Feedback at the Limits of Precise Control

Words by Pentos Fray Bentos

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“In the beginning there was feedback…”1

Recently but circumspectly a number of concert-goers have voiced their concern to me that the sole interesting sound in an entire evening of improvisation was a sudden unexpected burst of feedback. Perhaps an inebriated saxophonist (their swollen ego dangling from the front of their instrument like some gross misshapen ball-bag) had blundered over a cable, thus enclosing a sensitive microphone with the bell of their horn. Maybe an over-enthusiastic sound engineer had tweaked the volume knob a notch too far.

Further to this, I myself have noted with propellant horror how the niminy-piminy audience that slaps its hands to its ears at the first shriek of howlaround during a modulated cello recital will, amazingly, not long afterwards pay good money to endure a two hour performance comprised only of intentionally generous feedback.

Clearly the desirability or otherwise of feedback is entirely contextual. To escape this earth bound referentiality, let us perform a simple “mind experiment”.

 

Autopsy da Fe

“I was working in the lab late one night.”2

Pull on a white lab coat and imagine yourself a colossus astride a vast scientific laboratory. From one sealed jar you deftly pull the gestalt of improvisation and toss it on the slab with a resounding ‘bibba-bubba-shlongg’ noise. Examine it, note the two discoloured roots extending from the wizened corpulent mass. One of these roots once connected to the thing that was jazz. Visible on the other (predominantly synthetic) root are all the signs that it has recently suckled nutriment from the cess of Electronica. Now, the nose test. There is indeed an olfactory component, a smell of gnarly brine mingled with old bags. Enough! Return it to the jar.

From the other sealed container you carefully remove the totality of feedback. Its corpus resembles an eerie baby, sleek but ill defined. Though feedback has suffered a long and difficult gestation, it is almost ready to face the world. But first we must inject it with some stem cells from the distressed improvisation gestalt. At the sight of the needle it throws open its crimson maw and begins to howl.

 

With a dead sound on the stroke of 99

“(If they’d only) shut down operations, tipped their hats saying, ‘We’ve done our thing, we’re leaving the stage, we can’t do any more’, and shown that they aren’t inscribed in history”. 3

We must now travel a few years back down the line. Sitting out a downpour in a fuliginous pub in a grotty seaside town, my eye wanders to a poster framed behind dusty cracked glass that occupies pride of place over the bar. It is an advertisement for a concert and for an unguarded instant I am convinced it holds a roil call of our most esteemed improvisers.

Startled, I look again. It is, in reality, a relic advertising a trad jazz jamboree featuring such hacks as Acker Bilk, Kenny Ball and Chris Barber. But the damage has been done. From that moment on a disturbing concept takes hold of my mentation – TRAD IMPROV!

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a good Trad Improv spectacle. The double bass player spraying the strings with Mr Sheen before thumping them with an Irving Welsh novel, the saxophonist parping like a Teletubby with amoebic dysentry, a credulous techno-bunny clacking away on a laptop and the inevitable drummer whirling a plastic tube over their head.

It’s simply that it’s all so – well, trad, dad!

There has long existed an unfortunate conceit that improvisation is somehow ‘cutting edge’, as though its practitioners should be rewarded with Pioneer badges for every bold foray into the unknown. But even in its raw form, improv is not an arbitrary system.

In the last quarter of the twentieth century improvisation came to be used by the majority of its practitioners as a way of managing the instabilities of new social conditions. In a grand social critique, they tried sidestepping the pervasiveness of commodity and production processes by concentrating only the liberating evidence of individual human productivity.

Here, the locus was the instrument through which rigorous technique, joyful exploration of sonic possibilities and an astonishing breadth of musical reference took place. But gradually that repository of possibilities, the instrument, became only the possibility of repositories. As in a cloud chamber where a fine vapour reveals the tracks of hitherto invisible particles, so our improvisers, as they pushed the envelope outward, mapped the prison bars and demarcations that circumscribed their original program.

Instrumentalists will undoubtedly always have worthy things to say, unfortunately the means open to them have been eroded by repetition, by the sheer exhaustion of their sonic palette.

But is there any evidence that feedback can provide that vital temporal legitimacy that has so obviously evaporated from the Land of Trad?

 

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Into the ultimate labyrinth

Millstones (SIC) in the history of feedback:

1847 Gustav R. Kirchhoff’s famous paper on electrical networks. One point brought to light is the importance of ‘meshes’ or closed circuits. A more descriptive term is ‘loops’.

1928 Harold S. Black attempts to patent negative feedback and is laughed out of the office. ‘Our application was treated in the same manner as one for a perpetual-motion machine’.

1932 Reflexions Sur La Science Des Machines by Jaques Lafitte. In it he argues that a science of machines demands a unique place in the ranks of scientific disciplines.

