Monstrous Machines: Arrhythmic Resistance Through Modular Synthesis

Monstrous Machines: Arrhythmic Resistance

The soundscape of UC Davis campus has a certain oppressiveness to it—a threatening quiet similar to the sudden calm that prefixes a tornado or tsunami. The dissonance comes from the unlikely pairing of extremely low dBs and inoffensive frequencies at a university with over 30,000 students. Excepting perhaps the quad, the outdoor campus has a dense transportation network that surrounds one’s listening with the light din of clicking bicycles. For anyone on campus, this soundscape suggests transit and thus a liminal space separating the eminent dualities of economy (work/home, work/leisure). It comes as a surprise, then, that you might be able to walk by the Art Annex in the southeast part of campus and hear an eruption of electronic noise coming out of what looks like a campus-vehicle garage. The bizarre sounds are likely coming from one of the four modular synthesizers that the Sound Lab hosts. These complex cybernetic instruments come from an instrumental paradigm that began in the 1960s, however they still remain largely at the margins of popular musical use. In this paper, I explore how modular synthesis, its historical fibers, and its practitioners reflect a sonic resistance to forces of domination, alienation, and integration.

East vs. West: Voltage-Control’s Background:

In the early 60s, the first commercial modular synthesizers were produced on opposite coasts of the US. On the West Coast, Don Buchla had graduated with a physics degree from Berkeley and got involved with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, a nucleus for the musical avant-garde and counter-culture figures in the Bay Area. Out East, a more familiar name, Bob Moog, was producing his version of the voltage-controlled synthesizer. Moog’s synth had a keyboard in mind. From the beginning, he envisioned it becoming a concert instrument, something that could be brought on tour. Don Buchla and his associates, on the other hand, felt the keyboard would be an anachronism. They were bored with the 12-note scale, harmony, and tonality. Instead, they were interested in having detailed control in shaping synthesized sounds, rendering the Western keyboard an artifact of a completely different approach to music. Moog’s keyboards would go on to become commercially successful and have a wide impact on popular music, while Buchla continued to experiment with the possibilities of voltage-control. Although this paper will focus more on the Buchla approach to modular synthesis, the mainstreaming of the Moog is an important chapter in developing the marginalization and thus resistant practice of modular synthesizer-playing.

The concept of voltage-control borrows from the science of cybernetics, a study that came about in the mid-20th century. Cybernetics focuses on the automatic regulatory capacity of systems, whether that’s an ecological, economic, mechanical, or, in the case of modular synthesizers, an electronic system. With a modular synth like a Buchla, no sound is produced until a patch is made. Patching is the process of using cables to connect separate modules. This connection passes voltage information from one module to another, saying something like “increase the frequency of this sine wave every time this sine wave completes a cycle.” Patches can become extremely complex, with many modules sending and receiving voltages to and from many other modules. Once a patch is complete, a system is effectively created. It is not dissimilar to our understanding of an ecological system; when something in the system is changed, every other element changes accordingly.

A patch on a Buchla 200e

The Ghost in the Shell: Cybernetic Dreams and Realities:

The fibers that connect cybernetics and modular synthesis are far more in number than just the conceptual and technical. Cybernetics theory was key in the development of two nations’ attempts at creating a cybernetically regulated planned economy. In the Soviet Union and Chile, a planned economy was part of a communist/socialist dream of a society without management hierarchies and the resultant exploitation of the working class. Although both of these national attempts ultimately failed (why is a question for another paper), the dream—or spirit—still lives on in the sounds of the modular synthesizer. The political economy of the US has largely remained stable since its independence, excepting perhaps effects of the Industrial Revolution and trade agreements that came with the rise of neoliberalization and globalization. These shifts only increase the marginalization of those who resist capital and its forces, and thus bolster the spirit of resistance. In Jacque Attali’s Noise, he argues that “music makes mutations audible” (4) and that the prominent forms of music describe the current state of political economy. Modular synthesizers, with the cybernetic dreams they are tied up in and the music they make, sonify the mutation of a political economy that has made music a commercialized, fetishized object.

