An interview with the steam engine

Morten Riis 
This article takes the form of a classic portrait interview. A series of prepared questions are asked, which the guest then tries to answer. These answers then produce new more improvised questions, and ultimately result in what could be described as a dialogue. But what differs in this particular portrait interview is that it is not a person who is being interviewed, but a machine; a special machine that is very central in my work both as an artist and a researcher, namely a homemade mechanical musical instrument driven by a steam engine (Riis). So instead of asking the man behind the machine, I want to convey my questioning directly to the machine. At the same time, this questioning could also be seen as an attempt to expose some of the hidden qualities of technology; hidden aspects and functionalities that entail reflection both for the interviewer and the interviewed, but then again is it even possible for a machine to reflect upon its own practice?


How do you conduct an interview with a machine? First of all you have to talk the same language, a major quest for many computer scientists during the last 60 years. This would imply teaching the machine to understand the language that we speak, and not the other way around. It could of course be argued that learning a programming language would be comparable with learning the language of the machine, but it is important to understand that the syntax of programming languages are constructed from conventions that mostly follow rules originating from daily spoken language.


In order to excavate the hidden stories that the machine holds, we must ask the right questions, and at the same time be aware that this is a two-way communication, where all senses must be open; open to answers coinciding with our expectations, but especially open to answers not coinciding with our deterministic understanding of the machine’s answer to a given question. A central point to this questioning becomes the relationship between hearing what you know, and knowing what you hear; thus being sensitive to the fact that the machine says something that is unexpected, and not automatically focus the listening on what answers would live up to expectations. Furthermore, this must happen as a dialogue, whereby the questions are molded after the answers given.


By speaking directly to the machines deepest desires and dreams, and consequently as an observant-listener, I now know that instability is the true voice of the machine, a voice that often is overheard by the fast-growing quest of technology. It is a voice that the musical steam machine maybe pronounces more clearly than other machines, a voice that tells us something about the relationship between the process and the finite. It could even be argued that the concept of a predetermined output from a machine does not exist? Maybe the perfect finite output is an illusion upheld by the imaginative notion of infallible technology.

The machine continues to report about how instability, randomness and the possibility of error is something that occurs because of its physical characteristics, it is something integrated in the connections between transmission and exchange of energy and motion, that takes place in the various parts of its construction; conditions that on one hand makes certain functionalities possible (the machine’s purpose: to create a musical expression), and at the same time challenges this expected functionality. In the worst case, this functionality is absent.

Machine story

This interview has been an attempt to ask some in-depth questions to a music machine. The machine has given us many answers, which were only possible to hear if we paid sufficient attention to what was being said. The interview developed into a dialogue, and became more and more interesting because the answers given were unexpected; answers that have given me things to reflect upon, and maybe it is not exclusively this music machine’s story; maybe this is a story that can give a different perspective on all the machines we surround ourselves with.

Works cited

Riis, Morten. “Steam Machine Music”. 2010. Web. 5 Jan 2011. <>


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