Feedback, Modularity, and the Global Subjects of Electronic Soundmaking

Article by David Novak
In this paper, I trace out material relationships of technological soundmaking that connect the political economies of contemporary globalization with emergent practices of electronic music. I analyze the recent historical shift from one configuration of sonic and social production - that of feedback, which is closely associated with Noise, circuit-bending, and underground music -- to a more recent praxis of modularity, which has become manifested in DIY manufacturing and the rise of makerspaces as sites of entrepreneurial creativity. In both cases, I am interested in the transcultural imaginaries that have emerged through the global circulation of electronic music technologies, as soundmaking techniques interface with socioeconomic paradigms. Feedback and modularity reveal modes of listening and creating music that align with transnational electronics markets to generate a discursive politics of global sound.
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Since its emergence as a grand metaphor in cybernetic systems theory (Wiener 1948), feedback has become a central rubric - both metaphorical and material - for representing the problems of control and agency in a technological society, as well the possibilities of dialogic interaction and networked communication. The sound of positive feedback was foregrounded in the postwar history of electronic and popular music, emerging simultaneously through the improvised circuitry of David Tudor and Elaine Radigue and in the electric guitar solos of Jimi Hendrix and the Velvet Underground. But the rise of feedback also reflected contemporary conditions of social experience in contemporary media networks. Feedback made audible the emergent interconnection of diverse actors scattered across a a global circulation which projected new conceptions of intercultural relationships and networked creativity. Feedback highlighted the reflexivity of globalized culture: in the communicative links between separated individuals, the repetitive loops of media, and the overloaded technological productions that amplify and reinforce conflicts between subjects and cultures. Feedback became iconic of what Anthony Giddens called “the fundamentally recursive character of social life,” in his concept of “structuration” that exposed the give-and-take of social relations as a structural process of mediation in economic distributions (Giddens 1979:69).

Feedback is inscribed in the core methods and materials of electronic music as a contemporary performance practice. Its circuits represent a basic element of the technological “sound system,” inscribed in its modes of amplification and channel mixing; in general communication, feedback is a problem, an overload, a mistake, the sound of a speaker drowned out by his equipment; and musically, a positive feedback loop characterizes the most extreme results of reimagining and reconfiguring the uses of technological things. With its interplay between metaphor and materiality, feedback elaborates on the broader ontological turn in the humanities by unpacking the ways that electronics have enabled new ways of being with sounds as creative agents. Sonically, feedback provides an in-your-face example of the way technologies confront and change historical epistemologies of aesthetics, control, and authorship in musical sound through an aesthetics of “nonlinearity, circular causality, interdependency, self-organization, complexity, and emergence” (Sanfillipo & Valle 2013). Feedback articulated a shifting consciousness around cultural globalization and the emergence of cosmopolitian subjectivities.

Feedback articulated a shifting consciousness around cultural globalization and the emergence of cosmopolitian subjectivities

In the 1980s and 1990s, Noise emerged as an electronic music genre in the nascent transnational media networks that shuttled cassettes across oceans, through mail order networks, and eventually to interpersonal exchanges, to generate a wildly imaginative loop of stylistic creativity. Its feedback was both discursive and distributive: an endlessly emergent (and submergent) flow that never quite settled into a consistent form or cultural location. But this chaotic network was enacted through very unique forms of technological practice, especially in mixer feedback and chains of effects pedals. Noise was a particular sound of this broader global feedback, which in turn helped its creators imagine the genre as a “self-organizing system,” a transcendent aurality uncontained by nationality, commodification, or historical style.

Modularity represents a different kind of “handmade” production of electronic music technology via a small-scale “DIY” cottage industry that stresses highly individualized practices of self-constructed units. But in its horizontal commodification, it also manifests an idealized practice of neoliberal creativity, which links the decentralizing economic precarity of Western economies with the aspirational economics of the Global South. In the overdetermined globalism of the late 20th century, transnational commodities are imagined to link nations together in a networked mediascape. This has been particularly crucial in highly mediated economies - in the case of Noise, Japan and the United States - in which feedback appeared simultaneously as a hopeful possibility for global connection and an ironic subversion of previous colonial models of unidirectional communication. Modularity reflects substantially different imaginaries of postcolonial exchange, based in new hierarchies of neoliberal consumption, and flexible identities of reproductive labor in which “makers” construct a participatory space of shared creativity. In each of these contexts, we begin to see how music technologies are vitalized differently in different moments of globalization. In contrasting feedback with modularity, I am broadly concerned with recognizing how electronic music – even in its weirdest, most unpopular forms – is always in dialogue with economic conditions that catalyze distinct practices and conceptions of creative subjectivity.

