Image credit: Chris Scott

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    Image credit: Chris Scott

    Confronting existential dread through DIY musical instruments

    'The Book of Knowledge of Impractical Musical Devices' explores the fleeting nature of memory and life through GPS, random rhythms and destroying sounds.
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    A Day That Will Never Happen Again.
    Here You Are, You Are Here.
    Everything You Love Will One Day Be Taken From You.

    Believe it or not, these are not the names of Cure songs, but of electronic musical instruments -- though obviously not particularly traditional ones. They're collectively known as The Book of Knowledge of Impractical Musical Devices and they were created by Yann Seznec, a sound artist based in Scotland. (Though he is in the process of moving back to the US.)

    It's a project that pulls inspiration from a number of places. But there are three big ones that unify the series. As the name suggests, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Al-Jazari is a major reference point. But Seznec's project also explores our relationship with sound and media, as well as the fleetingness of... well, everything. As he says in describing the third volume in the series Everything You Love Will One Day Be Taken From You: "Every time I play that sound I'm destroying it. And it's slowly slipping away from me. Just like everything is." Yikes.

    All three volumes of The Book of Knowledge of Impractical Musical Devices Chris Scott

    All right, so calling these "musical instruments" isn't particularly helpful. They are instruments in that they can be used to make music in the broadest sense of the word. A Day That Will Never Happen Again is basically a drum machine. Here You Are, You Are Here is a synthesizer. And Everything You Love Will One Day Be Taken From You is a sampler... sort of. But their interfaces are highly unusual, to say the least. And they're designed, quite specifically, to prevent you from re-creating or repeating things.

    There are no keyboards or fretboards. You can't practice scales until you master them. Instead, they're plywood boxes with a few knobs or buttons, and a small computer like the Raspberry Pi inside. Each one operates according to what Seznec described to me as a "very specific, very impractical rule" that is then explored to its most extreme.

    For example Volume 1: A Day That Will Never Happen Again basically looks like a book made of plywood, with four knobs and a button on the front. Inside is a Raspberry Pi and a Teensy microcontroller. What it does is simple (in theory): Every day it plays a new and unique rhythm. You'll never be able to replicate the pattern it played August 4, 2019, because that day is gone and with it the specific set of variables that created it.

    But getting to a place where the machine is capable of creating something that can't be re-created requires a lot of moving parts. Inside the instrument is a library of 123 samples collected by Seznec on a single day: December 15, 2018. And every day a unique seven-digit number derived from the year and date is used to seed a random number generator. The results then determine which 10 of those samples get used, generates a pattern for each one and sets the controls for the "other" knob (which we'll get to in a bit).

    Now the knobs on the front allow you to tweak things, but they really only give you the illusion of control. Most of the major decisions have already been made for you. The rate knob allows you to change the speed at which the pattern plays back. The program Seznec built using Pure Data (the same language used to create patches for Critter & Guitari's Organelle) can scale to 3,000 BPM from 60. Though, as he's quick to tell me, "it's a good illustration of how BPM is a relative measure more than a scientific one. ... When you get faster, our ears start to group those beats together -- so rather than feeling like it is playing at 1,000bpm [...] it actually can feel more like 16th notes playing at 250 BPM. ... The faster it gets the more pronounced this effect becomes, though once it gets really fast the samples certainly start to all blend together and create more of a texture than a rhythm."

    The Book of Knowledge of Impractical Musical Devices

    The inside of Volume 1: A Day That Will Never Happen Again

    The length knob changes the duration of the samples. The original recording might be several seconds of keys jangling. But if you turn the knob all the way down it becomes short, clipped and barely identifiable. Meanwhile, the steps knob changes the number of steps in the pattern from one all the way up to 50. All of these parameters interact and can dramatically change the sound of the daily rhythm pattern, but the core ingredients remain unchanged.

    And Seznec isn't done throwing curveballs yet. The fourth knob on the front is labeled "other"; it controls, well, other parameters. As he explains, "it will be a different set of parameters each day." For instance, it could be a pitch shifter or a probability setting. Each of those is mapped to random slopes so the knob doesn't even control all those parameters in the same way. In short, try as you might to recapture a moment with A Day That Will Never Happen Again, "it will not do what you want it to do."

