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My relationship with eurorack

Guest Post by Claude Aldous

HannesHannes

We’re really happy to present you this first guest post on Horizontalpitch by Claude Aldous.

Claude creates a very interesting print-only fanzine called Deft Esoterica. If you’re into exploratory, experimental sounds, I urge you to check it out here: deftesoterica.bandcamp.com. Together with his partner Ola he plays in an improvising duo called Claude & Ola. Their tape “both | and”, which documents the early days of their collaboration, was recently released on the UK label Steep Gloss.
Ola also created the beautiful illustrations for this article.

You can find Claude on Instagram: actually.claude, and on Twitter: @Deftesoterica.

Hannes


I’m deeply honored to contribute a piece to Horizontalpitch and I am going to use this opportunity to discuss gear to some extent, as my own publication tends to avoid extensive focus on the equipment used by experimental musicians and sound artists in favor of discussions about context, motivation, and the artists themselves. If you’ll bear with me, I thought I would say a bit about myself to provide a glimmer of context before I touch on my relationship with what I’m pleased to call ​our​ instrument in this modular synth themed publication.

Briefly, I’m a longtime musician from rural northern New York state in the US. In college I took six semesters of electronic music composition classes and was generally the lone fellow working with reel to reel tape and the studio’s Korg MS-20. Most of the other students (virtually all of whom were music majors, I was a psychology major) explored MIDI and fixed-architecture synth presets. I played a ton of punk/hardcore/indie shows then and in the years that followed I worked in a record store, ran a small recording studio on the side, and briefly operated an even smaller record label. It’s of note that the recording studio was all hardware, with two Tascam DA-38s for sixteen digital tracks, a sizeable Tascam board, and a rack of effects and compressors. No computer generally, though I would occasionally do an amateur mastering (Wavehammer) job in Soundforge if requested. The takeaway is that I have long preferred hardware over software, even during the shift into digital recording and DAWs.

After a few years, and deeply inspired by Reed Ghazala’s classic treatise on circuit bending and Nic Collins’ book “Handmade Electronic Music”, I happened onto the website for Plan B, a now defunct early manufacturer of eurorack modules, which was my wide-eyed introduction to the existence of the eurorack format of modular synthesizers, though I must have seen coverage of the Doepfer A-100, flipping through Keyboard magazine at the time. I had long loved the semi-modular MS-20 in the electronic composition studio, but the options available from Plan B were intoxicating, imagining what those mysterious (west coast) functions could do. As with most forms of intoxication, there came a crash afterward, when I noticed the price of putting a system together, which was well beyond my means at the time, or at least beyond my desire to make a longer-term commitment to saving for. Fast forwarding to the more recent past and having purchased the modular synthesizer documentary “I Dream of Wires”, the reissued MS-20 Mini, an SQ-1 sequencer, and the first Bastl Kastle, my partner Ola and I started playing synth and piano shows to the fond bemusement of friends, family, and random coffeehouse patrons. We did get booked to play “spooky music” for a family Halloween event and a children’s technology and art event, but we have since found some like-minded folks and interested venues in a variety of communities.

This is a good time to consider the first of a couple of points I will touch on, my relationship with limitations. It’s also worth noting that I was already experienced and comfortable performing and that Ola has a degree in classical piano performance and is an inspired improvisor, something of a rare combination in my experience. In any case, sidestepping the potentially voluminous topic of performing improvised music, I was becoming acutely aware of what my otherwise capable gear could not do, or perhaps what I couldn’t make it do “on the fly” during a performance. While limitations are often touted, even by me, as grounds for inspiration, I was finding myself frustrated and searching for gear that would help me, to quote Henry Rollins’ estimation of Wolf Eyes’ motivations with gear, “get it happening fast”, though I was avoiding modular synths out of fear of going down the rabbit hole of expense and obsession. It was Ola, actually, who made a strong case that I should just commit to what I really wanted (a wild, honking and beeping box of lights, knobs, and wires) and just stop wasting time searching for compromises. Once this sank in, I ordered a set of rails with a power supply and started planning my next purchase. A month later I picked up a Mutable Instruments Clouds, which could generate new textures from the gear I was already using and could be modulated by the SQ-1, Kastle, and MS-20 Mini, as well as manually played with those tasty knobs. I used the Mini’s VCA to attenuate the output to appropriate levels for amplifiers and sound systems. I played a few gigs with Clouds and the PSU sitting on the bare rails, supported by wooden blocks. It worked. I later built a nice 3U 104hp case out of maple lumber from our family farm and set about further resolving my perceived limitations, with the goal of building a compact, versatile system that would allow me to express what I wanted to express as a live improvisor. At this time limitations rather defined the practical elements of my relationship with my modular synth; I was impressed, if not enthralled, with the potential for working with synthesized sound using a “modular” approach, though as my skills and understanding increased, so did the nagging awareness that “If I had a module that could perform function​ x,I could then accomplish all of these other tasks!” Being able to quickly change from one idea to another, in response to Ola’s piano performance, was initially the main challenge on my small system. I should note that I see changing from one idea to another as distinct from simply changing to another sound, as I am counting these “ideas” to be specific, intentional sounds as opposed to, say, changing to another digital model or patching a different waveform on an oscillator randomly, although, with sensitivity, one can make this work too.

