Listening Session #1

The Reaktor Rhythmicon

In order to be able to listen to the Rhythmicon and thus start the first listening session of this work, I have to play tricks. The recordings made of the second machine by Joseph Schillinger in the 1940s are hard to get hold of at the Smithsonian. Videos of the third version can be found online, in which Andrey Smirnov demonstrates the machine. But these only give a limited impression. So I built myself a Rhythmicon. Not in hardware, I didn’t drill any discs, but in software: In Native Instrument’s programming environment Reaktor, I put together the machine’s operating principle out of clock pulses and square wave oscillators as accurately as possible. I am anything but an expert in Reaktor, but with the help of some online tutorials I was able to quickly design a set-up that corresponds most closely to the Rhythmicon. The strict functionalism of the machine, which is constructed around the principle of the overtone series, makes this relatively easy.

I needed a sound generation that produces short, percussive square waves that oscillate according to the overtone series as the integer multiples of an adjustable fundamental pitch. At the same time, these sounds had to be in the same rhythmic relationship to each other. What is created in the original Rhythmicon by the perforation of the two rotating discs – the proportionality between pitches and pulses – I recreated by sending an adjustable basic tempo and an adjustable basic pitch multiplied by the numbers 1 to 12 to 12 sound generation macros. Macros are a kind of folder structure in which synthesis modules can be grouped together and then managed more easily. Each of the macros contains a square wave oscillator, an amplitude envelope and a trigger clock. The tempo applied to the macros controls their trigger clock, so that the different pulses are generated in integer ratios. A mixer sums the output signals of the 12 pulses and, unlike the original Rhythmicon, allows their volume to be adjusted by fader.
My Reaktor Rhythmicon works quite well. But how does it sound? Quickly, sounds can be created that are similar to the demonstration video above. But since the sound of the virtual instrument, as it is, still sounds very sharp in the treble range and, on the other hand, completely without space, I send the Rhythmicon through an amp simulation, a minimal chorus effect to make the sound a bit wider, and finally into a small reverb room. This already gives me a sound impression that at least reminds me of the Rhythmicon concert I heard at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in 2016. With an additional Saturator effect in the signal path, I slightly distort the sound. The mighty One, the basic tone and pulse, now starts jarring a little.

One by one, I add more pulses. First the 4s. The result still sounds like the enhanced metronome sound of any digital audio workstation (DAW). Then I add the pulse of 2, take out the pulse of 4 and put 3 against the pulse of 2. The 6s pulse supports the ternary scheme, the 9s underline it even further. Then I add the 5 and it begins to swirl frantically around the 6. A complex sound pattern quickly emerges, but the structuring of the pulses along their ascending pitches allows focussing on and listening to individual layers. Cowell’s rhythm pedagogy seems more and more comprehensible to me, while I remove the 9-pulse on my Reaktor Rhythmicon and add the 7 instead. One by one, I pull up the faders and the pulse pattern begins to shimmer. Like jingling marbles, the different tones tumble back and forth between the mighty creaking One. The whole thing sounds chaotic and yet orderly at the same time. However, it has long been impossible to keep counting it all. Only the lower notes can still be identified. Instead of clearly comprehensible pulses, I start hearing a groove, a rhythmic figure moving in itself, in(to) this tumbling.

By removing certain pulses, I tear holes in the wavy pattern. In return, the higher-numbered runs can be heard more clearly again. I get a little stuck on the combination 1, 2, 3, 6, 9 and 12. It works well – it is grooving. Which is, of course, mainly an effect of my not being used enough to rhythmic dissonances in the Cowellian sense: the rhythmic relationships remain manageable due to the common ternary structure. The pattern could, for example, be heard classically as a 12/8 figure. But of course that would not be in Cowell’s sense at all. And it is by no means unambiguous. The pulse of 9 irritates this impression. That’s perhaps the exciting thing about this little Rhythmicon jam. It’s true that I quickly fall back into patterns that resemble classical time signatures. But they always become interesting whenever they are made ambiguous by other, conflicting pulses.

I continue to randomly try out different combinations, usually only adding so many layers that they can still be heard apart to some extent. After a while, however, I start again to let all the pulses run parallel and wave against each other. Here, in front of my glowing laptop display and under the shimmering sound of the headphones, this Rhythmicon becomes tangible to me in a peculiar way and yet at the same time remains so removed from all futurhythmic timeliness. The functional principle of the whole-numbered, well-ordered pulses opens up differently in listening and fader-sliding, and yet it all remains a Reaktor tinkering that neither approaches the materiality of the whirring perforated discs nor the grandiose avant-garde gesture of the original machine. But this is precisely what becomes audible again: Even this first futurhythmachine is never completely subsumed in one of its dimensions – for example, in its theoretical programme. It is always a technical and a discursive, an aesthetic and an epistemic machine at the same time.

This listening session is a translation from the book ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen by Malte Pelleter. The book (in german language) can be accessed here.

Citation: Pelleter, Malte (2020): ›Futurhythmaschinen‹. Drum-Machines und die Zukünfte auditiver Kulturen. Hildesheim: Olms & Universitätsverlag. 130-133.