Architecture, music and diversion

Introduced at Berlin's February Transmediale, Coïncidence Engines, by the Quebecois [The User], with its 1240 radio alarm clocks — beyond its obvious homage to Ligeti’s metronomes — provides an interesting perspective on working in a duo. With the diversion of their materials, via the prism of new technologies and the new social relations they create, and the poetic overlapping of structure, space and sound, the aesthetic and exploratory universe of [The User] has discovered an ideal configuration for new growth. Which beggars a few explanations from Emmnuel Madan, the duo’s "musician".

[The User] is above all the encounter of an architect and a composer. What attracted you about working together to explore the acoustic potential of space and technology?
I met Thomas (McIntosh) in 1996, and we started working together shortly thereafter. The desire to work together was connected to solid matter, which we both wanted to explore at the time. On the one hand, there was the project about Montreal's grain elevator, a building which Thomas was already interested in, since he had already completed his architectural thesis on it; and, on the other, the dot matrix printer orchestra, which is an idea that I’d been developing for some time already. These two projects became, respectively, Silophone, and The Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers, our two first productions as a collective. These two projects were already ingrained with the concerns that would remain ours until today; those concerns are the relationship between humans and their technological environment, the acoustic potential of space, and therefore the conjunction of architecture and music.

Indeed, "Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers", revisited in a new quartet version, was a considerably curious re-appropriation of office technology. How did you design this diversion of a utilitarian object?
We decided to work with dot matrix printers because they were extremely available at the time; everybody was getting rid of them because the ink jet and laser models were becoming more affordable. We were trying to probe our relationship with the utilitarian object, but beyond that purely conceptual aspect of the project, the Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers wouldn’t have worked without the surprisingly rich musical potential of these instruments. Once it’s been tamed, the dot matrix printer is capable of producing an array of sounds that a composer can really sink his teeth into. I totally agree that our approach was based on diversion. I would add, however, that in order to divert an object "correctly", you first have to understand the normal uses and operation of that object. The first texts we printed were simple ones, in the form of a paragraph. We soon realized that, regardless of the linguistic or semantic content of a paragraph, the sound produced by its printing would be the same. By luck, we discovered that printing an entire line made up of a single character— no matter which one—led to a stable harmonic result…. By varying the number of characters or the spaces between them, we were capable of controlling the meter, the rhythm of the sound. All of these principles appear obvious when you mention them, but we only managed to discover them after experimenting with them. This process of learning about the object, and learning about its concrete physical properties, is what makes it possible to divert it successfully.

You would soon turn your work towards new technologies, cell phones and the internet, which were just emerging, at the time. "Siliphone" was a sound "streaming" project, which took place in a highly symbolic place, in Montreal...
It was a logistically complicated, time consuming, and expensive project, and yet, conceptually speaking, it was incredibly simple. Which is why, in fact, Siliphone, was so successful. The most important and decisive decision we were to make was to make sure we didn’t approach the project as "auteurs". We decided not to show the audience a sound or video recording on Silo 5 as a finished product; instead, we decided to break down the barrier between the creator and the audience. As a result, what we brought to Silophone was more like the container than the content—the major idea being that the development of the content shouldn't be in our control, and the goal being to see what could be sponteously generated by social, musical and sound phenomena. Silophone should be seen as a collaboration between the two of us, who designed and built the instrument, and the public, which was invited to play it. That perspective, which is fundamental, is a reflection of our political views, and of our desire to make sure the public will continue to have access to the building in the more distant future. By deliberately setting up a public sound space with no rules, no restrictions, we were knowingly taking a few risks: lackluster content, cacophony, or simply silence. But the most gratifying part of this experience, was hearing the first shreds of music emerging from the noise.

"Siliphone" is still ongoing today, isn’t it?
Yes, it is. This year will be its tenth year. The project was only supposed to last one year, at first (it was part of the millennium celebrations). However, after that first year, it became obvious that we had to let it go on. One of Silophone’s defining characteristics is its ephemeral quality. Although it’s an architectural project, there’s no architectonic impact on the building, just a sonic, therefore intangible, transformation. The electronic equipment we installed in the building won’t have a lasting impact on it. If we were to remove them, nobody would notice it at all…

Your latest creation, "Coincidence Engines", where you replace 100 metronomes with 1240 alarm clocks, are a homage to the composer Ligeti? In a way, there's the same
aesthetic diversion of the object…

György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes (1962) was already an important influence for [The User] when we were working on the Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers. We really appreciate the humorous approach used by the Fluxus movement, borde-ring on the hoax, but always with a hidden, more serious message, as opposed to the contemporary art scene, which often seems to lack a sense of humor. When Ligeti died, in 2006, we returned to an idea we’d had before, which was to pay homage to the composer. Our long established theme, of exploring our technological environment and society’s relationship with it, we paid some attention to how we measure time. In addition to the using the diversion tactics we spoke about earlier, there's another important aesthetic factor, which is the concrete. In Ligeti's metronome performance, like with our dot matrix printers, the physical, almost sculptural presence of the objects themselves is just as important as the sound which they create. Even if, theoretically, it were possible to simulate a 100 metronome concert by electronically multiplying the recording of a single metronome, the result would be considerably less interesting. The same goes for the Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers, and even more so for Coincidence Engine One: Universal People’s Republic Time. It was impossible to foresee the result—be it architecturally, sculpturally, or acoustically—of putting around 1200 clocks in a closed space, until it had really been done. Meaning that this is a piece that can't be reduced to its strict technical or conceptual description; you have to experience it concretely in order to truly understand it completely.

"Coincidence Engines" is actually a series of pieces. As such, it illustrates the continuity of your work over time, which has led to the evolution of your creations, as we saw with "Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers".
Exactly so. Symphony and Coincidence Engines are both a series, families of pieces. In my view, using such an approach gives you the possibility of exploring a given theme from different angles, and consequently with greater depth. Even if each of the pieces that make up the Coincidence Engines series should be strong enough to be shown alone, showing them together provides the viewer an overview of the global evolution of the series. So at the heart of Coincidence Engine Two are
the same clocks used in Coincidence Engine One; however, as a result of a major electronic alteration, we could make these clocks accurate to the thousandth of a second.
Consequently, there’s an opposition between the non-deterministic approach in Coincidence Engine One, where we didn’t use any tools to synchronize the 1200 clocks – which led to increasing discrepancy between the different units, and an accumulation of chaos throughout the group – and the determinism in Coincidence Engine Two, where the movements of each clock are minutely synchronized by a centralized monitoring system. In fact, we’re currently working on Coincidence Engine Three, which will synthesize the contrasting approaches of the first two installments of the series; instead of using electronic clocks, we'll return to using mechanical metronomes like those used in Ligeti's Poème Symphonique.

Published in the Digitalarti Mag #2.

Digitalarti Mag, the international digital art and innovation magazine.

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