Sunday, 30 October 2016

An Interview With Marc Doty

You may know Marc Doty as an educator and archivist at the Bob Moog Foundation. Alternatively, you may know of him in his artist guise as a player and demonstrator of synths through his You Tube channel and Facebook page, Automatic Gainsay. Its even possible you may have seen him sometimes on Sonicstate.com whom he credits for inspiring him to start demo-ing analog synthesizers in the first place some years ago now. Marc also even worked for a time at Paisley Park for Prince in the 90s. So this is clearly a man with an interesting story to tell. Over the years he has come to have some pretty interesting things to say about synths and synthesis too, at least to my mind, and he can argue his point reasonably and cogently. And so I wanted to seek him out and see if I could get him to answer some of my questions about synthesizers, synthesis, the burgeoning interest in modular, especially Eurorack, and the various design choices that have shaped synthesis and Electronic Music as we have it today. And I wanted to find out why Marc favors vintage analog tone too (something he's become famous for). I was very glad when Marc agreed to field my questions and what follows is the questions I asked him and the answers he gave me back. I think you'll find some things worth thinking about if synths and synthesis are things that interest you. 


             Marc Doty teaching synthesis in his role as an educator


Me: As you survey the synth scene right now, a scene currently being regularly refreshed with reissues of classic instruments like the MS-20 and Arp Odyssey (and now the Minimoog too) and also with completely new analog synthesizers being designed and built, and not only that but also with an ever-growing interest in various formats of modular synths and synthesis, do you see a synth scene that is healthy at the moment?


Marc: The synth scene and synthesizer culture seems VERY healthy at the moment.  As a synthesizer enthusiast, I am happy to see its popularity rise again. 

I am particularly happy about the recreation of my favorite vintage analog synths.  Not just because I'm happy that people have access to these wonderful tools at more reasonable prices, but also because many of them lack presets. Yes, I know that presets are helpful, and patch storage is also helpful.  But I want people to realize that it's possible to learn to think in the language of these synths… and when you do, you find that you can remember how patches are constructed and how to reproduce them (or at least close!).  As a synthesis educator, it makes me happy that people are encouraged… or even forced… to learn synthesis.  


                Marc at Moog Music demonstrating a Moog Voyager XL


ME: In an interview in 2014 for BBoy Tech Report you described yourself as "a modular synthesist" at your core. And yet I've also seen critical (but not necessarily negative!) comments attached to you regarding the ever-burgeoning Eurorack modular scene. So, in light of this, my question to you is what do you personally see modular synthesis as being about and do you think the Eurorack scene, as far as you know it, matches up to these ideals? Is Eurorack a way of doing synthesis that appeals to you?


Marc: Wow, you're opening the can of worms right in question 2?  :D

Okay, I'm going to need to address a lot of parts of this to answer it accurately. Bear with me!

I learned how to make a polysynth make sounds that I liked back in the mid-eighties.  I wouldn't exactly say I learned "synthesis," but I definitely learned how to make synthesizers make cool synthesizer noises.  As the years passed, I got more and more into digital synths and more and more into presets.  I actually lost the ability to effectively author sounds and just constantly looked for presets that would work for what I needed.  In the late 90s, I realized that I truly loved the sound and interface of analog synths from the 70s, and so I started buying them. I came to realize that I had never understood synthesis to the level of employing it to author sound… just to author synth sounds… if that distinction makes sense.  As I purchased more and more complex analog synthesizers, I learned more and more about actual synthesis. In the mid-aughts, I bought a 44-space dot com system and dove head-first into the authorship of sound.  It was hugely educational.  Since then, no matter what synth I'm using, I think of synthesis in terms of modularity. 

Okay, so in 1965 we had two Americans making voltage-controlled modular synths on different sides of the country.  Bob Moog, inspired by Herb Deutsch and others, pursued a conceptual design that focused on the authorship of sound. The Moog modular was a tool to author and shape sound. Don Buchla also created a means to author sound, but his focus and even intention was to create a device that allowed the authorship of new sounds and a means to create realtime performances with them.  

In my view, both concepts were completely valid.  But I favor what is called the "East Coast" paradigm because it imposes less on my creative process.  As a classically-trained musician, the performance aspect of music is an important part of my compositional process as a body.  Which is to say, I spent years training my body to perform the music as I envision it.  Learning an interface and interactional paradigm of a performance machine is an unnecessary step for me. And, let's face it, when we're talking about Buchla, we're not talking about a necessarily user-friendly interface… we're talking about Buchla's concept of interface, which was unique.  So, for me, personally, the "West Coast" paradigm is less effective. 

Eurorack is fantastic.  Small, convenient, inexpensive modularity made by a host of companies putting out creative and unique modules.  It's really a dream come true for synthesis as a whole, and synthesists in particular.  I can't imagine how anyone who is into synthesis WOULDN'T be thrilled by it.  

However, although Eurorack modules are diverse enough that anyone of any interactional concept could make a system that would suit their needs, there is an underlying focus in Eurorack… and it is the Buchla concept.  "West Coast." And that's perfectly fine… but the focus appears to be for the average of Eurorack users the creation of automated electronic music with synthesizer sounds.  Again, nothing wrong with that.  But in that, the focus isn't the authorship of sound, or even the authorship of unique, expressive, etc. timbre, it is the creation of automated music of a certain style.  And that is the thing that I am less interested in.  I do not want or need to automate, and I definitely do not want to be pigeonholed into a style.  

Now granted, you can say "Marc, you can make any style you want with Eurorack," and that's true.  But the movement is definitely aimed at the culture that surrounds it.  I could make, for example, the additive synth I've always wanted with Eurorack.  But that's not the sort of thing that is the average of the culture.  So many of the devices being made are focused on triggering, sequencing, etc.  And there I would be, trying to buy duplicates of standard "East Coast" type modules without any sequencing, etc.  I can get that sort of thing from the few 5U makers that still exist.
  
So, yes.  I'm not anti-Eurorack, but I am somewhat alienated by the intention, interface, and culture that surrounds it.  Any Eurorack enthusiast would be bored by the Eurorack system I would design.  



        Marc at NAMM alongside Michelle Moog-Koussa and Herb Deutsch


   
ME: Much modular synthesis as it appears today seems to tend towards plinky-plonk, bleep bloop music, if I can describe it as this. The nickname of modular users generally is "wigglers". We also see a lot of drone and soundscape music produced with these musical tools or dissonance and noise collages. I personally love (and make) these kinds of music and appreciate modulars as tools for the making of abstract sound. However, we don't seem to see so much music in which modulars are used to compose what might be described as traditional songs where the modulars are used as sound design tools crafting sounds which make up a whole containing different melodic or harmonic parts. It seems to me that, in general, attention is focused much more on creating one patch or atmosphere which is left to run. And then its on to a new patch. As more and more artists get into this equipment they seem to reproduce the same kind of things as well and the Internet is full of examples. If you accept this analysis of contemporary modular synth usage, do you approve of it or frown about it? I guess I'm asking if you think modulars are currently being made the most of or put to good use.


