Domestic Systems – by Will Schrimshaw

In a previous post on this blog, Marie Thompson has discussed the complex interweaving of audio technologies and care in the home. This is a broad theme that I’d like to continue here.

Marie’s post is accompanied by an image of a smart speaker in the home. This complex machine housing many electronic components to facilitate wireless communication, sound playback, voice recognition and so on, is furnished in a tactile fabric not unlike the cushions that can be seen on the sofa or bed in the background of the image. Accompanying this device is a house plant contained in a handmade, woven basket. The tactile furnishings of the speaker and the surrounding woven basket provides the same service that (Rodgers, 2011) identifies in the wooden panelling of many synthesisers, the suggestion of the natural and organic as both indicator of the artisanal and cover for the highly problematic political ecology (Devine, 2015) of the circuitry encased within. Similar collections of images have become commonplace in the marketing and depiction of music technology, situating music technology within clearly and cleanly domestic interiors. Unsurprisingly for promotional material, these interiors are usually free of any indication of domestic labour, we rarely see these devices surrounded by unfinished laundry, the remnants of childrens’ play or dirty dishes. Instead it is commonplace to see these musical machines accompanied by plants and artisanal objects suggesting craft, tactility, the handmade. Consider the current home page for Ableton Live: the various items framing Ableton’s ‘Digital Audio Workstation’ (DAW) here include hardware synths and samplers, house plants, clean and orderly domestic interiors, tactile wooden surfaces, retro furniture.

Current marketing trends and social media focused on music technology frequently combine these four themes: technology-domesticity-orgainicism-craft, moving music technology out of the specialised environments of studios and into homes. Yet the image of domesticity within which music technology sits often brackets out signs of domestic or reproductive labour. With reproductive labour bracketed out or set aside, the depiction of music technology in the home continues a historical tendency that Keightley (1996) has identified in early hi-fi marketing: in advertisements and articles from the 1950s onwards, hi-fi audio equipment promised the production of an immersive auditory bubble which would set apart and isolate the listener from the demands and distractions of the home, with the immersed listener and the noisy, demanding distractions of domestic life being divided along rigidly gendered lines.

The digitalization of music production has seen the previously rarified domain of the recording studio find its way into the home, a trajectory crystalized in the images used by Ableton which contrast with other manufacturers of DAWs who still tend to market their tools in the often dimly lit, highly specialised and professionalised settings of recording studios. This relocation of studio practice into the home is often accompanied by highly questionable claims of democratisation on the grounds of increased access to the means of music production, but as Barna (2022) has identified, these claims often maintain a historically exclusive conception of democracy and paper over the difficulties of working from home (WFH) by ignoring the divisions of labour within the home that determine who has the freedom to work creatively therein. If digital audio workstations have brought professional studio or industry practices into the home, we find a similar yet distinctive trajectory in the history of sound synthesis.

Early modular synthesis instruments, particularly the Buchla systems, were developed in a countercultural context attempting to differentiate itself from the specialised spaces of professional studios and institutions. Recurring throughout early documentation and discussions between Buchla and associates (particularly the San Francisco Tape Music Centre collective including Morton Subotnick, Raymond Sender and Pauline Oliveros) (Bernstein, 2008) we find a narrative focused on developing machines to allow the creation of electronic music in the home, portable electronic instruments that could escape the institutional confines of early electronic music and merge into a wider countercultural project of merging art and everyday life. In addition to the desire for new sounds, new methods, new compositional efficiencies (e.g. escaping the tedium of tape-splicing) we find the desire for electronic music in the home to be a priority for the developers of early modular systems. The distinction I’m trying to make here is that this was not the relocation of professional studio practices into the home (increased access to industry practices, tools and procedures) resulting in a professionalisation of the home, but an attempt to shape the development of electronic instruments with WFH in mind. This portability and potential domesticity was not just consumer convenience but part of a wider countercultural trajectory: Sender explored communal living and in Oliveros’s work we find community music making and challenges the impact of domestic hierarchies upon composition; both sought to merge or blur music and the sounds of everyday life in radical ways.

