Exe0.1 Brian House

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hi everyone --

ok, so I think it's clear that everyone got a little lost with my paper, including me. I have re-written it and am placing it here above my original text. I've done this under the influence of jetlag and it is much looser, please forgive me for that, but I think that it will be at least marginally more clear for anyone who reads from this point forward.



In this (rewritten) text I chase a speculative and open-ended line of thinking that looks at the relationship between sound art and digital media through the field recordings of Matthew Parker, the mechanism of CPU execution, and Fred Moten’s analysis of black aesthetics in In the Break. To contextualize this essay, I'm trying to prod at the various ways that music and sound art practices relate to digital media—and specifically to computational infrastructure—in a critical way.

PART I—Acoustics

Here is one thread of many that I'm trying to tease out, and it derives from documentary sound, ie, field recording, which has been gaining increased traction in sound art contexts. One of my favorite examples of this is the Sonic Ethnography of Ernst Karel at Harvard—his piece "Materials Recovery Facility" is a very hi-def recording of the inside of a recycling center.[1] Steven Feld is ethnomusicologist who works in the rainforest in Papa New Guinea, and he coined the term "acoustemology" to describe this approach, which is a portmanteau for acoustic/sonic epistemology (Feld). The point here is that sound recording is a mode of knowing that is irreducible to language and interpretation. The sound theorist Brandon Labelle writes that sound always "occurs among bodies,"(Labelle 469) and if we consider that this inherent relationality is something physical—vibrations travel from sounding bodies to microphone membranes to storage media and back the other way to our ears—we have ducked the representational in favor of the material. So I think that there is an affinity between this acoustemological practice and media materialism, or media archaeology, in general.

So the question becomes, what can we know about digital media through the sound it makes? There are plenty of examples of people making music with their printers or making old machines glitch, among countless other approaches. But I think that Matthew Parker, who is a relatively new artist, really takes on the acoustemological ethic and goes for the big fish when he records the sound of data centers (and I'm pissed he beat me to it).

For The People’s Cloud (2014), Parker traveled to various colocation facilities throughout Europe, hoping to survey “their acoustic properties and their relationship with the overall environmental and geopolitical impact of mobile data storage.”[2] Three audio-video works are featured within the project, entitled “Lighting up the Information Superhighway,” “Hot-Swap Until I Die,” and “Turbulence in the Chamber” (for the purposes of this paper I refer only on the audio). While the heavily processed compositions are marked by a downtempo dread familiar to UK-centric electronic production (and are perhaps somewhat forgettable in themselves), they nonetheless maintain obvious and haunting references to their source material.

By immersing the listener in these sounds, the tracks produce a productive dissonance between the sense of the data center as an alien and inhuman environment and the fact of their quotidian role in the life of the mobile phone-carrying, Facebook-using public. Thus there is an artistic question here, too, of how this act of pointing at the noise these things make, which reflects energy expenditure, functions as a political act, and how Parker's subtle aesthetic decisions influence that.

If this is the big data at the heart of the network, a sonic epistemology suggests that the hulking mass of the data center is the missing materiality that has been sloughed off by our seemingly ephemeral communicative exchanges. If all audio recording media can trace their genealogy to the phonograph (as per Kittler), all archaeological sound practices such as Parker’s celebrate what Kittler recognized—the gramophone records what is in excess of symbolic meaning, as “bodies themselves make noise” (Kittler 46). The conceit, then, is that this sound is some trace of an undeniable and immanent real.

PART II—The Clock's Edge

OK, but what are we actually hearing? The answer is—fans. We are hearing the sound of a massive cooling system. And I dunno, that's a little disappointing on some level, fans at first seem not so sexy. It's disappointing that all of that energy, the lion's share of that environmental impact, is going in the end to something so brutely mechanical. But still, we have to ask, what is getting hot, and why? And that takes us into the engineering, all the way in to the clock cycle of the CPU (Central Processing Unit) found in every computing device—the essence of software execution.