    Creating obstacles like this for a user is something that Seznec frequently explores. And is informed in part by his time spent running a small indie-game studio, and game design is, as he says, "in a lot of ways about making stuff harder for people."

    In Volume 2: Here You Are, You Are Here (which was revealed yesterday) the obstacle is, unsurprisingly, location. It uses a Bela board (similar to BeagleBone but with a focus on audio processing) and GPS to power a granular synthesizer and an incredibly powerful metaphor. Granular synthesis works by breaking apart recorded sounds into tiny grains and then recombining them in various ways to create your synth tone. In this case, the source material is a recording of Seznec's son playing piano in their home in Scotland -- a country and home he's preparing to leave.

    All of the synth's parameters are controlled by the GPS. The only thing controlled by the knobs on the front are volume and pitch. Everything else, from the attack and release, grain size, panning, number of grains playing, etc., is determined by the instrument's physical location -- to a resolution of just a few feet. As Seznec told me, the instrument is "about leaving this place I've lived in for 13 years, and also about the sounds that I'm not going to hear. ... We only remember these tiny little snippets of days ... it becomes about that intersection of memory and place. There are grains of sound, like literally actually grains of that recording, that I will never hear, because I won't go to the right place to hear them. In the same way, that time that I recorded it and that day I recorded it and that moment, I don't actually remember it all. There are grains of that memory that are gone as well, and I'm not getting those back."

    Volume 3: Everything You Love Will One Day Be Taken From You

    Volume 3: Everything You Love Will One Day Be Taken From You is also about the gradual loss of memories and pretty much everything else in life. It's inspired by a number of different things, but perhaps one of the most prominent is William Basinski's Disintegration Loops. The instrument has just one button on the front labeled "play/destroy." A sound is recorded on to it, and every time it is played, it's slowly broken down until it's unrecognizable and lost forever -- just like the titular tape loops on Basinski's landmark album.

    Of course, figuring out how to record a sound that could never be 100 percent whole again posed its own technical issues. "The instrument only works if I know completely that the sound is being destroyed and it's not coming back," Seznec explained. First off, that meant using an audio-in jack to put the sound on it, rather than mounting a microphone or loading a sample he'd recorded elsewhere on an SD card. "If I recorded the sound on my laptop, or on a handheld recording machine or something, then the sound would be there. It would get uploaded to Dropbox. It would get uploaded to like iCloud, and it would still be on the SD card ... and I could just go back and listen to it and be fine," he said. It also meant removing the audio-out jack found on the other two volumes in favor of surface transducers. Basically, "the box itself becomes the speaker."

    There are some details about Volume 3 that are unclear, but Seznec expects it to be revealed next week and with it ,the full working details and instructions on how to build your own.

    The Book of Knowledge of Impractical Musical Devices

    Early cardboard prototypes of The Book of Knowledge of Impractical Musical Devices

    Releasing the complete instructions and code for building your own versions of the Impractical Musical Devices is kind of core to the whole project. As mentioned earlier, The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices by Al-Jazari is a major touchstone, and it's often regarded as a precursor to modern DIY manuals. Al-Jazari wasn't the only one publishing tomes like this in the 12th and 13th centuries, but he is one of the most famous. Seznec explains that engineers and handymen made "these handbooks with full instructions of all these amazing, beautiful things that they made. These were the first recorded instances of robotic musical instruments. ... There were all these sequencers that they built to control robotic drummers and stuff ... they're now credited with inventing all sorts of things, including plywood. That's why the instruments are made out of plywood."

    For now, those instructions and their accompanying essays live at impracticaldevices.com, but Seznec plans to release a physical book as well. And, if there's enough interest he may even build additional copies of the actual instruments to sell. Of course, for instruments and works of art such as these, so much of its power comes from a personal connection to the source material. So building your own might be more effective and satisfying.

    Images: Chris Scott

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