Live video from February 2018.
by Dave Skipper
This series – Listen Here! – is all about sharing examples of my own noise music for you to listen to, along with background notes that give insight into my music-making and creative processes. The piece this time is a live performance of mine from February 2018 on a live-streaming music platform called PowWow (more about what that is below), so it’s actually a video which is hopefully a lot more engaging that just audio.
To give a bit more context, I need to explain a bit for the uninitiated what modular synths are (as that is the main type of instrument that I use), about the distinction and overlap between modular and noise, about what this PowWow is, and finally some notes on how I prepare for a performance and what I am thinking while I perform.
What are modular synths?
At its core, the concept of the modular synthesiser is very simple: separate out the functions of electronic sound generation and processing into separate units (modules) to allow for maximum flexibility in connecting those functions in different combinations and configurations. Essentially it’s like opening up a full synthesiser instrument and breaking the different circuits apart so that they can be recombined and manipulated in new (or old) ways, except that individual circuits can be designed and created as standalone units in the first place.
The idea of modular synths easily transports the imagination back to the 1970s – huge walled systems of knobs and cables, expensive and cumbersome, producing lush tones and ethereal soundscapes, wielded by prog rock maestros and experimental electronic music pioneers. This is the world of vintage modulars.
Fast forward a few decades, and the modern-day resurgence of modular synths is a very different phenomenon. Monster racks and the pursuit of those creamy vintage sounds are still options, but with the development and explosion of the more compact and affordable Eurorack format there are now countless more avenues available. There is an ongoing proliferation of small module makers – all the way from cheap DIY hobbyists through to high-end boutique artisans – offering a bewildering array of oscillators, filters, sequencers, effects, and an extraordinary range of utility modules that may appear unglamourous but provide all the requisite glue and possibilities for combining and manipulating signals within a modular system.
The modular user is thus able to construct a unique and alterable system, tailored to tastes and needs. Patch cables are then used to connect the modules together, giving unlimited control over the audio and control voltage signal flows that are simply unobtainable with fixed-architecture hardware synths. Moreover, most modular musicians don’t even use a keyboard, though one can be integrated into a modular system if desired.
What is the appeal of modular synths? The customisability, the hands-on physicality, the creative process…
Modulars definitely lend themselves to sonic experimentation and sound design, with ample opportunity for ‘happy accidents’ along the way. They suit the mentality and workflow of both technical musicians and experimental musicians; musical planners and musical improvisers; engineers and dabblers; professionals and amateurs; live performers, studio artists, and home-with-a-pair-of-headphones ‘noodlers’.
Is the modular synth a noise instrument?
Modular synths are not by default noise instruments. Modulars are not bound in that way. Stylistically, modulars transcend genre. Ambient? Techno? Jazz? IDM? Noise? Soundtrack? Drone? Beats? Experimental? Sound processing for external sounds/instruments? Freeform? Structured? Light? Dark? Melodic? Atonal? Dissonant? Simple? Complex? A resounding ‘check!’ for all of these and more. Modular can be whatever the musician makes it to be.
Conversely, and similarly, noise music is not by default made by using modular synths. Noise music is far more to do with mindset, approach, and aesthetics than it is by what kind of instrument makes the noise. Acoustic, amplified, electronic; traditional instruments, laptops, guitar pedals, voice, electric instruments, electronic instruments; FX, mixers, feedback techniques, distortion; field recordings, everyday objects, DIY instruments… everything is fair game in the world of noise!
So, modulars are unconstrained by music style or genre, and noise music is unconstrained by music gear or instruments. But a modular system can assuredly be constructed and utilised as a noise instrument, and that intersection is my personal area of activity and experience.