So my relationship with my early, smaller modular was largely defined by my own frustration with perceived limitations in creating dynamic duo performances that could rapidly and intuitively shift directions. I might have looked for other, non-modular solutions were it not for my solo explorations, unlocking the mysterious and less obvious sounds my budding system was capable of, coupled with my own growing disinclination to travel with the awkwardly shaped MS-20 Mini (with all respect to designer H​iroaki Nishijima​).​ The answer seemed to be to acquire more modules and grow the potential of the system and so I did, eventually filling my 3U case and building a 6U 104hp case out of local black walnut lumber, and then my current 9U case, which still has ample space in the top row.

Somewhere around the slight overflow of my 6U case I hit what I’ll call a sweet spot with my synth; my collection of modules, coupled with my knowledge, style, and growing skill has allowed me to feel far less limited in my live practice, and ever so comfortable with the limitations I do face, as many of those limits are, by design, consistent with my personal style (limited use of traditional sequencing, still no MIDI implementation, et cetera). I haven’t bought a module in a long while, though I did buy some amazing DIY (Serge, by Random Source) modules a year and a half ago, which I’m finally building with good results. I’ve never sold a module though I did recently do my first trade, a quad VCA for a quad polarizer, mmmm! Reaching this point has certainly marked a shift in my relationship with my instrument. Far less often do I find myself wanting for options during performances. I’ve had the same modules for long enough that I can often manifest an idea quickly, but I’m happily still discovering new techniques and sounds on a regular basis. I think the concept of “mastery” is a bit different in the abstract electronic realm than with, say, old-time banjo. In both cases though, there comes a point where we stop actively paying attention to the minutiae of generating a desired sound (“more fifth string!”, “attenuate!”) and shift into a present-centered, intuitive way of creative being. This certainly has its own set of trappings and limitations, but those are our own intrinsic peculiarities, the context of personal growth and the birthplace of our own authentic style. In this way, our relationships with our instruments can start to be something akin to our relationships with ourselves, if that isn’t too high-minded and impractical for readers more interested in particulars. In thinking about all of this, I can’t help but recall something I once read about sailing, how this activity could “make engineers into poets and poets into engineers.” I can’t help but believe that the potential marriage of art and science simmering in the modular synth world and greater electronic music world is more rife with potential than either camp is fully aware. Though a continuum this may be, I would urge the curious to remain open to both extremes and to let the instrument you are assembling be purpose-driven with a bit of whimsy. That’s my bit of unsolicited advice. For some of us, system building is it’s own end and for others it is simply the means to other ends, be they new age, boom-bap, or warring cats.

While this might be a fine place to close, there is one point I feel I should share, as it relates to the arc of my relationship with my modular synth- these days I find myself drawn to much smaller systems! Not the attempts to shrink successfully executed modules into barely playable micro-versions, but rather systems with a few well chosen modules that are both purpose-driven and versatile. Because modular synths generally require the user to design a custom instrument, I think it’s partly my admiration of good design that makes these small systems so sexy, not a reaction against the bougie excesses of helpless collectors. When my own system was small, I vacillated between ecstatic interest and the frustration in a live setting I discussed previously. Why should small systems suddenly be so attractive given the potential limitations? I explored this a bit about a year ago, when I built a few 6U 52hp cases and played a couple gigs with one. Less options to be sure, but a much more manageable feeling in the moment compared to being on the front end of my modular journey. Of course, at this point I was much more seasoned on the modular in the context I was performing in and was able to curate a complement of modules from my humble collection that played to my needs. Most of my live patches use two to five modules, often starting out with one or two, and evolving based upon the shifting mission, though I occasionally might have up to three or four voices happening. This starts to present an argument for small systems, as a larger system could be broken down to component voices with similar results, if one had multiple powered cases. Indeed, my friend Dercz, who records and performs sustained tone minimalism/drone as Calineczka, does so with a very capably compact arrangement in two Doepfer mini-cases. Something about this has been very exciting to consider! Even my 9U now requires a second keyboard stand for the lid, which serves as a base for my patch cables, a small mixer, and a contact mic.

