Music made with modulars. Because that’s what we got the thing for in the first place, didn’t we?
It doesn’t take long to understand when a performer is trying too hard to fit in a certain place and his music simply follows a proven script. That is not the case of today’s Chosen Waves selection. One of the things I appreciate about guys like James Holden is they clearly play whatever they like rather than concentrating on making something that fits into a genre. Techno, shades of West Coast weirdness, echoes of geometrically composed soundscapes that border on raga through african rhythms with a zest of Canterbury rock: James managed to elbow his way to worldwide recognition through DJing, producing and the sonic arsenal of his Border Community label, founded in 2003. In 2014 he curated Sonic City Live, in Belgium, where, among the other things, he performed what you’re looking at today.
With Tom Page on drums and Etienne Jaumet on sax, we get a fascinating perspective on playing modular synths live, combining them with computers and performing alongside other musicians. James Holden is using a Max for Live patch he created to automatically shape the timing of the performance by having it follow the drummer’s groove. And you can definitely hear it. Why should a human being stick to a quantised grid?
It doesn’t take long to understand when a performer is trying too hard to fit in a certain place and his music simply follows a proven script. That is not the case of today’s Chosen Waves selection. One of the things I appreciate about guys like James Holden is they clearly play whatever they like rather than concentrating on [...]
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).
Teletype controls Make Noise Mysteron, Erbe-verb, and TE PO-12
Is only two modules: teletype patched directly into Mutable Instruments Elements. Included is a closeup of the teletype screen crolling through all the scripts.
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.
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.
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 [...]
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!
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 [...]
We’ve launched this blog only two months ago, so we’re basically in what you could call “beta” phase. Things are subject to testing and revision. As part of these revisions we decided to change Some Exciting Examples Modular Music into this new series called Chosen Waves. We didn’t just change the name, we also tweaked the concept a bit:we’ll usually feature only one track/video at a time and in exchange for that we’ll hopefully post more often. Sometimes we might add a little interview.
So let’s get this started with this recording of a live performance of the French project amnésie. Here’s what he says about himself on his soundcloud page:
amnésie is the solo project of Wilfried Thierry.
It began back in 2001 with lecollectif17ans a noisy and iconoclast crew. At that time he released some tracks on various compilations (Skam, Idwet) and won an Autechre remix contest.
He then joined Ego Twister Records and released his first EP, Redken Style.
After that he released many tracks and remixes on various compilations, mixing weird electro and ironic vocals.
Now he’s back to what he loves most : mixing noise influences with electro, digging into synthesis using his modular synth.
This one is been sitting in my bookmarks for a long time and I keep getting back at it again and again. As you can see from the photo he performed this live with a lot of modular gear. The recording spans over 45 minutes and is a dense, brooding mix of distorted basses, noisy sounds and electro/techno beats. It’s one of those immersive and hypnotic sound voyages, best enjoyed in the dark, late at night. I suggest you listen to it in one go. Without spoilering too much, the best part comes at the very end, but how you get there might strongly influence its effectiveness, so don’t rush it.
If you liked the above track, amnésie recently released an 2-track album on the French label Ego Twister records
We couldn’t help but get in touch with Wilfried Thierry and ask him a couple of questions about his music and his approach to live modular performances.
Horizontalpitch: I know from personal experience that performing live with a modular synth can be a tricky thing to do. How do you approach this?
Wilfried Thierry: Yes it’s tricky, but I prefer things that are not 100% perfect but really done live. I’ve played electronic music for years and the modular is the first instrument that gave me a total freedom and control over everything.
I’ve had a duo with Yan [from Ego Twister Records, Ed.], called FUTUR and I experimented with him the use of modular on stage. We played improvised music, and as we were two, it was simpler for me to start this way. You can find on youtube a video in Le temps machine [Youtube link, Ed.].
The sound is also very important to me. I’ve been using analog synths on stage for more than 10 years. I don’t want to cheat the audience with fake analog sounds coming from a computer.
I feel more like a live guy than a studio one and want to use instruments that inspire me.
HP: The complicated thing might seem the inability to store settings or patches, which you can just recall during a live performance. Do you start with a patch and then work on that or do you have more “configurations” prepared and then just switch between those?
