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Hannes
Author

Hannes

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.

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I Dream of Wires, the documentary about the modular synth, premiered last month in Berlin and is now available both as a DVD/Blue Ray disc and in digital form through various channels (for a complete list check idreamofwires.org). We took the occasion to interview the director Robert Fantinatto and have a look behind the scenes of its making.

Horizontalpitch: When and how did you realise that the world needed a film about the modular synth?

Robert Fantinatto: I began working on the film for a about a year before Jason [Jason Amm, aka Solvent, coauthor of IDOW Ed.] came on board, it all happened one day when my son shared a picture on facebook of Deadmau5’s Buchla 200e, I was amazed that modular synthesizers were still being made and I discovered a whole community of people interested in, what at the time I thought was a crazy obsession, and any time I see people doing something that seems irrational, I feel there’s a story there. Of course, by the time we finished the film, I became a modular synthesizer owner!

HP: What were your references when shooting IDOW? Did other music-related documentaries (I’m thinking about films like Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club) influence your directing choices?

RF: I actually looked at previous electronic music documentaries from the 90’s and felt they were more focussed on a scene rather than on the technology, I wanted the modular synth itself to be the character. As for influences, I’m a big Kubrick fan and carefully composed shots of technology in 2001 A Space Odyssey has always been an inspiration.

Robert Fantinatto at the premiere in Berlin

Robert Fantinatto at the premiere in Berlin

HP: Some time ago you released a first 4-hours-long “hardcore edition” for people who had backed the project during the crowdfunding campaigns, the final, 96-minute-long edition has now also been released, what are the differences between the two versions?

RF: When editing a documentary, especially one in which you had no idea what the story was going to be ahead of time, one creates a rough edit that has all the interesting bits put together in some sort of narrative order, then you trim it all back to make the story flow. The “hardcore” edition is really a collection of all the coolest things, all the crazy tangents that people who are obsessed with this stuff would have no problem sitting for hours watching. The new 93 minute cut trims away all of the excess fat, it removes anything that does not serve to move the narrative forward and I personally feel it is the right version for the majority of people.

HP: In the “hardcore edition” the film’s plot revolved strongly around Solvent’s personal voyage into the wonderful world of modular synths, where did this decision originate from?

RF: The new version does away with any personal voyages and instead focuses on the voyage of the modular synth itself. Early on, when we were trying to figure out how to tell the story, we thought the personal journey of 3 different people would really help the viewer relate better to the story, so it was not just Solvent’s journey, but that of two other people that made up the narrative of the second half of the hardcore version. What we found surprising was that test screenings we held to help cut the long version down found that people responded more to the history of the modular more so than these personal stories, so we cut them out.

HP: Documentaries about experimental music are sometimes very experimental in themselves, and lot of modular-made music also falls into this category, why did you choose to go with a more traditional form for the film, instead?

RF: We felt that this story could be appealing to a wide audience, so we chose to be straight forward rather than poetic, telling the story in a pretty easy to understand narrative that moves along chronologically. We also didn’t want to make the film genre-specific in terms of the music, so that it could have some lasting power. Many films from the early 90’s about electronic music were so focussed on Rave music and culture that they seem quite dated today.

HP: The film focuses a lot on the Moog vs. Buchla theme, do you think this dichotomy is still as relevant today? What about the other non-USA-based systems that made the history of modular synths like for instance EMS and Roland?

RF: Our focus on Moog and Buchla had a lot to do with the limits of our budget, but it worked out well as a story element, the East vs. West coast theme made it easy to understand the two very different approaches they took. Most of the other synth manufacturers went the way of the East Coast, Moog style of subtractive synthesis. Curiously today, many of the Eurorack modules have a distinctive “West Coast” feel to them, which is very exciting!

HP: What’s your favourite scene/moment from the film?

RF: There’s a great bit where a series of people talk about collector’s frenzy, it was a lot of fun editing that bit together. But all the stuff we did with Morton Subotnick was really the highlight of the film, it was such an honour for us to have him in the film.

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Robert Fantinatto (left) and Morton Subotnick (right), Q&A during the premiere event in Berlin

HP: It’s been a while since you started to shoot IDOW, you went through a couple of crowdfunding campaigns and finally got the film distributed more or less world-wide. How is it been shooting this film? Any anecdotes you want to share with us?

RF: The process of shooting the film was the most fun I’ve ever had, getting to meet our personal heroes and playing with all that amazing synth gear was just great. But when we eventually realised that we had to stop and edit this thing, that was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. And now to actually see it get out there to the wider world is really the icing on the cake, the film has gotten so much bigger than I’d ever expected, a journey of almost 5 years to reach this point!

