The world of modular synthesis is sometimes a world made of solitary exploration, of musical monologues. You don’t encounter many projects that involve more than one person, let alone “modular bands”. It’s neither good nor bad and there’s many things that could be said about this, but I’ll leave that for another article.
Lucid Grain is a duo, formed by Munich-based Martha Bahr and Anatol Locker. Not only do they work as duo, but they also perform live. The combination of these things can be a bit of a challenge, at least in my personal experience.
For this Chosen Wave we’ve chosen the recording of a live performance, which also happens to be a milestone in the duo’s inception.
Horizontalpitch: what’s your musical background?
Martha Bahr: I actually got in contact with music quite young. I got piano lessons as a child, I sang in the school choir for many years and also my parents loved to listen to music like The Doors, Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra and many more, as often as possible. Finally I started my own band when I was a teenager. I played guitar and was the lead singer. Being 20 years old I decided to go to the SAE Institute here in Munich, and made my Diploma as an Audio Engineer there. So I was in contact with audio my whole life: in private, by making music anytime possible and in my professional life, by working as an audio engineer, remixer, sound designer, composer and writer for several companies. I consider myself very lucky to be able to do what I love most, in so many different ways, with so many different people.
Anatol Locker: My musical journey is pretty much identical to Martha’s, I only started some years earlier. Classical piano lessons as a teenager, keyboard and drums in school bands, loved singing in the school choir (we had an amazing conductor). As a teenager, I got hold of Can’s Monster Movie, which I found equally fascinating and disturbing. It sparked my interest in the experimental side of music, and I was lucky enough to follow that path by working as a game, tech, and music journalist. I met and interviewed all of my musical heroes during these days (Peter Gabriel, Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno, Donald Fagen, etc.). In the late Nineties, music business was booming, there were tons of great brands around, lots of experimentation going on. HipHop, the early German club scene, and Electronica became an important part of my life. That’s when I started making music again, instead of just listening to it.
HP: what’s your story with the modular? How did you first find out about it? When did you realize that you wanted to use one to make music?
MB: About 8-9 years ago I went to the local music store here in Munich called Hieber Lindberg to have a look at the instruments they had and to maybe test the one or the other. And there in the synthesizer department it was: a 6U Doepfer A-100 system, such a beauty! I needed to have one right away, I was totally fascinated after this first encounter and still am. In the beginning I used it more for exploring unusual sounds, to experiment and learn as much as possible from this unusual instrument and then sample the outcome, using it in the tracks that I produced in my DAW. That was my workflow for several years until I went to the Musikmesse in Frankfurt some years ago and found the Superbooth by Andreas Schneider – with all those different manufacturers, their beautiful modules and cases and not to forget all those freaks, nerds, experts in tunics and newbies, who where utterly fascinated by all of this. More and more people started using modulars again and that also inspired me to use it more and more as a stand alone instrument, which I am doing now on a regularly basis.
AL: I’m relatively new to the modular world. I first heard about Eurorack in the late 90s, but back then, it didn’t click, as I was getting into DAWs back then. In December 2016, a friend was kind enough to lend me his case. The day I gave it back I ordered a Make Noise System Concrete. Since then, there was no turning back. It totally changed the way I approach music and probably catapulted me even further away from what people consider to be „listenable”. My case has grown to 84HP / 9U and I suffer from serious „gear acquisition syndrome“ – it’s like Pokemon, but with real money.
HP: About the name, Lucid Grain, where does that come from and what does it mean to you?
AL: The genesis of the name is pretty straightforward. We had to find a name for our project, so we brainstormed for a while. We had a list of a dozen names; “Lucid Grain” sounded like it summed up everything we wanted. A “lucid dream” is a dream during which the dreamer is aware that they are dreaming – and to some degree can even control what they’re dreaming. “Grains” had to do with a) granular synthesis method and b) with a grain being the smallest available bit you can use to construct a sound. To our ears, this combination sounded just right.
HP: What does “playing a modular” mean for you?
MB: Playing a modular for me means first and foremost to experience music in a new and fascinating, inspiring way every time I power my case on. The most important thing to me is to explore how to do things differently than I did before, to use it in a different way than how I make music in my DAW, on a guitar, a piano or an MPC for example. It also means to welcome as many “happy little accidents” and mistakes as possible, as those are usually unintended by nature and therefore open up new perspectives on how to make and experience music.
AL: It’s all about losing control (and not being afraid about it). I don’t start patching with a fixed idea in mind. Even if I would, I end up somewhere totally different. For me, getting a pre-meditated result from a modular synth is somehow neglecting its true strength. A nicely balanced system offers sweet spots that are always worth exploring. On a modular, you patch a cable here, tweak a knob there, and suddenly you find yourself in a magical world of sounds, patterns, and timbres you never heard before. It’s a bit like Zen meditation: Breathe, relax, let things unfold. I also love the fact that nothing is really repeatable. With a turn of one single knob, premises can totally change. For me, that’s a nice allegory of life itself – including the frustration that sometimes the magic just doesn’t want to happen.
HP: Most modular musicians I happen talk with are male, in fact you’re the first woman I am able to interview for this blog, so I need to ask this: do you feel the modular world signals openness and inclusiveness towards women?
MB: Very much so, yes. People who are into modulars are in general very open-minded and easy going in my experience. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what gender you are, what background you have or if you’re a noob or a pro already, everyone is welcome and this is one thing among many that I love about the modular scene.
I’ve been working in the audio industry as an audio engineer, sound designer and composer for about 15 years now and I also experienced situations in which females were not welcome and had to fight more than their male colleagues.
