Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Modular

Sometimes the future comes as ordered, sometimes with delay, sometimes as a complete surprise. When I video conference with an old friend via SightSpeed, he's finally realized one part of the future envisioned during his visit as a seven-year old to the 1964/65 New York World's Fair. But this week, assembling a computer desk with my son, it was abundantly clear that another vision of the future has not yet arrived, that of perfect modularity. Although some of the hardware involved in contemporary assemble-yourself furniture is widely available and interchangeable, there are enough specialized parts for each model of furniture and interconnectivity is still limited to individual manufacturers' product lines or systems that it is still impossible to speak of a practical modularity.

As a kid, I was a serious modular artist-in-training, going through sets of Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, and Togl, before eventually settling into Lego. (I never did Erector sets, which still strike me as the epitome of a kind of engineering mindset: as far as I can recall the boys with Erector sets would all eventually wear pocket protectors, be able to use a slide rule without consulting the instructions and become Eagle Scouts. They also lived in houses in houses with good lawns, which they mowed without complaint. My younger brother Michael was extremely lucky: he had a set of Giant Tinkertoys, the last grand gesture of the toy world in an age still awash in petroleum. Michael still has his Giant Tinkertoys; they are apparently indestructible and should survive any foreseeable earthly catastrophe. When I am lucky, Michael still allows me to play with them as well.) But the Lego set was the most successful modular building set, it was the least constrained by the manufacturer's recommended designs, and as the set was handed down from child to child, it grew with new bricks added in fairly regular intervals, and became increasingly difficult to imagine a design that would be defeated by the bricks combinatorial capacities.

My own son was introduced into the Lego world by it's oversized sibling, Duplo, with bricks designed for hands yet to reach optimal motor control, and big enough not to be swallowed often or easily. Unfortunately, as a consumer-parent, I soon discovered that Lego had shifted their business model away from the sets of interchangeable bricks and self-designing, and into a more specialized world, in which sets were sold with precisely the number and shape of bricks required to assemble a specific design -- a building, vehicle, or robot -- and reduced possibilities for creative recombination and reassembly.

The dream of modularity is a fixed presence in design industries, but it is truly amazing, a part of the human farce, how ineffective any offered modular system for furnishing or housing has been in being able to establish a wide presence with the long-promised effects of flexibility and economy. The desk my son and I put together in four hours of rather efficiently-used time, had -- aside from the metal hardware -- only a few internally-interchangeable wooden parts, and virtually none that could be used in another piece of furniture. Moreover, the possibilities for reconfiguring the design or connecting it to other pieces were virtually nil. (The chief problem here, to be fair, was not one of design but of cheap materials -- by using particle board laminated only on visible surfaces, the manufacturers saved some money, but lost the inherently flexibility, durability, and recycling capacity of massive wood). The leading commercial enterprise in modular furniture is supposed to be IKEA, but again, IKEA's systems are limited to interchangeability within single system lines, and it is striking both how limited those lines are (shelves, kitchens). It's not even worth talking about modularity in housing -- building a house in traditional Fachwerk-style (or Asian bamboo-based styles) is more modular, flexible, and cost-effective than any industrial style I am aware of. But then again, Fachwerk depends upon complex processes -- like the growth of Willow trees -- that have yet to be duplicated by modern manufacturing.

Music has always had some modular aspects. The formulae through which epic songs were sung were modular, and the individual parts in African percussion ensembles have this aspect as well. In Europe an music, counterpoint has a modular aspect (whether modal, or in the fugue, or in Wagner's Netz-technique), as does the entire tradition of rhetorical figuration which reached its apotome in the late baroque. Twelve-tone technique was essentially modular, although the aesthetic goal of most composers tended to be that of keeping the modularity beneath the immediate surface. Many other composers used a kind of sectional modularity, where the "brick" was a stretch of musical material more substantially formed than a pitch set. This is especially evident in music by Satie or in film music. Literal modules of music, to be used like mosaic stones by players in assembling a performance of a work, seem to emerge with Cowell and Milhaud, and became a standard technique in the indeterminant toolbox. Terry Riley has been an effective composer with such modules, particularly in pieces composed for the Kronos Quartet. A modular technique is natural for electronic music -- whether for recorded media (Cage's Williams Mix is a favorite example), or for the instruments themselves (they didn't call them modular synthesizers for nothing), and the use of computer environments in recent years has only made these techniques both more accessible and network-able. (I have previously written of my enthusiasm for the circuit-bending and hardware hacking scene, in which consumer electronics, intended for quite specialized applications, are at once turned into modular goods and are more highly individualized -- while these activities have a long pedigree, the widespread nature and energy of the scene is an entirely new phenomenon).

I suppose that music has become more effective than furniture or housing in adopting modular techniques because it has a degree of exemption from certain design criteria that furniture or houses don't have. Sound made be con- or adjoined without the same quality of physical risks that go with a chair, table, or rumpus room. Music might then be considered to have a greater tolerance for structural integrity than architecture or furniture design (musical sounds generally do not run the risk of falling down or apart and causing physical injury), but it is striking how narrowly, in the history of music-making, the accepted limits for music-making, both materially and structurally, have been. The last century has pushed the boundaries of sound design further, and while present musical innovation has concentrated on the more conservative tasks of consolidating and reconciling these innovations, I remain optimistic that there is still plenty of good music to be made on the edge in which sounds and musical stuctures are pushed beyond their design specifications.


jon brenner said...

this is a great post. as a child, i played with legos, erector sets, and construx exclusively. and now, much of mu music is modular. and if you're interested in modular furniture, check out elfa. and no, i have never had a pocket protector.


Daniel Wolf said...

Jon --

I should have qualified my comments about Erector sets. Their uncoolness in my childhood was a generational phenomenon; I could well imagine that they went so far out of fashion in the 70's that they later actually became cool again.

I'll check out elfa!