All Hail The New Reductionism!

All Hail The New Reductionism!
16 DEC, 7pm
PACE Studio 1
Richmond Street
De Montfort University
Entry Free

Over the last week, researchers from Culture Lab, Newcastle University, Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre, and Tongji University (Shanghai) have devoted themselves to a program of quick and dirty thinking, making and performing guided by an aesthetic that seeks to reduce electronic music technology to the rawest elements of sound creation and manipulation. One knob to rule them all!

“We problematise the relationship between the analogue and the digital, ideas of control and expressivity, virtuosity and artlessness. We explore alternative senses of instrument and interface, the places of musical potentiality of/on/in the gendered/animal/mineral/incapacitated body, and the neglected materiality of our simplest electronic musical tools.” (John Bowers)

The concert will consist of a series of performances based on ideas investigated in the exchange and devices made collectively, in short order, extending an improvisational principle into making and thinking. Cheap as chips and fresh as a daisy. Work by John Bowers, Tim Shaw, Will Edmondes, Ben Freeth, Lee Ray, John Richards, Jim Frize, Samantha Topley, Steve Jones, Neal Spowage, Amit Patel, Marinos Giannoukakis and guest Agnes Cameron.

Edit of performance:

Promenade Performance & Perambulation

Animated conversation around the format of the evening for the performance at the PACE Building, DMU and the best way to capture the spirit of the exchange/research project takes place at the King’s Head pub, Leicester. It is suggested that the evening should be in the spirit of Experiments in Art and Theatre, a series of performances/exhibits that began in 1967 and included the work of Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, David Tudor and others.

The structure of the overall performance is considered that would reflect a more collaborative process and exchange of ideas. Points of emphasis and coagulation are preferred rather than individually or group composed pieces. Shaw jots down some ideas for coagulation. It is suggested that these focal points should be embedded within a collective sound, sometimes acting as focal points or segues and transitions. Promenade performance and perambulation are put forward as a method for giving the audience a close-up/bird’s eye view of the research and as a way to experience the work close at hand.

Tim Shaw’s notes on coagulations and focal points

It is also proposed that there should be a projected image/streaming of a performer’s view via a GoPro camera. As well as helping the audience see what’s going on, it was thought that this too would raise questions of documentation as artwork, artwork as documentation. Projecting text/instructions are mentioned to enable access to extended discourse on the process/research project via mobile devices and blog posts to re-emphasise Jones’ research around the carry principle: always connected and online. Further instructions would include the invitation to invite the audience to walk around/through the space during performance.

Let a thousand knobs bloom


Conversation around work to undertake in Leicester commences. Bowers is full of ideas, many with historical connections. There’s ghost radio, the use of a radio as a control signal for his modular set-up. He cites Morton Subotnick’s ghost scores, silent tracks/signals used as control voltages/information. And there’s scrubbing Wagner, much like David Ocker’s Ring Cycle complete in one second. There’s been quite a few reductionist approaches to Wagner. More info here. Tim Shaw suggests that a gesamtkunstwerk knob could be conceived. Bowers, despite the one knob to rule theme, wants to collectively let a thousand knobs bloom. A discussion also takes place as to whether there will be a mass knob-off at the end of the performance. There is an overall preference for restraint within the group.

Bowers also has a fascination with the work of Alan Turing and has coded a virtual Turing Machine in PD. Bowers finishes with talk about knob code federated. Later over lunch at the Cosy Club, Leicester, Bowers and Richards take the opportunity to discuss how Bowers’ PD Turing Machine could meet Richards PIC and feedback device Colossus. Ideas about early approaches to coding are brought up along with wavetables as a method for constructing ‘rules’ and using tapeheads for data input. Bowers debates the best way to send control voltages from his PD environment. These include: DC output from a MOTU, Adruino and CVpal (usb/Eurorack module).

In summary, Neal Spowage is set on his no-input mixer where many knobs are tied together and controlled by a pulley system (one knob). The scenario of a massive control system controlling nothing enters the debate. He sets off to skip dive and rummage, hunting for artifacts to employ in his knob sculpture. Shaw comes up with the novel concept of knob feedback that utilises a DC motor, a self-oscillating knob where movement and sound correlate. He also plans to work on a realisation of the piece Fields. Patel goes to the studio to explore the Colossus one knob/one button sequencer in more detail. He plans to make a series of sketches and recordings of the device and work with Richards, Topley and guest Agnes Cameron on a small group performance for the instrument. Richards needs to consider how to best synchronise multiple Colossus devices for the performance and starts wiring cables and connectors. Topley has been knitting, and presents a garter stitched purple woollen that she plans to stuff with padding and electronics to become a wireless controller. Rolling the object across the floor to make sound as an interaction/performance is her aim.

