In her interview as part of the Sound + Process podcast, Emily Sprague mentioned two musicians as inspirations for her, one of them being Lightbath, aka Bryan Noll. She was speaking in particular about Lightbath’s videos, in the context of videos with a certain aesthetic that she found comforting if rare — which is to say, not all 4/4, not techno, not noisey, not songy, not purely noodling; instead: soft, ambient, and ever so slightly melodic. She doesn’t specifically say those things; that’s an aesthetic triangulation on my part based on what Sprague’s music often sounds like, and what Lightbath and the other musician whose videos she mentioned, R Beny, are generally up to.
This track, while quite rhythmic, is a good example of Lightbath in action. Titled “Forgiveness,” it has a very organic sounding percussive undercurrent. The beat brings to mind African talking drums, above which sharp, plucked notes slowly fill the audio spectrum with extended reverberations. I’ve posted the audio, from SoundCloud, up top, and the video below to encourage giving it a listen before watching the piece unfold. Like many modular performances, there is far less going on than we actually hear. With notable exceptions, of course, modular performance is often more a matter of coaxing, nudging, and shifting than it is of what we have come to traditionally think of as “playing.” That sedate composerly presence isn’t always reflected in the sound, but it certainly is here.
Emily Sprague patches her modular synthesizer, sets it running, and checks in on it hours, even days, later to figure out where the generative invention has meandered and matured, what strange familiar-yet-unfamiliar music it’s gotten up to. She initiated her relatively recent self-education by mainlining module manuals and studying the videos of a handful of people (notably Lightbath and r beny) whose aesthetic and approach appealed to her (i.e., largely ambient, if gently melodic, and lacking a fixed rhythm). She says she likes tap tempo, for the organic feel, and certain filters, for their ability to self-oscillate. She began to share videos of her own work in part to replenish the well from which she’d drawn, and also out of an awareness that modular synths are a male-dominated thing.
Here’s an early such video, from May 2016:
And here’s a gentle, burbling track from about a year ago:
These are just some of the things we learn in the excellent eighth episode of the Sound + Process podcast hosted by Dan Derks. Interspersed in the podcast are demos of the music that will appear on her forthcoming solo modular synth album. Sprague, who also is part of the folk-pop band Florist, talks about gaining fluency with patching by buying and selling modules, seeing what works for her and what doesn’t, and how warm and welcoming the synth community, in particular on the llllllll.co (also known as Lines) message board, has proved to be.
And after listening to Sprague speak for an hour, you also can check out some of her band Florist’s music, and hear that same voice sing. This track is “What I Wanted to Hold,” off the forthcoming Florist album If Blue Could Be Happiness, which is to be released on September 29, 2017:
If you’ve listened to the second episode of the Disquietude podcast, then you’ve heard a piece by Scanner recorded during his residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation on Captiva Island in Florida. This video was also recorded during that residency, and it shows Scanner doing a performance that occurred at the close of the extended visit, when he and the rest of his cohort presented some of what they had been up to. In this case many of the source audio segments in Scanner’s piece were things he’d recorded in Florida during the residency. You can hear surf and birds in the mix, along with a singsong mix of waveforms. The use of found materials seems appropriate, given the Rauschenberg’s artistic legacy. Scanner describes it a bit at his website:
Something I found surprising and fascinating about my stay was how it altered my listening habits. Whilst working on my new book I found that much of the music I would ordinarily listen to seemed wrong for the location. With nature in its rawest form all around, with osprey, vultures, dolphins, manatees, racoons, woodpeckers surrounding me, it was a challenge to find other music that might work.
I’ve come to recognize that the sounds I aspire to make on my modular synthesizer are, often as not, the sounds that I hear in public transportation and HVAC systems. I had several titles planned for this, but in the end it is HVAC cosplay. It is a synthesizer disguising itself as a semi-industrial drone, the drone the product of the infrastructure of some imagined generic place, an office building, a hotel, a school, that works very hard to disguise the presence of its infrastructure. The drone is the evidence of infrastructure that seeps into view — into hearing view, that is, into earshot — when your elevator is stuck between floors, or you find yourself in a subbasement because of poor wayfinding signage in the staircase, or most opportunely at a particular spot in a hall where the duct ley lines create a confluence of overtones. The sound may not even be present in the world; it may be specific to how your ear receives and contorts the sound. You alone may be witness to a particular signal.
More practically, the overtones here are the result of three different oscillators on my modular synthesizer being heard in unison, impacting each other, and being impacted by a handful of low frequency oscillators. Some frequency bands within those main oscillators themselves are being impacted by variations on the low frequency oscillations, and then amid it all one of those three main oscillators occasionally is triggered to move up and down an octave, at times suggesting a tonal center, at others testing the contours of the system’s comfort zone.
More specifically, for those playing along at home, the three oscillators are: an Intellijel Dixie II, a Hikari Sine, and a Pittsburgh Oscillator. The LFOs are all courtesy of a single module, the Xaoc Batumi (I just installed it last night; this is my first patch with it). The filter bank is an ADDAC 601. There’s a Doepfer A-121 and a Circuit Abbey Invy in the mix, too, as well as a 2hp Filt. They keyboard is a QuNexus, doing its thing on the Dixie II. I’ve long fiddled with oscillators to try to engender dense, rich tones, and this is closer to what I’ve been trying for than anything I’ve done until now.
BjÃ¶rn 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.
• October 13, 2016: This day marks the start of the 250th weekly Disquiet Junto project.
• November 16, 2016: I'll be sharing the mic at Adobe Books in San Francisco with my fellow 33 1/3 author Evie Nagy for an evening hosted, from 7pm to 10pm, by Marc Kate (facebook.com).
• December 1, 2016: A likely speaking engagement. Details to come.
• December 13, 2016: This day marks the 20th anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• January 5, 2017: This day marks the 5th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• Ongoing: The Disquiet Junto series of weekly communal music projects explore constraints as a springboard for creativity and productivity. There is a new project each Thursday afternoon (California time), and it is due the following Monday at 11:59pm: disquiet.com/junto.
• My book on Aphex Twin's landmark 1994 album, Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, published as part of the 33 1/3 series, an imprint of Bloomsbury, is now in its second printing. It can be purchased at amazon.com, among other places.