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Listening to art. Playing with audio. Sounding out technology. Composing in code. Rewinding the soundscape.

Scanner Modulates the Source

Using a brand new synthesizer module

Robin Rimbaud goes by the name Scanner due to his early work, which involved snatching people’s conversations from the ether and lending those often fraught words new emotional meaning by composing accompanying soundtracks. His atmospheric scores deepened the words’ presence, turning domestic squabbles into radio dramas, monologues into manifestos, idle chatter into comedy of the absurd. This work was intimate and abstract, trenchant and seeking. When I think about early Scanner recordings, which I do often, in my imagination they sit alongside the output of other artists whose unique vision connected human speech and composed music, notably the way Dennis Potter’s screenplays gave voice to the inner turmoil and fantasies of his characters by having them lip-sync popular songs, and how the composer Scott Johnson transcribed the ticks and nuances of human utterances and wrote settings that were, in effect, arrangements fleshing those words out to the scale of a chamber ensemble. Potter found the big dreams within small lives. Johnson found the density in the linear. Scanner found the spectacle in the everyday.

And so it was a huge pleasure today when one of Scanner’s old voices appeared in a new piece, albeit a brief one. Today is Fat Tuesday, and perhaps by chance or perhaps by perfect design, the music synthesizer company Mutable Instruments, based in Paris, France, released a new module called Beads (having lived in New Orleans for four years, I found the connection natural, but it was likely coincidence). The module had clearly already been in the hands of many forward-thinking synthesizer musicians for some time, because right on cue YouTube and Instagram (as of this evening, I couldn’t find any on Vimeo) were filled with video demonstrations of this new module’s features. (Full disclosure: the four-panel comics I created last year were done so with illustrator Hannes Pasqualini, who, with his wife, Elizabeth, designs the interfaces at Mutable.)

For one of his Beads pieces, Scanner took a spoken voice that will be recognizable to fans of his 1997 album, Delivery. In the original, titled “Heidi,” the backing music is a moody, melodramatic bed, like some slurry hybrid of Angelo Badalamenti and Bernard Herrmann, while an unnamed man both pleads his case to and verbally assaults the titular woman.

In Scanner’s brand new track, “Heidi Concrète,” the man is back, nearly a quarter century later, as if caught all along in some mythic limbo, ever ruining his own chances at reconciliation. Now, however, in place of the original music is simply the voice as it is transformed in the Mutable Beads module (hence the “concrète” in the title, borrowed from “musique concrète,” or music made from preexisting sounds). The voice in the new “Heidi Concrète” is fractured and looped, battered and frayed, and ultimately utterly dismantled into a pool of splattery assonance. And because it’s a video, the viewer can associate the varied treatments to specific actions: buttons pressed, knobs turned. While many other musicians are exploring the tonal possibilities of the new module, a common mode for such first-patch videos, Scanner dug deep in his personal crate.

Whenever I hear Scanner’s early work, I wonder if the speakers ever recognized themselves in it. Musicians coming to “Heidi Concrète” to witness an accomplished musician’s initial take on the new module will, I hope, recognize new creative possibilities in what Scanner has done.

Video originally posted to Scanner’s YouTube channel. More from Robin Rimbaud, who is based in London, England, at scannerdot.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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