There’s a short description of Ben Freeth’s Para-Babble below:

SpeakJet, a type of integrated circuit featuring a five-oscillator synthesiser, is capable of producing human vocal sounds called allophones. An allophone is one of a set of possible spoken sounds (or phones) or signs used to pronounce a single phoneme in a particular language. It has been appropriated as paratechnology, a haunted electronic device used during Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) sessions to generate scrambled words and sentences “in the hope that the spirit world will manipulate the scrambled up words into understandable sentences”. These communications are used by ghost hunters and paranormal groups as evidence of spirit communication.

Used in a “One-Knob” context the SpeakJet chip is controlled by an Arduino micro controller using single potentiometer mapped to generate streams of user controlled, random allophones forming a haunted Para-Babble. Paradoleic illusions invite speculative and unquantifiable searches for sonic entities with a dubious ontological grounding. The streams of allophones are supported by drones generated from filtered noise and controlled feedback loops generated within Max/MSP and Pure Data. (Ben Freeth)

The majority begin to build a Hyperpot:

Spowage’s pulley system one knob; and Lee Ray’s sketch in Processing

Richards breaks at various points in the day to discuss via Skype Lee Rays’ work, an application written in Processing to explore the themes of virtual plastic surgery, deconstruction of the face and databending (image to sound).

Sam Topley’s garter stitched knob

Two Colossus synths synced:

Databending and Knobless Knitting

John Richards gives an overview of his work and shows some of his knobless instruments.

Conversations around control and lack of control take place. Richards argues that such knobless instruments can result in a different music. He cites the piece Spatter Can for Mute Synth as an example. He also talks about his most recent work that explores embedded electronics, tangible coding and the sequencing of analogue feedback using just one pot and one button (an idea initially suggested by Jim Frize). Richards has taken this idea further to the point of a no-knob/button sequencer, where simply touching the circuit board enables the sequencing of the feedback. Short loops are read and written dynamically. A musical characteristic of this approach is the tension that occurs between periodic, looped rhythmic patterns and freer gestures derived from touch (or the one knob). These ideas can be found in his recent projects including the sound/art object Polytik (with Jack Featherstone and Artists & Engineers) and the piece Colossus (for large group and multiple one knob/button programmable devices). Richards suggests exploring a new no knob/button piece for Leicester the following week.

Sam Topley brings out some chunky knitted swatches laced with conductive thread. The act of knitting is discussed and whether we will spend the following week all knitting together. The very quick and easy garter stitch allows for a sizable garment to be ‘built’: a knitted giant knob perhaps. Topley squeezes her knitted woollen hat: a gesture she is keen to explore. Gender issues and the design of electronic objects/instruments arise, particularly in the context of One Knob to Rule Them All.

Sam Topley conductive garter stitch swatch
Sam Topley’s conductive garter stitch swatch

李睿(Lee Ray)  has been Skyping in from Shanghai and a whole range of things are discussed including virtual plastic surgery and databending. She is keen to experiment with the liquefy (or equivalent) technique/filter as found in the Photoshop or Photoshop Fix (the app for fixing selfies). Photoshop Fix liquify offers options to analyse facial features and exaggerate or modify visual aspects of the face. Lee Ray is interested in the impact of this on the way we will view ourselves in the future. Ideas of visualising sound/sonicification of data are mentioned including Evgeny Murzin’s ANS synth.

Lee Ray

Marinos Giannoukakis goes for it! It’s the last presentation and he’s got a lot to discuss. He’s into computer graphics, human-computer interaction, and artificial intelligence. For him it is all about one number to rule them all, a form of encapsulation of complex data.

Departing beards (left to right) Luke …, John Bowers, Jim Frize


Twiddling & Tweaking


John Bowers kicks the discussion off with a summary of the one knob idea and his own work. Infra-instruments, the Victorian Synthesiser (that features in Nicolas Collins’ Handmade Electronic Music … ) and Ohm-My-God (a mixing bowl full of electronic components that explores random sound circuits) feature. More information on this work can be found at his suborderly blogspot. Bowers is particularly interested in extending the idea of improvisation into whole work/research and the liminal state in between instrument and rubbish. Within the argument lies an over arching theme of reductionism with references to the work of Ryan Jordan and Bowers’ pieces the Earth Synthesiser and Rock Harmonium (with Tim Shaw). Some thoughts on code are also presented. Bowers confesses his ‘live code envy’ and demonstrates fractal knobbing through a series of PD patches. Special knobs and knob theory conclude his discussion. Slides from presentation OKTRTAintro-bowers.

