Esoteric Engineering

I was inspired to start this discussion by the latest esoteric modulation podcast with Soma Lab’s Vlad Kreimer. At the beginning of the podcast Vlad talks about the importance of the esoteric approach to engineering. He describes the esoteric as relating to the “dark ocean” of our brains that are completely separate from the part of our brain that identifies as the “self”. I highly recommend you listen to the whole podcast because he’s really interesting, but this concept also felt like one that was starting to happen a little bit in the modular occultism thread that might be interesting to tease out separately. I am by no means an electrical engineer so I don’t have the ability to get super technical, but the super technical is also interesting if people want to get into that. Here’s a few thoughts that jump out to me to start:

  • Vlad is building instruments that are highly expressive, built to last, and require practice – in a sense, a more traditional idea of a musical instrument compared to the DAW or drum machine/sampler/etc. In my modular practice I’m interested in building something that is like an instrument, and so am interested in performative ways to interface with the instrument that differ from the keyboard or the sequencer. Cold Mac’s survey for example is something that always blows me away as a perforative knob.

  • I recently watched @hermbot’s video about maths without maths and they mention the gestalt of maths, which i think is an essential idea to the concept of circuit building as well as instrument building. I love the idea of gestalt, let’s talk about that too, beyond simply interface design (is this topic just about cold mac?)

  • NLC, IFM/ Ciat Lonbarde – there are many makers doing interesting things, of course Soma Labs got the shoutout above too, but these two stand out to me in this conversation – I have learned more about electrical engineering trying to decipher what their various instruments and components do than any other way. I think there’s a good number of people who are dismissive of their inscrutability, or Mannequins poetic descriptions, but, those ways of presenting items to be used for musical purposes I find interesting and I think has a certain amount of value. Of course all these mentioned do it very differently – where whimsical raps might not tell you the traditional name for something in it’s description, NLC will tell you the exact scientific paper the ideas are drawn from and the relevant scientific name without a description of it’s musical application – perhaps these approaches are even opposite lol. NLC and Peter Blasser’s work also both do things like having secret messages on the PCBs and stuff, Peter’s use of certain types of wood for certain purposes (sassafras because it’s sassy, if I remember correctly).

sorry for blabbing, can’t wait to hear what you smart people are thinking on these topics~ :slight_smile:

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For me it’s about the unpredictablity of some of these circuits and pushing analog circuits to their extremes. When unusual things happen between the components. When taken to the edge in cv and audio. They do things that I like. This is inherent in Ciat, Lyra and NLC circuits and is what I like about them. Ciat and Soma particulary focus on the performance aspect, touch control as well as self enclosed instruments. It’s why I work a lot on the Ciat paper circuits. They are simple, but very interesting to me. I own the Lyra and Ether also. The fact that designers are willing to put this stuff out, and not follow the crowd, is what I admire also. I like different. There’s not enough different in the world. Too many designers, follow the crowd and play it safe.

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I am also not remotely experienced in electronics but I resonate strongly with this idea in certain programming flow states. The program is already here, the revelation (un-occlusion?) of the program is faster than the fingers or the syntax, and it takes hold for a moment, using muscle memory and proficiency with the tools and familiarity with the language’s affordances as a conduit for letting itself be channeled into a directory full of files. Interestingly I feel like esoteric programming languages have some interesting potential here as well for acting as sigils or secret/sacred texts, though my personal experiences have tended more towards “ecstatic in the moment but scrutable later”. Part of the difficulty is maybe that clarity is often such an important part of maintaining large, ongoing software projects, which can perhaps get one out of the habit of more occluded approaches. Hopefully there is room for both a library and an altar in one’s programming practice.

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Thanks for the pointer to the interview. It was really good.

I find Vlad’s outlook is very much in synchrony with my own, both as a musician, and as an engineer: A desire to create and play instruments that are deeply expressive and responsive, not simulations of other things, true to and explorations of their core nature, vehicles for many years worth of mastery, music, and performance.

I didn’t take away any sense that Vlad wished his work to be obscure, or deliberately convoluted - indeed, I think quite the opposite. He seems to looking to build instruments whose nature is direct and exposed - to the point of the performer becoming part of the circuit. Much like the nature of a violin is directly apparent, and to play it you become part of the apparatus.

In line for a Pulsar-23 and trying to calmly wait…

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I definitely agree, and in fact something like lyra 8 is highly scrutable – it’s very easy to know what you need to do to make noise, the mechanics of the interaction with the instrument are readily apparent (the question of mastery is of course separate). This ties in with the closely related and interesting discussion that happened in the inscrutability in musical tools thread.

I’m not sure the other examples of NLC or Peter Blasser are necessarily trying to be obscure, but they are certainly not as concerned as Vlad Kreimer is with the interaction between the musician and the object of their engineering. NLC is really interested in chaos, for example, and the science behind circuits seems to be a big motivator for him in his designs – his most famous project is one in which the musician completely removes their body and only leave a few brain cells in a petri dish controlling a giant synthesizer. Peter Blasser I think is a bit harder to categorize and in certain situations probably is trying to be “obscure” and certainly esoteric… but something like the cocoquantus does seem like a whole instrument that is possible to control and master like any instrument…

the esoteric nature of soma labs stuff seems more in their internal mysticism than their external obscurity… the comparison to mannequins that was made in the inscrutability thread relates here - it’s not the language of the creator trying to obscure the mechanical function of their product, but using poetic language to talk about the musical function of the product. With electronic instruments there’s a lot of people primarily interested in the technology, or whose primary approach for understanding their instrument comes from a technical perspective - presenting things as open ended without predefining it’s potential use can be annoying if you have this approach, but it can open up a lot of opportunity for a different kind of interaction with an electronic instrument that is more similar to the interactions we have with acoustic instruments (sort of paraphrasing vlad with this last part i think).

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