The name Matthias Puech probably needs little introduction to most of you. He first became known through his alternate, “parasite” firmware projects for Mutable Instruments modules. Later he worked with XAOC on the software for their popular modulation source Batumi, and designed the excellent Tapographic Delay for 4ms. What might be a lesser-known fact is that Matthias is also a brilliant musician and composer. Using the modular synth, he has been exploring the possibilities of mathematics (and programming) as tools of artistic expression.
His third solo work Purlieu recently came out on the label Panatype. It’s a great chance to look at the musician Matthias Puech, and talk about his process and musical vision. Of course, along the way, we’ll also touch topics like real-time audio programming and module design.
Horizontalpitch: What was the earliest encounter with music making/musical instruments that you can remember, and how did things evolve from there?
Matthias Puech: Having music-loving parents, classical music was a constant presence in my young age; there always was a piano at home as far as I can remember. I also went to the conservatory for a few years to study piano but gave up after a while, I guess when adolescence kicked in… the effort and dedication seemed disproportionate. The second memory that comes up is not strictly a musical instrument: like many people of my generation, I was in daily contact with tape and tape machines: my first stereo was this horribly noisy dual tape deck with which I played for countless hours, recording the radio and copying pieces of tapes to make edits and mash-ups.
By the time I was 12 or 13, I was so drawn to machines and sound that my parents felt I needed some proper, “canonical” education and enrolled me into one of the training programs at IRCAM (which was more-or-less down the street from where we lived). At the time they didn’t offer programs specifically for kids, so I took week-end trainings on their software, which were targeted at working electronic music composers: Audiosculpt, Max/MSP, OpenMusic… Obviously I didn’t have one tenth of the knowledge to understand what was going on, nor could I afford the tenth of the necessary equipment (just using a Macintosh with a sound card for a week-end was an absolute dream), but it felt like a calling. As you can see, my story with music making was very early on linked to computers and technology.
HP: This is a very interesting start! I guess the path from there, to the getting into modulars, was a short one. What was your first encounter with that world? When did you realize that the modular was an instrument you wanted to make music with and develop software/modules for?
MP: Yes, it was a pretty short path. I’ve been a Max and Pure Data user ever since I got a decent machine to run them on; I still have many patches and programs developed in early 2000 for my own music-making (among which half a dozen versions of the Tapographic Delay). What fascinated me with them was the idea of programming sound at all scales: making the process of interpretation completely external to the musician, who then has to make his intention very explicit, from the smallest signal to the entire piece. Compared to playing the piano it was complete freedom, from tedious practice, from the fixed timbres of pre-made instruments, from an imposed vision of music. The computer became an ideal interpreter capable of following all my explorations, an inspiring guide to my growing curiosity in signal processing, and a mirror to my personal representations of sound.
So of course hardware modular synths were in my field of view pretty early. First there is the fetishist aspect of it, them being such pretty machines subject to all fantasies, but also the relief of leaving the ever-more-ubiquitous computer behind. I spent 2013 reading Muff Wiggler avidly, and finally jumped into Eurorack early 2014, with a couple of Mutable Instruments and a Maths. It immediately inspired me musically, because of its physicality, its limitations and because of is “granularity”: modules are not the basic, atomic functions I was used to in Max or other languages, which force you to start from scratch and often reinvent the wheel, but these carefully curated high-level building blocks which, when done properly, can really feel like more than the sum of their parts.
I studied Computer Science and was always fascinated by real-time computing; I got interested in programming language design and became a scientist, I dedicated my research to these topics. At some point it became a bit too abstract for my own taste, and I found comfort in hacking embedded code for music. It was also scratching an itch musically; at the time I could not quite expand my gear as much as I wanted, so this allowed me to explore new instruments for free, with the extra pride of having made them myself. This is what became the Parasites project.
HP: Your interest seems to be focused on exploring mathematics and programming as tool of artistic expression or gesture, as stated in the liner notes of your first album Threshold. On the other hand, there is an undeniably evocative component to your compositions and performances. Not a dichotomy in any way.
The modular is an interesting instrument from that point of view. It often defies its own technical nature and certainly isn’t something that can be easily controlled. In your intention and, as Rodrigo Costanzo would put it, in your making decisions in time, how much focus is there on deterministic, structural and conceptual elements? And how much influence do you allow from what is happening, or whatever emotional state the music is producing?
MP: It’s a fascinating question Hannes, to which of course I won’t have a definitive answer; I’m actually still wrapping my head around this: what makes the process of composing with a modular synth so paradoxical, in this sense. To answer I can only try to convey my practical experience.
