Cybernetics, Architecture of Performance and Synthesisers
2017 - WRITITNG | RESEARCH
The word cybernetics, as defined by Norbert Wiener, the American mathematician, when he coined the word in its modern context in 1948 , means the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine. The word is derived from the ancient Greek kybernetike meaning, roughly, steermanship. This science of regulatory systems found its origins in the contribution of the academia in 1940's in the war efforts.
The intent of understanding and predicting the enemy movements led the mathematicians to create a servomecahnical machines that could predict enemy position in air and enhance the precision of anti aircraft guns. Norbert Wiener’s military work was focused around improving the anti aircraft technology. In essence, Wiener’s idea was was to use electrical networks to determine, several seconds in advance, the position of enemy aircrafts and and use that information to guide artillery fire. To overcome the irregularities introduced by the operator or the artillery gun and pilots Zigzagged flight path to escape, Wiener designed filters based on earlier studies in servomechanisms, the feedback devices such as a thermostat and self guided torpedoes. As Wiener saw it, humans acting under stress tend to perform repetitively and therefore predictably. During his course of work, Weiner with collaboration with Bigelow, and Paul Mooney, an accomplished technician, ran series of experiments by creating mechanical apparatus that would simulate the airplane control in the war theater to feed in simulated data of the enemy plane. As Wiener put it the decade later, the conceptualization of the pilot and the gunner as the servo mechanisms within a single system was essential and irreducible. Servomechanical theory would become the measure of man, the cybernetic vision of the 1940's, the prototype model of human physiology and and human nature.
Weiner’s inclination towards psychological and philosophical implications of predictor was very evident. In their 1943 article "Behavior, Purpose and Teleology.", Wiener and Bigelow proposed a new behaviourist description of the concept of purpose. Singling out the class of predictive behaviour, suggested the possibility of systematizing the complex test of behaviour of behaviour of organisms. The proposed classification based on purpose and teleology created a basis of “uniform behaviour analysis” that was equally applicable to living organisms and to machines.
Underlying idea that all control and communication systems, be animal or machine, biological or technological, can be described and understood using the same language and concepts. This allows in reproduction of processes in its innermost logical essence in form of mathematical formulas and logical relationships.
The Post-war era, the new science of cybernetics saw increased attention given by various scientific and art disciplines. I this essay, I will try to identify how the practice of cybernetics influenced the development of new paradigm of interactive architecture and music synthesizers. Using the example of the Fun Palace by Cedric Price and the first electronic synthesiser the RCA Mark II, I would highlight how the practice cybernetic sciences led to the creation of ground breaking machines that changed the face of music and architecture for ever.
The idea of music composition by non musical means have been prevalent since music was first recorded on paper by the means of musical notations. In 1751, the english musician, William Hayes, in a satirical treatise, The Art of Composing Musick by a Method Entirely New, Suited in the Meanest Capacity, proposed a method in which a brush dipped in ink was used to spray ink blots on a manuscript sheet. The Blots obtained were to designate the position of the notes on the staff lines. Barlines, pauses and the rest was added based on card draw from a pack, at the whim on the composer. This created a completely random musical composition ready to be played. Its not difficult to understand the failure of this random selection method of sounds. Music is subjective to its own specific laws, rules of construction, a unique logic of construction, which Hayes method did not take into account.
In a more modern attempt of creating music composition machines, leveraging the electronic computing technology became the new non-musical means of composing music. Mathematicians - Brooks, Hopkins, Neumann and Wright - from Harvard University conducted experiments in method of machine composition of melodies. Analysis of melodies of thirty seven songs, of various composers and periods, having same metric structure was done to sought out the various combinations of several notes. The frequency of the five notes combination dictated how the machine assembled notes to create new interesting melodies. Thus creating a feedback loop between the machine and the listener. The proposition that coefficient of connectedness in melodies(i.e. The number of adjacent, interconnected notes depending on one another), in not a rule of music by far but an objective attempt at translation of the human creative process. Music melodies occurs in the mind of the composer, in a burst of inspiration... subconsciously, intuitively. The objective cognition of the law of nature and the study of process of creativity, by simulating the process on electronic computers with programmed control is one of the tasks of cybernetics.