In contrasting feedback with modularity, I am broadly concerned with recognizing how electronic music – even in its weirdest, most unpopular forms – is always in dialogue with economic conditions that catalyze distinct practices and conceptions of creative subjectivity

This historical shift in the imagination of electronic music cultures is worth noticing in its specific musical practices. In the 1980s and 1990s, when Noise began to be conceived as a musical genre and circulated as a transnational object of popular media, globalization heralded a subversion of historical loops of Westernization, industrialization, and colonial development, shifting toward a postnational landscape of diversified meta-connections. The rise of neoliberal models moved art markets toward contemporary models of mutual influence, in a kind of intertextual aesthetics of networked capitalism and its cultural “flows,” through which globalization fed equally well into hegemonic formats of exchange and unique local emergences. Arjun Appadurai’s theory of “scapes” analyzed this new paradigm through radical reconceptions of globalized space and place, that were nonetheless experienced through particular practices on the ground of quotidian life (Appadurai 1996). This “production of locality” was inexorably tied to socioeconomic aspirations that fed back from the local into a spatial network that required more connections, more interfaces, more dissolved boundaries, more escape routes from hegemonic histories. The rise of Noise music in the 1990s, and in particular “Japanoise,” embodied the subversive possibilities of this feedback between the local and the global. Its mysterious sound, its radical performance practices, and its placelessness and centerlessness perfectly captured this postmodern chaos, heralding the viral possibilities of global culture in a post-Cold War, post-national, networked world.

Both feedback and modularity are technological contexts, and conceptualizations, of intersubjectivity. They materialize in electronic sound different contemporary paradigms of “mutual understanding,” at once demanding and refusing a Husserlian mode of affective and phenomenological correspondence with the Other. Each differently frames cosmopolitanism as a radical transcultural identification (or as Sara Ahmed puts it, “orientation”) of multiple forms of difference (Ahmed 2006, 2010). Each uses the transformations of musical sound to revise older models of cultural exchange (vulgar Orientalism as the overload of pure cultural appropriation) toward a more interactional and intersectional model of global cultural production (usually operating from the standpoint of an individual “module” in the chain). But they are also emblematic of the thing-making power of technology. Electronic music is often reduced to commodification: not just of ideas, but also of sound objects and their iconic, metonymic relationships with the electronic tools that appear to produce them. Pedals, modules, oscillators: all seem to “generate” or “effect” sounds in their linear transformations of electrical signals.

Modularity represents a contemporary shift away from the decentering and subversive practices of feedback in Noise and circuit-bending subcultures. In this more instrumentalized application of electronic sound, globalization is a tweakable, voluntary, participatory and entrepreneurial form of economic and social relations. Of course, the technological manipulations of feedback are at the root of some of the fundamental sonic features of modularity, through bending, hacking, and tweaking practices that radically transform source objects. But while feedback stresses the placeless, centerless, and objectless aspects of the network, through which individual sources are obfuscated in a total mass of sound, modularity proposes the horizontal integration of sounds and processes into a common system. In this, modularity brings far more attention to the control features of the sound-making process, and the role of particular technological materials in producing the larger gestalt of sound.   

Modular synthesis, as I argue below, is deeply reflective of ideologies of neoliberal globalization that stress entrepreneurial creativity. To borrow George Yudice’s concept, modularity is a form of the “expediency of culture” (Yudice 2003) that synthesizes technological developments in arts and culture to reimagine education, policy, and geopolitical relations. Without insisting on a total separation between feedback and modularity, I argue that these changing practices of electronic soundmaking do not derive from a linear progression of technological advancement, but emerge from, and contribute to, diverse and specific practices of creative subjectivity. 

