Peter Blasser: The Poetics of Synthesynthesis

Peter Blasser creates some of the most inspiredly idiosyncratic electronic instruments we know of. It’s hard to do justice to the sheer scope of his inventiveness, from technical to the conceptual to the poetic language he uses for his work, so we only mention a few of his design concepts here that have been influential to our practice. For further reading, his website (Blasser n.d.), especially the “philosophical paperz” (Blasser 2016a, b), and his PhD thesis (Blasser 2015) are highly recommended (Fig. 2).

Echo Ho performing a kitchen concert on a Blasser KitTenNetTik synthesizer kit assembled by Ralf Schreiber

Fig. 2 Echo Ho performing a kitchen concert on a Blasser KitTenNetTik synthesizer kit assembled by Ralf Schreiber. The 100+ metal rod electrodes are the “androgynous nodes”, connected by alligator clips to vegetables and body contacts. Image © Hannes Hoelzl 2006

  • - “Bent by design”: A term also used by Hordijk, this is an invitation to users to modify instruments. Circuit benders usually “bend” used electronic devices such as toy keyboards by adding contacts or changing parts of their circuits in order to open the possibility space of these simple instruments far beyond the horizon of the designers’ imagination. Blasser and Hordijk give hints where in their circuits further exploration might be fruitful, enabling their clients to personalize their instrument, e.g. by choosing the values of “hairy capacitors” such that the overall voicing is in the preferred range.
  • - “Androgynous nodes”: Canonical electronics defines exactly which points in a circuit can be outputs and which inputs, enabling predictable connections between them. This allows different combinatorial configurations of modularized instruments. Several Blasser instruments, e.g. the KitTenNetTik series, contain many nodes that can act BOTH as input and output points.

“If you start not from “knowledge”, but instead at any random and humble point within the aaji, you will see more than just arrows pointing in and out, but directionless flows, the stuff of simultaneity. No matter how hard you try, you cannot make an assemblage into male (only giving) or female (only receiving) [...] The aaji gives and receives—rives like a river”.[1]

This invention not only challenges one’s perspective on electrical circuits, it also has radical effects on the playability of the instrument. Any arbitrary point in the circuit can be monitored as a sound output—the entire circuit becoming an electronic free jazz ensemble, and one can choose what to listen to. By sidestepping well-defined modularity, one can reconfigure the sound-producing circuit in near-endless combinations, radically extending the possibility space, and likely allowing creative emergence in a strict sense (Cariani 2008).

- Body contacts: Hard-wiring the androgynous nodes is just a special case of connections that may generally range from zero to infinite resistance. This is especially inviting hand-playing techniques, where the performer conducts changing portions of the electric flow through her body. By touching two or more nodes with varying pressure, one can delicately modulate the degrees of cross-talk between them. This technique, allows micromotoric subtlety in musical expression quite unrivalled by conventional controllers like pots, faders, and switches.

This little glimpse into the Blasser universe shows the possibility expanding, exploding nature of his work. What also fascinates us about his instruments, is that they are quite evidently designed such that the ambition to master them becomes meaningless. If the very inner workings of the instrument change with each cable that is dis-/connected, predictability is gone in the blink of an eye. As a consequence, learning and performing cannot be separated, so the audience can witness the musician’s learning process on stage[2]; arguably a defining feature of experimental art practice.[3] In terms of Second Order Virtuosity, what can be mastered here is the seamless integration of the learning process into the flow of musical performance.

  • [1] “Aaji” means circuitry, and “knowledge” means mainstream engineering thought, as inShannon’s information theory (Blasser n.d.).
  • [2] Master improviser Robin Hayward reports that he deliberately modifies the mechanics of his tubaprior to performances, in order to push himself into a situation of re-learning on stage. (personalcommunication 2015).
  • [3] For a contemporary definition of musical experimentalism, see Emerson (2014).
 
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