Marc: Here is the thing about music.  It can be a personal endeavor, or it can be an endeavor for the enjoyment of others.  The great thing is when it is perfectly both.  When it is perfectly both, you have the ideal intersection of personal expression and artistic communication.  But as all musicians know, that ideal intersection is very hard to acquire for most of us!  The more personal music is, usually, the less accessible it is to audiences.  That is the sad truth of writing music.

But I guess it's not THAT sad.  If you're writing "music" for yourself that is made up of cascading electronic squeals or drawn-out drones, and you like it… that's fantastic.  Being able to write music you personally like is the most important aspect of writing music, I think.  But the value of music as a whole is usually measured by how it affects people OTHER than you… and that's the thing.  

So, if you're doing your own thing and audiences are enjoying it… it's the perfect situation.  If you're doing your own thing and you are enjoying it… then that's great, too.  

But, as I've suggested to you before, it's my personal view that the average of musical tastes in human cultures have something to do with a bit of genetic input as well as cultural input… and there are natural inclinations humans have in regard to sound.  Musicians are often explorers with unique abilities that enjoy unique aural outcomes.  But audiences are usually more average and enjoy more familiar outcomes.  In any musical pursuit where the outcomes are more unique, they are at the same time less accessible to the average audience.  


       Marc chats with Stevie Wonder in front of a custom Moog Modular



ME: Bob Moog strapped a keyboard to his modular synthesizer and Don Buchla did not. Who got it right? Ok, no, I'm teasing you! My serious question is is the traditional musical keyboard and the musical theory which goes with it, which is the product of a very situated, Western understanding of musical theory, a limitation we need to get past or a blessing we need to embrace as fully as possible? Should synthesis be limited by the design decisions, technological limitations and artificial choices of centuries ago? Wouldn't the clever minds out there be better employed finding and using new ways and methods?


Marc: While certainly, the keyboard was designed in a specific way for a specific concept.  There were reasons that the white notes were white and flat, and the black notes were fewer and pointy.  But those reasons are less important than the fact that the keyboard is actually a pretty ergonomic AND powerful means of triggering sound.  

We can apply all of the music theory of the Western tradition to the keyboard if we want, but we don't need to.  When keyboards were triggering strings or tines or tubes of air, they were quite rigid in that tradition.  But what Bob knew when he applied the keyboard to the synthesizer was that the keyboard no longer was bound by really anything. The very first Moog keyboard controllers were designed so that the user could define how the keys applied to the sounds being created.  They were not limited to specific notes per octave.  They were not limited to any specific tuning.  They were not even limited to pitch direction. You could DEFINE how this "row of buttons" triggered or controlled your sound. And weirdly, no one ever thinks about that when they're talking about the keyboard and Bob Moog.  

Vladimir Ussachevsky was very concerned about the ASSOCIATION people had with the keyboard… but that was the body of his concern.  It wasn't that the keyboard could only play linear notes of the 12-note octave.  It was that people might be inclined to use it that way.  And some did.  But also, many did not. 

Don Buchla was quoted as saying that keyboards were meant to "throw hammers at strings."  And while that is at least kind of true, he seemed to be unwilling to recognize the concept that Bob had that I just described.  That it could be used any single way.  What is the difference between a number of linear finger pads and a keyboard?  I don't honestly know… except that Ussachevsky would be happy they didn't LOOK like a keyboard.  ;)

I understand that non-keyboard controllers are more consistent with the concepts associated with traditional Electronic Music.  As Electronic Music was meant to be an escape from all tradition wherein the user could personally define timbre, performance, etc., new tools and interfaces seemed to be the right thing to do.  And, as I've said before, Bob Moog was right there at the forefront… having started out as a person who was an expert at making the most unique musical interface of all time… the theremin. 

Ultimately, the problem is that for an interface to be the most successful, it has to be the perfect balance of ergonomic, expressive, and as intuitive as possible. There are people creating all sorts of interesting electronic interfaces that employ unique technology and weird interfaces… but if the musician has to go to great lengths to use it OR finds that it doesn't work in a fashion that allows their full expression… it's merely a novelty. Musicians need the intersection of intuitiveness and expression in an interface. And the keyboard, despite its ancient associations, happens to provide a literal visual portrayal of what it does and what is needed to operate it.  It can be used in any way to trigger anything, and many people already have physical experience with them. That's about it.  

Of course, that's not to say that there couldn't be new interfaces that suit new or different needs or intentions.  Heck, I recently purchased a Haken Continuum.  It is the unique realization of a number of factors of expression. While it kind of resembles a keyboard, it is much more powerful than a keyboard and allows amazing levels of complex expression.  I am having to train my body to be as expressive with it as it allows, but learning is also a good thing.  


ME: To what extent do you think modern synthesis is held captive by the paradigm that was taken up and used by Bob Moog when he started designing synthesizers, that is to say the paradigm of subtractive synthesis? Why do you think that most synths produced today are subtractive in architecture when there are a number of other choices that could be made? Is it innate musical conservatism?


Marc: Bob  didn't invent a "subtractive" synth, actually.  The Moog modular was capable of creating both subtractive AND additive outcomes.  Or, any number of other synthesis possibilities.  

In 2012, when I was demonstrating Erik Norlander's massive Moog modular "The Wall of Doom" at NAMM in the Bob Moog Foundation booth, the very first thing I did was tune its many oscillators to the harmonic series and start creating additive sounds.  Of course, with the pitch instability, I had to do a lot of retuning, but still… I could create amazing sounds never even touching the filters.  



                           Marc with Eric Norlander's "Wall of Doom"



But there is no denying that Bob's paradigms became the standard.  The Minimoog set the standard for synthesizers to come.  I also believe that it was people's desire to imitate the timbres they heard in Switched-On Bach that was also part of what set the standard.  Synthesizers became more-traditional instruments not because of Bob's subtractive efforts, nor the keyboard, but because of the associations of the general public regarding popular music.  And those associations led to expectations in those who sought synthesizers… and those expectations essentially came down to "I want something like a Minimoog."  

Since then, it has become a sort of traditional interface.  I wouldn't say it was conservatism, I'd say that for some reason, in the culture of synthesizers, users are more concerned with emulation and association than they are authorship.
  
It may also have to do with the fact that the subtractive concept is very linear. It's easier to understand than other synthesis concepts like additive or FM.  I am a big proponent of additive synthesis, and I think it has been sadly ignored due to the challenges associated with it.  But as much as I'd like to believe that a lot of it has to do with interface, I think one of the main reasons it has never taken off is because of its complexity coupled with the fact that it's never been in a big hit by a big artist, really.  ;)


ME: What's the best new synth you've interacted with? I understand you have big love for the Dave Smith Pro 2. Is it that?

Marc: Well, that's definitely one.  For me, it is a wonderfully functional and expressive interface that is packed with tools and functionality.  It is so powerful, has such a great sound, and features an intuitive and easy interface that allows access to everything.  I basically have found that I can do everything I think of with it.  And that's never happened with a non-modular synth before.

