Man vs Machine vs Mathematics

In 1962 the information scientists at Bell Labs, led by Max Mathews, released what I thought was the first record with digital music: Music from Mathematics. I  just noticed that they released a 10″ the year before though, and it has this cover which is quite interesting. It shows three things at once:

1) Man as master. He is the conductor that controls the machines.

2) Machine as master. Human control is merely an illusion. The conductor doesn’t actually control anything, and the picture doesn’t try to show it either. But without the conductor, the record cover would re-inforce the technophobia that was apparent at the time. The conductor bring a humanist quality. But…

3) The text says that the music comes from mathematics. Not from machines nor humans.

This is relevant for chipmusic, which is described both as “humans re-gaining control of technology” and “technology producing music”. Technodeterminism and technolibertarianism. It’s based on the separation of man and machine that was questioned already when this record was released, by cybernetic theorists. Today there’s plenty of interesting philosophy on this topic, which I will deal with later on. For now, just google for speculative realism or object-oriented ontology and try to make sense of it yourself :)

Now off to soundcheck for Hatebit!

12 Responses to “Man vs Machine vs Mathematics”

  1. µB Says:

    The master/slave relationship between man and machine in the context of producing music reminds me of a quote from Squarepusher. It’s been removed from the current wiki entry, so I hope that link works:

    I really like that quote, and it has some relevance to chipmusic as well, in my opinion. The primitive setup of old soundchips not only makes them more accessible in terms of technical understanding than hardware of the current generation, they also pose a challenge with their simplicity, the oft-mentioned urge to defy their limitations. Benders do it on a hardware level, coders and trackers on software. Anyone who composes on them has to overcome timbral, dynamic and channel limits. Fakers like me make simulacra with echos of those challenges, or indulge in “what-ifs”.

    Anyways, whatever your platform, the desire to make the machine your bitch, redefining it’s context and limits- that sense of exploration is very deeply rooted within the chipmusic scene (and by extension. the demo scene), and probably the one aspect I love most about it.

    Good luck with the show! :)

    • chipflip Says:

      can’t get the squarepusher link to work – not sure if it’s a temporary error or not. is it the one about that mastering your tools is crucial, sort of? yeah, the demoscene/chipscene is usually about making technology your bitch. human control. but i always liked the parts with e.g. SID that you cant control. or, supposedly cant control.

      re: simulacra or not. sometimes i think that the ones who create their own limitations are doing something ‘more’ than those who leave those decisions to machines. ie, using ‘real hardware’ is for pussies and creating your own limited environment is what real macho men do!

      demosceners control and maximise, others minimize and de-control. hmm.

      • µB Says:

        Hmm, works for me. Anyways, the opening part is the essence:

        “I, Squarepusher, hold the view that the influence of the structural aspect of music making is in general underestimated. By structural aspect, I refer to the machinery of music making eg: accoustic and electric instruments, computers, electronic processing devices etc. Use of a musical machine is obviously accompanied by some level of insight into its construction, operation and capabilities. It is common for a musician to have an awareness of harmonic and stylistic rules which may be observed or otherwise. It seems less common to be critically aware of the structural limitations.”

        I thought this points out the rather unique place of chipmusic in the landscape of electronic music today; we’re all very aware of the structural limitations of our platform of choice, and that knowledge enables musicians to seemingly defy those limits in creative ways.

        He goes on to talk about the influence of the manufacturers, coders and hardware designers thus have on the music, and encourages musicians to gather knowledge of these professions to regain understanding (and the possibility of manipulation) of their instruments- again something that’s very common in the chip scene.

        I think it’s funny that his argument is mostly applicable to musicians who use modern hard- and software (which really should allow a maximum of creative freedom), but not to musicians who use rather crude and very limited instruments in comparison.

      • chipflip Says:

        It was a temporary Wikipedia-error, now it works. This is a good quote – the kind of quote that one wants to identify with. I agree that chipmusic is one of the most media-materialistic music movements, consistent over a long period of time. At the same time, I think many people tend to over-generalize this fact. After all, most chipmusicians just download and use a software, and are not really aware of what is behind the interface, and about the decisions that the coder has already made for you – thus, the invisible potentials of the hardware. Software interfaces and cultural conditions have affected chipmusic more than we think.

        i don’t see anything material/critical about using LSDj if you don’t make something ‘new’ with it. not anymore, anyway.

        Perhaps chipmusicians are only aware of the materiality of their tools because there are so few features to be aware of? There’s not really much material experimentation in using LSDj if you don’t crash it, if you know what i mena.

      • µB Says:

        It’s true that chipmusicians aren’t immune to that kind of third party influence, but at the same time I would argue that the tracker interface itself already provides something that is much less abstracted from the hardware layer than that of modern DAWs. I’d say it’s similar to the insight people who learned to use a command prompt instead of only the GUI of an OS tend to have. There are things that are easier in either, but genrally speaking, that less abstracted view increases awareness and precision of control.

  2. ftc Says:

    That corresponds relatively well to Popper’s division into three “worlds”, the objective world of matter (music as a product of the machines), the subjective world (music as a product of human subjects), and a third world of “ideas” (music as an ideational structure).

