A Personal Journey Through the Ourobouros

Words by David Lee Myers
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David Lee Myers

Undoubtedly since the early twentieth century and the advent of amplified sound, feedback has been the nemesis of sound systems and individuals charged with operating them. After many decades of being cursed and sent to the devil, it is perhaps not surprising that the devil should now have his due and sound-workers finally come to praise the accursed — or could it be that the child was simply misunderstood all along?

It can be safely assumed that everyone is familiar with the common phenomenon of feedback such as produced inadvertently through poorly configured microphone /speaker situations in concert performances: the sound coming from the amplification system finds its way back into the microphones and produces an uncomfortable squealing sound. The component elements are electronic and acoustic, the latter involving air movement and vibration of physical objects. This also holds true for the famed feedback of Jimi Hendrix and so many electric guitarists since his time — a speaker moving air and shaking the strings and guitar body, magnetic pickups microphonically taking it all in and sending the signal back to the amplifier in an endless cycle. The phenomenon is perfectly represented by the image of the ‘Ourobouros’, a circular symbol of antiquity, portraying a snake swallowing its own tail. This electroacoustic feedback is likely to have been employed by musicians from the time amplification was invented, but it entered the spotlight in the 1960s probably due to that decade’s character of rebellion and dissent; the unruly child was taken under its wing.

Since 1987 I have produced music derived exclusively through feedback principles, but my approach differs from the described scenario in that the sounds I use, and the feedback I produce, omit the component of acoustic space. It has always been the unseen forces behind observable phenomena which have fascinated me most. My attention is immediately drawn to the circular paths observed in schematic electronic diagrams. Electronic feedback is quite a curious animal, something distinct from electroacoustic feedback. It can operate — feed back — eternally, but make no sound; vibrate no air; reach no ears. It is this silent marching of electrons, antlike, about some elaborate roadway perhaps only known to themselves which is so curious.

It should be noted that the simplest oscillator is merely a rudimentary amplifier which is fed its own output in this fashion, so at base the phenomenon is not unique; it is a basic premise of electronic design. But the simple oscillator is something akin to an oval running track — very plain-vanilla, obvious and predictable. What if the course runs through tunnels, under a river, down dark alleyways? These are the electronic paths which begin really to arouse my enthusiasm.

The introduction of the musical ‘Effects Device’ was for me the real opening of an interest in sound and music. The initial impression an early Echoplex tape-delay made on me (с. 1966) still reverberates, as it were — I put down my guitar and focused on this thing itself; who needed a guitar now? A sound goes in one end and comes out the other, somehow transformed into a modified clone of itself; partially the same, but evolved. And it was — and remains — significant to me that this transformation is a manipulation of the sounds time-path. Most musical effects boxes — and all of those which interest me most — are based on manipulations of time, that strange entity which even the most advanced scientific analyses have yet to explain convincingly. Since childhood this inexplicable thing called time has puzzled and excited me, and in the Effects Device the question of time comes forth with a satisfying aesthetic pleasure. Further, the concepts of time manipulation and feedback come together in the ancient Ourobouros symbol which was intended to speak of several things at once: self-referral (consciousness), recurrence, and eternity. To me, feedback is far more than a public address system in misalignment; it is a core principle of universal importance.

Midway in my musical/technological explorations I acquired four of the best moderately priced delay units available at the time — the Digitech 7.6 — in an attempt to construct the ultimate loop- music setup, such as might be employed by Robert Fripp or Terry Riley before him. While designing the mixer, I realized that for the most open-ended layout, I could create a matrix of ‘effects sends’ whereby any delay’s output could be routed to any other delay’s input, including its own. The results astounded me, and in 1987 ‘Feedback Music’ was born; the complex electron paths which could be created with this setup allowed for the production of a very wide variety of sounds within and between the delay units.

Simply put, in such a set-up the delays never receive signals from the ‘outside world’, and instead feed on a diet of their own product; a whole new function of these devices appears, bearing little relation to their intended purposes.