HP: If somebody handed you the keys to an alien time portal and you could make this film again, from scratch, what would you keep and what would you do differently?

RF: We never set out to do a history of the modular, that happened by accident. If I could do things over again, with the idea of doing a proper historical overview, I would have included many of the women that played such a huge role in the modular’s development that we, unfortunately, did not include… people like Suzanne Ciani, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros and Eliane Radigue. If we failed in anyway with this film, it would be this oversight which was completely unintentional.

Interview with I Dream of Wires Director Robert Fantinatto

I Dream of Wires, the documentary about the modular synth, premiered last month in Berlin and is now available both as a DVD/Blue Ray disc and in digital form through various channels (for a complete list check idreamofwires.org). We took the occasion to interview the director Robert Fantinatto and have a look behind the scenes of its [...]

HannesHannes

Cablesalad with patch dressing

Back when I started to get into modulars you didn’t have a lot of choices when it came to patch cables. Doepfer made the ones with the best price-value ratio, Tiptop stackables were the object of desire, available to those with deeper pockets. That was more or less it. Fortunately, with the explosion of the modular phenomenon, [...]

HannesHannes

Time for some modular beats, the video above shows a live-performed version of Waveguiding by Joseph Fraioli (who’s track Swarm we have seen in our first post about modular music). The track opens in what we could almost call “classic IDM” fashion, with some complex rhythmic structure (I think mostly curtesy of Circadian Rhythms) and then later adds more melodic/harmonic layers to it. The structure is simple, but effective.

His Vimeo page tells us that:

Joseph has established a reputation for complex and fearless sonic experimentation with his ten critically acclaimed albums as Datach’i, which seamlessly weave together everyday sounds with avant-garde textures and beat making

His Vimeo channel (which can be found at vimeo.com/jafbox) features several similar videos. The choices in titling his pieces (eg. Circadian Rhythms, Basimilus Acid or Nebulæ) hint at him focusing quite a bit on the technical side of modular music and the video’s description usually contains a detailed overview of the patch and the modules used. Still, most of his videos are not technical demos, these works are musically refined, with a great attention to detail and timbre and go way beyond what we usually see and hear in this type of videos.

Chosen Waves 005 – Joseph Fraioli

Time for some modular beats, the video above shows a live-performed version of Waveguiding by Joseph Fraioli (who’s track Swarm we have seen in our first post about modular music). The track opens in what we could almost call “classic IDM” fashion, with some complex rhythmic structure (I think mostly curtesy of [...]

HannesHannes

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If you haven’t heard about I Dream of Wires yet, then you have probably been abducted by country-music-loving aliens, who erased your memory. It’s THE documentary about modular synthesizers and it’s going to premiere in Berlin at the end of the month. What’s even better, the even will host a performance by legendary modular synth musician Morton Subotnick!

So here’s the Info again:

Where: Babylon Kino, Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse 30, 10178 Berlin
When: 28.07.2015, 7PM
How much: 20€ / 30€ with DVD

We have a couple of interviews with the authors in the works for you. So stay tuned for more!

More info

official website: idreamofwires.org

Distribution

The film will then be available on DVD in Europe, USA, Canada and Japan, and digitally on the following dates:

USA (distribution First Run Features):
iTunes: July 21 / DVD: August 4

EU/UK/International (distribution Monoduo Films):
iTunes + Vimeo On Demand: August 10 / DVD: August 4

Canada (distribution KinoSmith):
iTunes: August 4 / DVD: August 4

Japan (distribution Akari Films):
TBA

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July 28 2015 – IDOW Premiere – Berlin

If you haven’t heard about I Dream of Wires yet, then you have probably been abducted by country-music-loving aliens, who erased your memory. It’s THE documentary about modular synthesizers and it’s going to premiere in Berlin at the end of the month. What’s even better, the even will host a performance by [...]

HannesHannes

Berlin-based Jasper Walden is one of those modular synth musicians who enjoys and develops the art of playing for an online audience. He started just 10 months ago – with a relatively compact system, playing the above piece titled Descent – and has hence uploaded 8 more videos. He tells us a bit more about Descent and why he got into modulars:

This one was my first modular video. I didn’t initially plan on doing a video. The approach was to have 2 melody-lines that work good together, because I usually was only able to have a drone and a melody on top – not two melodies working hand-in-hand.

Inspired to get a modular, very likely because how it looks and then it makes these lovely unexpected sounds, which I couldn’t create with anything else. Plus it’s great to have everything in one place : sequencer, effects, wavefolders, etc. and at hand. No browsing, no routing. All modular and all hands on. But I haven’t realised that before I had a bunch of modules. The type of music I recently make on my modular synth is inspired a lot by Alessandro Cortini, especially his live performance ‘Trash Audio at the Apothecary’.