American Physicists in the acoustic laboratory of R.C.A (Olsen and Belar), constructed a machine which composed solo-voice music. The machine used that same method of frequency analysis to calculate the three-note groups and with a random number generator, longer sequences were created. The sequence of notes was recorded on in the form of column of numbers on a paper tape and reproduced through the medium of Sound Synthesiser. The machine was intended to be used for an aid to music composition. So to quickly access the generated musical composition and select melodic structure for further supplementation, the precise electronic synthesiser R.C.A Mark II came into existence. The Mark II provided measurable and regulable control of the components of the musical event: Frequency, envelope, Spectrum, intensity, duration, and of the mode of progression from such an event to the following event. The machine enabled composers create new composition that could not be recreated using the traditional orchestra. Project also explored on ways of cutting the cost of recording sessions by using electronic generated sounds, automating arrangements and creating music straight from scores without error or retakes. The idea of anticipating the future listener response to a musical piece on the basis of feedback information from prior responses, to some extent, has its roots in the information and indeterminate systems theories.
In the 1960s, Cedric Price with collaboration with Joan Littlewood came up with the proposal of The Fun Palace, an infinitely flexible, multi-programmed, twenty four-hour entertainment center that marries communications technologies and industrial building components to produce a machine capable of adapting to the needs of users. The idea found it roots in Joan Littlewood’s desire to create a new kind of Theatrical venue of pure performance, where people could experience the transcendence and transformation of theater not as audience but as players. Price envisioned The Fun palace as a bare bone structural armature where a dynamic and fluid program could be played out as per the constantly shifting needs and desires of the users.
A grid of servicing towers supports open trusses to which a system of gantries are appended for maneuvering interchangeable parts (from information monitors to pre-fab units) into position. Circulation elements comprise moving catwalks, escalators. or travelators (suspended, stair-like, and ground-level systems). The conventional determination of built form as an enclosure or legible envelope for functional requirements is supplanted by an idea of environmental control in which, for example, adjustable sky-blinds perform the role of roofing and the task of spatial division is assigned to mutable barriers described as movable screens, warm air screens, optical barriers, and static vapor zones. Programmatic elements with specific functional requirements such as kitchens or workshops are housed in standardized enclosed units sited on temporary, mechanically fitted deck-panels.6 The structure is serviced by a three-dimensional grid and an arable net of packaged conditioning equipment" distributed across a gigantic plinth housing a sewage purification plant and other support systems. The ever-pragmatic Price proudly declared it a self-washing giant capable of continually cleansing itself with recycled river water, and suggested that the site not be less than 20 acres.
To develop an architectural paradigm that could acknowledge the inevitability of change, chance and indeterminacy, Price relied on the Cybernetics and Game Theory as a means of systemizing chance and indeterminacy of user needs and how they translated into space. The modular parts of the fun palace provided an opportunity to dynamic spatial arrangements and analyse the efficiency of the space effectively while taking in user feedback to self-regulate and self-correct without end-state or definite goal. To effectively translate human interaction within a specified space, and make it responsive, essentially dictated the approach to the physical structure of The Fun Palace.
By examining these examples, it's evident that the intent of translating user behavioural practices into rational logical form of mathematical formulas and logical relationships for further analysis and create effective feedback mechanism led to the creation of new tools and techniques that was groundbreaking for the study of architecture and music.
R. Kh. Zaripov and J. G. K. Russell. “Cybernetics and Music”. Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Spring - Summer, 1969), pp. 115-154
Milton Babbitt. “An Introduction to the R. C. A. Synthesizer”. Journal of Music Theory Vol. 8, No. 2 (Winter, 1964), pp. 251-265
Michael J. Apter. “Cybernetics and Art”. Leonardo, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Jul., 1969), pp. 257-265
Paul N. Edwards. The closed world : computers and the politics of discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge, Massachusetts The MIT Press, 1996.
a1952/ . The ‘RCA Synthesiser I & II’ Harry Olson & Herbert Belar, USA, 1951