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.
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.
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.
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?
• 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.