Friday, September 13, 2013

Shinth History High Zero 2013

Frontispiece for shinth lecture.
As High Zero 2013 approaches the geography of Baltimore, I am summoned to prepare lecture notes for a workshop there, on the Shnth handheld squish synthesizer.  I visit the squash courts of my college in order to gain inspiration but only gain a headache.  However, this reminds me of my collegiate pursual of another courted sport in the past, the sport of racquetball.  For I am not a noncoach of this sport, that of the blue balls that bounce around the room at high velocities, requiring all the inbuilt jerk processing of the human brane to comprehend where it may go next and how to act.  This pursual of intuition was essential in developing the idea of the Shinth, and also a hatred of knobs.  

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

The design of the rollable synthesizer I found to be quite pleasing.  Inspired by a high school art history project, where I was chosen by Mr. Hudenberg to write a paper on Jackson Pollock plus recreate one of his art pieces, or shall I say I received Jackson Pollock by chance operation of picking his name out of a hat.  It was a great assignment, because Pollocks work is actually really fun to recreate and has a great ability to hang on the wall, and embellish canvas in a modern, non representational way.  Finding some historical house paint in a Providence dumpster: colors matched to the 200 year old houses added an extra twist of locating the piece in the place it was built.  Later pieces made in Baltimore used more funky, ghettotastic colors.  The rollable synthesizer had an extra merit, or shall we say it was designed to fill a need, for a portable synthesizer that had presence.  Hung on the wall or other mechanism, the performer in a wonderful, upright position rather than stooping over gear.  Then rolled to pack away neatly.
Rolled up
In retrospect the rollability is least important, however the hangability brought out unseen new dimensions of interface.  The ability to watch a synthesizer like a piece of art, and as I said play it in a standing position, brought out great possibilities for using the sound in space without having the sound object in the center; later with my wife this was used to great effect in dance pieces. 

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
The Shinth was "marketed" to the burgeoning noise community of the naughts.  We had a tour across the continent of U.S., being stopped several times by the authorities.  Hard electronic noises were had, but it was also found that subtle ones could be brought out by softer touch.  No really, it wasn't actually marketed.  However, the opportunity to make the shinth brought out a twist in my life that started my business in making analog synths, often based on some notion of touchability.  I found, during the tour, that I could put the shinth out with a tape recorder and blank, 5 minute tapes, and audience members could make their own mixtape of shinth sounds.  The spoon and touch interface was easy to pick up and offered instant gratification with twittering machine sounds.
Chol plays Shinth
Now I have presented the historical shinth.  Many other prototypes of this touchable concept were developed in intervening years.  The Din Datin Dudero took this controversial, and dangerous "trace side out" circuit board and added a layer of wood around it.  The wood protected user and synth from breakage at critical nodes, and allowed curating of the most important sandrodes, or "androgynous nodes", to bring them to the surface for playing with hands, wires, or even worms.  Fourses and Fyrall were "coffee table versions" of the Din Datin Dudero.  They all used some version of the infinitely touchable brass node which projects from a wooden chassis.  Later I made analog organs with flexible bars to control the envelope, kindof like the function of the spoon but with much greater expression and noise elimination.  But even with the bars, there was always a sort of electronically touchable interface, using brass nodes.  I also created several paper circuits like "Mr. Grassi", which used touchable brass nodes to trigger harsh but very diverse noise sounds, like a simplified shinth for 5 year old boys. 

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".

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