Jasper Walden, who studies physical engineering at the Technical University of Berlin, used to play piano and drums, but as of lately he’s focusing more on the modular synth and extending his knowledge of music theory. His approach to music comes from counterpoint and movie scores. He tells us that he hasn’t used the modular to play live yet.

[…] I would perform with my modular – I have never done so tho. Problem is, when performing with a modular synth, it is hard to keep it interesting for an audience for more than 20minutes without silence in between.
For techno that’d probably work – but with this melody-merging-type of music I’d either have to re-patch or need a massive modular synth. Which I totally need! :-)

More Videos by Jasper Walden

Chosen Waves 004 – Jasper Walden

Berlin-based Jasper Walden is one of those modular synth musicians who enjoys and develops the art of playing for an online audience. He started just 10 months ago – with a relatively compact system, playing the above piece titled Descent – and has hence uploaded 8 more videos. He tells us a bit more about Descent and why he got into [...]

HannesHannes

The Youtube channel Labor Camp has some great videos showing the Monome Teletype in action. Since this makes for a nice addendum to the previous post about coding and modulars, here they are, including the original description text.

UPDATE: Piotr from Labor Camp tells us that all of the Teletype action in the videos has been scripted by him, expect for one, which is a factory script. The scripting language seems to be really straightforward and easy to get into.

Two short captures of the first couple of days with monome teletype module. In sample 1 teletype drives everything, including the PO-12. This involve some self-patching, and the internal teletype clock.
In sample 2 monome meadowphysics drives teletype, which in turns drives the rest of the setup. Sample 2 is basically one of the scenes that came preloaded on teletype, which I patched into my case almost randomly.
Main modules in both samples are teletype, Make Noise Mysteron, drone bed provided by E350 processed through Z-DSP running Halls of Valhalla, and Mutable Instruments Braids.

These are three variations of one scene written in teletype. It’s a more abstract, somewhat generative texture engine, with a single tone pattern. All the tempos and structures are derived from the internal teletype metronome (M).

3a:
Teletype controls Make Noise Mysteron, Erbe-verb, and TE PO-12
3b:
Is only two modules: teletype patched directly into Mutable Instruments Elements. Included is a closeup of the teletype screen crolling through all the scripts.
3c:
Same scene as the previous two clips, except an external clock (gate from white whale) toggles the internal teletype clock on/off on every pulse, and scrambles some variable values resulting in evolving structures. Modules involved are: monome teletype, white whale, Make Noise Sto, Mutable Instruments Elements, and ZDSP running Halls Of Valhalla.

A slightly more expansive arrangement with monome teletype at the center. Teletype is driven by meadowphysics triggers, further breaking up patterns, and controlling pitch variations derived form a single, internal sequence. Additional PO-12 drums are driven by teletype, and processed through CV-controlled Audio Damage Grainshift.

Main modules used:
teletype, meadowphysics, mysteron, braids, elements, quantum rainbow, e350, mmg, grainshift, zdsp, echophon, azimuth II, sto, uVCF
+ PO-12, monome 128 grid

This is an abridged performance of two iconic minimalist compositions by Steve Reich (“Piano Phase” and “Clapping Music”). Each composition consists of two “layers” of shifting patterns. I decided to use these patterns as an exercise in constructing a scene in teletype, where each pattern evolves in it’s own right, while staying in a fixed relationship to the remaining patterns.

In the beginning of the video you will see all the screens from teletype explaining how the scene was constructed. In the TRACKER view you can see the first two patterns on the left are the 12 note sequences of the “Piano Phase”. Even though they are identical, I set up two patterns independently, as they are being read at slightly different speeds. The leftmost pattern is being clocked by external triggers, while the rightmost one is being clocked by internal teletype metronome M, the tempo of which is calculated in script 1. The “Piano Phase” theme are rendered by the two oscillators of the Make Noise DPO. The two patterns on the right are simple 1s and 0s defining the sequences of claps based on Reich’s composition. These are triggering pulses that control white noise bursts, and MI Elements.

Coding the Modular: Teletype Live Action

The Youtube channel Labor Camp has some great videos showing the Monome Teletype in action. Since this makes for a nice addendum to the previous post about coding and modulars, here they are, including the original description text. UPDATE: Piotr from Labor Camp tells us that all of the Teletype action in the videos has been scripted by [...]

HannesHannes

Here comes another chosen wave, but this time we have something unusual: Kentucky Route Zero, a game, an independent one from a small company called Cardboard Computer. There’s certain analogies between indie games and modulars. Both are mostly being made by small companies for a niche audience, so it’s only fitting that the soundtrack to Kentucky Route Zero was partially created using a modular. As a sidenote: the instrument employed is no eurorack, it’s an old EMU system owned by the Art Institute of Chicago, but I think my point is still valid.

