A bunch of people tinkering with a bunch of gadgets: a small ethnographic exploration of a STEIM Hotpot Lab #2: Handmade Music Amsterdam on February 17th, 2010, at 20.30. Text by Elena Tiis, Photo by Theo Howard, video by Nico Bes and Vivian W Lin
A hotpot is, as the current artistic director of STEIM Takuro Mizuta Lippit explains, a Chinese dish which is prepared by mixing a medley of ingredients and boiling them until done. The same effect can be achieved by distilling the enthusiasm of an audience of around 50 heads when in contact with tinkerers, circuit-benders, artist-experimenters and sonology students showcasing their self-built wares that produce sound effects of an interesting calibre.
I came into this room as a proto-ethnographer, looking around to understand what is it that a Handmade Music event constitutes aside from, what I inevitably assume as a member of the lay public, a somewhat esoteric event – not a concert, not an art exhibit but of a specificity and focus that sets in a category of its own. As an urbanist, I am interested in what kind of spaces events like these produce in the city, how they integrate audiences and enthusiasts in an activity that is quite admittedly an enclave pursuit. The basic problematic that I set off with was a question about what the constitution of a musical-cultural event might entail. Does the Handmade Music Amsterdam event correspond to a specifically Dutch, Amsterdammer or an international music scene? How is it integrated on these levels? What kind of people frequent such events? What does the availability for such a space for the showcasing of experimental music instruments allow for the cultural vibrancy of a city? Is it inclusive or exclusive? Of course, maybe I should revise the nature of all of these questions after the evening is done…
The location is STEIM’s main studio space, on the ground floor with the entrance from Utrechtsedwarstraat which is mostly a residential neighbourhood of some wealth with shops, restaurants and a few hotels dotting the ground floor entrances. STEIM has been a nomadic institution during its history of inhabiting Amsterdam, and the current location has seen the neighbourhood change in its demographics, of which the disappearance of squats and cultural spaces is most notable, although something of the spirit remains as a suggestion, however fleetingly, or that is what I’d at least like to think. The building itself used to be a restaurant and yoga studio as well as a printing press, back in the day. Now it houses three studios, a couple of office-like spaces on the first and second floor inclusive of hardware and software development facilities.
The patronage circle for this event consists of electronic music enthusiasts, artists and students, gathered through the STEIM mailing list and via blogs too (Peter Kirn’s blog post on the event has been picked up on the web; he is a fairly well-read figure among those interested in handmade music and has been party to organising a similar event in New York before). The STEIM people are there, some with video and camera setups for documentation purposes, and – naturally – friends of friends. The composition is mostly male, three fourths or so. Initially, the audience mulls about the main studio room, with the artists’ setups hugging every wall of the oblong room which is the biggest studio. The language used in conversation is mostly English, a few engage in Dutch; this largely reflects the nationality of the participants – English is used to bridge the people who sport all kinds of nationalities, from Japanese to Italian to German, that I know of. The initial conversations centre around music trivia of various kinds, orchestrated or semi-loose with a glass of wine or beer. My own position is that of an audience member-participant, talking to people I’ve met before. The room gets hot quickly, that with the presence of a good amount of people, I can smell coats and boots with the occasional waft of colder air from outside as people enter (it is snowing a little outside, the temperature just slightly above zero).
The artistic director announces that there will first be a presentation by Peter Kirn, who will talk a little about the history of the Handmade Music event (it has been staged before in New York and Berlin), inaugurated with the ethos of enlarging on virtual connections, bringing people out into the open behind their monikers or avatars. After that, there will be a tour of the instruments/sound setups present, a piece by Hans W. Koch who is involved with STEIM for the upcoming Sonic Acts festival (25-28 February), and some time to talk to the artists at the end of it. I take my notes haphazardly, during the event while watching, listening and rotating my head to focus on different parts of the room, and I write out my impressions the next day. With the beginning of Kirn’s talk most of the audience sits on the floor to be able to see the projected presentation. Because the event is semi-orchestrated, it has a looseness of character which allows me to claim as full participant as a member of the audience; I am not out of place scribbling while sitting on the floor as most people do.