The CPU executes software instructions by turning its switches on and off—these are known in general as “flip-flops” or “state elements” and in contemporary hardware are the electrical components known as transistors. Each transistor is thus the material basis for a binary digit of running code. From a theoretical perspective, 1s and 0s seamlessly switch according to the rules of binary logic. But the material transition between on and off states performed by transistors takes time, and this must be accounted for in the overall functioning of the CPU, which consists of billions of transistors.

As such, CPUs are “synchronous” circuits, which means that they employ a clock to coordinate the timing of their components:

The clock determines when elements with state will write values into internal storage. Any inputs to a state element must reach a stable value (that is, have reached a value from which they will not change until after the clock edge) before the active clock edge causes the state to be updated (Patterson 249).

This “edge” is the transition of a square-wave oscillator from high to low current—simply put, it is the clock’s “tick.” Between ticks of the clock, the circuit is electrically unstable and in a logically indeterminate state. But by each tick, the bits in each transistor have fallen into place. As computer engineering emphasizes, “It is important to specify the timing of reads and writes, because if a signal is written at the same time it is read, the value of the read could correspond to the old value, the newly written value, or even some mix of the two! Computer designs cannot tolerate such unpredictability” (Patterson 249).

Intriguingly, there is something in excess to abstract binary logic that is readily apparent on a hardware level—we just have to consider the temporality of the transistor. As it transitions between off and on states, a transistor acts as a resistor—like a faucet being opened, it allows current to flow, but restricts it from passing freely until it is fully on. By definition, passing current through a resistor always generates heat (I2R * 200 = degrees celsius). As a result, the more often a transistor switches on and off, the longer it acts as a resistor, and thus the more heat it generates. Heat is the byproduct of binary execution, and the massive amount of computation in a data center is going to generate a lot of it.

Heat is also dangerous for the circuit. Transistors are made of silicon, which loses its ability to block current at around 150°C—even a brief time above this temperature can cause components to fail and short out the circuit, potentially melting the chip. The bulk of energy expenditure at a data center is therefore not in powering the computers, but in keeping them cool. A sequence of air conditioning devices at all scales, from heat sinks on the circuit board up to massive HVAC systems are designed to manage thermal transfer and airflow. That means lots and lots of fans.

I want to point, here, to David's essay and the debate between Wendy and Alex Galloway. That split between infrastructure and superstructure, hardware and code, or rather the false imposition of that split, can be located at the point where the programmable abstract universal computer is conceptually separated from the material machine—that is, the binary junction, the clock's edge. What is being blow off by those fans is literally the excess of execution, the temporality of the transistor that is unaccounted for in synchronized logic. The People's Cloud renders the heat of the (symbolic) cut as noise. And excess energy is what defines the ecological impact of the data center. So the elegance of Parker’s project is undeniable on this level of sounding out what has been occluded by ideologies of immaterial data.

PART III–Cutting or Breaking?

This looks like a win for sonic epistemology as mode of media materialism. But having traced out this relationship between sound and execution, I now want to critique it. There is something oddly unsatisfying, aesthetically, in this work, and I actually think it has to do with a latent dualism. And for this, I am turning to Fred Moten's In the Break.

There is an instructive isomorphism between acoustemological sound and Fred Moten’s question of what sound does within the aesthetics of black avant-garde musicians in the mid-twentieth century. How physical sense and symbolic systems play out within that virtuosic artistic milieu surfaces Wendy's warning and challenges some of Parker's aesthetics (I am being a bit unfair to Parker here, his work is excellent, but I've made him paradigmatic).