I like to describe my personal music making process as close to field recording. This is actually how I compose most of the time, in two stages. First, I wander aimlessly around in the space of possibilities that opens the modular synth, patching, guided mostly by curiosity for a particular phenomenon, may it be technical (how does this synthesis technique sound?), “scientific” (I have a model of what should happen in my head, will experience validate it?) or more rarely “romantic” (looking to evoke a certain feeling by appealing to mental images). Until at some point something catches my attention, usually a single complex evolving voice. This something is rarely what I was imagining or looking for in the first place, but rather a projection, or an extrapolation of it, so at this stage it is very important to remain completely open-minded and attentive to the “environment”, because the most insignificant sound or movement can have a value that is almost impossible to intuit on the spot. I hit record, and let it evolve for a few minutes; the file then goes into a large library of snippets, with no titles or classification. And here ends only the preliminary work!
Then, the next morning or several years after, I will listen back to this particular sound bite and maybe, eventually find a new meaning to it, a new evocative power. I will try to overlay it on another, try to find good companions for it, and progressively a story might emerge. Most of the time this “miracle” won’t happen of course, but sometimes the faintest evocation snowballs into a full story, with a clear development. This second stage is very different from the first one, in that it does not rely on curiosity or playfulness, but on the ability to invent, to construct some kind of structure; it’s almost a “lie” (to build something that does not exist) with the intent to trigger some emotion in the listener.
So, unlike actual field recordists (I’m thinking of Chris Watson, or BJ Nielsen, my personal heroes) who capture sound from their environment, I traverse a space that is mostly my own creation, but similarly to them, I later pick from material that I did not entirely plan or control, and compose, re-invent a story out of these pieces of “factual evidences”. So as you can see, this tension between the structural, the planned elements, the “model” on one side and the serendipity of the experience on the other is, one could say almost the subject of my music itself! I love and cherish it, but of course it is important to keep in mind that what matters in the end is not my particular process, but the evocative power of the music, taken in isolation.
I think the idea of being the maker and the critic at the same time is key. Of course this is true for any art, I guess you always have to feel a certain degree of empathy for the public in order to create, but it seems like it’s absolutely central in electronic music, in which the music “makes itself”. Brian Eno said it very well:
The great benefit of computer sequencers is that they remove the issue of skill, and replace it with the issue of judgement. […] So the question becomes not whether you can do it or not, because any drudge can do it if they’re prepared to sit in front of the computer for a few days, the question then is, ‘Of all the things you can now do, which do you choose to do?’
HP: I think it’s an extremely important observation. An electronic musician’s instrument is not so much the machine sitting in front of them, but rather it is their ears (or better their musical brain)! But back to you! The obvious question, and what most readers will now ask themselves: How does your work as an audio software and module developer inform your work as a musician? Do you think your music would be different if you didn’t code/create your own instruments? Helmut Lachenmann once said (I like to quote him on this, because it seems really fitting for the modular): “composing means building an instrument”, what do you think about this in regards to your own music?
MP: My relationship with the instruments I created (firmware, module, programs) has evolved. When I first started the parasites, I spent so much time debugging and listening to, for instance, Resonestor (a polyphonic waveguide, similar but predating Rings) that when I was done I could not spend another minute with it. The same thing went for most of the alternative firmware I coded.
There is a danger in making your own instruments: they loose all their magic! Once you know how things work under the hood you get more intuition on how to get somewhere, but you are consequently also less surprised. And having the ability to modify them is even worse: you have more control but you also start to pay attention to distracting technical details, and tend to lose some open-mindedness. So while wiggling, instead of thinking “oh that’s an unexpected turn, maybe I could use it at my advantage” I was sometimes focused more on the instrument “How come this thing reacts like this? Is that a bug I should fix?”. Maybe it is the equivalent to the classically-trained musicians who complain to only hear the notes anymore and not enjoy the music for itself?
Strangely, the situation was very different for the Tapographic Delay: as soon as it emitted its first sound I started using it extensively in the studio and gigging with it, and it’s still in 90% of the music I play now. I cannot explain this, other than “finally this is my instrument, it fits what I want to achieve perfectly”. I don’t know. Now that time (him again) has passed, I am trying to incorporate more of my earlier work in my music. From predictable technical devices they are progressively turning into pleasant memories of the time they were developed.
HP: Not sure this is anything you can talk about, but are you working on some more modules? Or did finally “finding your instrument” put that on hold?
MP: Of course it did not 🙂 I’m actually involved in a few projects in very different areas at the moment; we’ll see what comes up in the end, probably not everything. I want to continue designing modules – I still have half a dozen designs that I think would make interesting products – but I’d also like to break free of the little Eurorack bubble, which is very nice but sometimes a bit limiting. I’d love to develop standalone boxes for instance, or portable performance instruments. These ideas systematically stem from my own artistic projects, which are what excites me at the moment.
HP: Let’s talk about Purlieu. How did this album come together, can you tell me a little bit about each track?
