Little Furry Oscillators
Expansion and contraction. Allow me to elaborate. After living in Costa Rica for a little over a year, with a pending international biennial on the horizon, as well as our wedding shortly afterwards, I realized that it might be time to start looking for some form of employment befit to my qualifications in anticipation of the next wave of expenses. We were in San Francisco at that time, living off proceeds from a teaching gig at my mom’s summer camp and an honorarium from our performance at the San Francisco Soundwave Festival, and, as those who’ve spent some time in the bay may know, things add up quickly and sooner than I realized, I was scanning the employment pages of a handful of east coast colleges, looking for anything commensurate with my experience. Call it a sign of the times, but there wasn’t much out there. There never is. In spite of that, Pau and I decided to part for a second – her returning to San José from SF and me taking the train east to catch up on some pleasure reading and be in situ in case something came up. Not to mention that it would be easier to procure the final components needed for our show in Panama. At this point, it was the end of August. Three months later, I was still in New York looking for… something amidst the foliage and family. Don’t get me wrong, I applied to my share of things, but the east coast is fairly barren, unless you’re interested in teaching early childhood development or have a doctorate in communications and are interested in teaching video game design. For the record, I’m not, I don’t and I’m not.
Finally, after weeks of searching, I found something that fit the bill. I applied, submitting my application in a downpour as Hurricane Sandy crawled up the coast. Two weeks later, I was on a plane heading back south by way of Houston. While in Houston, the phone rang, asking if I’d be interested in interviewing. I happily said yes, explaining that I had obligations in Panama in January and was waiting to board an international flight in twenty minutes, kindly requesting that they continue correspondence via email since my phone is off-grid in Costa Rica. They did, and three weeks and $160 later, I was back in the states, preparing for my interview, part of which being a 20 minute lecture on the digital media software of your choice. I chose Max/MSP, since its my digital software of choice, has an interesting history, and can be tailored to support several different aspects of new media art. My lecture itself focused on alternative interfaces and in-box data manipulation – starting with simple pitch tracking of an object and running it through the gamut until the entire class is controlling an interactive video environment within the course of 20 minutes. To assist with, and possibly provide a certain je ne said quoi to my lecture, I decided to create a couple objects for my class to interact with. Here’s what I did.
Before I returned to Costa Rica, I decided to redesign and rehouse my entire line of pedals to give them a more professional sheen and allow for standardized sharing of components across the board, generating a handful of pre-drilled shells from previous pedals that needed use – however, unless I was looking at simply presenting a couple hacked 24’s to the class, I’d need to perform some cosmetic surgery on these boxes. Fortunately, I still had a couple pounds of faux fur at my folks’ house, as well as a can or two of 3M 77 – 3 hours later and voila – technicolor tribbles. But what to house in them? Time and space were of an essence, so I decided to consult a couple electronics books for inspiration, among them Nicolas Collins’ Handmade Electronic Music – flipping immediately to the oscillator section, I decided to take a stab at his cascading square-wave synth, ordering a handful of 4093 IC’s and supplementing my build with components that I had lying around. At this point, most of my electronics were in New York anyways – I’d spent the autumn building and realized that Costa Rica’s economy is fairly slow until March or so, so there was no sake in bringing anything custom south if the main objective was just to sell the current stock while the holiday bonuses were still fresh. A couple hours later, I had my first prototype, using 4 oscillators with set frequencies wired to a master pitch control via a photoresistor tweaking the pitch of the first oscillator. It sounded relatively ok – your typical opto-theremin buzz. But I could do better. Working under my usual premise that most things sound better with a dying battery, I wired a second photoresistor to the master power supply and found with a little practice, you could actually produce a wide variety of sounds with it. Three of these boxes were made in total – one red (white with a red LED, actually – red fur is hard to find), one green and one blue, each corresponding to the channel of video it was intended to manipulate.
Unfortunately, I made a slight miscalculation with these boxes – namely, when it comes to impressing a hiring committee of a liberal arts college, don’t come in with your freak flag flying. While nearly every school touts innovation, they also want safe, dependable faculty able to shape the minds of their students to the proper standards commensurate with the merits of their particular academy, or something like that. Not some weirdo builder who comes to town with a couple furry boxes and a lecture that revolves around the concept that the tools are irrelevant provided that the idea is clear. In short, I should have probably waded through an intro lecture to Final Cut Pro, covering the same points as every other intro lecture from Final Cut Pro, trying to glance over the fact that college level education should be slightly more in depth than something that can now be learned in the back of an Apple Store four times per day. But whatever – good things did come from this – thanks to the college flying me in for my interview, I was only a few hundred miles away from a reward ticket on United, and, more importantly, it lead to further experiments with the 4093 IC, as well as the idea to teach a class centered around diy synth construction back in Costa Rica. More on that in future posts. In the meantime, enjoy the video I made of one of these little guys in performance.