· 5 min read
The Ghost Panner Manifesto: Towards a Theory of Digital Realism
Written and Designed by Rei Low
Join The Zone today and download the Ghost Panner Max4Live plug-in, along with several others.
In the explosions of ideas from anti-psychiatry and minimalist music, clinicians and musicians became preoccupied with the breaking up of forms of thought, and in turn the color of experience. In Schizo-Culture, the seminal publication by Semiotext(e), the idea began floating around in Glass, Reich, and Cage etc, that mechanical properties exist within music. That the process of composing music was driven by the unconscious desiring machine within themselves.
Whether through Glass’s “non-colloquial” (not influenced by everyday experience) melodic symbols, or Reich’s desire to rip up the curtain hanging in front of the composer's intention, music was changing. Repetition, length, and the act itself of listening began to be the focus of their works, and music began to tap into its Id. In Freud’s three part structure of the psyche, the Id began to reign control back from the harmonic superstructures and back into the hands of pleasure and self-evident composition techniques. We can take this further however, as schizo-analysis explains that we are desiring machines. As Derrida drew the line between writing and masturbation, oration and sex; we can draw similar lines between composition as a pleasure-for-itself, and performance as exhibitionism. As performers, we ponder nervously whether our art will be accepted, danced to, appreciated, and the line between apprehension and tension blurs.
From viewing contemporary music culture to Silvano Aireti’s Interpretation of Schizophrenia and R.D. Lang’s Divided Self, we can, in a Zizekian sense, explain how artists operate today in our fractured music scene, rhizomatic and online, which has severed and skewed artists perceptions of themselves, and how this is a reaction to changing capitalistic privatization and domineering of music culture. Jeremy Bentham’s invention of the panopticon, and the idea of cybernetic feedback loops come into the picture as well. Let’s set the stage.
Artists are encouraged to release a song once a week, alongside creating content, and performing for the hopes of being noticed in a flash of virality. As one of my Tik-Tok influencer mutuals explained to me, posting everyday is the best way for the algorithm to notice you. There’s two ideas working here, one of the definition of labor under platform capitalism, and the other is the swinging light of the algorithmic panopticon. Platform capitalism is defined as service based gig work, think Uber, Fiverr, or the litany of other freelancing gigs available as internet platforms. They offload management and curation to the users and algorithm, which in turn allows them to create a positive feedback loop of viral and engaging content. Pull back the curtain, and the idea from my previous paper comes into the picture, Digital Realism: the realization the feedback loops we create and curate control the way we consume. Not only media, but food, drinks, and politics are all on the table for digital feedback.
This just sounds like Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, except it is by our own musical making. Cultural Psychosis, explained by the psychological model provided in the Divided Self and Interpretation of Schizophrenia explains how the potential schizophrenic is marred by an interior and exterior identity prior to psychosis. Usually brought on by societal expectations: peers, parents, and patrons, the potential schizophrenic exists to please and meet the level of acceptability presented by authority. They become better than average at reading people’s reactions if they’re the stormy type, or resort to an interior world if schizoid. What it comes from at its core is an attempt to interpret the feedback of a “black box” of reaction or non reaction, which is where we find the contemporary artist. Reacting to reactions, reacting to the world around them, finding aesthetically relatable content to post, all comes down to the current ruling trend in the virality circus: my relation to a piece of content that makes me feel good or seen. Alas, the promise of the sixties counterculture has become a vibe, and even that can be curated to.
What we need to get at, without sounding like a crotchety Twitter user, is music that truly challenges the status quo of what our perception of music is. In an era where every clouty industrial techno DJ is putting out their project that “pushes sonic boundaries” or “challenges our notion of genre,” even snobby avant-garde music is an aesthetic. What’s really left for artists to do? Being the next Aphex Twin isn’t going to work, we already have one. I’ll point to artists like Blood of Aza, Fitn3ss, Alparr, and Alexander Panos challenging the status quo, and they do not put out weekly content or push uninspired EBM as techno. It’s possible to gain popularity off of good music with no content promotion plan. However it requires pushing the idea of what electronic music is in this case. And they are the outliers.
The experience of listening to something is so different than it used to be. Tik-Tok doesn’t allow for crate-digging or finding new bands, and the few times where Panchinko, 100 gecs, or Have A Nice Life blew up on the zeitgeist of the internet are mostly over, for now. What we have been left with a mish-mash of cultural symbols, and posting into the void. And the worst part is that this is our bed and we have to lay in it.
I wanted to include a simple plugin to sonically illustrate this thesis, and what better way than to tap back into our minimalist roots. I have created a reinterpretation of a design by BellSouth for Steve Reich right before Piano Phase was written. It uses FM operators which react to the input to pan the audio signal in the stereo field. I call it the Ghost Panner, since it reacts on beat to the music without any BPM input. Originally, the design for Reich used 128 gates and oscillators to phase cancel the channels randomly. I instead used 64 FM oscillators working behind the scene to essentially produce quantized random noise based on the input to simulate the effect, since the stereo panning happens due to phase cancellation. These phased signals are all summed at the end into a four channel stereo signal, which is a new feature in Max/MSP. That means the left, center left, center right, and right channels all have levels, which is fundamentally different from the LCR method of mixing. Hopefully this can inspire artists to use different stereo-imaging alongside other forms of modulation.
Working from what’s been established above, there’s a subjective experience of listening to the Ghost Panner which is a kind of stereo-phenomenology. Stereo information is usually reserved for LCR guitar panning or layering atmospheric jungle pads, but by using the Ghost Panner, suddenly the stereo field becomes a living breathing environment. It’s like a dynamic range processor, except instead of compressing or expanding the signal, it quite literally plays the stereo field and dynamic range along with the track. If we visualize the audio signal as a 3D space, the Z axis: the distance perceived from the source, and the Y axis: the positive or negative (or left and right) channels become a method of synthesis and collaboration alongside the machine.
What makes the Ghost Panner relevant to the minimalist composers of the sixties is the self-evident nature of the process and sound of the Ghost Panner. Beyond surface level comparisons Steve Reich’s phase cancellation process of tape manipulation, the process by which the stereo field is played by the Ghost Panner is completely transparent: it doesn’t hide itself in the mix, and it accentuates beyond the left right dance using dynamics. It uses phase cancellation and mid-side expansion to an extreme degree, and is influenced by non-colloquial forces, i.e. generative and algorithmic computer aided art. I encourage you to use this as a means of helping move the musical zeitgeist forward.
Rei Low works at the edges of technology and music as a programmer, writer, and musician. Guided by his readings of speculative fiction and philosophy, he contributes to the current understanding of the underground through the blog Music Mondays, as well as writing techno-surrealist dance music.