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Chosen Waves 015: Topographer

Alan Turing debating probability with Euclid

HannesHannes

After being an emerging name in Romania’s Drone/Doom Metal scene under the name Tauusk and releasing several albums, Răzvan Lazea-Postelnicu turned to the modular for further inspiration, attracted by its extended sonic palette. His new project Topographer inherits some of the traits found in his previous musical journey, keeping the drone/ambient elements and the dark undertone, but moving into sometimes very different directions.

The track Alan Turing debating probability with Euclid is an exercise in minimalistic, generative composition. An apparently simple patch, based on a semi-random sequence, which could potentially go on for hours. In this new Chosen Wave episode he tells us something about his approach to music and what it’s like to make music in Romania.

Horizontalpitch: what’s your musical background?

Răzvan Lazea-Postelnicu: I first picked up a bass guitar about 11 years ago, not having any proper musical training beforehand. So I had to teach myself how to play an instrument. I’ve been pretty lucky early on in meeting quite a few people interested in just having impromptu jam sessions in a small basement we had access to – it was really messy, chaotic but extremely fun, so fun in fact that those happy times will forever be etched in my memory. I feel that because of these jam sessions I started developing a rather skewed view on musical principles and theory, but, regardless, my skill and understanding was quite improved. I’ve since played bass in a number of bands and projects, each pretty different from the other in concept, but each of them giving me enough freedom to escape or at least dance around the concept of classical musical structure. In the meantime I’ve also acquired a taste for drone music and my older fascination with guitar effects grew and morphed into an appreciation of slow, morphing tone and timbre as a result. I became less focused on melody and more on sound itself. By this time I also picked up my first electric guitar and shortly afterwards, my first synths, while my pedal collection grew ever larger, or more precisely, ever more diverse.

HP: what’s your story with the modular? How did you first find out about it and when did you know that you wanted to use one in your music?

RP: About 5 years ago I started building pedals from DIY kits available on different specialized sites, mostly for fun, but also out of sheer curiosity and also as a means to save some money. I started looking for more interesting things to build and came across Thonk.co.uk, where I became fascinated with Tom Whitwell’s Music Thing Modular Turing Machine and Radio Music. At first I didn’t really grasp what they actually did and CV was a total mystery to me, so I had quite a bit of documentation work ahead of me. At the same time I got a Microbrute and CV was not an abstract concept any more since I now had it at my fingertips. Still, most DIY modules I came across were still pretty much out of my price range at the time so I continually put my introduction into the modular journey off, knowing very well that it had full potential of becoming yet another obsession. I wasn’t wrong.

I never felt well about owning too many instruments, so I’ve always felt compelled to find equipment that better suits my needs. The only problem is that my needs are constantly changing, depending on my moods. The Microbrute was a fantastic synth for me, but there were way to many things I would have liked to be different. Since I was into drones I would have really liked to have at least a second oscillator at my disposal and a easier way to just hold notes indefinitely. It wasn’t impossible to achieve what I needed with the Microbrute, far from it, but I still wanted a more convenient, hands-on approach to doing this. Wiring my own synth from basic components made a lot more sense to me than buying more and more gear to serve the rather small functions I constantly needed. Modular made a lot of sense all of a sudden. A few years later, Mother 32 was released and since my financial status was much better and it was such a good starting point, I decided to pull the trigger. It was all down hill from there. Radio Music and Turing Machine soon followed. I was hooked.

HP: what does “playing a modular” mean for you?

RP: I’ve heard people saying there’s a “modular sound”. I found that to be more of a misunderstanding. It’s true that there’s a handful of modules that have a very unique sound to them that is not so common outside of Eurorack and I think people associate that sound with the modular experience. Personally I don’t think that a “modular sound” exists. Playing modular is the same as playing a regular synthesizer with the huge benefit of a more hands-on approach towards achieving a lot of the more subtle or intricate functions. Most synthesizers give you quite a bit of control, but I’ve found that only modular gives me a visual, tangible and fast way of shaping the control of sound to my specific needs. Experimentation is a lot easier and happy accidents are frequent.

Before a performance I tend not to give much thought to what and how I’m going to play. I like to let things flow naturally, according to my mood. I usually only take with me as much gear as I can carry by myself and only using a few regular instruments tends to highly constrain the array of things I can do. Modular let’s me reorganize everything on the fly. In performances I usually start with creating atmospheric drones then add or subtract layers from the composition, slowly shifting everything in different directions. If I feel the mood is too mellow I can always hook up a noise source to a LPG and ping it and I suddenly have a rhythm going on that I subtlety fade in, changing the whole dynamic in a very soft, organic way. Sure, I could do this easily if I’d carry a drum machine with me, but I find it easier to focus on what I’m doing if I just work with all the basic building blocks in one place. In the past I would have used a looper to solve the problem in the aforementioned scenario, by adding a layer of guitar percussion, but that would only offer me limited possibilities with a great risk of disaster in case of a misstep on a footswitch. With modular I can focus better on building evolving sounds and melodies while different parts of my system give me the time and space to breathe. Physical skill is not an important issue anymore, leaving room for my mind to roam free. Expression is not as intuitive and natural as on a stringed instrument, but with a bit of clever patching I can come up with a close substitute, making room for a bit of spontaneity. And I can always use my guitar in tandem with my system.

HP: What’s your process when composing/recording your music?

