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Feedback: What connects and separates Jimi Hendrix and cybernetics?

As a newer member of the Cybernetics Society, my personal mission is to learn much more about cybernetics, especially from my fellow...

Written by Miguel Marcos Martinez · 2 min read >
Jimi Hendrix
Feedback guru, musical genius, creative commons image, source unknown.

As a newer member of the Cybernetics Society, my personal mission is to learn much more about cybernetics, especially from my fellow members, how to apply it in my work, and how to teach those unfamiliar with cybernetics about the thinking behind it, to the extent that I can. So, I challenged myself to write briefly about a basic cybernetic concept, in this case feedback. Given my musical background, some of it loud, Hendrix immediately came to mind. I would like to present the music of Jimi Hendrix as an example of cybernetics that may not be so obvious.

There is a story told by guitarist Carlos Santana which is, as far as I know, unverified. Jimi Hendrix was playing a gig in Germany, early in his career. At one point the stage was rushed by some bikers. Hendrix quickly took his guitar off and threw it down on the stage, perhaps fearing that he might have to make a run for it. The guitar landed in front of the amplifier and started generating feedback.

The frequencies emitted by the amplifier began to resonate the strings of the guitar that was plugged into it. This generated a mechanical feedback loop. Given sufficient data it might be possible to predict the tones, frequencies and amplitudes that would be generated in these and other circumstances. The feedback loop might stabilize. It might also exceed the thresholds of the amplifier and overload it to the point of breakdown. Other environmental features might interfere with the loop. In all cases, this loop behaves according to the laws of physics without intervention. I like to call this mechanical feedback.

What Hendrix did in the above incident was not music, however. It was not cybernetics, either. Regardless of the truth behind this colorful story, what is quite clear is that Hendrix realized at some point that amplifier feedback could become part of his musical expression.

Music is performance. In this case, a human being, a guitar and an amplifier. (For those out there who are musicians of one form or another, especially Hendrix fans, you will argue that pedals should be included, and boy did Hendrix love them, but they aren’t strictly necessary for our purposes).

When Hendrix performed, he executed the ‘science of control and communication in man and machine’. In this “musical” science you come across the use of perception and response to a degree where what might have appeared as mechanical is converted into intentional expression. Hendrix became well known for as the pioneer of feedback as part of musical expression. It has become second nature to us to hear electric guitarists use feedback when they play now but there was a time when the mere thought was heretical or crazy. Hendrix cybernetically broke that barrier, controlling and communicating with the amplifier (machine) through the guitar.

A characteristic that distinguishes mechanical feedback from cybernetics is the capacity to perceive interactions as a whole, not the result of a simple mathematical operation on the components. In Hendrix’ feedback, the music being created not unlike perhaps a micro weather system. For those who have not experienced Hendrix’ use of feedback I offer the following snippet. Warning, this is meant to be loud.

https://youtu.be/JMyoT3kQMTg?t=297

Through such performances Hendrix was interacting, variably and artistically, with mechanical devices that were designed to respond linearly, an active response to otherwise mechanical outputs. How beautiful is that?

What other unexpected examples of cybernetic feedback can you think of?

3 Replies to “Feedback: What connects and separates Jimi Hendrix and cybernetics?”

  1. Beautiful illustration of the difference between what is called feedback in electronics and what we understand by feedback in cybernetics. Mechanical feedback is physics. Cybernetic feedback — often confused with this — is not physics. It’s Hendrix perceiving a signal and responding to it. So of course you’re describing the delicious play of feedback being used as feedback: Hendrix performance uses his active imagination and perception to produce the feedback loop he wants in the music and monitors and responds to that as his feedback. One is in the physical electronic circuit and the other in the aesthetic feedback circuit of Hendrix’ soul.

    I really like this illustration because it’s not only fun but gets to the heart of the issue. And in a way it introduces the notion of the aesthetic element of science or at least the way that science has to deal with the aesthetic in order to be effective as a complete means for understanding the world, if that is ever possible.

    Thanks Miguel

  2. This is an interesting story. Perhaps it needs to be contextualised with the activities of Owsley Stanley, often known simply as Owsley or Bear. Not only was he a mass producer of LSD – a subsequent focus of the Macy Conferences, but was also the brains behind the “Wall of Sound” the sound system he developed for the Grateful Dead in 1974. This incorporated designed-in ways of handling feedback.
    Owsley and the Grateful Dead were at the centre of the intersection of counterculture and the emergence of Silicon Valley.
    Ned Lagin, previously a student of Jerome Lettvin, one of the co authors of “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain”, started performing with the Grateful Dead in 1970 and developed Seastones with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, which was called “electronic cybernetic biomusic”. Seastones was performed on the Wall of Sound in between Grateful Dead sets. This incorporated designed-in ways of handling feedback.

    Lagin also had an interesting story about feedback from Germany: “Phil Lesh, for instance, recalled a performance by him and Lagin drew an openly hostile response from one German audience: “German audiences, when they don’t like something, whistle. They started whistling because they didn’t like it, so Ned just picked up on the whistling and started fucking with them-he made his synthesizer start to whistle, and he whistled along with them. Pretty soon, they were whistling with him and they didn’t even know it. He has that kind of sense of humor.” (http://www.philzone.com/leshlinks/seastones.html)

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