Dot Matrix Printer Music: Hugh Davies and The User

Back in the days of Appleworks and WordPerfect, we all had dot-matrix printers. As far as anything of the sort can be, they were pretty musical. You had the constant hum of the printer head, the rhythmic chunk at the end of each line, and a variety of sounds depending on what was being printed. For normal text, it would usually come out as undifferentiated chattering, but I used to get a visceral thrill from the sharp ring of a divider line, and was irritated when bold type made the entire casing rattle with a deep roar.

The User’s Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers, from last year, downplays the more obnoxious noises and sticks to the cleaner sounds of simple characters like dots. “Control to Efficiency” really makes something out of the resonance of heads just moving along the track, not printing. The other two excerpts are reminiscent of glitch-style electronica–you could tell me it was Farmers Manual and I’d probably believe it–and are for me less interesting. You can use dot matrix printers as rhythm machines, but with everything on earth already having been sampled for rhythm, it’s not as noteworthy.

The other instance that I know of is Hugh Davies “Printmusic” from the mid-80’s. Davies is probably best known for being a member of the Music Improvisation Company in the late 60’s and early 70’s with Evan Parker, Derek Bailey, and Jamie “If we carry on like this we’re gonna end up like King Crimson” Muir. Muir abandons the rhythm aspect as much as possible and focuses on the variety of timbres and unclean tones that his Epson LX-80 printer can produce. In the 80’s, I owned an Epson L-series printer, and despite its sturdy ordinariness, Epsons had one distinguishing characteristic: they were loud. You could hear it anywhere in the house once it started going, and Davies’ result is much harsher than The User’s, and closer to the sound source. It could be a different instrument. It’s not any more musical than his other work, but it isn’t especially less so; he gets a lot of mileage out of it over five minutes. (The composition is one page long, for those of us who forgot how slow these things were.) But the best experience is to be had from following the printed score as it plays, as lines like these are translated into recognizable sounds:

Leave a Reply