The way I envision it, the devices are given the opportunity to ‘sing their own songs’ — the resulting sounds represent nothing other than the free circulation of electrons within. In effect, these sounds come from nothing, and more than one observer has proclaimed them to arise ‘from the ether’.

My most recent systems make use of sound processors whose capabilities dwarf those old Digitech delays, creating ever more entangled electron paths and opportunities to catch moments of feedback tones, and spit them back out in more mangled forms. However, the process is basically the same, and I still attempt to let the devices speak with their own hidden voices. Unlike electroacoustic feedback, I have found over many years that this purely electronic feedback exhibits no limits in terms of tonal coloration and dynamic pattern. In some instances what seem to be vocal sounds, or imitations of conventional instruments, appear; the next moment, a shortwave radio broadcast or atonal orchestral wash. What has perhaps maintained my interest all this time is the fact that the sounds generated by my feedback systems are almost totally unpredictable; I am surprised each and every time I sit down to work with them. This does cut both ways — I admit to being unable to exercise complete control of what tones arise, and it is sometimes a challenge to wrestle these into a shape and form which I find aesthetically satisfying. Every performance (including performances only for a recording device) is a duet improvisation wherein I am paired with a truly crazed player. It can be a workout, and worse, an embarrassment: a public performance may be fully gratifying, or something less. However, I pride myself on the fact that no concertgoer will ever hear the same presentation twice — it is simply not possible.

Music created entirely through feedback may be viewed in two ways. In one sense, it might be said that it is a case of simple autocannibalism. But I prefer a more positive stance: no living organism can exist without feedback, without a constant monitoring of itself, and I seriously consider the flow of electrons described above as a living thing. The feedback principle may in fact represent one of man’s greater possibilities; the words commonly attributed to Socrates, ‘know thyself’, imply several levels of meaning. I perceive, but I also have the possibility of perceiving that I perceive — and this may create an entirely new phenomenon. The same seems to hold true in the world of sound.

It might be said that the perceptual worlds we hold most dear are those of sound and of sight. In the larger scheme of things, the spectrum of visible wavelengths in fact differs very little from the analogous spectrum of audible sounds. From the perspective of the entire electromagnetic spectrum, which encompasses the vast majority of phenomena observable by human beings — and reaches far beyond it — our audible and visible bandwidths are nearly indistinguishable. This perception has led me to explore the interrelation of these two seemingly disparate worlds, and since 1991 I have striven to discover ways to translate the sounds produced by my Feedback Music into a visual form. In my initial trials an important tool in this exploration was the oscilloscope. The oscilloscope represents visually a sound’s amplitude variation plotted against its time variation; and also represents phase variations between left and right stereo channels (known as the ‘Lissajou’ pattern).

The complex phase relationships naturally arising between stereo signals in the Feedback Music made this approach all the more appealing, and early on I produced a crude video project which presented the meeting of these audio and visual phenomena.

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Feedback impression created from Track 1 of Resonance CD

Late in 2000, as I began to assemble a new series of Feedback Music hardware and to discover new sounds, record, and process them, it was not long before I again felt the need to translate these sounds into their visual counterparts. Using the more modern software versions of the oscilloscope and other sound-to-visualization techniques, I began to capture ‘time slices’ of my sounds and process them through digital means. The resulting images, which are output as archival dyejet prints, I term ‘Feedback Impressions’. Even more recently, I have begun to utilize interactive sound/video software in music performances in the effort to close the gap between the aural and the visual.

Both my sound and visual works are the result of capture, selection, processing and combination; essentially, I do not make sounds or draw pictures, but allow latent or unseen forces and processes to present themselves via simple technologies. I select the methods, set the stage, and as the phenomena emerge I introduce my own aesthetic judgements to the mix. Therefore the sounds and visuals which are presented are neither completely random science nor the gesture of an artist’s hand, but something between the two; and I believe this to be the most effective approach toward evoking meaningful impressions of unseen worlds.

The Ourobouros is the symbol of a major driving force which animates the energies in these worlds, and the selfreflexive feedback principle is an inexhaustible source of new movement and fresh animations of these energies. Let the unruly child play!