Dot matrix printers return to make music

A set of dot matrix printers will make a symphony together, perhaps for the last time

For the first time in 10 years, a Canadian arts duo plans to perform a symphony using only obsolete dot matrix printers. The piece, entitled "Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers #2," will be performed at the Mutek electronic music festival, held next week in Montreal.

The duo -- composer Emmanuel Madan and architect/installation artist Thomas McIntosh, who collectively go by the name of The User -- will coordinate the operation of a variety of rapidly clacking dot matrix printers so that they make musically intriguing sounds.

In addition, video cameras will be seeded throughout the ranks of the printers, capturing their frenetic internal operations for a series of screens on the stage.

Although well-received a decade ago, the symphony has not been performed lately. Given the aging nature of the equipment and the obsolescence of dot matrix printers in general, this could certainly be one of the last times it will be played.

Madan first thought of the idea] in the early 1990s when he worked at a university computer lab, which then had a lot of dot matrix printers. Especially during the end of the school term, when students were busily printing out term papers, he mused over coordinating such machines "in such a way that the result would be more rhythmic and more organized and somehow approaching music," he said.

For the project, Madan and McIntosh gathered as many used dot matrix printers as they could find. At the time, such printers were plentiful and cheap. But by the late 1990s dot matrix printers were largely superseded by the technologically superior laser and ink jet printers. A nearby school system donated some that were going to be thrown away, and, as word went around, friends and acquaintances began donating their Epsons, Panasonics and Brothers as well.

Not just any dot matrix printer would do. The duo carefully auditioned each printer to understand the sounds it would make.

"You probably wouldn't notice unless you were paying close attention, but the sound that each printer makes is very, very different from one instance to another. Completely different. Some of them print a lot faster. Some of them print slower. Some have low rumbly sounds. Some of them are more spiky," Madan said. Assembled, they make an orchestra. "We have our bass section, our tenors and our little soloists that can play very fast and virtuosic things," he said.

Each printer is paired with an old PC, all of which are networked to a file server. At the beginning of the performance, each computer downloads the text it will print from a file server. Each then waits for instructions from another server, an old Next box in this case, for when to print some text on its printer.

Madan pointed out that this setup actually closely resembles that of a standard symphony orchestra: The PC is the musician, the text file is the score, the printer is the instrument, and the server, which instructs the PCs at the precise moment when to print a section of their files, serves as the conductor. The duo were helped out on the technical side of assembling this virtual orchestra by Thaddeus Thomas and David Ozsvari.

Not only does each printer have a unique sound, but the text files themselves vary the audible output each printer makes. "Every character sounds different. If you print an entire row of 'a's it will have a different sound than an entire row of 'e's," Madan said. The text can be used to alter rhythm as well: A succession of shorter lines will have a faster beat than a succession of longer ones.

The duo had staged the symphony multiple times starting in 1998, and even recorded it for two separate CDs. After a few years of performances though, they packed away the printers, which remained in storage until this year.

"It's been several years since we had it all working. We plugged it in and everything is working fine," Madan said. "It's kind of amazing the longevity of the machines, especially considering we rescued them all out of the trash."

Nonetheless, the symphony is "very dependent on these particular printers," Madan said. As a result, performances can only continue for so long before too many of the key printers break and replacements can't be found.

"In 1997, if we broke a printer, we could go to the used computer dealer and buy another half-dozen. But these things just don't exist any more. They've been off the market for such a long time, no one still has any in the basement," Madan said. "These printers are unique in the world, so we have to be very, very careful with them."

The symphony can be heard as a form of electronic music, as well as an offshoot of industrial music, a form of pop fashionable in the early 1990s that attempted to turn "industrial production into an aesthetic," Madan said. It also harks back as far as 1913, to a manifesto written by futurist Luigi Russolo called "The Art of Noises," which argued that music should incorporate the sounds of industrial machinery.

Beyond the music itself, The User collective is hoping that the piece will help listeners reflect on the pace at which we move through new technologies.

"We live in a society that is absolutely fueled by these ideas of continual, never-ending progress. It is an economic model that by definition creates a lot of waste. Things that were perfectly good yesterday are no longer any good today simply because there is something else," Madan said.

The byproduct of this progress is the amount of still-working yet obsolete computer equipment that can be readily used for other purposes, such as making a symphony. Such "potential in the technological landscape is, by and large, pretty much untapped," Madan said.

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