Monday, October 17, 2011

Exerting Agency, Liminal Entities And Scripts

The careful reader will notice that we have avoided taking a position over whether the synthesizer (or flute or player piano) is solely a machine or solely a musical instrument. Rather than read any essence into this technology, we have looked at what people themselves make of it—the meanings they derive from its use. The synthesizer is a form of “boundary object,” a liminal entity. Liminal entities are “neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremony,” according to the anthropologist Victor Turner. The synthesizer is something that can pass between different worlds, that can take on different meanings in these worlds and in the process transform these worlds. The question of whether the synthesizer is a machine or a musical instrument, of whether it is for classical or pop music, of whether it is for emulating old sounds or exploring new ones, of whether it is a part of science or art, will never be adequately answered. They are the wrong questions to ask. There are many souls in this new machine.

... Our story of the synthesizer draws attention to the role played by users. Designers “script” or “configure” ideal users into their machines. The black and white chromatic keyboard scripted a certain sort of user: one who wanted to play conventional melodic music. Scripts try to constrain the agency of users, but users can exert agency, too, and can come up with their own alternative scripts. Hip-hop DJs use turntables for “scratching,” a use inconceivable to the engineers who first designed them. It was possible to tune Buchla’s touch pads to the conventional scale and to retune Moog’s keyboards into unconventional scales, but such reconfigurations—the making of new scripts—required specialized skills, and most users did not want to invest the time and effort.

Users do not come to technology unprepared.

When I write a song, I also give it a name
but what is a song, what is this thing I’m naming?

I’ve seen her driving her car, talking on her phone,
staring straight ahead like a gargoyle looking down
from a gothic church at the people of Paris.

I think telephones are the new gargoyles, singing
synthesized songs in synthesized voices to us,
scripting us, moving us from this world to that world,

I’ve seen her driving her car, talking on her phone,
staring straight ahead like a gargoyle looking down,
becoming a gargoyle looking down, her only
act of agency holding the phone to her ear.

Sometimes, somehow, I can write a song and name it.

I don’t know how to fight gargoyles, or even if
the songs of gargoyles are things we can fight against.

I would start by composing a manifesto
and naming it—but what is a manifesto?—
“Exerting Agency, Liminal Entities
And Scripts,”
and then I’d let it play me like a flute.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Ancient Cities Of The Moon

Passages Between Worlds

Repurposing Vicki

You And Me, I Mean, Mare Carminum