In 2006, Nicolas Collins‘ released his book Handmade Electronic Music (Google’s pirate copy here). Yesterday he presented the second edition at STEIM in Amsterdam, an institute which has been active in this area for 40 years already. Collins has similar authority on the subject, being a professor of Sound and a very experienced low-level sound art performer.
I haven’t read the book, but if little-scale lists it as an inspiration it is probably a very good read. I went to the presentation expecting to get an insight into this practice, since I think it is interestingly placed inbetween chip music and circuit bending. It is more than just circuit bending because it doesn’t rely on readymade systems (just components). It is like chip music in the sense that all the audio/music is handmade; it doesn’t use large chunks of sampled audio or algorithmic compositional elements (like most other electronic music).
Nic (btw, not Nick) started with two performances: one with a group of people poking a circuit board to make sounds, the other one with a lit candle performing similar sounds. Fire-driven music is nice stuff and with Nic blowing wind on the candle, the sounds would change. So now, in a broad sense, there is chip music made with fire, wind and water. Hope to see more elements!
“Last time I was here I talked so much, so this time I will show examples instead”. Assuming that everybody was there the last time, Nic instead ran the DVD included in the book. It was like a very long Youtube session with 1 minute clips of handmade electronic music. Definitely very interesting, for a while, but it was not what I was hoping for. The clips were more like tech-demos and noise than performances with musical instruments. That statement is of course leaning towards musical conservatism, but sometimes we need that too, eh? : ) I can continue along those lines by saying that most of the devices made very similar sounds. You know, those scratchy and pitchy pulse wave sounds that the Cracklebox at STEIM made already in the 1970s. If you’re not in the mood, it gets pretty tiresome after a while..
But I also think that chipmusic and demoscene practitioners could learn a lot from the conceptual and noisy ways of sound art and circuit bending/”building”. It is funny how circuit bending, chip music, and the demoscene is sometimes presented as related to eachother, eventhough they are so different. Chip music is (too often) about 4/4 happy bleep pop and using default samples of LSDJ. Demoscene music is (too often) about perfectionism and competition. Circuit bending is (too often) about tech-concepts and predictable noise.
What they do share, is a fascination with the possibilities (aka limitations) of hardware that is old or open (enough). In the demoscene, hardware is losing some of its priority to make room for emulators and design/concepts instead of coding brilliance. Chip music seems to get more tech-fundamental at the moment, and as for circuit bending I guess that hardware will keep on playing a vital role (eventhough “software bending” such as glitchNES has appeared). What it ultimately amounts to, is a discussion on what a technological system is and also if/how a computer composer can operate independent from capitalism and culture. (any suggestions? hehe)
I think that “handmade” goes just as much for software as hardware. You often forgot the extent to which some chip music is handmade. At the end of the day, that might be more relevant than the mantra of “commodity subversion” and if so, maybe chipmusic is more similar to circuit “building” than circuit bending. Well. Just continuing the ramblings about how to contextualize and explain chip music so we don’t have to be blamed for being DJs/gamers on stage. We can play as much or as little live as other electronic musicians, damnit. Ciao gringos.