Released at the tail end of 2017, three quarters of the way through December, long after most best-of lists had been filed, published, and amended online with reader comments, the New York-based musician Emily A. Sprague released Water Memory, a cassette/digital release of original synthesizer pieces. At the bottom of the album’s Bandcamp page she lists the technology with which it was composed and performed, but knowledge of the boutique manufacturers — Monome, Mannequins, and Xaoc among them — isn’t necessary for an appreciation of the seesawing, nature-infused, artfully somber music the album contains.
From the morphing glisten of “A Lake” to the muted glitches of “Your Pond,” the album’s five tracks share a form that is genteel and economical and, yet, richly emotional. The album’s title is appropriate. There is something seemingly humid about the music, in the way the various elements congeal and amass, how the separations between parts get foggy, how the whole thing unfolds in a manner that suggests the presence of an environment: not just organic — the term employed frequently to suggest machines losing their machine-ness — but prone to the consequences of organic: irreversible decay and unforeseen growth.
A little after-hours experiment, running my electric guitar through my modular synthesizer. There is small looper picking up elements of what’s being played live on the guitar and then replaying them, warping the tune a bit as it goes. The percussion is simply a side effect of all the signals being sent to the looper. There’s also some high end and low end being cut off, thanks to a filter bank, and somewhere in the middle of the audio spectrum a slow triangle wave is manipulating a narrow frequency band.
Monorail, the solo musician not the retro-futuristic vision of transportation utopia, has a running series of live synthesizer jams on his YouTube channel. The styles and tools vary from jam to jam, though there is usually a modular synth at the core. Some might argue that the contemporary rise of the modular synth is itself a form of retro-futurism. If you scroll through his video archive you can chart, in the thumbnail images, the steady progression of his studio:
Sometimes a fellow musician, like a drummer, joins in, but generally speaking these are solo outings. The most recent, as of this writing, is jam number 114, a textural ambient piece, starting off with piercing tones and found snatches of dialog, and then proceeding into something denser and more amorphous, with segments of smashed white noise and soft, low-lying drones. Admirably, the video has the full synthesizer in clear view, so you can patch along at home following his example if you elect to. Occasionally Monorail’s arm enters the picture to adjust an oscillator or tweak some other setting, though for much of the piece the music is left to its own looping, slowly evolving devices. Present in the video is a little Lego figure of a Star Wars stormtrooper who appears — like Where’s Waldo from a galaxy far, far away — in many if not all of Monorail’s recorded jams.
Rudimentary sources are a thing this week. Over at pitchfork.com, Philip Sherburne surveyed albums recorded on a single synthesizer, among them three Korgs, a Clavia, and a Casio. Meanwhile on Twitter, there were endless variations on the theme of “This is where I recorded and mixed the album and all the gear I used.” The resulting memes ranged from Tron to Teletubbies. Some, like Four Tet’s tiny studio with a view, were even believable. (My own contribution was a nested loop, beginning here.)
And then, over on Bandcamp, the Klirrfaktor uploaded a nine-track album, Lost Identity, completely recorded on a single piece of software, one that is still deep in beta. Named VCV Rack, the software is a virtual modular synthesizer developed by Andrew Belt and contributed to by a growing number of module creators. You could argue that with numerous modules, VCV Rack isn’t exactly a single instrument, but Klirrfaktor gets points for putting it to substantial use so quickly — and for eschewing rote 4/4 rhythm tracks in favor of dank industrial spaces and ominous sound design.
Currently in version 0.4, VCV Rack (shown above) offers a variety of true basics, like oscillators and mixers, as well as adaptations of more specialized gear, like granular synthesizers and matrix sequencers. Both VCV Rack and the Klirrfaktor album are also entirely free. You can download VCV Rack at vcvrack.com. And if you make something you’re happy with, there’s a compilation due out that you can contribute to, details at switchedonrack.com.
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.
• January 2, 2018: This day marks the 6th anniversary of the Disquiet Junto.
• February 7, 2018: Start of the semester for the course I teach on the role of sound in the media landscape at the Academy of Art in San Francisco.
• December 13, 2018: This day marked the 22nd anniversary of Disquiet.com.
• 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.
The Disquiet Junto is an ongoing weekly collaborative music-making space in which restraints are used as a springboard for creativity. Subscribe to the announcement list at tinyletter.com/disquiet-junto. There is an FAQ. ... These are the 5 most recent weekly projects: