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.
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.
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