WT: Well that’s not a problem for me. My patch is mostly prepared and I can switch between different parts of the patch when I need different elements. But I also patch live when necessary. I rehearse a lot so that everything is under control, I know my instrument by heart, that doesn’t seem more complicated to me than when I play guitar.
HP: What else do you use in combination with the modular? Or is it just the modular?
WT: When playing with amnésie, I use my modular and a DSI Mopho X4 for chords. That’s all. I’ve built my modular as an advanced “groovebox”. I just sometimes regret I don’t have a third hand !!
HP: Final question, what’s your favourite module?
WT: My favourite module is the one that led me to eurorack : Make Noise René. It’s the first one I bought and I still love it as day one. Using it live is really great. For amnésie I have programmed two scales that I play in many different ways, I don’t know any other tools as versatile (except a very old MiDi sequencer I used when reedited by Cycling 74 : M).
So that’s it for today’s Chosen Waves, we might talk a little bit more with Wilfried Thierry about his music and modular synths in the future.
In the meantime, if you have tracks or videos you’d like to share with us, leave a comment below or send us an email using the link on top of the page!
We’ve launched this blog only two months ago, so we’re basically in what you could call “beta” phase. Things are subject to testing and revision. As part of these revisions we decided to change Some Exciting Examples Modular Music into this new series called Chosen Waves. We didn’t just change [...]
“2014 saw the usual slew of albums from artists dabbling with modular synthesizers and vintage electronics, lacking the gumption to realise the potential of their equipment.”
The above video of Keith Fullerton Whitman is not new, in fact it’s been around for some time and has been featured on some well known blogs. Still it’s a great example of what can be done, musically, with a modular system.
When people talk about modulars it’s usually about technical things. Which module packs more features in less HPs, or offers a wider modulation range. In the best of cases the discussion will be about sound quality and aesthetics and sometimes this will drift into the land of pointless audiophile debates.
Little discussion is about the actual music that is made with modulars. A casual observer could almost think that we don’t really make any music with the gear we obsessively buy (or build), but if one digs deeper a vast landscape of diversified musical approaches can be found. Yes, we really are making music with modulars!
This ongoing series of posts on horizontalpitch.com wants to showcase some of the modular-made music we find online. It’s not intended to be an exhaustive overview of what is going on in the “scene”, nor does it want to be a categorisation of approaches and styles. It’s mainly intended to be a source of inspiration and a possible starting point to talk more about music and less about the tech.
So let’s get started!
There seems to be kind of a modular trend in techno-house oriented music lately. Lots of dj/producers have started to build a eurorack system to complement their laptops and drum machines. The musical value, as the musician’s motivation, can sometimes be debatable, yet this is a huge trend that cannot be ignored and which has produced, over time, some very interesting and enjoyable music.
The current modular trend is also strictly linked to the more general “back to analog” one, that has been going on for the last 20 years. So it comes to no surprise to see retro-electronica bands embracing the modular both in the studio and on stage.
Sounds from Beyond
Fortunately a good share of the music that is made with modulars is hard to press into a defined genre. Sometimes the modular is used to expand on a given set of musical rules and take them into a new direction, others it’s involuntarily, or maybe due to it’s intrinsically chaotic nature, generating new patterns.
Of course the above Keith Fullterton Whitman is a great example for this kind of approach. Here’s some more.
It’s almost become a cliché that the modular is an instrument which creates “new and unheard sounds”. If any of these sounds can still be unheard or new is of course a discussion for itself (and absolutely worth one, so I’ll make a note about it). The old “electronic music avantgarde” has settled down to a genre (or a set of genres) and while some musicians are just repeating the pattern, there are others, who use modular systems to take this tradition to new heights.
(The above track comes from the same columnist chart by Nick Cain on Wire, which I’ve quoted above, some of 2014’s modular music did actually appeal to him).
You Can Call Them Demos, if You Want
Often videos and recordings of modular music are just demos for ones system or for a certain new module. Some of these demos go way beyond being just that, you could say that showcasing the equipment is just an excuse to create some music, and hence they can often be pretty interesting musically.
The above video of Keith Fullerton Whitman is not new, in fact it’s been around for some time and has been featured on some well known blogs. Still it’s a great example of what can be done, musically, with a modular system. When people talk about modulars it’s usually about technical things. Which module packs more [...]