Neal Spowage takes up the conversation by focusing on interpolation and the presence of the knob. He whips out a rubber band to wrap around multiple knobs on a mixing desk to create a simple pulley system where one knob controls many (… them all). When one knob is turned, the tension of the band produces interesting interpolations of the movement/data on other knobs (a simple idea produces complex results). The idea of controlling a no-input feedback system in this way is put forward. Levers, belts and pulleys are highlighted as a method to prepare the knob and exaggerate gesture and John Richards’ Ribbon & Strings, that involves an instrument performed through a pulley system, is cited. A grubby plastic container with a collection of knobs is passed around the group. They are handled and inspected. It is the ‘dressing’ of the potentiometer, the knob itself, that is a pre-occupation for Spowage. Dancing with knobs sums up his approach. Dimebag Durrell traction guitar knob gets a mention and a broader discussion on prepared knobs follows.

Spowage’s curios/objects

Jim Frize presents the Hyperpot. There’s video and a knob to play/control some sounds set up in Ableton.

Could there be such a thing as a virtuoso knobber? With a Hyperpot yes! Frize reflects on the practice on knob twiddling and on how it is here to say. The added dimension of the knob is created through capacitance sensing. Frize discusses how this can be done with a standard pot and an Arduino Nano. There is a full description on how to make a Hyperpot here. A conclusion follows on how the Hyperpot could be used and combined with some of Bowers’ PD patches.

Jim Frize’s adapted pot for capacitance sensing

Tim Shaw emphasises his interest in public making and exploring installation environments. His work Fields with Sébastien Piquemal is shown. There’s a full description of the work in the paper Fields: An Exploration into the use of Mobile Devices as a Medium for Sound Diffusion. Some of the group join a local network and before long their mobile devices are taken over and controlled by Shaw as a distributed network for sound diffusion. Shaw goes on to discuss how he views the development of a system as composition. The piece Fields has had many performances, and he reflects on the reaction of participants to the piece, particularly the unnerving feeling of having their own personal device invaded. From this in relation to One Knob to Rule Them All, Shaw considers a work with the title One Nation Under a Knob. The strange twist, nightmarish combination, of Afro-futurism plus fascism comes to mind.

There are synergies between the work of Tim Shaw and Steve Jones. Jones is a mobile media artist whose research is concerned with portable technologies and applying the ‘Carry Principle’ to sound and performance: small, personal, communicative, multifunctional, battery operated and always connected (even in a standby state). Much of Jones’ work is presented through his blog the carry principle. Steve Jones’ work is also about developing performance eco systems with limitations imposed by the necessity of mobility. He finds himself favouring a system based on singularity: one knob, one input, and one output. The discussion turns toward reductionism and the results of adopting constraints. Bowers brings up Georges Perec’s La Disparition in which Perec writes the entire novel without using the letter e.

Will Edmondes jumps in. There is a strong sympathy emerging within the group for a work that is embedded in daily operations. Edmondes is “… a performer, composer and multimedia artist working with recorded media, digital sequencing, samplers, 8-bit Techno, voice and mixed media. He performs and releases material under several character ‘brands’, most frequently as Gwilly Edmondez.” He talks about performances recorded and filmed in ad hoc locations, the routine of everyday life and the need to always have something nearby or that can be grabbed to make sound. This, he argues, is why he is drawn to the voice and portable technology such as the Dictaphone. He finishes with the statement: “The knob that no one can control”. Example of his Dictaphone and voice performance below.

Before lunch, Amit Patel talks about his visions of a new instrument and downsizing. He reveals a round beer mat and places a square knob in the middle. He asks “One knob? Why not just a volume control?” Patel considers listening as a primary goal and ‘internalising’ sound. Virtuosity in a reductionist world is also brought up. Ideas such as listening through making and making through listening are discussed amongst the group. Later that evening in the pub, Richards and Shaw consider that in their work there is often a focus on the act of listening as a form of virtuosity, something that can exist outside of ‘instrument’.

Amit Patel’s one knob vision


John Richards is known for his work as Dirty Electronics and making hand-held sound devices. Many of these devices have been knobless with touch conductive interfaces with artwork etched printed circuit boards. He asks why this aversion to the knob (potentiometer). Is it the rejection of the dial and rotary control and movement/gesture: a movement of clock- and anti-clockwise and some vague association with the measurement of time? Or the focus on the etched PCB and the avoidance of hardware clutter obscuring the artwork? The knob is something to hold on to, to grasp, a beacon – a symbol of control. But what of open planes, unbroken horizons and a sense of freedom? Is it the influence of touch screens and smart devices where all external hardware is reduced as we develop a swipe culture? Finally there is the play on words question “one knob to rule”. Is a knobless instrument an attempt to seek an alternative interface, debunking gender and male stereotypes associated with technology? One knob becomes no knob or is it more anti-knob?

Neal Spowage will talk about totemic values and our relationship with objects/artefacts, and disruptive or faulty relationship with the ‘knob’. Transcendental use of the interface and the human in performance are key concerns of his discussion. And come to that “What is the knob anyway?”