Let me briefly return to feedback and the overflow of its cultural conceptualization in Noise, and in particular the generic imagination of “Japanoise” (Novak 2013, 2018). In the 1980s, Noise was already widely in use as a loose but inclusive term for “experimental,” “industrial,” “hardcore,” and other “extreme” forms. It was a name for everything on the margins of musical circulation: recordings with no consumer market, sounds that could never be confused with any kind of normal music, performances that pushed the boundaries of entertainment or art. But with a new stream of input from Japanese artists, new confusions between the overlapping terms of “Noise,” “Noise Music,” and “noisy music” helped create a space for imagining a global subculture. In this context, the term “Japanoise” seemed to represent a more particular and discrete form of Noise from even further beyond the fringe. As Japanese recordings were differentiated from local “Noise Music” in the independent media networks of the 1990s, Noise became something that “came from Japan” but was sourced from an abstracted global modernity that extended beyond any individual sound or soundmaker. The networked conceptualization of Japanoise helped support North American and European beliefs that the distant Japanese Noise “scene” was bigger, more popular, and more definitive of this emergent global style.

Feedback emerged as a metaphor for the uneven reciprocities of global cultural exchange. It was a byproduct of new media circulations, a way of transforming the status of place and nation in new global contexts, and an experience of musical subjectivity that highlighted new ecologies of technological expression. But crucially, feedback was also a technological production that connected disparate sites of noisemaking. Feedback is often generated through a mixer (sometimes described as “no-input mixing” often associated with Nakamura Toshimaru) in which signal is fed back into itself, and in many cases fed through a chain of small guitar “effect” pedals. Each pedal modifies the sound input and changes the sound wave electronically, transforming the original sound which is not lost but “effected” by the process.

Feedback is not a linear process of transformation, it is a recursive cycle. As the network is fed back into itself, any change at any point in the loop transforms the entire output of the system in ways that do not refer back to any particular sound source. In this process, discrete electronic sound technologies are folded into a holistic process of mutual transformation. This is the paradox of experiencing an apparently totalizing global network as an individual in a local context. On one hand, the vision of a closed and self-contained system, on the other, the unpredictable connections and unexpected outcomes that continually alter the relations between individual sources. Feedback amplifies a core problem of geopolitical relations that challenges the authorship of technological media. Its loops highlight the difficulties of tracing something in the global field - whether a sound, a practice, or an idea - back to its historical site of emergence. Feedback refuses recognition of its sources and its effects: it is unclear what aspects of the total mass are related to any particular original source, and which result from the changes of circulation.

Hacking, Making, Racking, Repairing

Modularity makes different demands at a very different moment for global technology and culture. Represented by the pragmatic verbiage of “making,” “bending,” and especially “hacking” (note that there is no “noising”), the rise of modularity imagines a flexible network based in horizontal interface, physical integration, and mutual translatability. Hacking can be a form of local input in which individuals can potentially intervene into a larger network, but it can also be a collective technique of repairing systems – of rewiring broken circuits, of kludging uneven connection, of improving imperfect interfaces – as a transformative technological praxis. For many local musicians, to participate in this global field of creative feedback around electronic sound is not to be a “maker” but a “fixer.” Hacking rewires the stress on universal modularity in ways that can recognize the inherent instabilities of neoliberal economies, and adapt to specific ecologies of technological production and repair in the Global South.

Here I take inspiration from Lauren Flood’s recent ethnography of “makerspaces” “hackathons” and other contexts in her 2016 dissertation Building and Becoming: DIY Music Technology in New York and Berlin, which describes ways in which electronic music technologies have interfaced with emergent models of entrepreneurial self-making. In neoliberal societies, the cultivation of the self as a “productive” cultural citizen, she says, is an ongoing and recursive process of “permanent prototyping” through which sound, self, and instrument are continually remade as a “DIY” (do-it-yourself) amateur production. In this context, electronic sound technologies have been reinterpreted as a kind of decentralized cultural policy that fuses technological progress, social empowerment and collective educations. The “Maker Movement,” Flood argues, infuses the hobbyism of amateur inventors with the flash of tech start-ups, conflating the “numerous tensions between DIY as an alternative to or an escape from commercialism with the call to profit-driven entrepreneurship” (Flood 2016: 20). The production of electronic instruments, pedals, and modules appears as a micro-scale political project of participatory civics. DIY technologies appear to be a craft production outside of corporate influence, but which are nevertheless seamlessly compatible with commodity circulations, and can be “tweaked” to quickly and fluidly respond to ever more particular demands of a complex growing consumer base. As a reflexive context of recycling and repurposing technologies, electronic music, like craft beer, becomes a “small batch revolution.” Its smallness validates DIY entrepreneurial behaviors as productive and politically responsive, capable of pivoting to accommodate environmental and economic changes, as well as catering to (and producing) specific communities of taste.