    One can certainly question this view of “reality”, but I just wanted to point out the the (partial) resemblance to the threefold distinction you discuss here.

  3. ftc Says:

    Uh.. Dunno how to reply to a specific post the way you do here (can’t find any suitable button for that?)… but:

    Regarding your discussion:
    I think both of you have valid points. Just some further reflections.. Even though I agree to some extent with the Command line versus GUI distinction (at least in the sense of a relative difference) I still think most trackers are more towards the GUI end of the scale than what people might like to think. Perhaps slightly less on C64, since at least a bunch of the commonly seen parameters in the editors correspond to certain registers of the SID chip. On Amiga trackers, I think this is less obvious (most salient would be the 4 channel structure and perhaps the mere fact that the tune is built up of samples, at least in the case of protracker (but then there were the 7channel interface of startrekker and the synthesizing approach taken by Future Composer, Sonic Arranger and Musicline etc, which sort of blurs these “properties of the hardware” through software mixing and synthesis).) After all, it is often do a whole lot of things in sofware, as long as the hardware is able to do things like playing an arbitrary waveform (which holds true for both C64 and Amiga). Whenever that is the case, I think it is less obvious what “structural limitations” are, and it is certainly not the same thing as knowing that “the sid chip has four waveforms and some combined ones” and similar hardware knowledge.

    After all, I think it is striking that even the majority of the C64 demo scene musicians have very limited insights into coding on C64 and what is possible to do with the SID chip in a more ultimate sense (structural limitations, in contrast to the “official features” of the chip). If you ask them questions like “would you be able to do X with the sid chip”, they would probably don’t know, since all they know is what they are able to do in the editors that they are used to, even though these editors of course reflect the possibilities of the SID chip to some extent. It’s not like people who are simply “tracker users” typically come up with fundamentally new ways of using the sound hardware on their machines, I’d say. The recent “SID inventions” of noise waveforms, 8bit samples, and echo/reverb effects on the C64 are of course all done by musicians who are also fluent coders on the C64, such as Soundemon and Geir Tjelta.

    Another striking fact is that most trackers emulate the same underlying structure at least back in time since players from people like Rob Hubbard, i.e. a strict separation between sound settings that are considered to be “effects” and sound settings that are considered to be “instruments”, even though it is all just settings of various registers in the SID chip in the end. That is, even though one cannot really quantify, I think there is a lot “more” of cultural tradition behind the ways that players on C64 and Amiga tend to be structured than people might think, i.e. conventional and to some extent arbitrary limitations that are rather a habit than a necessity in any way.

    Well.. nothing new in these points perhaps. Just some further elaboration along the same lines as you’ve already discussed.

    • chipflip Says:

      (elite reply-button-style 2000) — Yeah, the cultural construction of software is indeed interesting, and a very over-looked point. I think it is because chipmusicians 1) want to think of themselves as working close to the machine, and 2) often define chipmusic merely as a consequence of hardware. But it’s pretty obvious that not everything made with soundchips is thought of as chipmusic – especially the noisy/glitchy stuff made without trackers.

      One thing that might have contributed to the separation of instruments & effects, is that many early soundchips had it pre-encoded in the chips. The NES is probably the most clear example, where most music was (is?) made according to the channel-design (1 – lead, 2- backing-stuff, 3- bass, 4&5 – percussion/sfx).

      What you’re saying makes me think of the difference between engineers and artists in terms of motivation and results. Sure, the noise-trick & echo-trick is technically impressive, but it hasn’t really been put to any, ahm, artistic use. I don’t think that More Knowledge = More Art, to put it bluntly. It could might aswell be the contrary. Engineers might like progress, control & novelty but many artists like mistakes and ‘feelings’. Hm. It’s pretty rare with combinations of hardcore coding & good music, right? little-scale’s Dynasty is the shit. Hubbard?

      I’m not sure that my increased knowledge of the SID through Defmon has led to ‘better’ music, even if I thought it would.

      • ftc Says:


        (Did I find the right button now? :)

        Of course, knowledge of “structural limitations” does not have to lead to better music in any way. …but I also think that the reason that there is not so much “good music” that makes use of more tricky engineering stuff is more because few people are actually very skilled (or have good taste ;) in both respects, rather than some necessary opposition between these two things.

        In the case of the echo effect, I think it sounds quite nice, and at least I have the feeling that there is some potential in that “trick”, even though I don’t really enjoy the particular *style* of the tunes made with this trick so far. I mean, so far it only seems to have been used as an “effect” on top of (sid voice 3) of whole tunes in a pretty blunt way, but it could also be used in more particular ways, tied to certain sounds, and it could also be modulated in various ways during “runtime” (which nobody seems to have done yet).

  4. ftc Says:

    Should be “after all, it is often POSSIBLE TO do a whole lot of things in software,”

  5. ftc Says:

    …and yet another note. Popper’s book on this topic is from 1962 too. :)

  6. Anachronism or Typical Dreams? PLATO and Progress « CHIPFLIP Says:

    […] I’m sure there are, but what I mean is that it never became very popular. Too controversial for humanism? (Stephen Stamper made me rediscover them with his similar chipmusic project, and the […]

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