Day 432 @ ITP: The Code of Music

Techno Is A Landscape: Proposal For An Interactive Museum Exhibit
Adi, Ada, Camilla (Group project)


In the video above producer James Wiltshire calls techno the “perfect balance between human analog inspiration and the technology around it,” and goes on to say that modern techno is a “perfect balance between humans and digital technology.” In this way, it seems that modern techno is a perfect musical tool for interfacing as humans with the automated world around us.

He also references the 1980 novel The Third Wave, where the author Alvin Toffler talks about a future that is half-machine, half-human. In the novel he describes a wave of technology coming forward and changing society (Note: this was written almost 40 years ago, and what he was anticipating has since come to pass.)

According to Toffler, the second wave was the industrial revolution, the third wave was the incoming information wave. He foresaw a a new technology and new society which would waylay what came before it.

Early Krautrock band Kraftwerk were some of the early adopters of electronics as a means for creating “automatic” sounding music created by humans using tools from the wave of technology Toffler describes, as can be heard in their 1982 album Computer World, which explores this relationship between human and machine through their brand of proto-techno music.

According to Wikipedia, however, the term techno was not officially used as a word for a genre until later on, in 1988 in the context of Detroit techno, which is “seen as the foundation upon which a number of sub-genres have been built….To producers such as Derrick May, the transference of spirit from the body to the machine is often a central preoccupation; essentially an expression of technological spirituality. In this manner: ‘techno dance music defeats...the alienating effect of mechanization on the modern consciousness.’”

The central rhythmic component is most often in common time (4/4), where a single measure is divided into four beats marked by a bass drum on each quarter note pulse. Each beat can be further divided, with eighth notes dividing each quarter note in half and sixteenth notes dividing each quarter note into quarters. Famously called “four-on-the-floor,” the bass drum is the automated heartbeat or metronome around which all other sounds fall into place: a backbeat played by snare or clap on the second and fourth beats of the measure, and an open hi-hat sounding every second eighth note. The tempo tends to vary between approximately 120 to 150 beats per minute (bpm), depending on the style of techno. Techno focuses more on sophisticated rhythm and repetition (cross rhythm, syncopation) than it does on melody or chord progression. The development is gradual where many sounds are layered and altered over time. All of these characteristics together create something automatically definable as techno.

Techno is a landscape. It’s a reaction and artistic statement about the actual automated world that we live in. It’s half machine & half human! Techno’s highly repetitive and mechanic rhythmic structure against human expressivity in sampling, modulating, remixing and looping shapes its unique art form.


From here, our group identified three elements of modern techno music:

  1. Repetition - “four on the floor” as basic unit

  2. Instruments being layered/omitted one by one over the course of a song

  3. Altering/modulating a sound texture gradually over time

With the elements in mind we think the best way to explain how techno music works is by deconstructing an existing techno song into individual instrument layers as the building blocks. We will have users rebuild their version of the track by adding and subtracting layers and playing with different combinations on top of the 4/4 rhythmic structure, and give them expressive controls over multiple parameters that control certain layers.

First, Ada built a sketch in p5 taking individual instrument layers from the song “Solace” by Pan-Pot and looped each layer/pattern and synced them to the TransportTime, so that no matter when the user turns on the layer, the layers will always be in place with one another.

We met and listened to the sounds together, which were triggered in time in sync with a four-on-the-floor bass drum, and brainstormed about how we could expand this to be an educational tool. Inspired by Valentina’s presentation with the different musicians for the fantasy Blues band, we came up with the idea to present different options for each of the elements, to give the user in our museum some feeling of agency of being able to choose their own sounds and filters within the constraints of a techno infrastructure.

We discussed that one essential element of techno is patience; elements often come in one by one, being introduced over the course of the song mathematically according to how long it has been since the last element was introduced. Since it is hard to teach patience, we instead decided to create an interface that would inhibit the need to do everything at once, while providing enough options to allow the user to create something that they feel is their own.

After brianstorming, Adi created the interface. Our interface is inspired by the popular DAW Ableton Live, which many artists use to create techno tracks. Each sound (in our case: a bass drum, multiple hi-hats, clicky percussion, rim, bass, brass hooks, pad drone, and a sequence) has a button to enable it below, with a selection of different sounds to choose from, with a visual indicator to show where in the timeline the sound is out of 4/4 -- all following the kickdrum as the heart of the song.


For a museum environment, we imagine that our installation could be shown as it is now, on a screen, for the user to play with using headphones or with speakers with instructions popping up from time to time to prompt users to enable or modulate clips, similar to the Jazz.Computer. This is to suggest users what could be a proper progression of a techno song, but it's up to them to follow the instruction or not. It could also be installed in a more immersive environment, such as in a room with surround sound, featuring tactile buttons that would trigger each sound with visual feedback such as flashing brightly colored squares, rectangles, circles, lines, etc. on the walls around the user, which would line up with the instruments they have selected and where they are in the timeline.



Interact with the final sketch here

View the code here

Our presentation slides