Also, I am very enthusiastic about the Haken Continuum because of its expressive interface.  It also features a very powerful synthesizer… but I have to be honest that the thing totally exceeds my capability!  :)
  
ME: A nice easy question to finish, Marc. What is so great about vintage analog tone?

Marc: I can't speak for everyone, but I can say that while I love the way that synthesizer tones often sound so alien and strange… and how their precision and stability creates a weird and enjoyable experience for human ears… I also love the way that certain synths can sound like natural, acoustic noises that happen in physical experience.  Analog tone is that for me.  When an analog synthesizer has true analog tone, it doesn't sound like a weird spacy alien sound, it sounds like a new acoustic musical instrument.  There is natural beauty in the various distortions or instability of waveshape, tuning, and amplitude that is reminiscent of acoustic sound.  That's what I like about it.



I want to, of course, thank Marc for taking the time to answer my questions. If you agree with, or take issue with, anything he has to say please feel free to have your say in the comments.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Put Your Back Into It

In a recent blog I discussed the outside perceptions of some regarding those who use modular synthesizers. Now while I don't want to repeat or rehash that particular topic, I do want to continue on from it a little bit today since I myself was in receipt of a new wave of thinking about it when I read a comment thread about another blog I'd written on a different subject. That comment thread contained the cogent and sensibly argued thoughts of a number of synthesizer fans who were not necessarily also fans of modular synthesizers. At first I was rather surprised about this. Surely all fans of synthesizers are also fans of modular synths, I unreflectively thought. Modular, after all, is the holy of holies of the synth world, is it not? The best form of synthesis. Apparently this is not at all the case as the thread I was reading contained a number of synth fans, even synthheads, who had no love for, or interest in, modular synthesizers. One particular comment, which characterized those who like modulars as "introspective people interested in technical achievement" as opposed to their fixed synth brothers and sisters who like having fun playing tunes, perhaps captures a flavor of this discussion.

As usual in discussions of this nature, nothing I'm going to argue here in my blog today should be taken as a must or a directive. And no one whose thoughts I quote or report on should be taken as thinking anything other than that people can follow their interest however they like. This goes without saying even though, often, it still needs to be said. That said, as I read further into the comment thread I just mentioned I became more intrigued. Someone described an emphasis on modular synthesis as "backward looking" and suggested perhaps many of these people wanted to imagine they were in Berlin in 1974. Another critical comment was that, it seems to some, modular synthesis has more to do with train spotting and tinkering with motorbikes than with music. A further suggestion was that the staggering breadth of possibility contained in many modern modular systems was not matched by the depth of thought going into using the equipment and making patches. This gives the possibility of making two charges: first, that someone's modular system is merely an ego trip, a "look at what I've got" big dick contest and, second, that having a large modular system is an empty boast if you can't make anything beautiful, musical or profound with it. "A cacophony of noise" was another comment lobbed casually the way of the sounds coming from modular synths.

Now partly I view these comments as a matter of taste. Some people just don't like abstract music, random sounds or music without melody. It might be suggested that these people are themselves limited in their tastes and their imaginations regarding what is musically possible. But its quite banal to say this. Surely, as we discuss "taste" for the twelve millionth time, we realize that people like what they like and that's all good? Your freedom to like what you like is balanced up by everyone else's ability to like what they like as well. So that discussion isn't very interesting and goes nowhere. It also the case that not everyone will be on the same page musically. This is a good thing because without it there'd be no variety. More interesting than these things are criticisms of what is made of ever more complex modular systems and the not matching the expectations of some who expect fantastic sounds from fantastic machines. Why, think these people, shouldn't I expect something fantastically musical from this very complex and often very expensively assembled machine? Instead, all I'm hearing is beeps or, whisper it quietly, fart noises. Is this a reasonable expectation? I'm going to say no, its not.

There are today numerous kinds of synthesizers. Hardware. Software. Fixed architecture. Modular. Analog. Digital. Even hybrids like the Roland JD-XA. There are numerous manufacturers. You can get synths in many different colors (to some it matters if their synth is silver or black!). And all this is before you even get to do anything with any of them. One thing I think we need to note is that a fixed architecture hardware synth is not a hardware modular synth. They are different things. So should they be required to produce the same noises or kinds of musical output? I don't think so. This is especially the case where the fixed synth more often than not comes with a keyboard attached and the modular probably doesn't. Having a keyboard attached or not does make a difference. 

Some synth commentators have made a big thing out of this citing a "player's paradigm" that comes from Bob Moog's decision to have a musical keyboard attached to his modular synth and a "machine music" paradigm that comes from Don Buchla's design decision not to have one. And, certainly, it should be pointed out that playing music on a keyboard is but one form of musical expression and data entry. Its just one form of data entry for an electronic musical instrument. Its not the whole game. Its one way to get sounds from a machine. (Moog himself had sequencers besides a keyboard, for example.) Of course, not having a keyboard doesn't mean you need ditch traditional music theory either. There are, for example, modular sequencers that are still quantized to traditional scales even in very modern Eurorack systems. But no one is mandated to use these either. We may summarize all this by saying that there are at least two paradigms for playing synthesizers: by hand on a keyboard as a player and more machine-like by conducting the machine itself, as it were. Both are legitimate methods. And, of course, there are others. But they might not lead to the same music or sounds!

One reason people use modular synthesizers, I think, is that they are boxes of possibility. If I have a fixed architecture synth I can only do what it will let me do and, as a cutdown version of an earlier modular product (Moog, for example, built his modular before he refined it down to build a Minimoog. Alan R. Pearlman built his Arp 2500 before his cutdown Arp 2600 and then his cutdown of that, the Arp 2800, later renamed the Arp Odyssey), this will be less than I could do with the full modular synth. If my synth has a keyboard or other input device I can only play the notes, and with the expression,  this device can produce and I can only make the sounds the architecture of the synth allows me to play. With a modular synth, perhaps in perception more than actuality, it seems as if you can do more. It can create things that your fixed synth couldn't do. (Lack of a keyboard may also mean I couldn't do the things it can do too.)

But, in the perception of some, that doesn't always happen. Modular synthesists always seem to come up with the same beeps and farts (its alleged). And not much else. There are people who really think this because I've read and heard them saying it. Perhaps you are a modular synthesist who thinks this is wrong, a defamation of modular synthesists in general. Perhaps you are thinking that keyboard synthesists only ever come up with melodies and chords and that's a fair point. But surely the point common to both sides here is that people tend to certain sounds and kinds of sounds regardless of their instrument. Both instrument environments are limits as much as they are possibilities. What we need in both cases is players with deep minds rather than synths which are called "deepmind". The instrument will rarely do it all for you although there are numerous interesting self-generating patches that can be made with a little thoughtful patching. For the truth is that the best fixed architecture synth in the world or the most expensively assembled and complex modular system devised will be nothing but a damp squib in the hands of an unimaginative user. And as things become more popular so the talent pool will inevitably become more diluted.