1948 Publication of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, Or Control And Communication In The Animal And The Machine.

1959 Karlheinz Stockhausen employs feedback loops as part of his procedure for constructing timbres for Kontakte.

1966 Live performance of I of IV by Pauline Oliveros, a solo tape piece utilizing double feedback.

RAP! RAP! RAP!

Judge Knotye: Would the learned counsel for feedback care to let us know where he is leading us with this tedious recitation?

Defendant: M’Lud, I am seeking to reveal how the contemporary improviser, having rationalised the cultural redundancy inherent in the current range of acoustic and electrified instruments, is turning to feedback as the means of sonic salvation.

Judge Knotye: Very well, but keep it brief.

Defendant: The central issue here is one of control. The extreme amounts of control required in order to precisely master conventional instruments is no longer considered pertinent, or indeed, acceptable. The utilization of feedback implies a rewiring of the control relationship between improviser and sound generating apparatus.

Creep: Objection! The human/instrument relationship is one sanctified by centuries of —

Judge Knotye: Objection overruled. Get on with it.

Defendant: Thank you, M’Lud. Once initiated, feedback devices are often capable of functioning without human intervention. Human agency can be relegated to a subsidiary and incidental level. Members of the jury, you must be clear in your minds that such an interaction is above all a political choice.

Judge Knotye: And exactly what does the learned counsel propose that we should call these ‘feedbacking devices’.

Defendant: Let them be known as UNSTRUMENTS!

 

The Coming Of The Unstruments

“Mister Writer Person, I have undertaken this long journey purposely to see your person, and to know by what engine of wit or ingenuity you came first to think of this most excellent help in feedback viz. The Unstrument; but. Mister Writer Person, being by you so found out, I wonder nobody found it out before, when now known it is so easy.” 4

I’m not going to claim that there’s anything remotely novel in the concept of Unstruments. Their emergence is perhaps only another case of that process whereby tiny discontinuities multiply, gradually cluster together and a particular phenomenon becomes suddenly visible and aquires significance.

Or might it be that events surrounding our furtive phenomenon moves on and that once perfect camouflage no longer serves to conceal. Regardless, in the words of the creepy little blond girl from the film Poltergeist: “They’re here!”

Unstruments are a form of sonic Lego. The starting point is a ‘feedback element’ — which could be a simple oscillator or something more complex — to which electronic components are spontaneously added. Here are some of their characteristics :

For those readers of an adventurous nature, I now offer an example of ‘How to build a feedback element for little or no money’.

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Take one broken-down cassette Walkman (see Fig.I). Bust it open, detatch the tape head and unsolder the three connecting wires. Using longer bits of wire, reconnect the head to the original three wires so that it is remote. Attach a minijack plug to an unenclosed speaker (you’ll always find one you can rip out of a broken or brand new television) and plug it into the Walkman headphone output. Next, bring the tape head into the proximity of the speaker magnet — et voila!

Provided you can remember to hook up the batteries and connect hundreds of additional components (see Fig. 2), your Unstruments should provide decades of fun — despite their eventual complexity and inescapable ephemerality. Go Excrete.

 

Botanizing on the feedback

“Who’s going to know That you’ve been feeding back A hundred years from now?” 5

A quick peep beneath the tatty carpet of fragmentary discourse will reveal that, despite appearances, reality is being increasingly hardwired. This economy of options is reflected in the electronic world, economies of scale have driven the discrete transistorized circuit onto the museum shelf and replaced it with the VLSI (very large scale integration) chip, in effect the encapsulation of vast circuits into a single component.

There’s no way that feedback can help us facilitate an escape from expanding restriction, but it does allow all of us to comment on our hapless predicament in any number of enjoyable ways. However, hearken to the words of a typical media hack “It is unlikely that feedback will form the basis of a programme which will seek to tell the story of the years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II”. How can you argue with such an idiotic opinion?

But just what will the feedback of all our tomorrows be like? Will it distil into the philtre of the future? Or will instrumentalists and musicians still be demanding a return to the armchair days of the antique lug-tuned banjo? Will the old gits be whining, “Nurse, nurse, stick that bleedin’ Metal Machine Music on again before you hand out the medication”?

As a vision of what will come to be I can offer you only this – IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS FEEDBACK.

 

NOTES:

  1. Lepkc Buchwater, The Psychopathology Of Improvisation, unpublished writings.
  2. Bobby Pickett, The Monster Mash.
  3. Paul Virilio, Pure War, Semiotext(e) 1983.
  4. Letter from Boz Scaggs to the author, 1992.
  5. Gabby Yorath & Wendi Deng, One Hundred Years of Feedback.