The Sound of Cybernetics: Roland Kayn And the Voice of Electricity


Roland Kayn was a composer who rejected composition, a human who gave machines the benefit of the doubt. A German who began making music in the twentieth century with a pencil and paper, Kayn ended up spending most of his time with a roomful of modular synthesizers and tape machines in the Netherlands. He won a Japanese composition prize when he was twenty, but by 1970, when he was thirty-seven, Kayn had abandoned traditional notation and was working only with electronic equipment. His approach was deeply influenced by cybernetics, a field established by M.I.T.’s Norbert Wiener. In an essay published by Scientific American in 1948, Wiener wrote that “cybernetics attempts to find the common elements in the functioning of automatic machines and of the human nervous system, and to develop a theory which will cover the entire field of control and communication in machines and in living organisms.” More specifically, cybernetics is concerned with “regulatory systems,” a category that includes war games, perceptions of time, and the ways in which computers correct their own errors.

Cybernetics didn’t have much to do with music until the mid-1950s, when a German philosopher named Max Bense figured out how to apply the writings of Wiener to aesthetics. After Kayn studied with Bense at the Technical University of Stuttgart, he thought about music in a radically different way. What if machines were natural composers? What if they didn’t need to be told exactly what to play? What if they were already playing something? These questions put him at a considerable distance from the serialist composers holding sway in the academy.

For Kayn, the system that cybernetics helped him think about was feedback, environments of sound created in closed systems. The simplest example of this is a guitarist pushing her instrument into a speaker. The vibrations of the guitar strings are amplified by the pickups; the signal of those pickups runs out of the guitar and into a speaker. The sound coming out of the speaker goes back into the guitar through the pickups, and so on. This cycle can repeat endlessly, generating subtle changes in sound, even at tremendous volume. Route a sound onto a pathway, leave it there, and let it build in detail.

In an essay touching on his 1977 composition Makro, Kayn explained how this “auto-generative procedure” changed things: “The composer is entirely divested of his original function. He can merely decide whether to intervene, guide, and direct, or whether he is prepared to accept what emerges.” Kayn was dismissive of most computer music, which he felt executed a composer’s wishes too dutifully, like an ensemble reading from a score. Kayn was listening to the voice of electricity, and he had no desire to make it sing his songs. In the same essay, he wrote, “the electric current has no memory, is governed only by the present, and is thus in great measure authorized to unleash improbable phenomena.”

In 1970, Kayn began working at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht. With the assistance of a Dutch engineer named Jaap Vink, Kayn built systems of synthesizers, filters, and tape machines that could precisely alter the phase and frequency of signal. These feedback processes went far beyond the single loop of a guitar interfacing with a speaker. If you want to know what that sounds like, you now have fourteen hours of Kayn to work with, courtesy of the frozen reeds label out of Finland. A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound is a long assembly of material that Kayn gave to Dutch radio in 2009, two years before his death. The broadcast lived on the web for a year or so but was not available commercially until now.

As for what the music is, materially, the best description comes from Jim O’Rourke, the musician who restored all the digital audio on the box set, which Kayn originally saved to DAT tapes. “It doesn’t sound like any of the source material was new,” O’Rourke said by phone from his home in Japan near Mount Fuji, where the crickets were as loud as his voice. “It’s like a really long master mix of an entire career. Kayn is doing the work of a DJ, except he’s playing his own stuff, all that source material he made with Vink in the Seventies and Eighties.” As for what it sounds like, here are back-of-the-napkin submissions from bystanders: “Wind.” “Ghosts.” “Screaming ghosts.” “That ice dragon.”

The seed of the Kayn approach is there in his recorded performances with the Italian improvising collective Gruppo di Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza. On their 1966 debut, when the band also included Ennio Morricone, Kayn leans on the Hammond organ during a track called “RKBA-1675.” He creates a high, fluttery drone fluctuating according to the operation of the spinning tonewheel and the drawbars, another kind of auto-generative procedure. The mood? Hecking spooky, not really of a piece with improvisation and electronic music of the time. This is what makes A Little Electronic Milky Way of Sound so valuable. Kayn’s mother lode of sound doesn’t duplicate what electro-acoustic artists like Pierre Henry or Luc Ferrari were doing, nor does it overlap with modular synthesis of the late twentieth century. Kayn hacked out a very specific kind of tonality, thick on overtones, suspended glitches, and frozen distortions. Milky Way is tough going for anyone looking to electronic music for otherworldly chill. This is uncut sound, the raw material of an artist neck-deep in the mechanics of electronic tonality.

On a track like “Czerial,” signals from the sort-of-white-noise bag alternate with signals from the a-lot-like-resonating-bells drawer. Kayn then routes these signals through frequency shifters and lets them hang as circling feedback. One significant part of this process is that frequency shifters change the nature of the overtones related to a root note. Interfered with, the overtones begin to break at irregular frequencies not normally heard, giving Kayn’s sounds a pulsing, uncanny feel. Kayn likely created some of the variations by manipulating tape decks in real time, cranking signals through the metallic guts of the spring reverb at the Institute of Sonology. Think of it as exceedingly creepy dub and it isn’t all that abstract. Kayn was used to a kind of sonority that we don’t often hear outside of industrial settings, but his sources were not samples or field recordings. It took hours and hours of routing and rerouting to turn a single oscillator tone into a ferric roar.

Follow these sounds over the course of fifty minutes or twenty (the shortest track) and you will begin to hear the patterns of Kayn’s mind. Over a lifetime, he created hours of tonal color, each shade its own triumph. A Milky Way is more like a tour than a mixtape, a celebration of sonic information that couldn’t be generated any other way. Even after doing six weeks of sixteen-hour days restoring Kayn’s work, O’Rourke still felt a sense of wonder in the presence of these compositions. “I know how almost everyone does what they do,” he said. “I can figure it out. But Kayn is still the master. I really don’t know how he did this.”