Now, of course, there are always guiding paradigms in place when thinking about music. Everybody has in their head an idea of what "music" is and what it isn't. Quite often this is thought of broadly, or in the mainstream, as "a tune" and I'll freely admit that this idea rubs me up the wrong way. I think its very backward to have something like a synthesizer in your hands but then all you can think to do with it is write melodies. Again, a melody is just one thing you can do that is musical and not the whole of music. I'm quite a fan of Kosmische Musik, the German music that was often entirely electronic that was produced from the late 1960s and on into the 1970s. Much of this, at least at the start, was quite abstract and not really very melodic. (So abstract electronic music has always been with us!) I'm thinking of things like Popol Vuh's "Affenstunde" or the early albums by Kluster (later changed to Cluster). There's even Tangerine Dream's first album "Electronic Meditation" to consider here. All this was just abstract electronics noises. But it was still both profound and beautiful in my ears. It was from this type of environment that the "Berlin School" sound first invented by Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream (lead by Edgar Froese) developed. This music's development was partly influenced by the technology as well. There were no digital synths in these days. It was all analog. So there was no saving anything. You couldn't really change patches because there was no comprehensive system to do such a thing. You had to create sounds and then weave them together into things of substance on the fly.

I find this an incredibly useful insight musically. At their best I think this is what all synthesists of any kind do, whether using fixed synths or modular ones. That is why I personally take the Kosmische artists as my role models. They are mixing sound design, technology and their own creative minds together to come up with something and they've had to stretch themselves to do it. I wouldn't describe their output as "beeps and fart noises" even though many people with similar equipment might make that kind of noise today. To me it sounds like designed soundscapes or even modern electronic classical music (which is what Morton Subotnick wanted to make too). Of course, the technology has moved on. Now, today, even in modular systems there are ways to save and store (or at least record and playback) things. I regret that a little. Part of the reason why the electronic music of the past at the start of this current era of electronic music with its commercial synths and recordings sounded the way it did was because of what you couldn't do as much as because of what you could. All the sound sources were analog too. Today many might be digital. But I note that especially within modular synthesis it doesn't seem to be so controversial today whether a module is analog or digital anymore. Meanwhile our fixed synth brothers and sisters still often seem to have flame wars about whether this new synth that's come out is analog or digital. System 8 anyone?



                       Tangerine Dream at Coventry Cathedral in 1975


Taking the Kosmische artists as my role models it makes me want to put such banal and ultimately unresolvable discussions to one side. I listen to their works and read about how they did it and it seems to point a sensible way forward both in terms of the technology and the sounds. They were masters of combining things together and of being agnostic about things we might now in Internet forums find reasons to have interminable arguments about. They could and did combine machine generated sounds with leads played on keyboards. They would combine things on tape with things played live. (They had to. They only had two hands!) It was an attitude, in my naive mind at least, of making the best of what you've got, taking smaller parts and creating a greater whole from them. It was about making an effort. We have, I'm sure, all seen pictures of the giant multi-synthesizer stacks of gear from their performances. Much of that, in today's modular world, could be combined into much smaller cases. But the question many people would ask is if many of our modular synthesists today make even half as much out of the gear that we have at our disposal as they did back then. And this is not just about kinds or styles of music. Its about taking what you've got and making something worthwhile out of it. Of course, in the end we each decide whether something was worthwhile for ourselves but there is, I think, that sense we all have of knowing that we tried to achieve something beyond us with our musical gear, the sense that we have stretched ourselves. This, I think, is the criticism at the heart of the "beeps and fart noises" comments we often see and hear. And we may be able to lie to others about that. But we can't lie to ourselves about it.

Or it may be that modular synth world really is a train spotting, mending your motorcycle club. In which case its not really so surprising that people who want to make music and put some effort into it are turned away from it.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Modular Synth Monoculture?

I was sitting reading yet another thread on a modular synth forum and suddenly, quite out of the blue, a thought popped into my mind: where are all the black modular synth users? This thought began to snowball. Modular synthesists popped into my mind to be quickly replaced by others. Snippets of the hundreds of modular synth videos I must have seen replayed in my mind. They were all full of middle-aged white men. I thought of those I had interacted with over a number of years. All white guys too. Some women appeared, white ones of course, as Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Suzanne Ciani and Bana Haffar flashed through my mind. I started to think that maybe modular synthesis is just something that white guys (and a few white girls) do. And I began to ask myself why this is. Is there something about it that makes it an overwhelmingly white activity? At last I thought of a couple of black guys I knew who had modular systems, Corry Banks of BBoy Tech Report and the Beatppl podcast and Saintjoe of SoundsandGear.com. Both of these guys are only people I know of because of their Internet content. But, still, that's two black guys in a sea of whiteness. What's going on?



              White synth dudes Klaus Schulze and Richard Devine



I thought some more about our modular synth culture. I wondered if it is analogous to the Prog Rock of the 1970s which was, in the eyes of some, a boring, white man's cerebral music, the forerunner of Dadrock. I asked myself why so much modular music is abstract and often found on albums about space or machines or robots. Often modular music seems to be abstract musical collages (which is not a bad thing. I make them myself!). Then I noted that the two black guys I could think of who do use modular have only got into it recently and they are, if I may put it like this, two guys who are expressly interested in music technology. Both have their own Internet channels in which they do reviews of gear and talk about the gear scene. They are gearheads. So it might have been almost inevitable they would get into modular at some point since its growth in popularity is almost exponential these days. If you like synths it is becoming almost impossible to ignore and many modern fixed synth keyboards are coming out now with CV and Gate connections or even more comprehensive ways to integrate themselves with a modular synth world. So the gear angle could be a way into the modular synth world as it was for these two guys. But I wonder if the music it makes would be? Who is modular synth music appealing to?

Its fair to say that this initial thought led to a wider thinking about modular synth culture for me. You may suggest that it doesn't matter who takes part in this culture so long as they enjoy it and you may want to be critical of my observation that modular synth seems to be a largely white activity. "So what?" may be your response to that. Well, to be clear, I'm not sure what, if anything, follows from my observation here. But I think its basically a true observation and it fascinates me as to why this might be so. Modular synthesis is a very specific kind of activity which requires, for most users, a reasonable amount of money to purchase ever-increasing amounts of electronics equipment in order to take part. So, clearly, you have to be other than dirt poor in order to partake. This then filters in to a discussion of society in general and the socio-economic groupings into which various kinds of people fit. Yes, I'm sure you can see where this line of thinking is heading. Its food for thought. Its to point out that modular synthesis is not a game everyone can play. The nature of what it takes to take part is itself a limiting factor.