As I have developed my style and refined my modular system over the years, it’s been intriguing to note that I despite regular adjustments to which modules I am using I have nevertheless been able to push the sounds and structures of my performances into the same realm of sonic territory. In other words, I think I have slowly been finding my voice as a modular noisician that is not dependent on a specific set of modules. A lot of this is to do with patching techniques and my approach to composing electronic sounds. There are certain principles that I can pursue with any modular setup (in theory), and I’ll try to find how to push any given modules into the direction that I am looking for.
For me, modulars are perfect for noise because if I have an idea for a sound or something compositional, then it’s possible to achieve with the right modules. Making noise has a lot to do with pushing through boundaries and extremes, and within the modular environment the open-ended interconnectivity gives free rein to try those ideas out.
What is PowWow?
As the growth of the modular world continues apace, pockets of local modular scenes have been emerging all over the place. How to find these communities and the creative artists that constitute them? And how to connect these scenes together, can there be a global modular community? These questions are finding one exciting answer in the form of PowWow, a live-streaming music channel dedicated to uncovering and promoting modular artistry from many cities around the world.
The brainchild of Amsterdam-based Mark Berman, PowWow has been running since spring 2017 and has so far launched nearly 20 cities for live streaming events, with dozens more in the pipeline. The PowWow FaceBook page has over 24,000 followers, and mighty plans are afoot behind the scenes to take the concept into exciting new territory, to be revealed.
As part of the Tokyo crew it has been a privilege to showcase many local modular artists from Japan. I’ve played a couple of times so far, and it’s one of these performances that it is in this article further down. Before I get to the video, though, you may find it easier to appreciate the noise if I give you a bit of insight into my general approach to preparation and performance…
How do I prepare for a performance?
First of all I think about what kind of set I want to play at the specific event. Is it a pure noise event, or a mixed-genre event? Where is the event? How far away from the train station? How much gear can I take with me there? What will the weather be like? How good is the sound system? Is the sound system suitable for strong bass frequencies? How loud will the event be? What kind of expectations will the audience have? Is the audience familiar/comfortable with harsh noise? How long will my performance be? Will I be playing at an earlier or later time in the lineup? Am I collaborating or playing solo? If collaborating, with what kind of artist(s)? Have I performed with them before? Will we meet for a rehearsal beforehand? How long until the event? What time will I have to prepare, is it during a busy period for me or not? And so on.
Some of these factors will help narrow down the nature of the set I will play. And sometimes I might change my mind at the last minute anyway!
The next step is to plan which modules I think I will need to have in my setup. There might be particular module combinations that I know will work well for the kind of set I want to play, or I might have been recently enjoying some sounds or techniques with a particular module that I want to incorporate, or I might have a new module that I’m bursting to try out, or I might have rediscovered the joy of an old module that’s been sitting unused for a while.
Once I’ve installed the modules into my case I will patch them up and play around with different sounds, often trying to find a particular timbre or vibe. It won’t be unusual for me to reconsider the modules chosen, and maybe go through a couple of setup iterations before settling on the right combination.
Depending on what kind of set I have in mind, I usually need to figure out several different sound sets that will be incorporated into the performance by structuring, transitioning, or layering in certain ways. So there needs to be some consideration of both vertical components (mixing sounds and layers and timbres; thinking about low, mid, high frequency ranges, etc) and horizontal components (how to start the piece, transitions, timings, continuity vs contrast, dynamics, how to end the piece, etc).
Sometimes I need to make brief performance notes to check before (or during) the performance to remind me of certain knobs to adjust or sounds to bring in, but not very often.
As part of the preparation I will also jam around with the sounds to give me some ideas of the pool of textures at my disposal, and this will often give some fresh inspiration for ideas to use within the set.
On top of all this (or perhaps more accurately underneath it all), the experience of 100+ gigs over the years cannot be discounted. ‘Practising improvisation’, both at home and within the live gig context, build up memories, gestures, tweakings, and ear knowledge that form a performance bedrock that is hard to analyse or quantify. With hindsight I can see the immaturity of old performances, and the gradual improving and honing that has taken place. I’m still far from where I would like to be, but I generally (not always) have much more confidence going into an event than I used to: confidence that I can execute my musical vision reasonably effectively and with minimum compromise.
