Sean Williams > Talking of legacy and archives…

Just spent a fascinating couple of hours going through 5 boxes of random bits and pieces of hardware all earmarked for being thrown away.

Since I’m a bit of a scavenger anyway, I was happy as a pig in s*** digging aound amongst old bits of circuit boards, stepped switches, transformers etc. Some interesting finds included two Aries 300 modular synth modules – the AR-314 VCF (12dB/oct low-pass) and the AR-327 Multimode Filter. A capacitor on the AR-314 had made a mess but otherwise the units look in excellent condition.

Other bits included a bare PCB labelled STEIM 1997 with the designer’s name and each sector’s function nicely silk-screened onto the surface. Maybe not much use now, but imagine how valuable such an object would be to a musicologist, organologist or cultural historian 25 years from now!

Following on from my last post about learing from the past it is no surprise that STEIM, like many other organisations, does not have the resources to sort out all the bits of hardware and to archive all of the unique and amazing work that has been produced here by hardware designers. For me, the musical performance or compositional act extends right back to include the hardware designer as a fundamentally important agent in the process, so having a look inside these boxes is almost like reading the marginalia on a score or treatise.

Yet STEIM is fully active and needs to be able to make things now without worrying too much about saving broken circuit boards from prototypes that perhaps never worked. So often, the only technical documentation is probably the actual hardware that the performer takes away with them to perform with, and the other versions of hardware get recycled, or sit around gathering dust for years until the space is needed by some other piece of equipment.

What can be done with all this stuff? A museum is out of the question since the really successful products would almost all be out in the world, and the philosophy seems to be to make things to be used, not to be put in glass cases. This suggests a maintenance program to fix what is broken and to maintain what is useful, yet who will use this older technology – to whom is it useful or of value? Why use precious resources to preserve things that may not be used or usable?

The parallel with Early Music Studies is clear. When people (like me) start to show an interest in repertoire of early electronic music, one of the most important areas is that concerning the hardware – the tools used to produce the sounds – both timbrally and performatively. Unlike Early Music, we are in a priviledged position of having access to some of these early electronic instruments, but for how long?

I would be interested to hear from anybody with any ideas about what sort of things should be preserved (where to draw the line) and how to archive it, display it, or make it available for research, or even if any of this would be a worthwhile use of resources.

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