Marinos Giannoukakis is interested in composition/performance as a complex dynamic process. He will discuss his ideas around trans-consistent composition, a systemic approach to trans-medial/trans-modal artwork. Here narrativity is used as an imposed or sometime an emergent characteristic to describe the complex act of composing/performing. Through this approach, composition is broken down to principle components that are encapsulated by a singular data value. This singular data holds complex information of the composition as a whole. It is not just “one knob to rule”, but one number as data.

Steve Jones
The carry principle and reductionism
One instrument
One cable
One sound
One speaker/amp (mono)

Knobless & Knitting. Sam Topley work deals with the relationships, applications and processes involved in making electronic music with electronic textiles, and exploring craft-based techniques such as embroidery, knitting and weaving as a method for sound-making and performance.

李睿(Lee Ray)is a Chinese single-child who considers herself to be a cosmopolitan. She studied industrial design in both Shanghai and Germany and became afraid of and angry about consumerism and wanted to explore something more interesting and meaningful. Lee Ray is interested in the kind of design that envisions people’s cognitively and allows us to explore the world in new ways (positive or negative). She considers a virtual plastic surgery: a discussion on our ‘aesthetic standard’. “How has this standard changed throughout history and how will it develop in the future?” The discussion will also cover issues concerning sickness of ethical plastic surgery and its deeper cultural meaning. The “one knob’ here is seen as something that represents the norm and the idea of virtual plastic surgery offers a way to re-shape the way in which we interface with the world around us.

Jim Frize will introduce the: Hyperpot: Extending The Capabilities of Hardware Control Interfaces. He reflects further on the idea of knob twiddling in electronic music and asks the question: “How can we improve on the classic pot?” and “How can we add features like velocity sensitivity and aftertouch to a potentiometer?” He views the potentiometer (knob) as limited in terms of its expressivity and, generally speaking, they give you a positional value that can only be mapped to one parameter. With a knob there’s no acceleration detection, no gesture recognition, no force sensing. They have limitations that we have all become accustomed to. The Hyperpot is inspired by the conductive sensing “hand effect” often found on old analogue radios. It is a touch and/or proximity sensitive control that provides multiple MIDI control messages from a single knob: the bastard child of a Theremin and a potentiometer.

Amit Patel. Visions of a future instrument: on the back of beer mat
Amit D Patel (aka Dushume) is an experimental noise artist/musician who is influenced by Asian underground music and DJ culture. His work focuses on performing and improvising with purpose built do-it-yourself instruments, sampling and looping techniques, and how re-mixing and re-editing approaches can shape composition. He is interested in the physical constraints in ‘instrument’ design and how imposed limitations are critical in the creative process. Lack and loss of control are central to his work.

Tim Shaw has worked internationally as a professional composer, performer, sound designer and researcher. His practice incorporates diverse approaches to sound capture and processing, and includes creating immersive and site responsive sonic installations. His compositional methods include field recordings, synthesized sounds and live electronics, providing a wide scope for creative diversity. At the heart of his work lies a concern with the auditory reflection and mirroring of real world environments through sound and technology. He is currently studying a PhD in Digital Media at Culture Lab alongside managing Newcastle based record label Triptik. Collaboration plays a central role in his approach, he has been lucky enough to make artistic work with many people including Chris Watson, John Bowers and Sébastien Piquemal. Tim has presented work in various international venues including Café OTO, NIME, CHI, NK Projekt, ZDB, CTM and FACT Liverpool.

One Knob to Rule Them All

An intensive short research project between the Culture Lab, Newcastle University, Music, Technology and Innovation Research Centre, De Montfort University and guests from Tongji University, Centre for Digital Innovation, Shanghai.

One Knob to Rule Them All is an idea presented by John Bowers in: Musical Meshworks: 
From Networked Performance to Cultures of Exchange. In this article, Bowers considers an interface that is “ … a single control … inviting for a novice user but one which had unexpected built in complexity to hold the attention of an experienced user.” This research project sets to build on these initial ideas and explore related themes: These may include:

  • interpolation – sticky knob, slide, delayed response, etc.
  • reductionist approach to ‘instrument’ control/design (1 knob, 1 button, no knob, etc.)
  • post-optimal themes related to electronic objects
  • ergonomics/anti-ergonomics/un-ergonomics
  • control/lack of control
  • multi-functions
  • alternative interfaces
  • entropy
  • fractal knobbing
  • knob time
  • live coding with one knob
  • mapping
  • gender

Participants: John Bowers, Will Edmondes, Tim Shaw, Ben Freeth, John Richards, Jim Frize, Amit Patel, Neal Spowage, Sam Topley, Marinos Giannoukakis, Steve Jones, Si Waite and 李睿(Lee Ray)