|Frontispiece for shinth lecture.|
Phirst let me back up and point out something essential in this discussion, that it is the history of a synthesized word. The word, "shinth" was initially composed of "shit" and "synth", and was not self deprecating at all. Rather, it was to point out the glory of thrown away sounds, of alley trash, and yes, of broken fart systems from too much ham. Later, as this history will point out, the word was appropriated for a digital synthesizer, the "shnth". Here, with the loss of the vowel "i", it carried a different synthesized meaning. It is more derived from the abstract sound meaning of the consonant "sh"; the sound of data like as heard on the old modem connections, programs and instructions transmitted at high speed over wires which sounds like the noise produced by the mouth in this consonant. The rest of the word, "nth", besides carrying the implication of synthesis, also was found to suggest, the idea of discrete numbers; the variable "n" and its cardinality "nth" is used in quantum physics to refer to quantum numbers, which are not gray but integers that express key properties subatomically. The Shnth of 2013 uses only integer math to synthesize a wide range of classic sounds, including triangle waves, granular synthesis, filters, water, "horses", and strings.
Now let us set the clock back as far as possible to see where the shinth came from. In Providence, after a tour of synthesizers and simple string instruments and gongs, I began a process of building my first "rollable synthesizer". The rollable synthesizer is a theme that I came back to over the years, and it hangs on the wall to be played but also to be experienced as a convenient, and pretty sound installation. It features the wiring and also exposed circuit boards that synthesizer art cherishes.
|Playing the rollable synth, hanging from a log|
Having given some history of the form of the rollable synthesizer, I would like to now point out its role in the prehistory of the shinth. A reading of Deleuze convinced me of the importance of the plane of rhizomality, where circuits interact on an equal footing and not in hierarchical ways. The rollable synthesizer was a first step to achieving this rhizomality, by abstracting connections into a wordless space. Although the formal connection points were classed into a binary category, either input and output, the goal was to eventually obfuscate this distinction by making every point both an input and output. This is an idea passed on to me by Twig Harper, who would later play the shinth in a tour.
Another prefigure of the rollable synthesizer is that its circuit boards were exposed "trace side out", and could be played circuit bent by touching with fingers. This reflects my first foray into formalizing circuit bending. I loved the people involved in it, and the creative, DIY culture around it, but I had a personal problem with using toys for it. I wanted to make instruments that were designed for that modality, along with all the previous modalities of traditional synthesis, such as patching. Thus an important initial fact was that they were to be played by hand, not circuit broken with metal, but only bent by human flesh.
One final thing about the rollable synthesizer: it was a collection of twittering modules. Paul Klee's painting, "Twittering Machine", is the inspiration here, and it has also been reproduced verbatim in Deleuze's Thousand Plateaus. It is key because it offers an aesthetic of machines as beautiful multiplicity, not threatening but also not quite under the complete control of humans. Rather we can crank the machine and watch it perform wonderful intricate movements. It's not like we're programming it or texting it, it's more like we have a visceral interface with it. The crank may seem mechanical, but I can offer a short metaphor to heal that: my dog when I was a kid, you could crank his tail around and that would "wind him up" and he would run around being the spanky little thing that he was. The rollable synthesizer was a collection of twittering modules, and this means that each was trying to not be a monolithic synth module, like a VCO, but rather things more idiosyncratic, and the difference between modules was more like the difference between birds; there is an inner organic feeling difference rather than a purely rational function.
So here we have the groundwork for the Shinth: visceral touchability, twittering machines, and perhaps the idea of alternative playing postures. The Shinth proper, was the proposal for a grant in 2003 from the Daniel Langlois Fondation pour L'art la Science et la Technologie. In it, I described wanting to build a synthesizer conducive to intuition, by touching. The shinth would not require any patching on the part of the user, since the twittering machines within were wired together on an inner, organalog surface. The outer surface, in the non traditional format of "trace side out", could be touched to inject electronic noise into ones body, and it is this noise that could be heard by putting metal spoon in mouth which was connected to amplifier. The Shinth was and still is dangerous, and brings up images of the electric chair. Current is passed through the body. Later ideas eliminated the spoon, however potent the analogy may have been.
|Twig Harper plays Shinth|
|Chol plays Shinth|
Then in 2010, I met Steve Korn and he asked, "what about a digital version of all this work?". For a while we were naming it "chub", because I had a habit of calling all "chubby" USB devices that name. But of course there are problems with that word, and in the search for a new word, we took the shinth because of all the touchability ideas, and the idea of containing a twittering machine, and changed it, as I said above, to accomodate the new idea of digital synthesis. Now we can proceed with the tutorial on programming the shinth, using shlisp, in a graphical environment, called "Fish".