Gordon Pask’s MusiColour Machine

The following description for Pask and McKinnon-Wood’s MusiColour Machine is excerpted from Usman Haque’s “the Architectural Relevance of Gordon Pask,” Architectural Design, Vol 77, Issue 4 (2007), pp. 56-57.

The MusiColour Machine, constructed in 1953, was a performance system of colored lights that illuminated in concert with audio input from a human performer (who might be using a traditional musical instrument). MusiColour should not be confused with today’s multicolored disco lights that respond directly to volume and frequency in a preprogrammed/deterministic manner. Rather, with its two inputs (frequency and rhythm) MusiColour manipulates its colored light outputs in such a way that it becomes another performer in a performance, creating a unique (though non-random) output with every iteration.

The sequence of light outputs might depend at any one moment on the frequencies and rhythms that it can hear, but if the input become too continuous—for instance, the rhythm is too static or the frequency range too consistent—MusiColour will become bored and start to listen for other frequency ranges or rhythms, lighting only when it encounters those. This is not a direct translation: it listens for certain frequencies, responds and then gets bored and listens elsewhere, produces as well as stimulates improvisation, and reassembles its language much like a jazz musician might in conversation with other band members. Musicians who worked with it in the 1950s treated it very much like another on-stage participant.

The innovation in this project is that data (the light-output pattern) is provided and produced by the participants (other musicians) and nothing exists until one of them enters into a conversation with the designed artifact. In this participant-focused constructional approach, the data evoked has no limits.

Pask constructed a system that aspires to provide enough variety to keep a person interested and engaged without becoming so random that its output appears nonsensical. How these criteria (novelty vs boredom) are measured is core to the system. This calculation is constantly being reformulated on the basis of how the person responds to the response. Unlike the efficiency-oriented pattern-optimisation approach taken by many responsive environmental systems, an architecture built on Pask’s system would continually encourage novelty and provoke conversational relationships with human participants.