[ISEA2011] Paper: Morten Suder Riis – Machine music through the ears of the repairman


The traditional interpretation of music machines often regards technology in a symbolic sense that places the machine in a context where it is regarded as something that fulfils a predetermined task based on instructions mostly existing in a symbolic form such as code (text), notes or other symbolic representations of a desired functionality.

The normal theoretical approach is built upon the symbolic possibilities that the machine heralds, but by examining this history of electronic and computer music through a comprehension of the machine as being something physical, something real, I propose a different understanding of the aesthetics’ of machine music, that furthermore points towards an alternative way of regarding the machine in a broader cultural sense.

In the attempt to frame these fundamental elements of electronic music, I ascribe to a media archaeological method, in which I will propose a different understanding of today’s computer music by making an archaeological examination of mechanical musical instruments, resulting in alternative connections between these early music machines and the current artistic reality of contemporary electronic music. This is done by examining this history through the ears of the repairman, and listening to the voice of the machine itself opposed to the traditional “musical” melodic output. In the history of the mechanical instruments the notion of “machine sound” is as good as absent, but listening to these machines today, one clearly hears that these machines are indeed not a silent mediator of a symbolic musical representation.

The theoretical foundation is derived from Wittgenstein’s account of the machine as symbol and its actions as symbolising a deterministic ordering, and also draws on the theory of Kittler and his technological heuristic reading of Lacan’s three orders.

Furthermore this paper should be seen as a theoretical reflection of the same topics that the music performance Steam Machine Music (submitted as artwork) deals with, thus executing the media archaeological method both as narrative text and multilayered artwork.                  Video: Steam Machine Music

  • Morten Suder Riis holds a masters degree in electronic music composition from The Royal Academy of Music, and is currently on a joint PhD scholarship between Information and Media Studies at The University of Aarhus, Denmark, and The Royal Academy. Besides his academic work he is a very active sound artist having released several albums, played numerous concerts and exhibited sound installations in Denmark, England, France, Germany and China. His artistic focus takes its starting point in the post-digital aesthetic, but recently his work has taken a turn towards incorporating mechanical instruments in an attempt to return to a more rudimentary experience of machine music. mortenriis.dk

Full text (PDF) p. 2042-2047