The above video shows Cardboard Computer’s Ben Babbitt working on the score for the XANADU sequence in Kentucky Route Zero. As the notes on the youtube video say, the “line-out recording got corrupted, so this is audio from the room”, nonetheless it’s beautiful to see the instrument that produced this wonderfully organic sounds.

For comparison, here’s a video of the XANADU scene in the game (it’s a playthrough video, so it might contain spoilers!).

… and finally, this is the same track from the soundtrack album:

It’s interesting how different the music sounds in the game from what we have heard in the live video at the beginning. We got in touch with Ben Babbitt and asked him how this score was produced and talked a bit about electronic music and modular synths.

Horizontalpitch: Why did you choose to work with a modular, and especially an old one like that EMU system?

Ben Babbitt: Working with a modular synthesizer happened mostly because we were trying to create a sense of time relative to when XANADU was made in the game world. That particular EMU system was built around 1977 for the sound department at the college we all went to. Using that EMU specifically rather than another analog synthesizer was a bit of a coincidence, because I happened to have access to it around the time we were working on that scene.

HP: The EMU system at the university, was right next to what appears to be an old Moog modular, what made you choose the EMU over the Moog?

BB: I chose the EMU rather than the Moog simply because that was what I had experience using. I took a class on the study of analog synthesis that used the EMU to demonstrate the concepts and put into practice what we were learning about. I did have a chance recently to mess around with some of the new Moog reissues of their modular systems from the 70’s and they’re amaaaazing.

HP: What was your process when recording the music for the XANADU scene? Did you record the music in one take or was a lot of editing and production involved?

BB: The process for making the music for XANADU involved recording long instances of improvisation and then going back and constructing compositions in a collage-like way, for the most part. Finding interesting and suggestive moments and then building upon them. Although, some of the pieces were also more immediate than that.

HP: Would you like to work more with that kind of instrument in future soundtracks?

BB: I really enjoy working with that kind of instrument and would love to do more of it, yes.

HP: What were your main sources of inspiration for the KRZ soundtrack and, more specifically, for the XANADU scene?

BB: Hmmm…for XANADU specifically, 60’s/70’s institutional electronic music was a main reference. Composers like Delia Derbyshire, Laurie Spiegel, Daphne Oram, Eliane Radigue, Karlheinz Stockhausen, etc. The visual and narrative elements of the game are also usually the main instigators of any creative decisions I make. Broader influences on my work are many because of the various instances of music performed by characters in the game.

HP: Do you own a modular system… or are you thinking about getting one?

BB: So this is probably completely sacrilegious to say on a website about modular synthesizers but I’ve been really into this software synth called Bazille that’s designed with a modular interface. I always love it when I can get my hands on a hardware system, but actually Jake Elliott [one of Ben’s associates at Cardboard Computer, more about him at dai5ychain.net Ed.] is much more active in that world and has quite a rig built up that he plays with regularly. He performs every Sunday with it on an internet radio station.


A bit like in Louis and Bebe Barron’s soundtracks, Babbitt’s work on the XANADU scene fuses underscoring, music that happens in the scene and sound effects into one glorious sonic construct! The analogies actually go a bit further than that. For instance, there’s a similar approach to composition, both in Ben Babbitt’s and the Barrons’ music: both worked by recording longer passages with the machine and then assembled them in a sonic collage. Finally, the organic computer XANADU in the game is, in certain regards, similar to the Barron’s “self-destructing machines”, so perhaps this could only lead to a similar approach.

If I got you interested in this game and want to get a copy (it’s really worth it btw!), I suggest you buy it from the Humble Bundle Store, you’ll get it DRM-free and cross platform. Plus, and this might be the most interesting aspect, you’ll get the OST bundled with it as a bonus!

www.humblebundle.com/store/p/kentuckyroutezero_storefront

Of course if you only want the soundtrack, it’s available directly from Ben Babbitt here: benbabbitt.bandcamp.com

Thanks to Konstantine for pointing me at this game/soundtrack!

In case you were wondering, Milton Babbitt of Columbia-Princeton fame (who worked as a composer with the RCA Mark II synthesizer in the 1950s) really is Ben’s distant relative.

Chosen Waves 002 – Kentucky Route Zero

Here comes another chosen wave, but this time we have something unusual: Kentucky Route Zero, a game, an independent one from a small company called Cardboard Computer. There’s certain analogies between indie games and modulars. Both are mostly being made by small companies for a niche audience, so it’s only fitting that the [...]

HannesHannes