DIY audio and sound art practices celebrate the unique visions and practices of the individual artist. The socio-political ramifications of DIY practice, personal perspectives on DIY and custom design, and sharing, repurposing and community-building are explored in pieces about DIY practitioners, their instruments, intentions and artistic practice.
When we hear the term “DIY” (do it yourself) in relation to electronic and/or instrumental sound-based practices, a number of things easily come to mind: self-built circuitry, community-based activities and interaction, hacking, issues of access and sharing, and community-building. These are all currents found within the larger realm of DIY practice, but the situation is much more complex.
We are pleased to present a number of projects in this issue of eContact! in which one or more stages of an artist’s musical or sonic practice has been shaped by a DIY approach, from conception to construction to composition and creation to performance.
Opening Closed Doors: The Socio-Political Ramifications of DIY Practice
DIY practices in sound-based art stand in opposition to the idea of a standardized musical experience. By welcoming the new expressive and sonic modalities that arise when we refute the margins established by the tacitly accepted norms of instrument, perception and practice, “a new musical lexicon” (Rivero) is given space in which to grow. Once we come to terms with the invalidity of these norms, we gain “a sense of artistic control” (Patel) and an expanded consciousness of the instrument, interface or even context and milieu we are working with, which is then no longer subject to the whims of the “ruling class” of standardized industrial music production. This engages us in a learning process that helps increase our awareness and speculation about things and their functioning that we might normally take for granted (Castonguay) — we thus empower ourselves and gain deeper knowledge of the potential of our own creative practice than is possible in corporate-designed creative environments.
We might consider that the first step in the larger DIY process is to hack the “circuits” of the creative mind, “an act of sonic empowerment” that offers an opportunity “to establish the conditions needed for composition rather than being pre-conditioned by them.” Anatol Rivero’s “Repurposing the Compositional Experience: The Spring Guitar and a Kataba saw, a self-built ‘instrument as sound composition’” describes how he has repurposed not just an instrument, but even the creative process itself, in “a conscious attempt to break from [his] comfort zone.” The inherently restrictive nature of Rivero’s Spring Guitar, and such “autonomous mini-systems” (Mouchous) or “purpose-built, DIY instruments” (Patel) as Les nouvelles déesses, Amit Patel and Peter B construct, instigates an enhanced focus on and awareness of the individual musical processes and the unicity of the object. In an interview with sound artists Stephanie Castonguay and Émilie Mouchous by Esther Bourdages, Les nouvelles déesses explain that they are interested in the reactions of their creations rather than imposing pre-conceived ideas on them. This allows the individual voices and inner processes of their unique electronic objects to emerge. They consider that all parts of the process are part and parcel of the musical and creative experience, and Amit Patel would certainly agree: “The artisan approach of making, discovering and exploring the sound object lends itself particularly well to experimentation.” He draws a comparison between “DIY Instruments and White Label Releases,” in the sense that artists who insist on being involved in the entire production process of their objects experience a form of self-reliance and self-sufficiency — not to mention cultural independence — that is hardly possible when using mass-produced products.
Further extending the idea of self-sufficiency, James Hullick felt there was a disconnect between standardized production models and the varied creative approaches explored within an increasingly diverse makeup of creators and producers. Dissatisfied with aspects of the conventional artist-institution-audience paradigm, he thought: “Fuck It, I’ll Do It Myself: Or, why on Earth would anyone start a sound art organization in Melbourne and call it JOLT?” The “flux” in the broad field of sonic art practices “is a necessary by-product of the milieu of individual artists seeking to find their own unique voice and way of making.” There is an incredible range of initiatives, interests and backgrounds in the sonic art and DIY communities, and institutions such as JOLT are brilliant models for the task of developing and sustaining them, as opposed to hindering and enveloping them in bureaucratic sludge. Let’s not forget, after all, that “there was DIY sound before there was institutionalized sound.”
