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tag: modular

The Elbow at the Machine

The human intervention in generative music

Björn Bommersheim posted this seven-minute synthesizer performance, which he describes as a “self generative eurorack modular patch,” which is to say it’s an instrument that plays itself. This isn’t to say the synth is entirely self-sufficient. Putting aside the necessity of someone (Bommersheim, that is) to conceive of and implement the patch — “patch” meaning the various connections between various modules, and the various settings of those modules — there are numerous instances throughout “Chtou | Eurorack Ambient Soundscape” when the author is physically present. Bommersheim is seen adjusting knobs early on to set the piece in motion, and moving up and down between the levels of modules to nudge the piece in a desired direction at various instances. For the duration of the sedate, welcomingly distracting performance, rich swells of cloudy waveforms come and go, and whispy, playful, slurpy smaller tones make themselves heard.

This is the latest video I’ve added to my YouTube playlist of recommended live performances of ambient music. Video originally posted at Bommersheim’s YouTube channel. More from Bommershein, who is based in Bochum, Germany, at soundcloud.com/bjornbommersheim.

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This Is “Glisten”

A track off R Beny's new Full Blossom of the Evening

There’s likely no actual guitar on “Glisten,” a track off R Beny’s superb new collection, Full Blossom of the Evening. There are, in the extensive list of equipment, some potential sources for the sharp, high-pitched, tightly plucked, string-like sounds that are the focus of the track. We may be hearing a synthesized string from the Teenage Engineering OP-1, for example, or a sample played from his iPad. The sharpness of those sounds, the brittle, fiercely resistant tautness, brings to mind the artificial guitar heard on Oval’s 2010 album O. Both Oval’s record and this track off Beny’s new one explore the textures of the guitar in a digital space, a seeming simulacra of the familiar, rendered as a kind of sonic fiction, and the Oval reference gets additionally rich when a certain glitchiness is applies to the recording, when it temporarily seems as if the playback is failing. What makes the track distinct from Oval’s work is the core of the music. Oval’s reference was largely rock, pop, and folk. Beny has created a synthesizer chamber music, something that feels like it was plucked from the renaissance. When it glistens, per the title, and it does so quite often, it’s like light hitting stained glass — virtual stained glass, perhaps, but the beauty is real.

The full album is at rbeny.bandcamp.com. “Glisten” is simply a recommended entry point. More from R Beny, aka Austin Cairns of the San Francisco Bay Area, at soundcloud.com/rbeny.

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The Sonic Signatures of the Modular Synthesizer

Weighing in for Hannes Pasqualini's investigation

I first came into contact with Hannes Pasqualini, the Italy-based artist and designer, back in 2010. He contributed a small illustration for a Disquiet series about sonic visualization called Sketches of Sound. He drew a beautiful, detailed, psychedelic rendering of a tree sprouting musical parts. These days Hannes develops designs for actual musical instruments (see his papernoise.net portfolio) and writes about modular synthesizers (at horizontalpitch.com). He’s a very sensible, curious person, and he was intrigued recently by an offhand comment about a new instrument sounding “very modular” — that is, as in “reminiscent of a modular synthesizer.” Hannes dove into the question about whether modular synths have a sonic signature, asking folks like Enrico Cosimi, Joseph Fraioli (aka Datach’i), Olivier Gillet, Tim Prebble, Robin Rimbaud, Ben “DivKid” Wilson, and the guy who made the “very modular” comment in the first place, Richard Devine. I was pleased to be asked by Hannes to weigh in, which I did as follows:

Big picture I’d say my hope is you can’t always recognize a modular synthesizer when listening, because it is so varied in what it can accomplish. Modular synths are so rich with potential, it feels weird to use a word like “it” to encapsulate them. Especially when you get all those digital modules going — not just digital oscillators, but more complicated units like sequencers and so forth — it might arguably be indistinguishable from music you’d make on an iPad or a laptop. In addition, some of the most interesting work done with modulars sees them as part of a larger whole, combining them with software CV and with virtual modules, with Monomes, and serving as processing units for guitar, voice, and other external sources. Anyhow, to get back around to your question — and putting aside obvious things like specific modules with recognizable sonic signatures — I’d say that modular synths lend themselves particularly to a kind of exploratory, less-controlled experimental approach. This sort of approach reveals itself while the performance is going on: you start off in one place and end up in another. When I hear a hint of the weird that develops within the flow of a piece, it pricks up my ear and makes me wonder: modular?