Space is short: another time I will elaborate a bit more on specific hints and tips, tactics and techniques, for how I prepare (thinking about modules, patching, why and how I choose the actual sounds and dynamics and frequencies and layers that I do, what effect I want to achieve on myself and the audience, how to generate different types of noise, how I contextualise noise differently according to the event, etc etc).
What goes through my mind when I perform?
Mainly I hope I don’t make any naff sounds, haha! In the past I spent far too much time chasing sounds during a performance: with no plan I would just endlessly twiddle knobs and flick switches, hoping to stumble across sounds I liked, and moving away as swiftly as possible from sounds I didn’t like. Certainly that is one approach, but for me it’s an approach that should belong in my headphones most of the time!
Nowadays I have grown to be much more conscious of the aforementioned horizontal components of performance. The late great Kelly Churko taught me the importance of form and also of letting sounds be. Another key word that has helped define my live thinking is trajectory. It took me a few years to develop and integrate those skills into my live sets, and while still very much in-progress I am happy with how far I’ve been able to come so far.
When performing I am completely focussed on the sounds and on my instrument. I rarely think about the audience, let alone the outside world. Part of my brain is focussed on the details and on the now. Another part of my brain is thinking about the form and the trajectory, the bigger perspective of the whole set.
Live sets at underground music events in Tokyo are very often 20-30 minutes long. Like many other regularly performing musicians, I have become very accustomed to and aware of what a 20-minute duration feels like, so it feels very natural. In fact, I usually feel I have have said everything I want to in 20 minutes, so longer sets can definitely be more of a challenge (the exception is improv jams with other instrumentalists, which can easily and happily extend out much further).
I confess that to often I forget to ‘let sounds be’ for a while, but when I do remember to I find it very meaningful and liberating. In that mode there is a humbling (‘I am not making these sounds!’) and a tension (‘How long can I let this sound remain? When is the right moment to make a shift?’) and a freedom (‘Ah, nothing to do now, just absorb the noise!’).
Normally I try to ramp up the intensity of sounds and layers and frequencies throughout a live set, often closing out with a few minutes of disintegration as the noise falls apart and fizzles away. But sometimes I like to start or finish abruptly, or take some different diversions en route. The actual trajectory and the length of sections and timing and style of transitions (whether smooth or abrupt) are dictated by various factors: the plan prepared beforehand, the atmosphere or environment at the event, changing tack due to the noise taking unforeseen paths, gut feeling as part of the improvisatory process, checking my watch and realised I’m either ahead or behind my anticipated trajectory.
My plan is always loose and subject to change – that is the beauty and risk of noise, and that is the beauty and risk of modular synths. But I tend to be able to either reel in the chaos on the one hand, or to embrace and follow the chaos on the other, depending on what the moment requires.
Listen (and watch!) here!
While reiterating that noise and noise music are very broad umbrella terms covering a great spectrum of sounds and styles, my particular favourite dimension of the noise world is what is termed ‘harsh noise’. Some of my live performances definitely try to inhabit that space, whilst at other times I move into other territories depending on the situation.
This performance I am sharing below is as always flawed (improvisations inevitably are), but I feel it is fairly representative of the types of noise space that I pursue with my modular. If you don’t have 23 minutes to sit through the whole thing, or you get bored along the way (I totally understand if that proves to be the case!), then I would just ask you to click along 10-20 different points throughout the video to get a glimpse of some of the variety of textures and sensations. Maybe think of it as a walk through different terrains if that helps – rainforests, ocean depths, sheer mountain drops, the swirling storms above Jupiter… maybe you’ll find some places you’ve never been to before!
Final note: to appreciate the frequencies and dynamics and stereo imaging properly please use headphones or good quality speakers, and don’t turn the volume down much if at all, haha! Ok, enjoy!