Originally posted on 6/8/16 in response to:
CEC — eContact! 17.4 —
Back to the Future: On misunderstanding modular synthesizers
by Richard Scott
The infinitely shifting tool. (the soft weapon)
Historically, objects carried information about their usage with them. You don’t flip an egg with a hammer.
General purpose machines require a decision on the part of the user as to what the tool will be required to afford in a given situation. This is an increase in the overall cognitive load that begins even prior to the object in question being approached.
Simple example: From across the lawn, the shovel imparts information about its uses. The information includes the specific purposes of that tool (digging) as well as other uses that are implied from its shape and materials (possibly as deduced from, and because of it’s intended use) i.e. a lever.
Although having a machine which has nearly unbounded applications available to it is (obviously) useful, it also brings with it known and unknown extra energy expenditures in terms of choice and organizational pre-planning.
It is possible that over time this constant conscious reconfiguration of a single device prior to each different use (calculator, calendar, solitaire, flight simulation or word processor?), becomes inefficient and the difference between the general purpose tool and the single purpose tool is more salient. (A good organism tries to rectify the efficiency)
In the case of computer music devices, as the tools popularized, it became apparent the widest application involved historic and popular models of music. The interfaces standardized relatively quickly, and the rise the keyboard controller with a clear cut set of control parameters emerged (primarily MIDI), thus once again, bounding the tool towards a quickly and simply (more and less) definable purpose.
The modular, or single purpose object, was left out, or hidden. The actions associated with music making along those lines were continued, but mostly through software renditions of those modules’ functions. Software that exemplified object oriented notions were developed (MAX languages and SuperCollider for example). So essentially, for many performers and composers, they were accessing the same functions that analog synthesis afforded, except they were using an infinitely reconfigurable single tool. The question arises: “Is that the only way to make music?” “Is a digital computer the best tool for the music I am trying to make?” If all you are doing is using that computer to recreate synthesis modules, then maybe it isn’t.