That these early electronic music systems were developed with the home in mind can also be seen in advertisements for the Serge system. An advertisement likely from the early 1980s (given the Jupiter 8 in the background) shows Todd Barton using a third generation Serge system with accompanying text describing food processing and the preparation of meals. Aside from amusing marketing copy, this shows a domestic imaginary active in the development of these early systems:


Todd Barton, Music Director at OSFA and also representative of Hi-Fry Foods Inc. is shown here demonstrating the company’s new digital food processor, The Digi-matic™. The processor is claimed to save time and mess in the kitchen by converting food to a series of numbers, and then combining the information to make gourmet dishes. “The Digi-matic slices, dices, purees, frappes, blend, folds, sautees, and has the capacity to make 64K julienne fries in literally milliseconds,” says Barton.

The manufacturer reports that the Digi-matic has the capacity to “intake” fourteen basic foods, and combine them into four separate casseroles, or six to eight different simple dishes. It also possesses a unique feature which allows the cook to un-mix the ingredients if necessary. “It’s called feedback,” says Barton.

Barton is shown here slipping some ginger into a casserole to, as he puts it “spice up the mix.” “The Digi-matic is a revolution in home cooking,” says Barton, “and the excellent results are evident in every delicious byte.

Barton is available for home demonstrations of the Digidematic, and can be contacted at OSFA. (Innovation in Home Cooking)[1]

[1] The image seems to show Barton using a number of ‘third generation’ Serge modules such as the TKB, NTO, PCO, 1976 which were released in 1976. The Jupiter 8 behind Barton was released in 1981.

This domestic imaginary is maintained within a contemporary electronic music community prioritising modular systems, ambient aesthetics and an often generative or process oriented approach to electronic music production. This approach is often one of a number of compositional approaches found in the work of many professional artists, yet is most enthusiastically pursued by a more amateur or pro-sumer community that tends to release audiovisual documentation of generative system configurations via YouTube or Instagram. The visual nature of these platforms emphasises the centrality of the machine in this work, the music alone is clearly not enough, needing the visual presence of the system behind its generation, it’s web of patch cables and blinking LEDs to also be present so that the process behind the audio production is apparent, as well as the opportunity for the artists to showcase their collection of modules (which are often listed in the comments and descriptions for videos).

These instruments or systems are often presented in a manner consistent with the wider trend of domesticating music technology, being framed by house plants, handcrafted crockery and often carefully selected indicators of the warmth of domestic interiors.

Consistent with Barton’s early Serge adverts, there remains a sense that one might attend to these generative systems in the manner of attending to the production of a meal, stirring occasionally, seasoning, etc. (perhaps in your MATHS apron), there’s a sense that the patch can be left to bubble away, like a pot of soup on the stove, slowly filling the home with satisfying aromas and timbres. Keeping an ear on these semi-autonomous systems for ambient sound, the production of a domestic soundscape or ambience becomes another component of the reproductive labour undertaken in the home. In these environments, instruments and interfaces initially suggestive of a cybernetic system of control and communication are somewhat skewed by this domestic setting and attendant ambient aesthetics.

This focus on ambient aesthetics and domestic systems had particular salience in recent lockdowns, where isolated individuals could enter the domestic ambience of others’ through these videos, often finding calm and focus within, this being the rationale behind Circle (2022), a collaborative venture between IDRA and Hiroshi Ebina.