The modular scene on the other hand not only signals openness but also encourages women to participate, to play live, to attend workshops and meetups. And that’s something I experienced everywhere I went so far, be it at Superbooth in Berlin, at the modular meetup in Vienna, at Ars Electronica in Linz, at the Happy Knobbing event in Fischbach. I even co-organised the Knobs&Wires festival here in Munich recently, which was just great, so many good vibes and lovely folks here.
And it really shouldn’t matter what gender you belong to as long as you’re passionate and persistent about what you’re doing – the rest usually falls into place.
AL: I couldn’t agree more. Especially in the professional music business, women are underrepresented. Just take a look at the lineup of music festivals: You won’t find more than 10 percent female bands headlining. And when it comes to music industry or label bosses, you’re in the Old Boys Club. And in my opinion, that’s a crying shame.
HP: One thing I find very interesting about you two is that you play as a duo. While there certainly is a fair number of modular-based projects, that involve two or more musicians, most of the time this instrument is a bit of a solitary one. Do you have clearly defined roles in the “band” or how does it work?
AL: For Rise&Fall, we actually didn’t even know what the other one had prepared sound-wise until we started jamming and improvising. The only thing we did was make sure our scales didn’t clash. We adjusted the notes just when we actually met for the jam. It was a very exciting and also liberating approach for us, that kept the music very fresh and lively in our ears.
For our next album we chose a slightly modified workflow. Instead of pure jamming, one of us prepares a first draft and sends it to the other one. This can be a melody, a bass line, some chord progressions, an interesting sample. The other one then has enough time to „fill the gaps“ and compose accordingly.
The day we meet, we hear for the first time what the other one has prepared. This makes jamming much more exciting.
We usually jam three to five times over each track (10 to 20 minutes max), so everything stays fresh and spontaneous. We use the first take as a pure orientation piece – you wouldn’t want to listen to that. But after the first take, we have a good feeling of how the parts will fit together.
If we think a track is good enough for publication, we isolate the best take and throw out 20 to 30 percent, so that it can make it on the album.
And sure: While performing, it’s always hard to listen to what the other one’s doing and trying hard not to fall into the „Modular Attention Deficit Syndrome (MADS).“ Performing with a modular can be very demanding on your attention. If one of us gets carried away, the other one is kind enough to hold his / her horses for a while and give the „soloist“ more room. But you are right: You can tweak for hours and then „wake up“ to find you didn’t even know how much time has passed. So playing as a duo is a bit like dancing – it’s way more fun together, but you have to make sure not to step on your partner’s toes.
HP: I didn’t know the Festival für elektronische Music in Munich before hearing your liveset but it seems like a cool event. How did this live gig come about?
AL: We had our first gig at Festival für Elektronische Musik in Munich, which also had its premiere. We heard about it through Ambiosonics, a jam session collective in which I play. We rehearsed a lot for this gig, as the modular cases were the centerpiece of the set and we didn’t want to totally improvise on stage. We had a blast playing for 40 minutes and managed to squeeze in three different musical patches. The gig was huge fun. Then there was another concert at POP – Der Laden in Berlin during Superbooth. The record store is closely affiliated to Kurt “Pyrolator” Dahlke, which most people know from D.A.F., Fehlfarben and the legendary music label Ata Tak. We were glad to play as a kind of “birthday” band for him, together with our Ambiosonics mate Florian Anwander, who had organized the gig. Again, it was a total blast.
HP: Gigging and recording with a modular sometimes seems to require very different approaches, how do you make those two work together?
MB: […] playing live with a modular takes up quite some time compared to our studio works, especially as your case is blocked for that gig and you can’t use it for other purposes for the time being. But it’s totally worth the time, as you work differently when preparing for a live gig. It’s another mindset that leads to other musical results and lets you use your gear differently. I really like the challenge of rehearsing a set that is possibly the best you can offer at that specific time and also leaves enough room for improvisation. That is the most fun part of playing live: to dive into that very moment, experiencing all those contradictory emotions like being excited, nervous and enjoying it all at the same time, to then letting the music take over and leading the rest of the way, a really beautiful experience. Also it’s really fun to play on a big P.A. and see what your mix sounds like in other environments.
HP: You seem to really like using vintage spoken-word recordings for both your recorded music and your live performances. Where do all those recordings come from and what is you fascination with using these?
AL: On our last album, these vintage samples were very much in the foreground. I’m mainly responsible for this. Martha and I share the interest in science fiction, so she thankfully let me fire off these vintage podcasts.
A decade ago, I got hooked on X Minus One, an American radio drama series from the 50ies. It offers excellent stories from classic sci-fi authors like Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Pohl, Sheckley and Silverberg – overall, it‘s like Twilight Zone for your ears. Sonically, it’s extremely interesting audio material, as the speakers were driven to deliver the story with passion and coolness alike. There’s also that underlying sound of old tape. That alone is worth listening to: there’s saturation and hum, hiss, noises and crackles. With these samples, I wanted to bring that quality to our sound.
Currently, I’m interested in the sounds of shortwave radio. The stations themselves are not particularly rewarding, but what happens in between them is a sonic empire of its own. That static doesn’t sound static to me: It’s loud, brutal, noisy, full of Morse code, killer voices and strange modulations. In my humble opinion, most noise artists’ performances can‘t compete with that harshness.
On our next album, which we’ve just finished recording, we included some of these shortwave samples – but they are not prominent anymore.
Cover Photo © Bethel Fath
Martha’s Soundcloud: soundcloud.com/panicgirl | Anatol’s Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/analoc
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