Accommodating Individual Needs: The Personal Perspective on DIY and Custom Design
There are many reasons why the default design of an instrument may not be suitable to all users. Traditional acoustic instruments, for example, were not designed with the range of artistic demands in mind as exist in today’s instrumental practice, let alone in current electroacoustic and sonic art practices. They respond spectacularly when used “normally” but the success of their integration varies wildly, according to the nature of the æsthetic and technical challenges they are confronted with. This problem is by no means unique to acoustic instruments and instrumental music; indeed, the design specifics of many digital musical instruments (DMI) do not guarantee their immunity to such problems (Dalgleish). The inherent limitations of a given instrument or interface can limit its capacity to respond to a variety of needs and can therefore significantly hinder the user’s artistic activities or intentions. For some artists, the solution to this problem is to hack and reconfigure an existing instrument, whereas others have found it necessary to build their own devices, instruments or sound objects from the ground up.
The piano is, in many ways, an incredibly diverse instrument but its design and construction were specifically developed with Western equal-tempered harmony in mind. Because of this intimate link, when Jean-Michel Maujean and Cissi Tsang wished to explore a 16-tone tuning system, the instrument had to be significantly repurposed in order to accommodate the new system. In “Making the Makestra: Repurposed, bio-electronic and 3D-printed instruments,” they describe the development and building process of this instrument as well as 3D-printed flutes, a Hydrophone and a Playable Plant. Even manufacturer’s design “improvements” can make an instrument unaccommodating or even inaccessible to some users, due to theoretical, performance or æsthetic concerns, or to physical limitations. It is unrealistic to expect that all instruments be able to do everything, but designers could aim for more integrated, flexible designs that increase the potential affordances for some users who might otherwise be excluded, without compromising those of the typical user. In “Unconventional Inputs: New/old instruments, design, DIY and disability,” Mat Dalgleish lays out eight principles that are broadly applicable to instrument design, but are of special relevance for accommodating users faced with specific physical hindrances to playing an instrument “normally”.
For artists who themselves develop creative tools for their own exclusive use, however, design may be much more idiosyncratic. The uniqueness and lack of exportability of their tools and instruments are perhaps inextricably linked to the specificities of their own performance practices, as we see in “Designing and Playing the Strophonion: Extending Vocal Art Performance Using a Custom Digital Musical Instrument.” In a manner perhaps not unlike that of the modern piano and Western harmony, the Strophonion is a direct outgrowth of specific artistic and æsthetic needs in Alex Nowitz’s vocal art performance. In Adam Scott Neal’s “Everything and the Kitchen Sink: Interview with Atlanta-based composer Klimchak,” we see this link from a different perspective. While scale of economy — another recurring theme in DIY practices — was an early influence for Klimchak, recycling and repurposing have become crucial driving forces behind the visual and sonic characteristics of his work. A Fluxus-flavoured integration of daily activities (here cooking) with live performance is a move “towards new ways of integrating the public” (Castonguay). Exposing the audience to all stages of creation and production both acknowledges that the entire process is part of and crucial to the “final product”, and demystifies the work.
Sharing, Repurposing and Community-Building
There is an inherent modularity to a good portion of self-built instruments and systems. While the designs of today’s makers may be intended to explore, articulate or represent singular contexts or situations, it is not uncommon that they are “hardwired” with either a high degree of flexibility or adaptability, allowing for their reconfiguration by others. It is therefore quite natural that DIY practices so easily lend themselves to the sharing of parts, components or ideas about design and development. While a willingness to share acquired knowledge — technical or creative — amongst artists or within the broader community is certainly not exclusive to DIY, sonic art or post-acousmatic 1[1. Lacking a more convincing alternative to distinguish practices that situate themselves in between the popular and academic poles of the sound-based creation continuum, I will defer to this term, coined by Monty Adkins, Richard Scott and Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay in “Post-Acousmatic Practice: Re-evaluating Schaeffer’s heritage” (Organised Sound 21/2, August 2016, pp. 106–116).] communities, its priority is a key factor differentiating DIY from traditional and commercial practices. Nor is the idea very recent. However, important changes — particularly in the last 20 or so years — have led to and encouraged an important increase in the type and scope of DIY activities, and of course in the degree of their accessibility. Democratization of means — the increased access to technologies since the 1990s — has had a remarkable, positive effect on the development of the broader community of makers. Indeed, at this particular point in the Age of Social Media (a subset, of course, of the Age of Internet), sharing, repurposing and appropriation 2[2. Ed. We should note that the term “appropriation” in open source and DIY design practices does not bear the negative connotations it may have amongst some instrumental and electroacoustic composers.] has never been easier.
