Thresholds and Fragile States

live electronic performance with custom software and analog circuitry

This project is a digital reconstruction of composer David Dunn’s 2010 piece Thresholds and Fragile States, an analog circuit network of chaotic oscillators designed to generate an endless variety of constantly evolving musical sound. Like many electronic works in the American experimental tradition, the music is difficult to analyze because compositional decisions are embedded within layers of circuit design and musical features are explained at the level of individual electrical components. Combining tools from circuit analysis, digital modeling, and dynamical systems theory, I analyzed Dunn’s circuitry and built a digital model of it. My project is an effort to understand and articulate how the piece functions and has resulted in my own compositions using my digital model of Dunn’s circuitry.

Motivated by his experience listening to the patterns of insects on a swamp in the Atchafalaya Basin of Louisiana in addition to his study of cybernetics, Dunn’s piece is an attempt to mimic, through electronic circuitry, the natural structure of biological systems. In my study, I clarify Dunn’s concepts of emergence and autonomy by examining how they are instantiated in circuitry, addressing the compositional decisions involved in network design and the musical implications of those decisions. I analyze the scope of the emergent music and map out the ranges of network parameter settings that produces it. I find that endless variety of constantly evolving music is the result of hysteresis, or time lag, of the vactrol, a circuit component and common “hack” in electronic music. Furthermore, I find that this variety occurs within a small region of carefully tuned network settings that the composer discovered empirically through musical performance.


Inspired and informed by the process of studying Dunn’s circuits, Thresholds and Fragile States Reconstructed is my own set of compositions exploring the design and navigation of complex feedback networks. Each of the movements implements a different navigation strategy, from unintentional meanderings to online machine learning algorithms that seek to maximize sonic variety.

  • 01 dawn chorus
  • 02 stasis
  • 03 unison
  • 04 trajectory
  • 05 laying down a path and walking
  • 06 dusk


This project addresses the differences between digital and analog computation of chaotic systems. My work combines multiple forms of technology, hopping back and forth between the two domains. I duplicated Dunn’s original analog circuitry, used circuit simulation software, developed and coded a mathematical model, and even did a quick sanity check on an old analog computer.


Here is an image of the supercollider modeling:

Deforestation and Invertebrate Control

This project has interesting applications to deforestation and climate change. Dunn has found that sound is an effective means of combating the bark beetle infestation that is devastating conifer forests in North America and driving both deforestation and climate change. For the past 16 years, Dunn has collaborated with entomologists in researching the capacity of chaotic sounds to disrupt beetle communication and dismantle entire infestations. Since the digital model is variable over nearly all aspects of the system — number of oscillators, network topology, networking variables, and even physical components, such the attack and decay properties of the photoresistor — I am working to identify the sonic features that most effectively stop beetle infestations and to reduce the system to the minimal form necessary to produce those features.

Performance History

  • 2017     Museo de la Ciudad de Querétaro, Mexico
  • 2017     Bucareli 69, Mexico City, Mexico
  • 2016     Audio Visual Synthesis Workshop, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
  • 2016     Indexical Santa Cruz Series, Radius Gallery, Santa Cruz, CA
  • 2015     The Acoustic Deconstruction of 2626 Bancroft, The Lab, San Francisco, CA (with David Dunn)
  • 2015     CCRMA, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
  • 2015     Center for New Music, San Francisco, CA