Many technophilic views on society depart from the premise of machines becoming the pinnacle of techné, objects that achieve performance perfection through an automatized set of rules, positioning themselves as always functional, flawless, reliable entities. Certainly, electronic music since its academic origins and Futurist roots — considered not only as an aesthetic, but also as an ideological movement — perfectly reflected this vision, having as theoretical and technical groundwork the illusion of complete control over the devices that gave birth to sound and a millimetric precision on the variables configuring the sonic design. Of course, the counterpart to that position is the neo-luddite approach, where machines are considered defective, dehumanizing instruments prone to failure that could induce catastrophic events — represented musically, for instance, through glitch: the evidence of digital malfunction, the hidden layer of numeric downfall, the aesthetics of failure.
Lying somewhere in between these two opposite positions is the small set of works by electroacoustic composer Benjamin Thigpen, compiled under a title that directly refers to the mathematical impossibility that could make a machine self-collapse: dividing by zero, a concept that is founded as an undefined anomaly within algebraic systems, and that is now part of pop culture (from internet memes to frightening real-life accidents).
The idea of machines failing and turning against themselves is a recurrent theme in technophobia, and in this case, it is prompted by a simple deductive operation. The sound material in “malfunction30931” comes precisely from a computer malfunction, corrosive friction slowly damaging the inner mechanisms that enable the computational processes, a portrait not only of inner digital break but also of external analog failure: the sound of melting silicon and burning chrome, as depicted by the technological debris in the cover art. In addition to the possibility of self-implosiveness in an otherwise well-defined order, divide by zero also refers conceptually to what is out-of-reach for machine logic or human understanding, the incogitability of that enigmatic and undetermined zone lying beyond (a) language. This fear of the unknown relates not to some mystic or paranormal dimension, but to the dread of reaching the boundaries of what is actually knowable — the awareness of humankind’s own rational limitations. But dividing by zero does not always lead to a null region. In complex planes under certain conditions, this operation culminates in an infinity value. “0.95652173913,” a rational number that can also be expressed as 22 divided by 23, a simple operation — an inexact division — leading to an endless, unmentionable figure that starts almost unnoticeable and then goes alternately from predictable sequences to vague rhythmic patterns to disrupting randomness: those are the possibilities of uncertainty in computing — divergence as the inceptive matter for incessant continuity, a divine property arising out of the boundlessness.
The sound material for “incandescence” is almost entirely taken from Iannis Xenakis’ colossal primitivist multimedia masterpiece Persepolis, a complex work that nonetheless has been suitable for re-working and re-mixing by several artists. Here, Xenakis’ rising waves of overwhelming chaos picturing the archaic imagery of the pre-classical world are violently fragmented, distorted, filtered, and convoluted by Thigpen until they become completely unrecognizable. In contrast, the flickering moans of “brief candle” or the brevity of “espoir,” with chain reaction-triggered bursts accumulating on top of each other and some masked chants — apparently tonal — emerging from within the noise, reveal an organized nature inside the unlubricated binary gear. What all these pieces have in common is the idea of a single, isolated sound particle becoming irrelevant; what matters is the mass interaction of all temporal atoms, hatching textures that are omnipresent throughout the album and do not require expansive elaboration.
Through 60 minutes of sonic wreckage, Thigpen proposes that machines are both the problem and the solution, destructive forces but also source of creative energy. divide by zero is not the first work concerned about breakdown in the post-digital age, and it won’t be the last. Far from being cutting-edge in its techniques and results, it belongs instead to a well-established discourse in both popular and academic music that seems to be merging into a common concern: machine failure as a concealed catastrophe but also as potential for creation — nullity and infinity enclosed within the same confines.