Jaime Oliver La Rosa uses his Silent Drum as a starting point to reflect on “Design and Appropriation in Open Source Computer Musical Instruments.” With a nod to the thriving DIY community — sharing instrument design plans and ideas — that arose 70 years ago out of the commercial theremin industry, he has released the plans for the construction of his instrument publicly. Others can remodel the design to serve their own needs, and thus develop their own personal interconnectivity between instrument design and creative intent via his instrument. Imported — or borrowed, integrated, appropriated — components, design elements and circuits are not neutral! But makers will often make a conscious effort to preserve and in fact welcome at least some of the unique characteristics of the original, making modifications or additions based on their individual creative needs, artistic impulses or fields of exploration. This is exactly the approach David Ross takes in “A Voyage Around My Boilophone: A personal approach to playing and recording with a unique DIY electronic instrument,” a revamped, synthesizer built into a kettle by Joe Paint. This listening into imported circuits or objects designed by others is an artistic challenge for DIY artists, but one in which they inevitably find poetic and musical meaning.
Similar to the devices created by Les nouvelles déesses, Peter B’s creations are reactive sonic entities, as “the boxes have no other playing interface such as knobs or switches; the art is not in the action of playing them, but placing them in the sun and listening.” We tend to want to do something with sound-producing objects, but his “Bird, Monk, Train: Three approaches to a solar sounder workshop” short-circuit our creative habits. The variability of experience hardwired into Blasser’s objects — “It sounds different on hazy days, cloudy days, sunny days” — is perhaps a perfect reflection of the broad diversity encountered in the larger field of DIY practice.
In addition to the interviews with Les nouvelles déesses and Klimchak already mentioned, two more of the many interviews Bob Gluck did in the early 2000s with key composers who were active in the 1960s and 1970s are found in this issue. These interviews are more than tangentially related to the topic of DIY, notably around the importance of community building.
A space, a radio license and some willing musicians formed the recipe that gave us the WBAI Free Music Store. “WBAI Free Music Store and Dark, Dark Nights at the Electric Circus: Conversation with music theatre composer and producer Eric Salzman” gives us fantastic insights into the New York scene in the 1970s. The Free Music Store was an iconic venue, the point of convergence within the 1970s New York experimental music milieu — everyone played there. With a more “grassroots” approach, and wider cultural and musical interests, this space offered an open-minded alternative to the more “stiff” uptown crowd’s productions and presentations: “The overriding idea was to make concert life a relevant part of the culture and to explore all aspects of the culture as it exists.” The idea of “community” in east coast practices at that time was not a given; you simply could not produce works without having contacts and people to work with, either professionally or personally. As we learn in “A Unique Sensitivity to Sound: Interview with American composer and sound artist Maryanne Amacher,” there was an ongoing exchange of ideas in this extremely vibrant community, each person’s work influencing and motivating the others in a symbiotic relationship. Even when not collaborating directly with each other, it was common that people would work together towards sustaining and building the community.
As Daniel Charny has pointed out: “Fewer and fewer people actually know how to make the things they use, need or want; or even how they are made. This is one of the most dramatic and unfortunate legacies of the Industrial Revolution” (cited in Rivero). The artists featured in this issue of eContact! have, however, not only called into question this trend but have in fact manifestly contributed to its opposition through their unique reflections, creations and artistic practices.
To answer the complex question of defining just what the DIY community is, it would seem that we should speak not so much of it in the sense of what is done there, but rather in terms of the hows and whys things are done by its practitioners. The articles presented in this issue of eContact! have shown us that there is a wild range of reasons for and approaches to DIY practices. We can perhaps establish that it would seem to exist predominantly between the academic and popular poles of the sound-based creation continuum, but the resulting sound objects, instruments, interfaces, compositions and performance practices form such a complex collection as to entirely escape any attempts at a conclusive and authoritative definition of DIY. That is, in fact, one of its greatest strengths.
Berlin, 2 December 2016