It is worthwhile to trace this contemporary political valence back to the 1980s and 1990s “hacker culture,” which is often presented as rooted in anarchic practices of “culture jamming.” In this form of “hactivism,” a disconnected group of activists and pranksters would rewire and manipulate computer systems to create confusion and unpredictable outcomes. The gender-bending Barbie Liberation Organisation, for example, snuck into toy stores across the United States to switch the electronic “voice boxes” of Barbies and GI Joes; Barbie growled “Keep fighting, men!,” while the soldiers chirped “Let’s go shopping!”

The 1980s and 1990s also saw the rise of “circuit bending,” which manipulates consumer electronics by altering factory-printed circuit boards, or using junk electronics to create new “handmade” instruments. This is usually done by opening up some piece of equipment (often a small synthesizer, clock, or toy) that generates sound with a pre-printed circuit board and re-routing the electrical charge. To “bend” a circuit, a resistor alters the intended path of the electrical signal, forcing the energy into an alternate route. New connections can be made temporarily in an improvisational mode, or made permanent with variable resistors soldered into the existing circuit along with other mods that allow a user to create a unique electronic device from a mass-produced piece. Not only is circuit-bending a technically simple way to produce unusual electronic sounds, it is also inexpensive. New instruments can be made out of junk, often discarded children’s toys. A classic example is the repurposed “Speak ‘n’ Spell” (often associated with circuit-bending pioneer Reed Qubais Ghazala) which jumps points in the circuit to cause the device to randomly spit out strings of the synthesized phonemes that it uses to construct and “speak” words.

Hacking is more than just a modification of technology. These practices demonstrate to artists and consumers how original sounds can be generated by feeding back, rewiring, and destroying the existing circuits of commercial products. Trevor Pinch describes circuit-bending as a transgressive and fundamentally anticonsumerist practice. Because homemade instruments are “often built from junk, and/or mess with the innards of mass-produced consumer products to make one-of-a-kind objects of love and affection, they also have the capacity to embody counter-cultural norms and to mount a challenge to the mass-consumer society of modern capitalism and its deleterious environmental effects” (Pinch 2016). But ironically, the transformation of consumer technologies in culture jamming, circuit-bending and noise has become lionized in “DIY” ideologies that reinforce capitalist logics of self-determination. In the process, hacktivist ideologies are easily transformed into depoliticized projects of technocultural integration, “modding” consumerism through “lifehacks” that provide content-free quotidian technological skills.

Home electronics has long been recognized as a pioneering context of “do-it-yourself” hobbyist practice. Individuals are encouraged to take control of the invention and construction of technologies, creating alternatives to corporate production and the built-in limits of consumer design. Hand-built electronics workshops deconstruct the consumer uptake of electronics by breaking open the anonymous unit of the module as a “black box” – essentially, some unknown thing or process that “makes a sound” – and instead revealing its internal circuitry and zooming in on its malleable components. But the innovations championed by such “makerspaces” unintentionally reinforce the most stereotypical values of technocapitalist epistemologies.