His full piece, with everyone else’s far more informed comments, is at horizontalpitch.com.

This first appeared, in slightly different form, in the September 16, 2016, edition of the free Disquiet “This Week in Sound” email newsletter: tinyletter.com/disquiet.

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Liner Notes on Early Carl Stone

From Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties, forthcoming from Unseen Worlds

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Carl Stone invited me to write liner notes to a forthcoming release of some of his early music, Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties. That is to say, early in his career; it’s not archaic woodwinds and pre-polyphony singing.The album is due out September 30 from the label Unseen Worlds (more at unseenworlds.com). The release will also include liner notes from Stone himself, and from Richard Gehr and Jonathan Gold.

The pieces I wrote about are described as follows: “The earliest works of this collection, ‘LIM’ and ‘Chao Praya,’ realized on the Buchla 200, date to the early 1970s while Stone was a student of James Tenney and Morton Subotnick at CalArts.”

The album is due out September 30 as a three-LP set. Here are my liner notes:

The composer Carl Stone is often associated with multi-channel work that immerses the listener in a spatial sonic zone, and with aggressive sample manipulation that explores its source audio from the inside. The two early Stone pieces, LIM and Chao Praya, are neither. Conceptualized and recorded between 1972 and 1974, they are elegant, built from limited resources. They may play with the stereo spectrum, but their intended breadth is reserved.

They are student work, in the sense that they were recorded while Stone was an undergraduate at CalArts in Los Angeles. The early 1970s were an especially heady time at CalArts. The composers Ingram Marshall and Charlemagne Palestine were graduate students there while Stone, an L.A. native, was earning his bachelor’s degree, Barry Schrader was among the school’s instructors, and Buchla synthesizers were available if not abundant.

They are student work, in terms of when Stone committed them to tape, but they are fully realized performances, in the sense that four-plus decades later they are compelling, consuming listening experiences.

Chao Praya has at its heart the tingling wavering associated with a prayer bowl, or perhaps a police helicopter. It undulates, and in turn its various procedural wave forms reveal their constituent parts. Shades take on greater emphasis as increased volume brings details into focus.

LIM, in contrast with Chao Praya, often plays at higher registers and with greater variance. Here there are space ships rather than helicopters overhead. Here tonal shifts launch slow-motion cascades of moiré patterns. At even a modest volume, the results have a physical effect, playing with the ear. They tease at the nexus where sounds venture beyond human recognition.

Morton Subotnick, one of Stone’s teachers at CalArts, speaks of how he was drawn to electronic music when he began to dream music that an orchestra was not capable of producing. Stone’s is such music. This isn’t to say this work is opposed to the classical tradition. Quite the contrary, with their relatively compact length — barely 20 minutes combined — and economical contents, these two pieces have the air of études, of compositions that set out to explore a terrain, to map out combinations and permutations, the repercussions of resonances, and to set them down for study.

It is all too easy with the rise of digital media to credit the blank slate of streaming audio and the frictionless playback of solid-state drives with the level of nuance we experience in today’s sound design and audio recordings. Certainly these newfound comfort levels with quietude have created opportunities for musicians to nurse and adopt ambient proclivities. But the re-release of Chao Praya and LIM evidence that there are composers, Carl Stone key among them, who were working these elds from the beginning, who recognized at the start that new instruments would yield new forms.

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The Generative Patch as Fixed Recording

A live video by Flohr of Atlanta, Georgia

Like yesterday’s featured video, this video pushes the legibility of live filmed performance. Yesterday’s technically involved multiple live takes overlaid, each obscuring the others, and the ambient quality of it having less to do with any individual performance in the first place and more with the chance correlations that occurred as a result of the post-production act of accrual. Today’s video, by Flohr, is too murky and unidentifiable to ever be mistaken as a tutorial. And, of course, any modular synthesizer piece, such as this, that employs self-generating patches thus involves little if any human interaction. The hand comes down from above, the scale and surprise a bit like a Monty Python animation, a couple times, but by and large, this is really a live performance as fixed document — a patch playing out in realtime as something set in stone nonetheless, or in this case set in plastic and metal. The piece, “Spring Reverb Feedback Paths” by Flohr, is a shiny, rapidly cycling shimmer worth putting on repeat.

Flohr is Eric Flohr Reynolds of Atlanta, Georgia. More from him at soundcloud.com/flohr and ericflohrreynolds.bandcamp.com.

It’s the latest piece I’ve added to my ongoing YouTube playlist of fine “Ambient Performances.”

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