But I don't just think that modular synth is a matter of who can take part financially. Ask yourself who the role models and mentors of modular synth are. Historically, we have inventors like Bob Moog and Don Buchla. White guys. We have 70s musical heroes and early adopters like Morton Subotnick, Keith Emerson, Klaus Schulze and other random Germans with stacked Moogs. White guys. In the modern world its Richard Devine or Alessandro Cortini or maybe Mark Verbos with one of his techno sets. White guys. It seems that the role models, community mentors and makers are mostly white guys too. Does anyone even know some non-white makers and designers of modular synth gear? This, to my mind, all plays out in the kind of music modular synthesists make. Now its too blunt to describe this as "white music". I wouldn't even know what "white music" is. As a term this would be completely unhelpful. And yet, as I tried to describe above, it does seem to me that the music I hear coming from modular synths, made overwhelmingly by white middle-aged men, falls into some broad categories. 

I know this because I make an electronic music podcast called The Electronic Oddities Podcast and it regularly features modular synth music I've located online, primarily on Bandcamp. So I know exactly how many albums tagged "modular synth" are out there that are space themed (a lot!) and how many seem to be generally about things to do with science or technology (many of the rest). This idea, perhaps, started with Kraftwerk and their "Man Machine", and they are surely significant role models (if only in terms of the aesthetic they create) in the synthesis community and within electronic music more widely. But Kraftwerk were also an influence on early Hip Hop music and 80s Electro that was largely a music created by people of color. Everyone knows that it was a Kraftwerk riff that was lifted and used in Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa, for example. I've also heard guys like Detroit Techno producer, Carl Craig, talk about the effect of Kraftwerk upon the music he has made. So it seems true that music made by some white guys can crossover and influence the music made by those of other cultures too. I note that both of the black modular synthesists I could think of earlier also have backgrounds in Hip Hop and both were formerly probably much more familiar with an MPC (which Akai always seem to advertize using black musicians) than a modular synth.

So where is this discussion going? Well I think it tells me that modular synth, as a kind of gear and as a music that is made with it, is quite a narrow interest. Whether you think this is a good or bad thing, or even if you agree with this analysis, is, of course, your call to make. There was a recent discussion, started by a comment Richard Devine made about the sound of the new Behringer Deepmind 12 synthesizer, over whether there is such a thing as "the modular sound". Opinion was divided on that. Some agreed on kinds of sounds that were likely to be made by modulars (Devine himself referenced organic sounds with much movement within them if I remember correctly) whilst others wanted to say there was no such sound since a modular is so versatile it could not ever be reduced to a signature sound or sounds. And yet, if we open this out a little, it seems to be that there may be, at the very least, recurring topics and recurring sounds to accompany them. I've made mention of what I think they are (space, technology and science more generally) already. Modulars, it seems to me, lead their mostly white users down similar paths (ones that are soundscapes or bleepy bloops?). The question this makes me ask is "Is this creating a kind of narrow monoculture?" I find myself asking if an influx of people from other cultures and other musical traditions might not change the nature of the music made on modular synths. For avoidance of doubt, I don't think this would be a bad thing for I think we can all learn from each other.

If we look at music more generally we can see that certain kinds of people tend to make certain kinds of music. People progress in peer groups of like minds and like tastes. Often when one member of the group goes a certain way others notice and follow on. I put the whiteness of the modular synth grouping down to this in some respects. As I tried to show earlier, the black role models in this kind of music (or people of other, non-white ethnicities more generally) are almost totally lacking. We see this too in a gear context. A new module comes out. Someone famous gets it. You want it too. Anyone who follows modular synth forums knows which modules are the hot modules everyone is meant to have. I imagine most people reading this who have a modular system have the Make Noise Maths, for example! But these are cultural understandings that you need to be part of the group to get and I think its important, in some senses, to remember that modular synth is a culture in its own right. You do need to be an insider in many ways to fully partake of the interest itself. And that's where who makes up this community becomes interesting. For if its only one type of person, or very few types of people, then perhaps the whole is not being refreshed and energized by as many sources of potentially new ideas and thinking as it could be. 

Well, all this is just a thought. You may see my point but maybe you don't. I will sit on the sidelines and carry on observing, looking for interesting new developments and possible sub-cultures within the world of modular synthesis. I'd like to think that, as a community, we are capable of the new and of innovation and of going new ways and welcoming new kinds of people and not merely repeating the old ones or those of our heroes. It remains to be seen.




PS Since writing this blog its been brought to my attention that Richard Devine is actually of Asian descent. I obviously wasn't aware of this at the time of writing and no offence was meant by describing him above as white. I can only apologize for my ignorance.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Disturbia

It seems to be based on what is left of a bombed out building as you can see what is left of some of the floors of what was once, I guess, a tower block. Now, destroyed, a Syrian artist by the name of Tammam Azzam has, with the addition of some other bits of rubble, turned it into a forlorn version of the Statue of Liberty. A statue of liberty in war torn Aleppo, Syria. Who knows what liberty there is there as people use weaponry against each other fighting for... well, I'm not sure what they are fighting for. Power? Land? Resources? Ideology? Does anyone actually know?


                                           Tammam Azzam's Statue of Liberty


Meanwhile, in Calais, France, a migrant (or refugee) camp known locally as "The Jungle" is about to be broken up and got rid of by French authorities who have tolerated its existence for well over a year now. Many in this camp are from Syria. Others are from Afghanistan or other places. They want to get to the UK. Who knows why? Maybe they have family or friends there. Maybe the UK's historical influence in their homelands makes it a natural magnet for those seeking escape from their own private hells. I would be surprised if many of them realized the country they were coming to though. It is a place lately marked out by hatred, division, rhetoric and ugliness. I admit, though, that it has not yet turned into Aleppo although, as I emerged from my sleep last night into a waking state once again, I had a half awake, half asleep dream in which people showing compassion for foreigners were sentenced to death and shot. 

You might find this idea a bit extreme. But I think its a logical conclusion from some of the thinking I am seeing now openly spoken, thinking which, in more restrained times, was whispered amongst like minds or spoken of only under rocks. Lately, though, those with such views have become emboldened. They have found leaders who at least wear the veneer of respectability even if it doesn't go very far down. In the UK, Nigel Farage became the voice of several million closet racists with his advertisements which were barely disguised Nazi propaganda. His task was to blame everyone's problems on Johnny Foreigner and he seems to have surprised even himself that he did it. Before the Brexit result was announced he was already conceding defeat. But he won. There were more old folks with a fond remembrance of empire and younger people with nothing being rounded up by the vitriol of tabloids owned by billionaires than he had realized. Farage is a key player if you're American too. Donald Trump sees Brexit as the model for his own, very similar uprising and hosted Farage at one of his rallies. "The victory of the ordinary guy over the elites" they see it as.

Of course, its not this. Its the victory of hate over hope. Its the victory of division over unity. Its the victory of self over community. Its the victory of a few self-interested people over everybody else. Nigel Farage and Donald Trump don't care about the people who support them. They care about themselves. They care about living in the world they want in their heads. Everybody else, well, they are just those that can be used to hinder that ideal or bring it about. What Farage and Trump have shown, along with a compliant media especially in the UK where newspapers still hold some influence, is that hate for someone who doesn't look like you can indeed be nurtured and grown. A number of tabloids here in the UK have been consistently and often virulently anti-foreigner, anti-refugee, for years. Those chickens were always going to come home to roost. And they have. We see today in the UK white supremacist groups, defence leagues for Englishness (whatever that is) and an increasing number of incidents against people of other races and nationalities. This isn't coincidence. Its the pay off for the investment the hatemongers have made. This stuff doesn't exist in a vacuum. Nor does it just disappear.

