dissertation on visual perception and learning. He works for a leading analytics software company designing data mining and data visualization software. He first encountered Black Mountain College as an undergraduate at NC State when he discovered the Black Mountain Review and, in particular, the work of Cage and Cunningham — surprised to discover that such a utopia had once existed so close to home.

Lake_Eden_Drawing by Gropius and Breuer 1939

A Coney Island of the Mind… The Lake Eden Campus as drawn by Gropius and Breuer (1939)



This year’s ReVIEWING conference was held at the University of North Carolina Asheville campus.  While Google can provide perhaps more detailed views of Asheville from street-level to satellite, no one has illustrated Asheville more accurately than Willem de Kooning.

Asheville by Willem de Kooning 1948

Asheville, Willem de Kooning, 1948


~ WEI 2018


Posted in Abstraction / Distraction, Experimental Music, John Cage | Comments Off on The Makerspace as 21st Century Bauhaus: A Black Mountain College in Every University

Musical Circuits Goes to Moogfest 2018

MF18 Moogfest 2018 Screenshot v2

From Digital Bits to Analog Waves:  Breadboarding an 8-bit Synth

Using only digital logic and handful of wires and resistors, we will breadboard a circuit that creates complex analog sounds.  Theoretically speaking, we will wire an R2R (resistor to resistor) ladder to smooth the output of a Walsh function generator, experimenting with the auditory effects that result from altering those connections.  Practically speaking, we are going to breadboard a circuit and poke it with wires to hear what happens.  This is a make-and-take workshop.  No computer, no soldering, no electronics experience required.  Please bring your own earbuds to listen to the output.  All other materials will be provided and you can keep what you make.

MF18 Circuit Diagram


Ciani Versus Buchla:  An Audacious Experiment in Sound Design

“[W]e played tennis frequently.  He was a very good tennis player, and we shared that passion.”  Suzanne Ciani talking about Don Buchla (Electronic Musician, May 2017).  What would that have sounded like?  Using Audacity, we will create an imaginary auditory narrative of a game of tennis played by two of the greats of synthesized sound.  We will model the sound of Ciani’s serve, Buchla’s return, a racquet hitting a ball, the bounce of a ball back and forth on the court, and the roar of a crowd.  No experience with Audacity or sound design (or tennis) is required, but participants must bring a laptop (MAC or PC) of their own.  Please download Audacity before the workshop.


Elsewhere at Moogfest 

Musical Circuits Moogfest

Herb Deutsch Playing the First Moog Modular Prototype

MF18 Team Buchla

Team Buchla Tells It Like It Was

MF18 Tlacael Esparza Sensory Percussion

Tlacael Esparza Explains Sensory Percussion as Midori Takada Leans In

MF18 Ben Gebhardt of Moog Explains Electronics

Ben Gebhardt of Moog Explains a Circuit

Musical Circuits Moogfest

AI Design Workshop

MF18 KRS-One Teaches

KRS-One Teaches Everything You Didn’t Learn in School

MF18 Moog by Shanahan

Bob Moog

And then, back into a world too much with us, late and soon…

MF18 Resist


MF18 Wristband


Thanks to Lorna-Rose, James, Megan, and everyone who came together to share a few magic days of electronic sound.

— WEI 2018

Posted in Circuits, Experimental Music, Moogfest, Workshops | Tagged , , | Leave a comment