Produced through international file sharing when it already felt that we were ‘long into the era of pandemic’ and the artists had no way of working together in the same room, ‘the album is made to accompany your time at home—it gives you something more than silence’ and is ‘arranged in such a way that one track seamlessly flows to the other’. The artists describe an attempt to produce pieces which, rather than transforming a domestic space through immersive isolation, merge with it and ‘keep the atmosphere in your room as comfortable as it is now’. There’s a questionable presumption of comfort here that many will have rarely felt during lockdowns, being more clearly related to the clean interiors found in IDRA and other similar artists’ videos, but the sentiment is indicative of an intent to produce works that are perhaps incomplete, open and permeable, accommodating supplements to the sounds, activities and fragmented attention of differing listening environments. This sense of process and incompletion is indicative of Ambient’s selective history which, via a problematic sidestepping of the genre’s dependence upon Black American popular musics (Szabo, 2022), often seeks a direct connection to canonical Minimalism, thereby inheriting its theatricality. Given the listening environments in which the work of these ambient musicians and their generative systems is heard, completion is less the work of a gallery or concert audience associated with Minimalism proper, than perhaps an invitation to the varied clamour of domestic labour, a permeable membrane within the home rather than the strategies for immersive isolation catalogued by Keightley.

So does this domestication of music technology, its organic framing, wrapping in soft furnishings and tactile affordances, do anything to puncture the immersive bubble of a domestic exclusion zone identified by Keightley in early hi-fi culture and the wider tendency for music technology at home to be the preserve of the studio/man-cave? Focusing on the eurorack modules popular amongst composers in this ambient scene, we can see that the desire for domestic isolation is still alive in the marketing copy for the ALM HPO or headphone output module which comically suggests that users ‘give loved ones, friends and acquaintances a break from your musical ‘genius’, the HPO offers a solitary cell for focused creativity impregnable from undeserving non believers.’ Do the ambient, domesticated aesthetics of this generative music merely, or even deceptively, expand the hi-fi bubble in accordance with the widely critiqued aesthetics and ethics of hygge? Is the continued invitation to associate the tweaking of generative modular systems and cooking indicative of an opening of electronic music production onto the contingencies of domestic spaces and reproductive labour? Given the broad demographics of this area of music production, its prohibitive costs and collector culture, this isn’t likely to be a widely held perspective, but it does seem to be evident within corners of the synthesis and ambient scenes. One final example where this interest in music, the patching of generative systems, and reproductive labour overlap is Johnny Woods’ Buchla Box for Baby (2022).

Woods’s album contains ‘four hours of noise for napping newborns’ that could be looped in an attempt to ward off sleepless nights. Given the ubiquity of noise generators with buggy clips, it might seem odd that Woods went to the trouble, but on closer listening these four hours of noise have what many of the electronic sleep devices available for exhausted parents and carers to purchase do not have: compositional intent. They are just interesting enough, just varied enough to not be fatiguing to the non-napping carer, the slow and subtle adjustment of filters making this collection of recordings both a composition and a device to aid domestic and reproductive labour, a set of compositions that remain permeable and open to the demands of reproductive labour. What initially might seem an unusual application of antique instruments intended for both home use and explicitly avantgarde composition sits firmly within the domestic imaginary that, from the early Buchla to the contemporary ‘cottage industry’ of module designers, has often accompanied the development of these systems.

Barna, E. (2022). Between Cultural Policies, Industry Structures, and the Household: A Feminist Perspective on Digitalization and Musical Careers in Hungary. Popular Music and Society, 45(1), 67–83.

Bernstein, D. (Ed.). (2008). The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s Counterculture and the Avant-Garde. University of California Press.

Devine, K. (2015). Decomposed: A political ecology of music. Popular Music, 34(3), 367–389.

Innovation in Home Cooking. (2021, September 25).

Keightley, K. (1996). ‘Turn it down!’ she shrieked: Gender, domestic space, and high fidelity, 1948–591. Popular Music, 15(2), 149–177.

Rodgers, T. (2011, May 30). Into the Woods: A Brief History of Wood Paneling on Synthesizers*. Sounding Out!

Szabo, V. (2022). Why Is(n’t) Ambient so White? In L. M. Garcia-Mispireta & R. James (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Electronic Dance Music (Online Edn., p. 0). Oxford University Press.

Will Schrimshaw is Lecturer in Popular Music Technology and Composition at The University of Sheffield, UK, and the author of Immanence and Immersion.

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