MP: Although I am only ready to release it now, Purlieu has history that dates back to 2015. It is a collection of studio tracks and live performances that I gathered together because they revolve around a common “theme”, or that are looking at the same object. They loosely talk about the relationship between the urban and the wild, the intelligent, planned spaces and the untouched, or self-organized (you will probably not be surprised) Of course it was only a starting point, but it was the transversal idea that made me compose all the tracks. Despite this, it was still quite a challenge to make a coherent album out of this material, because each one meant to me not only the music itself but the time and context they were composed in; I find it quite difficult to detach from this contextual history. I was not satisfied until I managed to put myself in the listener’s shoe, empathize with her experience, and begin a sort dialogue throughout the whole album.
Compte et Comptine was a showcase I played at Modularsquare last year. It was intended to be a simple demo of the Tapographic Delay but I liked its very simple setup, so I re-recorded it to make this track. I use bare contact mics that I rub on my beard; through the Tapo and with various other sound sources, it creates textures that are quite unique and living. Hurricane Season is a short excerpt from a long live performance that I gave last year in Paris with a saxophonist. It was the densest moment of the show, and the most unexpected too: very different from all the rehearsals! The Reservoir and Pulsar are the two studio tracks that were the genesis of the projects; they were among my first attempts at imposing a structure to pieces (with the process I described earlier), instead of only capturing still “snapshots”. And finally Purlieu was my very first live performance, given in 2016; this version is actually one of the rehearsals, which I had recorded in multitrack so it gave more room for mixing and mastering. I remember it being a real technical challenge because I wanted to give a lot of variety to the set, with “only” a small 6U case and a Portastudio.
HP: While listening to the tracks on Purlieu, I kept thinking about how you described you process, about the fact that you handle things like one does in field recording.
It’s interesting because most of your tracks also have what I would call a “synthetic concrete” sound. Many of the timbres in your tracks have a certain concrete feeling, but can be usually identified as being synthetic. Is that something you consciously and actively try to achieve?
MP: I hear your questions in two different ways, depending on what you intend by “concrete”: are you referring to the practice of musique concrète (Pierre Schaeffer or Luc Ferrari), or in a more common sense, as sounds that refer to actual, natural stimuli? In any way, I think I recognize myself more in the second sense. As much as I enjoy and recognize the immense legacy of musique concrète, I could never adhere completely to the assumption that sounds can exist in a vacuum, outside of, or prior to, what they evoke in the real world. I am actually quite obsessed with wildlife studies and evolutionary biology; to me these theories bear a scientific interest as much as an incredible internal beauty, and indeed, it might have colored my music. The sounds and ambiences I am attracted to musically often remind of animal or natural sounds, and that’s definitely something I am claiming. There is actually a striking similarity between composing and mixing techniques, as found in books, and the way animal sounds organize themselves in ecological niches; that’s a fascinating idea which I am more and more drawn to.
HP: I will admit that I’m not surprised to find out that wildlife studies and evolutionary biology is an element that concurred to the creation of these pieces. Some of the sounds you have created in your compositions could indeed almost be some animal’s call. Besides that I can hear a lot of glassy and sometimes watery sounds, again the natural element is very present. But one thing I really like is that you do not try to mimic or recreate a sound coming from the physical world through synthesis. Rather you hint at them, capturing their structural aspects and render an idea of them, in an abstract way.
MP: Thanks, these are really great compliments!
HP: Related to that, what do you think about physical modelling and the creation of “organic” sounds through synthesis?
MP: It’s absolutely fascinating! The few scientific papers I read have really inspired me; maybe one day I’ll find the time to try these ideas in code and make something out of it. One thing I noted is that a lot of people (instrument consumers) tend to think of “physical modelling” as a type of synthesis, like subtractive or FM. It is actually much broader and more vague than this: it is “just” the idea of getting inspiration from the mathematical models describing what happens in nature to produce sound, by numerical simulation. So it is less a synthesis technique than a description of how the algorithm has been invented, and in this respect a lot of known technique are unjustly categorized. Consider for instance the most famous physical modelling algorithm, Karplus-Strong. In the original paper, its authors actually present it simply as an optimization for the synthesis of plucked strings sound over additive or wavetable synthesis, with no physical interpretation whatsoever; the connection with the physical models was made long after (the “digital waveguides” of J. O. Smith)! Conversely, the usual resonant low-pass filter, which would never be classified as physical modelling, can actually be seen as a quite faithful model of Newtonian gravitational interaction between two bodies, one lagging behind and/or oscillating around the other. My point is that it is a deep and fascinating field of research, but there is really no need for “proper” physical modelling to create sounds that have a physical or natural connotation!
More music by Matthias Puech can be found on his Soundcloud page
Also check out his previous albums: A Year of Time, Threshold and this split with Philippe Vandal