Now in America, a land riven with racial angst and hatreds as far as I can tell from across the water, this is coming home to roost too. Trump has himself been sowing hate and discord during his campaign. He suggests the elites control everything and that they will rig things to fix the election. He says he might not accept the result unless he wins. He says there are more murders now than ever (a lie he continues to repeat). He demonizes non-Americans as reprobates looking for a free ride. Now Trump is characterized by many as a habitual liar with no concern for the truth at all. The message is what matters. For he knows that some already want to believe the things he says. So if he just repeats lies over and over again the effect of this will be to engrain these things in people's minds. Many of his supporters now see the press as the PR wing of the elites they've been taught to despise. They chant "L├╝genpresse" at the press corp, a chant that Hitler used against the German press in the 1930's. He boldly boasts in private of sexual assaults yet when women come forward to say he indeed sexually assaulted them he claims that everyone is a liar. Even though he has himself admitted he sexually assaults people. His supporters shrug it off, unable to link his own words to the accusations of others. Trump seems to threaten to sue someone else 10 times every day. It is a mentality in which Trump is always right and everyone else, especially the elites and foreigners, is out to get him. Trust no one but him is his campaign message. Yes, you should trust a habitual liar who is clearly one of the most irresponsible and self-serving people alive today.

The way these demagogues have risen to such dizzy heights is similar. Both have played off the powerful, who, of course, they are not in this rhetoric, against the little guy, the ordinary person with nothing. That is, the ordinary WHITE person with nothing. In the UK we might call this the working class. In America it seems slightly different in that it is the hard pressed blue collar guy who is the backbone of this body of resentment. In each case, however, these respective men sought to radicalize these naturally quiet people who, in normal times, would just struggle along with their daily lives with a grumble. What Farage, Trump and their media partners such as Rupert Murdoch have done, however, is play on the fears of people like this and tell them that everything they think is true. Other people are getting stuff for free. Other people are getting an easy ride. Other people want to kill you. Other people are making monkeys out of you. The rhetoric is constant and quite deliberate. But these people are being played. Would Trump, Farage or even Murdoch, given a chance, actually make the lives of these people better? No way. Its not even genuinely in their minds to do it. These people are entirely negative in their motivations, driven by what they are against as opposed to what they are for. And I genuinely believe these people are racist at their core. 

Sometimes the supporters of these people and the positions they espouse speak more clearly and sensibly than they do. After all, Trump and Farage must at least pretend to appeal to more moderate people. Farage cannot say he wants a white England. But some of those who support his views do. This week in the English press I've read quite genuine comments from people who want a white monoculture in the UK and who think compassion for refugees is "Anti-British". People talk of those wanting compassion for the refugees as "traitors" and as "treacherous". Some bright spark actually started a petition to make talk of wanting to stay in the EU or rejoin it again a matter of treason. Another, an MP, wanted refugees teeth pulled out and tested to determine if someone was under 18 and thus a child worthy of help as opposed to an adult not worthy of it. "The foreigner" has become a very contested notion in the UK. In America it is even more scary due to the gun laws there. I have read accounts of people who intend to intimidate people of other creeds and colors and it seems many are convinced that people of certain colors or who speak certain languages are out to kill them en masse, terrorists in waiting. Such is the rhetoric, for example, regarding "Islam". The situation in the USA is also more febrile because there is already a historic background of racial injustice deeply woven into the fabric of the country's history. The American Civil War may have sealed the fate of slavery but one hundred years later social justice causes were still being fought for and needing to be won by those like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Even 150 years after this war there is still need for campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and American police departments continue to gun down black individuals at a rate much higher than those of other ethnic groupings.

I have come to refer to this age we are now living in as "Disturbia". The world of my experience, white, English-speaking, does not seem safe anymore. The dissonance, anger and hate cannot be blocked out or ignored anymore. It is horrible to live in. It is deeply ugly and being made deliberately so by charlatans who want nothing more than their 15 minutes in the bright lights. These men are morons who just want to poke the wasp's nest with a big stick and say "Look at me!" They do not have the wit or intelligence to see what permanent damage they are doing or how their stupidity will change things for the worse for many years to come. They are men who have not recognized, as most sane observers have, that the post World War 2 prosperity that many have shared in was due to shared aims and common goals across nations. Trump, Farage, even Murdoch, are not internationalists. They are small-minded nationalists. They buy in totally to the Ayn Randian notion that for me to prosper and survive then you must not. For there can be only one winner, right? Look at how Trump avoids his civic responsibility by avoiding federal taxes and then laughs in his supporters' faces and suggests it just means he's smart. What if everyone decided to be "smart" like Donald? You see, its always the have nots or the can nots that will pay the price for this kind of self-seeking "smartness". The irresponsible will always be happy for the responsible to pay. And then call them dumb for doing it. By their actions they willfully seek to create disconnected people and disrupt both bonds of compassion between us and any ideas which encourage togetherness. In its place they create a white tribe of disaffection as if its somehow us who have been exploited.

I cannot foresee how any of this plays out. But I don't think it can be good. I live in a country now where a compassionate comment said in good faith about those with nothing leads to many days of press coverage calling for the speaker to be sacked from his job. (Google "Gary Lineker".) I live in a country where the compassionate tears of a singer (Lily Allen) for children living in squalor are mocked and vilified. I live in a country where if you are under 18 we might grudgingly help you but if you are so much as a minute older we will denounce you as a lying scrounger seeking to deceive and defraud us. I live in a world where people are denominated by nation and this label then determines whether they are worthy of help or not. (Although if you're not white you might need to go to the back of the queue.) I live in a world where "looking a bit foreign" is enough to regard you as a danger to me and as completely other. It didn't get to this by accident. Its been done on purpose. Its every bit as insidious and deliberate as was the agenda of the Nazis less than 100 years ago. Indeed, its telling that the overt Nazis and racists, so emboldened of late, openly support the Trumps and Farages of this world. I don't know about you but if it were me being supported by such people I'd want to take a look in the mirror and think again. 

Now I am a white man. I cannot help this for, like everyone, I was born what I was. Some may say that this shields me from the real horror of our current situation in the world. But I am not blind and, unlike many people of all colors, I do not simply accept the agendas I am handed. Neither should you either. I fear for those who are not white in the world that is before us. As the power and influence of the Trumps and Farages rises it changes things for the worse for those who are not white and for any who speak up for them who are. And it doesn't even matter if they win. Brexit has passed here in the UK and the future is uncertain. We have deliberately been goaded into an act of self-harm. In the USA, even if Trump loses, as is now increasingly predicted, the hate he has sown will remain. The lies he has sown will continue to bear fruit. And its not as if Obama himself was that concerned about droning random foreigners anyway. All this hate and division will play out in a thousand acts of unknown ugly consequence reported by victims and their families sporadically as the price is paid. The uglification of the world by small-minded people who cannot think past their own grievances will continue. And my problem is I cannot see how you stop it. "Where good people do nothing there evil will flourish" is how the saying goes. But as I think about this and survey the scene it seems to me as if it is a never-ending war. Victories are won for fairness, equality and justice but the war rumbles on anyway. You come to the conclusion that its perpetual war. 