I’ll mention too, echoing something Billy Gomberg almost alluded to previously on Horizontalpitch, that multi-function modules are fundamentally useful in a small system. Make Noise’s ubiquitous Maths and the now discontinued Mutable Instruments Peaks are both packed to the gills with functionality, albeit in very different ways. I would never part with either and have two Peaks, actually. If I had thousands of modules and supported the market by regularly purchasing every new module, then yes, something like Peaks’ vastly different parameters and knob functions depending on mode might be frustrating to keep track of, though in a small system one is apt to explore all possibilities at length, giving rise to the experiential learning which complements all those hours of online research for the most afflicted of us.

My interest in small synth rigs also extends beyond eurorack. I recently picked up a Korg Monotron Delay, their pocket-sized sawtooth vco with the MS-20 filter, an LFO, and a CMOS delay chip… it’s amazing! I have burned so many minutes of my lifetime playing that synth into headphones while my lovely walnut box full of modules sat idle because it’s too big to play in bed. I also built the aforementioned contact mic, with a preamp, and it’s blowing my mind too! This led me to reconsidering the tense, if abrasive, beauty of noise music and the zen-like balancing act of no-input mixing, though Ola has sort of claimed that particular practice in our duo. Isn’t this all some kind of regression? After all the hours on YouTube and pretending I know what all the computer scientists and electrical engineers on the modular forums are talking about? Literally building multiple suitcases to house all those lights, knobs, and wires? It’s probably already evident to some readers, but it took a little introspection for it to make sense to me, this reductive shift in my once gear-centric interest – it’s all about​ listening​. Just our precious, fleeting, sense of hearing mingled with our active attention, that potentially transcendent awareness. Perhaps some aesthetic sensibility, curiosity, and inclination, but really, I bet most of us just love the way this stuff can sound at the heart of it. Inharmonic strings, fuzzed-out pink noise, whistling anteaters, clicks, the whole lot of it. Our desire to affect our environment and perhaps say something in the process. A very modest amount of gear can “get it happening fast” with the application of our sensibilities and our senses. Is it the case that, after all this fussing, it isn’t about the gear at all?

I recently had the pleasure of observing an electronic music composition class taught by my friend Jerod Sommerfeldt, a professor of music theory, history, and composition, which featured an extended Skype conversation with Ross Fish of Moffenzeef Modular. While Ross was funny, earnest, and very real​ discussing a number of topics, his advice to the students, when he learned that Jerod’s class started with a section on field recording, was that this may be the most important part of the class. He emphasized his sense that listening and really ​hearing,was essential and that field recording is a sure path to deepen and develop this skill. Of course listening, or deeplistening​, has been written about by composers Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, and many others, but Ross said it that day. In the earlier part of my eurorack journey I probably listened, in part, for technical aspects of synthesized sound, probably from what I will call a “deficit perspective” as it related to my then-desire to broaden the functionality of my ostensibly limited system. I feel that in the last year I’m more able to get past that largely intellectual, or strategic, way of listening and get closer to taking the sounds as they come, letting them be​. Though, while I aspire to be tuned in to to my partner and whatever room we happen to be playing more than my instrument, those 3.5mm jacks are plentiful, as are the knobs, and they are all pretty near to each other. It takes concentration to be intentional, tuned in and in “the zone” so I usually look like I’m playing chess while I play.

My relationship with my eurorack synth has definitely played a role in deepening my creative relationship with my partner, my extended creative community, as well as with myself. As the individual modules have become familiar tools, they have ceased to be shiny objects, coveted and imbued with the promise of living up to my creative potential; they are collectively an instrument. I am trying to play in front of people more often, as that has always been a personal goal. As many of us are using our modular synths to meet a variety of needs and goals, it may be time to consider more closely our own relationships with the instrument and the ways in which these relationships can shift and change, consistent with our own motivations and growth. I see this as distinct from initiating new cycles of horse-trading modules, rather more like defining the matter at hand and getting to it, similar to Ola’s advice to just start building a modular synth because it was what I really wanted to play. We may all have different objectives but they are likely somewhat similar as well. I suspect that at the root of most of our modular synthesizer explorations is the desire to explore sound and satisfy our creative needs by creating works that appeal to our own sensibilities. One of the most important lessons I have learned traveling to play experimental music and publishing Deft Esoterica is that many more people are interested than I had previously thought. Even those of us playing solely for our own households can benefit from considering how we relate to our instrument and what our practice means in the greater context of our busy lives. I leave you to it, it is a fascinating path you travel!


Illustrations: Ola Aldous

Hannes
Author

Graphic designer, illustrator and soundmangler. He makes music as kurodama and as part of the electronic music duo kvsu. Together with his wife Elizabeth he runs Papernoise, a small design studio located in northern Italy, specialised in graphic design for the world of music.

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