If it is through a cut that the subject enters into the realm of the symbolic, separating sign from meaning, what Moten calls the break is an expression that circumvents this logic. Thus the shriek of pain, the moan of mourning, and the blues of displacement are black expressions that are essentially aural and semiotically irreducible. Critically, Moten addresses the impulse to classify these sounds as regressive or primitive. Rather, “breakdown is not the negative effect of grammatical insufficiency but the positive trace of a lyrical surplus”—it is the reality that “words don’t go there” (Moten 35) in the music and sound poetry of black experience. Further, free jazz breaks with Eurocentric aesthetics because it denies the premise of the cut, it is

an art and thinking in which emotion and structure, preparation and spontaneity, individuality and collectivity can no longer be understood in opposition to one another. Rather the art itself resists any interpretation in which these elements are opposed (Moten 36).

Coltrane’s Ascension (1966), for example, is not so much a deconstruction of traditional form as a transcendence of form that happens only by admitting wider means and embodied histories.[3]

Moten disabuses us of the notion that we can focus on the materialism of sound and call it a day. Consider the critique that Moten levies against Amiri Baraka, whose 1966 dismissal of white free jazz musician Burton Greene he feels is ultimately trapped in a “singularist, antiphenomenological mode, a thing, a definite thing, a European thing” (Moten 39). Baraka had written of “the expressive and instinctive (natural) reflection that characterizes black art and culture” (Moten 40) in which Burton’s supposed conceptualism had no place. But for Moten, Baraka’s mistake was to valorize the supposedly irreducible physical experience of black music in a way that reinforced the very categorical distinctions he sought to undermine. He writes:

all the unresolvable contradictions of modern European ontological language resonate ... in Baraka’s philosophical voice, most clearly in the utterance (of “being”) that would name, describe, formalize, and therefore obfuscate the ensemble (Moten 41).

Ensemble, for Moten, is an “asystematic, anarchic organizing principle,” (Moten 42) that exceeds oppositional logic and which is at work in free jazz aesthetics.

Thus a turn to noise in opposition to the semiotic is to retain the cut. When we apply this insight to Parker’s excellent work, we can see that it is nonetheless limited by its recourse to a narrow view of materiality. Noise remains noise, and The People’s Cloud benefits from a sense of disconnect between physical and virtual realities—it does not bridge the divide. That the compositions themselves express only mood without a sense of having anywhere to go is precisely the result of interpretation applied without the possibility of real response. What we get despite the appeal to the material is alienation oscillating with fetishization, a dystopian or nostalgic crisis of representation familiar to much contemporary art and theory.

Moten’s view of black aesthetics, however, is instructive as to what unrealized potential there might be for a musical practice critical of digital media. First, we can understand the totalizing digitality of Google et al as a dualistic project to isolate the light, instant, and immaterial experience of data from the contingencies of physical infrastructure where real political power is located. In this way, Google’s is an endeavor that clearly accelerates the dominant and categorizing Eurocentric thought from which it is in fact historically derived. Secondly, for artists to insist on that materiality is a sensible response, but it is akin to what Baraka tried, and is at root reactionary. It does not really offer a way out unless it corresponds with a refusal of the digital. Third, we can ask if there is instead a way in which contemporary sound artists addressing the totalizing effect of data can learn (or have already learned) from the mid-century black avant-garde’s alternative strategies? What does an ensemble approach to the music of data sound like?

I’ll leave off, then, with the speculation that the execution of digital media cannot in fact be placed at the clock’s edge, nor in any symbolic cut that we may find. An ensemble approach to sonic epistemology requires that we think of execution as the broad improvisation working within, through, and beyond data infrastructure.


[1] http://www.thewire.co.uk/audio/tracks/listen-to-ernst-karel-recordings

[2] Matt Parker, description of work http://www.thepeoplescloud.org/documentary/the-peoples-cloud/

[3] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tgrQhBTDfhk


Feld, Steven. "From Ethnomusicology to Echo-Muse-Ecology" in The Soundscape Newsletter 08, June, 1994.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter translated by Geoffrey Young. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Labelle, Brandon. "Auditory Relations" in The Sound Studies Reader edited by Jonathan Sterne. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Patterson, David and Hennessy, John. Computer Organization and Design: The Hardware/software Interface. 4th ed. Burlington: Morgan Kaufmann Publishers, 2009.