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 But by the late 1990s dot matrix printers were largely superseded by the technologically superior laser and ink jet printers.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.