There’s a particular way of playing and listening implicit within a cybernetic modular synthesizer like a Buchla. Because it doesn’t have a keyboard, the main bodily intervention that occurs is the patching process. After that, a system is made and current is flowing through the circuit. The player is then compelled to listen carefully, perhaps at first to analyze and understand the sound patterns that are occurring, what module is shaping this rhythm or that timbre. The careful listening is also endemic in actions of “playing” the system after it’s completed. Playing a patch involves making subtle adjustments to knobs that alter the control voltage a module sends or receives. These knobs are very sensitive and are typically not indexed, so changes are made with an ear that knows it may never hear the pattern the synthesizer is producing ever again. David Avis, the Sound Lab’s student assistant and an electronic music artist, describes modular synthesizers as domains of “sonic discovery and non-attachment.” For him, making music on the Buchla or Aalto (the synthesizer used in my recording) is not about creating sound objects, but about making and hearing new sounds and rhythms. When someone like him or TCS professor Bob Ostertag plays a patch, there is no discernible structure like that of a pop or dance song. The only confine is the system, but there are so many moving parts that trying to identify a boundary of the system is difficult too. The impossibility to recreate a particular machine state and its sounds stands in direct opposition to the political economy of prevailing popular musics. Attali describes the evolution of commercialized music as so: “deritualize a social form, repress an activity of the body, specialize its practice, sell it as a spectacle, generalize its consumption, then see to it that it is stockpiled until it loses its meaning” (5). Modular synthesizer music is invariably ritual-based, in its studious creation of the patch and subsequent attentive listening (this attention to the machine and then its immaterial production is very similar to the rites of spirit worship). Among this ritual process comes great specificity, a performance-experience that cannot be reduced, repeated, or distributed. The emphasis on the machine and its sound rather than the player make it an immaterial and non-spectacular experience. Modular synthesizers draw our attentions away from spectacle and the specific and instead towards non-possession and an awareness of complex interconnections.

The cybernetic dream as realized in Chile and the Soviet Union strove to eliminate a central economic-management structure. Rather than regulating production based on the price signal (i.e. producing what’s in demand), algorithms were designed to produce only what was needed when it was needed and what was possible given the raw resources available. Modular synthesis follows this same model. There is no single module that controls all the other modules without itself being effected; every module effects every module. This system of effectivity makes a music that is in constant movement, constant uniqueness. Attali states that “No organized society can exist without structuring differences at its core. No market economy can develop without erasing those differences in mass production (5). Erasure of difference is the antithesis of modular synthesis. Modular machines are wired such that sameness is practically impossible. The internal electrical components are conductive material, so a machine will behave differently if taken from a cold room to a hot and humid one. It seems especially appropriate that our machines are the antithesis of the current means of production and that they synthesize sound. They are the sonified product in the dialectic of sameness and “the quest for lost difference” (Attali 5).

Human, Machine, Monster: Many Rhythms and Many Heads:

The Aalto synthesizer has four voices, giving the possibility for four separate rhythms interacting with one another at once. Four rhythms is both small enough that one can distinguish the features of one rhythm from another, yet large enough to create an incredibly dense and complex weave of rhythms that can be perceived holistically. In this way, listening to an Aalto patch is not embarking on “the quest for lost difference” but, as David Avis put it, it’s being in the midst of “discovery.” Professor Bob Ostertag likens it to free jazz and free improvisation, in which the typical beachheads of performer and audience is messied. The performer doesn’t just go through the sensory-motor gestures of performance; they are as engaged in listening as the audience is. It’s not a coincidence, then, that there is both a formal and prophetic overlap between modular synthesis and free jazz. Both forms of music sonify a transcendence of oppressive power structures, with free jazz mutating the grip of white capitalism over the black community, and modular synthesis mutating structures of sameness, hierarchy, and commodification.

