Using Noise to Facilitate Group Attunement
In this note I will explore the use of noise to facilitate attunement between two people or within a small group. I designed a musical instrument with approximately 36 copper nodes, each approximately 1/8” thick. Six of them are approximately ¼” thick. They protrude from and extend into a wooden box approximately 18” x 12” x 4”. They are wired together in various combinations together with other electronic components including switches, potentiometers, resistors, capacitors and several simple oscillators and filters, in the manner of a simple analog synthesizer. While not chaotic, the wiring schematic essentially is random and inspired by a variety of factors including planful connections, hypothetical (and sometimes failed) initiatives, dead-ends and cul-de-sacs, and boredom. The larger copper nodes are consolidation points for smaller clusters of circuits. The system is powered by a 9VDC battery. Its output goes to a small built-in speaker but there also is a line-out to connect to a larger sound system.
One of the most important aspects of the instrument is that it uses galvanic skin response to conduct low-voltage electricity through the human body of the user. By grasping and applying varying degrees of pressure to the copper nodes, and utilizing the other switches and dials, one creates sound. The sound either can be melodic or noisy depending on how the controls are deployed. One also can connect nodes using wires soldered to alligator clips.
There are at least 36(!) (36 factorial) combinations (not counting switches and potentiometers). It is not possible to generate the same sound twice, especially as resistors and capacitors are switched in line to decelerate or potentiate the flow of current. There also is no systematic way to explore the instrument’s possibilities. Every occasion for its use is a new adventure. Notwithstanding I would hesitate to characterize it as “indeterminate” in the John Cage sense because it does not depend upon or refer to chance operations or an iterated series of contingent or coincidental outcomes. Because there are so many potential results the instrument establishes conditions of possibility. It focuses attention not on the completion of a finished musical work but rather the process of its composition. One becomes lost in the process of creating sounds. Time no longer progresses in a linear, step-wise way.
The tentative success of the first instrument spawned a half dozen others, which although similar in concept varied I numerous minute particulars. Interconnecting alligator-clipped wires creates an electronic connection between units. More profoundly, evolved primates can hold hands and grip the nodes on each others’ instruments in, say, a circle. Activity on one instrument thereby affects the nature of the sound generated/emitted by another. This also multiples the number of possible interconnections considerably; there is a proliferation of possibilities. Philosophically the outcome is akin to Melville’s “squeezing of the hands,”* a communal endeavor with a variety of possible outcomes. The boundaries between individual and group initiative become less distinct and subordinated to the communal activity of attunement. At the same time one becomes more aware of one’s individual contribution to a group outcome in a tactile, visceral way. Even as one identifies the parameters of one’s separateness, one becomes mindful of the role of the group in calibrating shared expectations, intentions and behavior.
*Chapter 94 of Moby Dick. Melville is one of the greatest novelists of all time. He envisions a culture that permits many different perspectives to cohabitate. He imagines a world in which purposeful human activity is balanced with the factors that constrain it, both natural and social. Culture is produced by interactions between people. On such occasions, we attune ourselves to communal practices and become sensitized to the corresponding intuitions they evoke. They are created, manifest themselves, and we become aware of them (to the extent we are) only within the space of this “clearing.”