Kirn’s presentation traces the “pictures of musical thoughts” exhibited by developers and designers either in software or hardware format. Considering the history of musical notation (i.e. scores), the customary ways of “reading” this notation still linger on in the physicality and interface of, for instance, sequencers themselves – its knobs make sense when one reads them left to right, or as a grid. Experimentation with different types of hardware reconfigured to produce sounds or the redeployment and altering of products that have been built for the purposes of extracting certain types of musical sounds, traces hardware hacking’s embeddeness in a do-it-yourself aesthetic and the ethos of accessibility. The Arduino is a recent product that is in a chain of evolution from these foundations. What the followers of electronic-instrumental music evolution are seeing currently is the recurrence of micro-controller based tools, touchscreens and touchpads, which brings on a set of challenges in how to make all of these devices speak and understand one another. The move away from the lingua franca of MIDI (musical instrument data interface) to OSC (open sound control) is currently an issue of much worry, as the problematic, flawed but still persistent MIDI presents frequent challenges when trying to connect and play with more unconventional hardware mediums.
Kirn stresses how it is the mutations which are the most important as far as electro instrumental music’s future is concerned. It is not the pinnacle of its history to have arrived at the Arduino. It is the diversity of hobbyist enthusiasm, not the trade shows with their recent products that push experimental electronic or even just simple electronic music forward. Kirn notes his hopes for current experiments with more tactile, traditional materials such as wood, and textiles and fabric – electronics can be soft too! It is possible to make a sewing machine a musical performance piece; why not?
In the question session right after Kirn’s talk he gets the chance to note that often the usual question what concerns the usage of new technology to produce sounds is whether the music is getting any “better”. He believes this is actually a step away from the issue, a side-track, because the nature of experimenting with the possibilities of current technologies forces the artist or hobbyist to construct a system that is not immediately habitual, that is not easy and even immediately destructive because is forces one to rebuild one’s habits. Yet there is worth in going there because it allows for the better expression of what the artist is doing, a refinement of that too. Further, looking for a standard, especially the agreeable, teachable standard which is the customary province of an academic approach in this respect is both useful and not. There is potential in standardizing the language with which to make various devices communicate and understand one another. There is MIDI but it is often unworkable because (experimental) electronic musicians themselves are not about looking for the standard. It is rather technical talk in this instance, so Kirn asks the audience to raise their hands if they know what MIDI is – this is of course most of those in the room, yet this is not widely true of the general populace! (As for me, I am at the stage where I can maybe point at it; I do not truly understand it.) So I learn a little more about the audience of such an event: knowing what MIDI is in some ways proportional to the chances of attending this event, to put it somewhat frivolously.
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Next, the tour. In the initial shuffle of indecision whether people should sit or stand, which results in others’ blocked views a woman calls out for the people to rather sit on the floor so that everyone can see, the individual, invited artists start giving their little presentations of their instruments. From joystick controls, musical painting through an interactive palette accomplished by hacking a wii to produce a synesthetic play and paint “art therapy”, direct sampling through turntables, something that looks like a computer game that is responsive to sound, to a funky drum machine cobbled together with the use of a hacked Arabic keyboard and a self-built “string” instrument that can pretend to be anything from a piano to a Chinese guo qin (a 7-stringed zither), the audio showcase skirts along the walls counter clockwise with the audience in the middle shuffling to orient in the direction of the next exhibitor-performer. There is a young student from the Hague who has refashioned STEIM’s famed Cracklebox esthetically, prodding up metal rods to allow for lots of body contact which produces the familiarly temperamental squeaks and gurgles of the original instrument for more performative, visual and tactile uses.
Then there is Robot Cowboy (Dan Wilcox), the self-fashioned human computer wearable performance complete with a TV for his head; the impetus for such a totally embodied (and frankly rather heavy to carry) performance situation was Wilcox’s frustration with the way that electronic music tends to be performed – a person in front of a laptop, projecting visuals on the wall because the performance situation itself is quite boring for the audience. Thus the laptop is belted to the Cowboy, and his face is a TV which shifts from colourful emoticons to something approximating Tetris games and back again. STEIM’s former artistic director Daniel Schorno has also hacked the Cracklebox; the Crackle Scorpio looks like its eponymous insect and comes with a story of deserts and Bedouins. Schorno produces sounds with it by touching the long metal whiskers that are attached to the Crackle circuit with interplay from light sequencers which are fashioned as tails. To end with the presentations, Hans Koch asks three members of the audience to step forward and help him press the space bar and the k on three PCs with big screens. The “more and more” installation is devised by putting together four PCs infected with a kind of virus program which when activated starts opening synthesiser after synthesiser, creating a cacophony of noise until the computer crashes. For this occasion, the installation was fashioned as a race between computer generations; which one survives without crashing for longest – it was not the most recent one, I think…