“makerspaces” unintentionally reinforce the most stereotypical values of technocapitalist epistemologies

In recent years, DIY circuit building has become a way of teaching basic electronics to students, especially in the United States as educational policymakers attempt to shift an exclusive focus on “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to “STEAM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics). While many bending workshops began in off-the-grid temporary autonomous zones of subcultural music and noise (for example, the Tank in New York City which hosted the pioneering BENT festivals), they have more recently shifted to high school classrooms, community spaces, and libraries. Students learn the basics of electricity by making alarms, flashlights, and simple synthesizers out of prebuilt modules or circuit-building kits. Rather than hacking and cannibalizing the existing electronics industry, companies such as Adafruit, Sparkfun, and Makershed (the online shopping division of Make magazine) sell pre-packaged electronic music kits, that turn DIY electronics into a hobbyist enterprise. Modularity, in this case, represents an effort to build local soundmaking communities, through hacking festival and maker spaces as well as in online networks. At the same moment, it centers the technocultural emphasis on the personalization of commodities and the branding of individual creativity that is so clearly on display in neoliberal cultures of production.

The core technology of modularity in the 2000s has been synthesis, specifically in the recent rise of the Eurorack format for hardware signal process devices (otherwise known as “modules”) that are patched together to construct a larger system. Originally developed by German manufacturer Doepfer, Eurorack units use standardized sizing and patch cables, as well sharing as a common power supply. Modules from any manufacturer can “speak” to each other and “play well together,” so one can patch together a relatively unique sound-making system from different modules, which can still be distinguished as separate units in a larger grid of potential connectivity. While one can create and manipulate sound with only a handful of core modules, there is an accumulative creative logic inherent in the Eurorack model of modular synthesis. Acquiring more modules allows for the production of more complex and unique sounds, and expands the system’s potential for complexity. Each module is a particular tool, meant to “do” one thing to sound, and then patched between modules to transform the signal path and the overall sound. In a Eurorack setup, you can have a specific module to generate and add noise to the signal, or to introduce random frequencies to effect other sounds through voltage control. This is not to say that a Eurorack system cannot be set up in a regenerative feedback network. On the contrary, modular synthesizers are commonly used to create improvised and unpredictable contexts of sound generation. But the overall logic of modularity, focusing on a network of discrete technological units, suffuses the discursive productions of Eurorack synthesis. In its standardization of form and function, modular synthesis presents a universal model of creative innovation, reorganizing the material overflows of electronic sound into a grid of global interactivity.

As such, the rubric of modularity distinguishes individual products, local histories and unique “scenes” as individual sources in a networked array of technological production. Hundreds of small manufacturers around the world now produce a rainbow of new sonic modules, and the possibilities for sound-making and complex system-building increase by the year. The release of a particularly influential module can quickly expand the field of sonic possibilities in modular synthesis, but just as similarly restrict its accessibility. For example, the granular synthesis module Clouds by Mutable Instruments was withdrawn from production by Mutable founder Oliver Gillet in 2017 despite, or perhaps because of, the effects of its popularity. "I was tired of the project, wanted to be over with it, so I decided to have 250 Clouds manufactured, which I hoped would simultaneously be the first and last batch…[but] the deity decided to use Clouds to process all the beliefs and perceptions surrounding the module, got confused with this damned BLEND knob, feedback and reverb got stuck to the maximum setting, resulting in a never-decaying smudgy howl of hype." Objecting to these “confused” uses of the module, Gillet removed the unit from the company’s product line, leading to Clouds becoming even more well-known and valuable for its rarity. The renaissance in Eurorack module production interfaces with Western models of innovation that equate the standardization of technological goods with universal access. Yet it is increasingly clear that practices of “making” and “hacking” are aligned differently with conditions of agency and access in the “emergent markets” of the Global South.

practices of “making” and “hacking” are aligned differently with conditions of agency and access in the “emergent markets” of the Global South

In her work on hackathons and other maker-space events in India, Lilly Irani argues that these seemingly improvisational spaces become primarily a way for emergent middle-classes to “do politics in entrepreneurial time,” and “remake culture by drawing legitimacy from the global prestige of technology industry work practices” (Irani 2015). Here the uptake of new technologies proposed in modularity is deeply embedded in aspirational modes of technocultural innovation, as hacking practices create a backdoor access to global capitalism. But the very idea of hacking can represent totally different modes of agency and access in localized markets. Lilly Nguyen’s work on the modification and repair of iPhones in Vietnam, for instance, shows that while the idea of hacking is often associated in the North as a transgressive strategy for breaking out of corporate control, in emerging Asian economies it is seen more as a mode for gaining technical fluency in a global technoculture, through intimate hands-on redesigns of its basic materials (Nguyen 2016).