RP: My process, if you can call it that, is pretty simple, sometimes chaotic. I usually just fire up my system and experiment for a while and if I like something I hook my gear to an audio interface and press record, playing around with different ideas. After I finish I do some basic editing, mostly consisting of cutting stuff out. I like keeping recordings as close to a live performance as possible. Results are “better” or “more musical” if I give thought beforehand to what I’m going to do and maybe record multiple tracks, overdub etc. but the end product is often a bit boring or lacking some “intangible qualities” in my eyes if I take this approach. I prefer to surprise myself even if that means a less digestible song with the occasional mistake. Imperfections are always more interesting.

HP: … and tell us something about the name “topographer” where does that come from and how does that relate to the music you make

RP: Exploration through sound is a very interesting subject too me. I find that one’s mental capability to envision himself in different places in time and space, some familiar, other otherworldly by listening to (some types of) music is fascinating. I wanted to be a part of this. Topographer seemed like a perfect choice for what I wanted to do – create and explore soundscapes in a calculated manner, mapping imaginary spaces through audio. What’s more, I once took a sort of internship working with GPS mapping and cartography and I quite enjoyed it and remain to this day interested by the subject

HP: About the track Alan Turing debating probability with Euclid, how was it born? Where did the idea come from?

RP: There’s not too much to it, actually. I was visiting my mom for a weekend and had a few hours to kill. I had a very compact system with me and decided to just record something. The whole thing went on for quite a while longer, but I only recorded the more interesting bit at the end. I often tend to loose track of time and just keep going on forever. But I do think the track captures my general mood at the moment perfectly.

HP: What was your mood when you recorded the piece?

I often feel confined, not necessarily by the space I inhabit or by time, rather, by circumstances. There’s an entire journey through resentment, defeat and finally acceptance that I have to travel through on the inside while on the outside I may be stuck for a few hours on a slow moving train headed to I place I don’t want to visit. Some variables change every time but in the grander scheme most things stay the same – but that’s just the cyclical nature of everything and I have to get used to it.

HP: Did you follow a specific process to create the track, or was your approach more instinctive/spontaneous.

RP: I really wanted to experiment more with randomness inside the confines of a simple system. I took one voice (0-coast) which pitch I controlled by a randomly locking Turing Machine. Rhythm was generated by MI Grids in euclidean rhythms mode. I set everything up so that I would have control over the frequency of the gates and could offset the probability of the Turing Machine. I intervened as little as possible in the process, most of the track being self-generated, any intervention being just to influence the system to output more dynamic or static sequences. A simple delay and reverb was added. That’s it.

HP:  What’s your experience with the alternative/experimental music scene in Romania?

I believe Romania’s music scene is struggling to find it’s own voice. A few years ago the “underground” was really diverse and dynamic – you used to see lots of bands playing a broad spectrum of genres popping up all over the country. Some survived, some disappeared, along with lots of small festivals dedicated to their specific niches. I think it has to do with Romania’s social, economic and political climate which isn’t a great one. Constant problems of all kind push people into being fed up with everything (including music) and just focus on the basics – job, home and family. Concert attendances are almost always unpredictable and interest has lowered for the lesser known acts or the more unconventional ones. And people stop trying after a while and give up on their musical aspirations. But there are quite a few acts that stubbornly press forward, especially in the bigger cities like Bucharest, Timisoara, Cluj.

There’s an interesting post-rock scene that remained unmoved with bands like Valerinne, Nava Mamă, Fine it’s Pink, Fluturi pe asfalt, Nouă Ani Lumină and many others still continuing to play and release stuff. There’s a stoner/psychidelic scene that dwindled lately but with Methadone Skies continuing to push forward and even organizing festivals that bring big names to Timisoara, despite low attendance. You also have Sunset in the 12th House, Dordeduh and 13th Sun in the metal scene. You have quite a few more experimental acts, ENVIRONMENTS being one that I especially want to remind of, but also Nava Mamă, F E B R A, Baba Dochia, Dream Diggers, Armies, Alone in the Hollow Garden. I’m not reminding of the bigger or main-stream bands here, it’s a subject that does not interest me too much. There’s also an interesting festival, with a broader spectrum than just music, Simultan, that people should check out.

There’s no lack of people doing music, to be honest, but there is a lack of focused interest in them, especially in smaller cities, like the one I live in. And there’s fewer people with whom to just have a jam with, as you move away from the cultural poles. Because of this (and not only) a lot of international acts avoid coming to Romania and there’s a lot of people that go see them on tour in Budapest or Vienna. There’s a slight feeling of futility I get when I think about the scene here, but maybe that’s why it’s interesting in it’s own way, because it refuses to die.

There’s also a big problem in Romania regarding places to rehearse and perform. It’s hard to find somewhere where you can turn the volume up and this is very discouraging for many. It’s hard to start a band if you can only play in someone’s basement with constant fear that someone will call the police on you for disturbing the peace. And bars and venues often have that problem too so they don’t go to great lengths to host live music.

There’s a lot of buildings suited for rehearsal or concert spaces but they are rarely given up for rent, never for free and often expensive by any standards. Usually old factories or similar that stopped production. And there’s almost no cultural initiatives in this direction, state or NGO funded. A DIY movement appeared partially as a result and was a quite interesting while it lasted, Atelier DIY in Timisoara being a prime example, probably hosting more shows than all the other venues in the city combined, for the time it existed.

I hope that things will get better in time and interest in the stranger musics will be rekindled in Romania, but I somehow doubt it. I saw much more interest in Serbia and Austria during the few times I visited.


All photos in this article by Răzvan Lazea-Postelnicu

Topographer on Bandcamp: topographer.bandcamp.com

Tauusk on Bandcamp: tauusk.bandcamp.com

Răzvan Lazea-Postelnicu’s Youtube channel

Graphic designer, illustrator and modular synth enthusiast. Founder of Papernoise, a small design studio located in northern Italy, specialised in graphic design for the world of music.