So then you turn and you ask yourself whether what matters is not who wins but what you stood for. There are reasons to suggest this matters, not least that you can look yourself in a mirror. But is it enough? Anyone can only make a difference in the here and now, that is for sure. A worldwide peaceful co-existence has not yet been known on our planet and what reason do we think exists that there will ever be one whilst there are people in the world who actively define their success as someone else's failure? I guess those who fight social justice causes must have a reason why they do and maybe this is simply as simple as not wanting to accept the station others in life would give them, to live a life not dictated by others.

"People are people so why should it be you and I should get along so awfully?" sang Depeche Mode.

What's the answer?

Monday, 17 October 2016

Bleeping Modular Synths!

As I checked my various timelines today for what was happening in the world, a process which involves reading articles on music websites, watching videos and listening to people's new tracks, I came across a reference to an old interview on the Sonicstate website. For the purposes of this blog it doesn't matter who it was with except to note that they were modular synthesists of the Eurorack variety. The video interview itself is quite lengthy and interesting and there was also some music showcased along with it. My interest was peaked even further though when I ventured into the now ever-present comments section that seems to accompany almost any internet posting anywhere. Here I started to find somewhat puzzling, critical comments about both the interviewees and what it was they were doing, i.e. making music with modular synthesizers. (They had a huge, wall-sized, Eurorack setup.) I bring this up and, indeed, make a whole blog out of it today because it seems to me that there are some general criticisms of the whole genre of modular synth (that is, of the music and of the users) that are out there these days that are spread by those with chips on their shoulders or grudges to bear. I personally regard them as the preservers of an unseemly conventionality. But I want to try and address them. If you use modular synths too you may find the following discussion pertinent to what you do. Or you may not.






The first kind of comment I want to address is the kind that suggests, sometimes with regularity, that modular is somehow "being pushed down people's throats" these days. If this is the case, and I only say if, this is because, as Jean-Michel Jarre said in an interview recently, that "electronic music won". What he meant by this was that in the past the idea of making music with electronics itself was frowned upon. For a number of years, even into the 80s when people tried to stop those such as Gary Numan from doing what they do, electronic music was regarded as somehow not "proper". Again in the UK, as with Numan, Depeche Mode, who have since gone on to become the most popular electronic group of all time and lately with considerable amounts of modular gear at their disposal, were, at the start of their career, never given any credit or due in their own country. Their music, being electronic and all synths, was regarded as somehow insubstantial and fluffy. "Just Can't Get Enough" was laughed at not regarded as a pattern for future musical output. It certainly wasn't regarded as amounting to anything. However today, as Jarre pointed out in the interview, all music is basically electronic. The balance has swung from guitar music to synth music. The procedures for even making music have become significantly more electronic and involving of electronic devices. Very few people today, in the modern electronic environment, would even blink at the idea of synths or synth music. Today you are regarded as dangerously weird or "old school" if you don't use a computer and software as some part of your process.

So what then of modular synths "being pushed down people's throats"? Well the particular complainant who made this comment goes on to suggest that the problem is that a lot of modular synth music is "just noise sequences with no real substance". Is this the Depeche Mode complaint rearing its head again? It may well be. However, what this also is is an example of a value system in operation regarding what is regarded as worthwhile (or substantial) or not worthwhile (or insubstantial) when it comes to electronic music. That the language is a matter of substance or lack of it is interesting to me because it makes me ask what "music with substance" might actually be and, thus, whether this is a goal that the modular synthesist should have. Clearly, this person hears a lot of modular synth music and regards it as effete and ephemeral, fluff that gets blown on the wind. The suggestion is that it is ultimately meaningless. Now that is as maybe and, at this stage of the blog, I don't want to suggest for a second that the charge of being insubstantial might lead to the notion that something becomes meaningless. But, further, I also don't want to be forced to the conclusion that to make music that was meaningless, even if you did, would necessarily be such a bad thing. 

But let's back up a little. Another commenter accuses those in the video interview I referred to as being "noodling hipsters" and those in the modular synth community might be familiar with this casual insult. He suggests that they, and possibly a wider community of those like them, have "no musical inclinations beyond hoarding gear and making it bleep". Ouch! I wonder if anyone's Spidey sense is tingling after that warhead has been detonated? It must be said that when one surfs the various forums and internet places where modular synth fans go there does seem to be plenty of people with little musical output and plenty of gear they never seem to put to more than minimal use. Now, of course, we are not autocrats here. People can do with their things, or not do with their things, exactly what they want to do. But the charge seems to be that some modular synth users, and, by extension, the group as a whole, are collectors of stuff more than they are active music-makers. Does this accusation ring any bells with you, I wonder? We are starting to build up a critical picture of modular synth fans as people chasing an insubstantial cool factor, people who obsess over stuff and discuss gear but without producing anything that matters. Perhaps more evidence in this direction might be the preponderance of modular synth users who make 5 minute "jams" recorded on their camera phones as opposed to full length pieces of music which they have honed and crafted and produced as works of art in their own right. Some would certainly say so, it seems.

This charge of being "noodling hipsters" or collectors of cool things bites further when its suggested, as it was in the comments I refer to, that "such people give electronic music a bad rep". This makes us ask what we as modular synth users want to be known for. Are we to be considered as the electronic music equivalent of model train enthusiasts, collecting all our stuff, making sure it looks just right and then privately playing with it and maybe going online to discuss various layouts and technical specifications of equipment? Are we merely people with an interest who show our stuff to other people and then endlessly talk about it? Is this what being into modular synths is all about? For some it may well be and I don't wish to denigrate that. Above all else in this blog I will hold to the view that people can make of their resources what they will. However, this does beg the question of image and public perception. It makes us ask what modular synthesists want to be known for and perceived as. If modular synthesis is a subsection of electronic music and, thus, something with a musical purpose in mind where does this fit in amongst the collecting, noodling and discussing?

Now in the past couple of years I have become more interested in what might be generally described as abstract electronic music. Sometimes this blurs into flat out noise and certainly things that could be described as atonal. I like everything from drones and soundscapes to chaotic glitches and musical uses of harsh static. I embrace the chaos that can be inherent in a modular system or setup in which you can deliberately set out not to be tuneful. This, I argue, has always been there from when people started picking up their synths at the end of the 1960s. It is a constant and authentic branch of modern electronic music. I have written blogs about this before and suggested on some of those occasions that there was a bias in society against this due to cultural factors which canonize certain forms of music at the expense of others. I still think that this analysis has some truth to it. However, not everyone agreed with me. To persist with the Sonicstate link, sometime guest on their Sonictalk podcast show (and synth demonstrator and vintage analog enthusiast of note), Marc Doty, wrote to me concerning one blog I wrote (on his Automatic Gainsay Facebook page) that he believes that music "isn't a cultural choice" but, instead, "an evolutional outcome". He then goes on to write of his belief that human beings have "connections to organized sound and resonating vibrations that go deeper than their choices". He thus thinks we are, quite naturally and reasonably, drawn to tonal sounds, harmonic relationship and, thus, melodies and chords. I found what Marc had to say deeply fascinating. I wasn't convinced but nevertheless.

I mention all this because what you believe about things conditions how you will approach others, things that you come across daily. This, indeed, is how we humans are able to handle our daily lives at all. We process things based on what we already think and believe. Some of these things may help modify some of the beliefs. Most are just churned up and processed by the beliefs we already have. And so it is with electronic music too. Now I have to say I have noticed that the aforementioned Mr Doty has, at times, seemed to be quite critical of especially Eurorack users with his view of what it is he thinks they are doing and why. I don't intend here to critique or repeat any of this. Marc, I'm sure, is big enough and eloquent enough to speak for himself if he wants. But reading something of his deeper beliefs about music and sound it at least makes some consistent sense with those other things. It is easy to see why he is critical of some things in the light of where he seems to be coming from even if you think he gets the whole thing wrong! Marc is able to give an explanation of why he favours tones, melodies and chords over noise, incoherence and chaos being the fan of electronic sounds and music that he clearly is. This is important to me because I will always value a reasoned argument I don't agree with over a casual insult that comes from out of the blue. I don't ultimately believe that Marc has explained things adequately in what he wrote to me on Facebook nor why some, maybe many, people like making noise instead. Maybe one day he will give a talk or write a paper doing just that. But what of the criticisms I've collected up here from one random internet posting? Where do they fit in?

People get into modular synthesis for many reasons and, to my mind at least, its legitimate to get into modular synthesis for any reason you want. If you want to build the world's biggest modular synth decoration on your wall then go for it. Its no skin off my nose. But most people are, at least nominally, getting into modular synthesis for so-called musical reasons. Now this may just be for the "noodling" that my commenter above has frowned upon. But so what? It seems to me that the modular synth, of any format, lends itself to this purpose. If one is going to dedicate oneself to using a modular synth then, with there being so many possibilities, one will need to play, in the sense of have fun experimenting, in order to do this. This, it seems to me, is one of modular synthesis's biggest attractions in the world of electronic music. The fact there are so many options openly encourages this play and, to me at least, makes it a legitimate activity. A modular synth can be an activity, like the piano of old in the Victorian parlour, where you spend some of your leisure time just playing. Is that an illegitimate use of electronic music resources, an activity that gives it a bad reputation? I don't think so. There is no law or instruction which mandates you must do anything at all with a modular synth. Buying one or beginning to build a system does not commit you to "serious" or "proper" music and neither does it force you to submit to some traditional or authoritarian notion of what "music" is. No way, Jose.

And now we need to address the issue of "musical substance" once more. I genuinely do not know what this means. I imagine it could mean something traditional, something melodic, something, for want of a better word, "normal". Or mainstream. I crap on that idea. If a modular synth is anything, in my understanding, then it is an exploration tool. It is a device in which you can, deliberately and with some ability, purposefully tread untrodden paths. If you have one I think you should do this because, apart from anything else, its one way to guarantee that you will sound like no one else in a world where sounding like someone else seems, for many, to be the safest path. In a recent episode of Divkid's "Modular Podcast" I was delighted when the artist Scanner (also known as Robin Rimbaud) spoke to the effect that music is about finding your own voice in your equipment. I could not agree more with him. I would equate this with "musical substance" in that then the music at least becomes about something. It becomes about you, your interests, your experience of the world. 

But I have a bigger point here. And this is that I don't think music need have any substance. It need not have any meaning. It can be effete, ephemeral, empty, pointless and void of any sense. The demand that things have meaning is perhaps the most conventional demand of all. In this context, it is the nihilist, the person who does things simply because they can or for a moment's pointless fun, who is the rebel. And with a modular synthesizer you can certainly, and constantly, do this. You might not even know how you did it and never be able to repeat it. (Repetition is another conventional notion.) But so what? Why does, and why did, the music ever have to mean something? Why must it have a point, a substance? Why must anyone take the box of chaos that is a modular synthesizer and then regard it as something to be tamed, made safe, made conventional? Why not go the other way and simply enable it to express its inherent desire to blurt forth randomness into the void? This plea for substance is the death of possibility on the altar of conventionality. It is the desire that we all play it safe so as not to seem too "other".

In the end, I believe, the criticisms I found are merely expressions of the value systems of those who hold them. These people had their own ideas of what music is and of what they regard being musically valid as. But these ideas and beliefs can only ever extend as far as their own noses. Beyond that there are other ideas and beliefs which you and I are equally free to have and hold. This may be because, as Marc Doty believes, evolution will guide us down a certain path. It may be, as I tend to believe, that you decide to make a certain choice. Choices, of course, are never made in a vacuum. (And so Doty and I may be talking about the same thing from opposite ends.) In my experience each musical life is a great chain of events, of cause and effect, in any case. Due to my interest in electronic music I make a podcast called "Electronic Oddities" and in doing that I am constantly lead from one thing to another in a great chain, all the while discovering new things, things I missed from decades ago, and much else. To me this is the wonder of it all, that there is so much and it is all so different. Not knowing what will happen next, what I will hear next, is the greatest thing about electronic music, this inherent capacity for possibility. That is why I am so attracted to modular synthesis in the first place. Will some people who have a modular synth be "noodling hipsters" just wanting to look cool? Yes. But so what? Much more important to me than any chat about devices, tech talk, "look at my setup" pics or anything else surrounding modular synthesis is the ideas involved in actually making music. "What are you doing with your gear?" is the important thing for me followed up with the question "Why?" 

For me a modular synth should be, par excellence, the instrument for people with ideas and it should be used to musically express them. For me personally the sin would be to have a system and then not use it to see how far you can go with it. But I'm perfectly aware I can only control my own gear and output and no one else's. Its just that to have a great system, as many people seem to, and then not use it to explore sonic possibilities would seem to be a terrible waste. So, to finish, of course we all have our own ideas of what "substantial" music might be for we all have value systems. But these will only ever be ours and our music always expresses them. We should, as Robin Rimbaud said, seek to find our voice through the technology for this is not just a collection of electronics that will always sound the same. The fact a modular synthesizer is a device through which human beings can mediate themselves with the utmost electronic flexibility possible is of vital importance. And to that extent its like anything else. It reveals the person behind it. 

So are you a model train enthusiast, a noodling hipster or a sonic explorer?


PS I have always found electronic bleeps quite profound. Its always about how things are contextualized I find.