Repair is the material starting point of innovation in circuit-bending, counterbalancing a lack of access to the latest technologies with a ready availability of junk components. And the context of repair is inherently global: the United States is the world’s largest producer of e-waste, and ships the majority of its technological detritus overseas, where it is used again or mined for parts. A repair-based approach to technology reflects how handmade electronics can embrace what Steven J. Jackson calls a “broken world thinking” that reveals “what happens when we take erosion, breakdown, and decay, rather than novelty, growth and progress, as our starting points” in thinking through technology (Jackson 2014: 221). Many makers embrace the lack of resources in their local infrastructure and integrate these limits into their broader technological experiments. Perhaps more significantly, “broken world thinking” leads to a creative incorporation of randomness, chaos, and instability that reflects particular cultural and historical circumstances.

Chaos Box

This creativity is uniquely expressed by Javanese instrument builder Lintang Radittya and his approach to modular synthesis. Since the late 1990s, Radittya has been making electronic instruments from available parts, developing handmade sound devices and unique modules, some of which are assembled together into his one-off “Indomodular” synthesizer, and others of which are produced in batches as Eurorack-compatible modules. One unique device, called Acak Baur (Chaos Box), is a way of integrating the fluctuations of the local power grid in his rural space in Sewon Bantul, on the edge of Yogyakarta. The noisiness and unpredictability of the instrument works within an ecology of technological change that is, he notes, “part of our lives in Indonesia”:

We live with unstable electricity. If you’re working with your instrument in the midday or at night, sometimes it’s very different. I’ve tested my hardware before in the midday and at night, and it was very different. When I use it at night, we get a very smooth humming, because here at night the voltage drops, because everyone is using electricity at the same time.
Lintang Radittya 2017

Although this instability creates enormous problems, Radittya was able to creatively integrate this uneven infrastructural flux into the design of his circuit. For example, when operating the Acak Baur in Australia, Radittya found that he had to relearn how to use the instrument because the energy supply was too smooth. These time-lags and drop-outs are an essential condition of technological creativity in Java, which change the ways that things sound, and what they are made to do. “Everyone is always like ‘fucking Indonesia, we can never get our technology together’,” says Radittya, “but for me, it’s like a gift” (Radittya 2018).

Radittya’s improvisations with the sound effects of the power grid reflect the Javanese sensibility of ngoprek, which he describes as a logic of reusing whatever is available and just “dealing with what’s around us.” For example, while in the 1990s 8-bit “lo-fi” electronic sounds were commonly associated in the West with nostalgia for early videogame music, Radittya worked at the same time with 8-bit cards, not to make a nostalgic sonic reference, but because 8-bit cards were all he could get. Similarly, even as the Internet has radically opened up the availability of information and cheap materials for electronic instrument building in the past few years, the ethos of ngoprek continues to guide local hardware hackers. “These days,” he says, “it’s easier to get parts in Indonesia to make whatever we want. We don’t have to cannibalize, but we like to dig around in old technology and renew things” (Radittya 2018).

Radittya’s workshop is named Kenali Rangkai Pakai, which means something like “Know, Build, and Use”: to know what you are making, to be creative in building the object, and to be aware that the way you use a thing, or a sound, is what defines its essence. For example, electronically generated noise can be used to wake a sleeper, when it is made into a buzzer on an alarm clock, or it can be used to help them go to sleep, when it is generated by a background sound machine that masks environmental noise. The question,” Radittya told me, ”is what you need from your synth. If you want a particular sound, then you need a particular thing: you need to buy the original device that makes that sound. But if you want to explore sound from within, you can keep an open system. A modular system is almost an open system, because you can patch together all these different modules. But you have to keep changing it if you want something that’s still at the border, something more random and unpredictable” (Radittya 2018).

