Let’s open this post with music. If you aren’t familiar with the late composer Roland Kayn’s work, listen to one of his Electronic Symphonies, or at least sample a few minutes. The album cover links to his official Bandcamp.
I found out about Kayn’s music through a thread on Lines, and it gets only more interesting as I looked into his story. Kayn was an exponent of combining music with cybernetics, a field I gloss as “the study of feedback systems.” At its heart, it’s a mathematical study; Norbert Wiener’s original text Cybernetics is chock full of integrals and differential equations. As the field developed, it overlapped significantly with medicine, social sciences, humanities, and especially critical theory. I do hope to read Wiener’s Cybernetics and The Human Use of Human Beings, but haven’t gotten around to them, so consider my understanding of the field surface-level — I’m mainly concerned with cybernetics as it relates to Kayn’s music.
Kayn began making cybernetics-influenced electronic works in university electronic music studios in the 60’s. We don’t know what exact tools, but Pickles’ 2016 dissertation Cybernetics in music surmises that the equipment back then was something along the lines of tape machines and basic analog processors and generators: oscillators, noise, filters, reverbs, envelope generators, ring modulators. More intriguingly, recordings of his works were entirely real time — a stark contrast to the offline tape-based processes of the contemporary musique concrète movement. Critic Frans van Rossum wrote in 2011 that Kayn worked with a “network of electronic equipment” and a “a system of signals or commands that it can obey and execute” (quote also via Pickles).
EDIT 2023-12-20: An earlier version of this post credited the technology to Kayn alone, but I have since been properly schooled: it was Jaap Vink who actually built the system, as Sascha Frere-Jones wrote in 4Columns. Given the intimacy that cybernetic musicians necessarily have with their tools, his fingerprints are deeply embedded in Kayn’s electronic works. The sources I looked at didn’t make this clear to me, and most don’t even mention Vink by name. Vink referred to himself as a technician, not a composer, and it’s possible that the concealment of his status was his preference.
That these works were likely made on 60’s equipment, were recorded in real time, and sound varied and dynamic over long stretches of time should impress anyone familiar with modular synths. The implications that his musical systems had some kinds of self-generating and autonomous properties makes this even more remarkable. Now Kayn’s output is more than just great music, it’s now a puzzle. How did he make this music? Can we recreate part of his process?
I don’t think we’ll ever get definitive answers. Kayn died in 2011, Vink in January 2023. While there’s a small body of writing about them, little of it is technical. We can only guess, but we have some resources that helps us with the guessing process — the Lines thread I mentioned, and also La Synthèse Humaine, a YouTube channel run by musician Émile Zener a.k.a. Gunnar Haslam. He takes direct inspiration from Kayn, and unlike me has extensively studied the cybernetics literature. I won’t take the time to resummarize the Lines thread or Zener’s work — just go check them out for yourself — instead I am interested in expanding on them.
Making a cybernetic LFO
It’s perhaps easiest if I first walk you through a concrete example of building a cybernetic patch. We begin with the simple harmonic oscillator, which can be implemented with the system of ordinary differential equations
and the following block diagram:
This comprises two integrator stages in a feedback loop. An integrator is a unit that continuously accumulates the input signal (you can get something like a leaky integrator with a one-pole lowpass filter with a very low cutoff). The triangles are simple amplifiers multiplying by constants; one must be negative and the other positive. There are two outputs, A and B, which produce a sine and cosine wave respectively. The system does need an initial “kick” to generate sine waves, by e.g. initially setting \(a(0) = 1\) and \(b(0) = 0\).
Assume that the oscillator is tuned to oscillate at a slow 1 Hz. It is an “LFO” in the literal sense that it oscillates at a low frequency, but critically we aren’t generating it with an actual oscillator module, and the oscillation is an emergent property of the system that we built. We can turn this into an audible synthesis patch by using the two outputs, A and B, as amplitudes, multiplying them with VCAs by two saw oscillators with static frequencies. Mixing the oscillators together, we have a simple looping alternation between two “notes” even though we have no actual sequencer here.
However, the oscillators and VCA’s aren’t part of a loop, and their output does not influence the rest of the system. For reasons that I’ll justify later, we loop in their VCAs by running an envelope follower on the output of the VCAs, and using it to modulate the coefficients of other VCAs that are in the loop.
(I’m misusing notation here a bit; the arrows into the loop VCAs are not actually setting the gain, but wiggling around the gain it had in the previous diagram. The intentions of this diagram are more romantic than schematic — the point is to illustrate the closing of loops, not to specify an exact algorithm.)
This isn’t an actual simple harmonic oscillator anymore, but it mimics the core behavior of one. However, if we start changing any parameter, the core behavior of the “LFO” starts changing too. Everything interacts with everything, and nothing is isolated or purely upstream or purely downstream.
We’ll return to this patch and expand it into something more compelling in sound design terms. Let’s go theoretical for a bit and explain what we’re actually trying to do here.