In Rhythmanalysis, Henri Lefebvre theorizes the eponymous practice as a way to study rhythms of the everyday and avoid “the trap of the present” (Lefebvre 23). He argues for a distinction between “the present” and “presence.” The latter can only be perceived through rhythms as they occur in time and across space, while the former is a simulacrum, or copy, of presence. The production of copies of presence becomes a way of fetishizing reality and thus turning it into commodity. When David Avis and I play and listen to an Aalto or Buchla patch together, we’re actively engaged in a type of rhythmanalysis. Given the four voices of Aalto, we can create rhythms that suddenly change from eurythmia to arrhythmia, from polyrhythmic to isorhythmic. The dynamic playing-listening of this improvisatory mode eludes the trap of the present because the act itself is one engaged in perception of rhythms. However, Lefebvre’s theory is only concerned with studying rhythms. He says that “the rhythmanalyst has nothing in common with a prophet” (25). But didn’t Attali say that music is prophetic? The difference lies in the fact that the modular synthesist is not only perceiving rhythms but is actively engaged in producing them. This creates a togetherness and incorporation far deeper than the rhythmanalyst and ethnographer can hope for.

Humani Victus Instrumenta, the cyborg

Togetherness with the machine brings us back to that prefix cyber, the greek kybernētēs meaning captain, steersman, or rudder. Unity of human and machine joins together the cyber and the organism, making the cyborg. In A Cyborg Manifesto, Donna Haraway welcomes the increasingly blurred dualisms of first human/animal, and then human-animal (organism)/machine. She argues that evolutionary theory disrupted difference between human and animal, and then the development of cybernetic, self-regulating machines did the same between organism and machine: today, “Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (Haraway 294). Likewise, the music of modular synthesizers destroys the dualistic performer/instrument relationship and transforms us into cyborgs, or, as Haraway refers to them, into Many-Headed Monsters. The modular synthesis-cyborg produces sound with hands, eyes, cables, resistors, capacitors, integrated circuits, and the voltages that pass through them all. The breaching of difference of identities is yet another example of a resistance to the “lost difference” in the current political economy’s noisescape (Attali 5). As cyborgs, we know and accept difference and partial identities. Haraway describes the ubiquity of cyborgs now as part of a nightmare of mechanistic grid-control over all bodies. However, she argues that if we welcome a cyborg world we achieve a reality in which we no longer fear difference and fractured identities, instead adopting multiple visions and finding affinity in the various forces of domination we are surrounded by. “Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision or many-headed monsters” (Haraway 295). The sounds and rhythms of modular synthesizers are the harbingers of this cyborg world, a world of affinities between organisms and machines.

The marginalization and monstrosity of modular synthesizers mark them as forces of opposition in a dialectic against the forces of domination, alienation, and integration that capital seeks to administer and optimize among the bodies of the globe. The sounds of popular music are the sonic reflection of these forces of capitalism, and a cybernetic music-maker reflects a resistance to these forces. Woven into the electrical composition of these machines, the dream of cybernetics is one of a society without exploitative rule from above. The sounds also herald an escape from the integration-forces of repetitive and spectacular music that’s played on radios, televisions, and huge festivals. The constant movement of modular synthesizer music with its overlapping rhythms, sonic discovery, and impermanence sonifies a resistance to commodification. Finally, the unity achieved from this electronic sound engages us in a communion with machines which thus opens up the possibility for multiple affinities. We become Cyborg Cthulhus, many-headed monsters sonifying an unknown and boundaryless frontier.

Aalto Patch Recording

Click to download in PDF format



Avis, David. Personal interview. 4 June 2017.

Ostertag, Bob. TCS 122 Intermediate Sonic Arts, Winter 2016, UC Davis. Lecture.

Attali, Jacques. Noise: the political economy of music. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.

Lefebvre, Henri, Stuart Elden, and Gerald Moore. Rhythmanalysis: space, time, and everyday life. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. Print.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. A cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. N.p.: n.p., 2009. Print.

Bernstein, David W. The San Francisco tape music center: 1960s counterculture and the avant-garde /edited by David W. Bernstein ; foreword by John Rockwell ; preface by Johannes Goebel. Berkeley: U of California Press, 2008. Print.

“Jacobin.” The Cybersyn Revolution. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 June 2017.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s