Lintang Novak2017 DSC09268 smaller Still

Radittya started making modules that depend on this fluctuating power system, “starving the circuit” with a variable transformer as a way of integrating the noise of the local power infrastructure into the sound of electronic music, and reconsider its instability as part of the natural environment:

With the unstable electricity in Indonesia, maybe we can hear a humming sound, or a noise from the instrument. What do you think? Is that organic or not? I think it’s organic. For me, I think “organic” is something produced from a natural thing. “Natural” is not from nature, but the things around your life are part of nature. So I think it’s possible to get an organic sound from electronic music.
Lintang Radittya 2018

Radittya connects this unpredictable sound of nature to the Javanese philosophical concepts of the karmic cycle, of life as a feedback loop that includes random input. Karma, in this conception, is not a pure relationship of causality as it is often imagined in the West, which links a person’s actions and the return of those actions in the form of related consequences. Rather, it is an unpredictable sequence of uncontrollable events. To illustrate, Radittya brings up the Javanese religious concept of the Cakra Manggilingan. In this formulation of the karmic cycle, “you don’t know when a good thing or a bad thing is going to come. If we are talking about ourselves, it’s not just our own bodies, but your ancestors - your grandfather and grandmother are part of you, but you don’t know when they will come into your life” (Raditya 2018). A Javanoise modular approach has to recognize these unpredictable relationships, in which control takes on a different equilibrium, not to trigger a result, but to be open to change.

In some ways, Radittya’s manipulations of the modular system reflect the core conditions of postcolonial creativity – not to imagine one’s creation as a blueprint for relational possibilities, but as a mode of living that responds to the conditions of power. The ability to improvise a repair, to tinker, to jerry-rig… this praxis of “making do” is essential to daily life and the skills of survival in the Global South. Such an approach to modularity tweaks the resistance to capitalism within a technological feedback that loops in the site-specific “nature” of electricity. This practice is not reducible to “local culture.” While the Javanese modular may be another instrumental object capable of being “racked” in a global arts scene, here the symbology of the Chaos Box is the power grid at midnight in Bantul, on the fritz. The core question, in this context of limited access and unpredictable connection, is how to properly act - to be, believe, and behave - in a circulation of electronic innovation that extends the sound system beyond local control. Reintroducing feedback becomes a mechanism for accessing the modularity of a larger global exchange without accepting its inherent restraints on creative form.

Access is not a Metaphor

Technological access is often presented as a normative problem of global inequality, to be overcome on a collective scale by corporate expansions and on an individual scale by the mutable subjectivity of cosmopolitanism. Modularity, if unchecked by critical engagement, embodies this logic of neoliberal empowerment, which presumes that conditions of universal access will be enabled by broader media circulation and the hyperindividualization of consumer goods. As a form of personalized creativity, its interactivity is directly proportional to the receptivity of the “local” subject. A powerful modern actor that integrates their practice into a modular system of transformative synthesis, it seems, could unlock global access by plugging into a horizontal field of new sound objects. The larger goal is an enlightened open platform for parallel interactions based on the one-to-one equivalence between its units, creating a network that fosters the entrepreneurial creativities of individual agents - discrete technicians within a transcultural modular system. Radittya’s Javanoise pushes for an intervention into the historical epistemes of sound technology and experimental music. Its chaos projects beyond the narrowly-conceived linear genre histories of popular music and the avant-garde, moving toward a clearer and more equitable perspective on participatory media. It combines feedback and modularity in ways that recognize the specific cultural forces that transform the energy field of electronic music as a global project. Through such models, music studies can expand beyond the materialist homology that links technological power either with colonial imperialism or postcolonial development.

Feedback and modularity are more than metaphors. They are material and practical outcomes of the transcultural friction that suffuses global circulations of sound

Feedback and modularity are more than metaphors, as communities and subjects counterpose technocratic promises of ever-increasing accessibility against the hyper-individuation of creative practice. Challenging these limited consumptions helps to “recenter globalization” away from a Northern Axis and bring sound and technology studies into a broader spectrum of creative communities beyond the normative contexts of Western development (Tsing 2005, Iwabuchi 2002).


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Yudice, George. 2003. The Expediency of Culture: Uses of Culture in the Global Era. Durham: Duke University Press.


31 January 2022
Review status
Double-blind peer review
Cite as
Novak, David. 2022. "Feedback, Modularity, and the Global Subjects of Electronic Soundmaking." ECHO, a journal of music, thought and technology 3. doi: 10.47041/EDON6414

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