Voltage Control and Cybernetic Subjectivity
The emergence of modular synthesizers in the mid-twentieth century introduced not only new sounds, but new ways of making music. The underlying principle of modular synthesis was voltage control, the use of electrical signals to govern every aspect of sound generation, from the frequency of oscillators to the rhythmic and timbral effects imparted by sequencers, filters, and amplifiers. In this paper, I explore the wide-ranging implications of voltage control through a two-part examination of its historical origins in the 1960s and the modular synthesis renaissance of the early 21st century.
Counterintuitively, voltage control is also de-control. Instead of enabling the realization of a preconceived compositional blueprint, modular synthesizers can create a field of interactions whose configuration is specified in advance, but whose exact behavior cannot be fully foreseen. This approach closely corresponds to the idea of control in the discipline of cybernetics, which emerged simultaneously with post-war electronic music around 1950. I will focus on two central principles in cybernetic thinking and modular synthesis: feedback and randomness. Feedback expresses the capacity of a system to regulate its own behavior by connecting its outputs back into its inputs, while randomness is not simply undesirable “noise,” but a necessary source of novelty without which communication would be impossible.
Voltage-controlled modular synthesis, with its recursive wirings and capacity for unexpected effects,constitutes the music-technological basis of what I call cybernetic subjectivity. In contrast to the traditional concept of composing, which is based on the human mastery of an inert material, cybernetic subjectivity posits a non-dualism that recognizes human beings’ place in a complex system of technology, sound, and intention. I argue that the model of subjectivity suggested by voltage control remains viable both as a creative method and a metaphor for the human condition in modernity.