Now that I’ve spent a fairly ridiculous amount of money on a modular synthesizer, I’m challenging myself to figure out what to do with it. The challenge is this: My whole life has been spent listening to, playing, and composing music that was built out of notes. Or let’s say notes, chords, and phrases. Groups of notes are almost always organized either vertically into chords or horizontally into phrases. In fact, it’s reasonable to say that if a sound of a fixed pitch and duration is heard, but has no relationship to other sounds of fixed pitch, either vertically or horizontally, it’s not a note. The idea of “note” embodies the idea of a certain kind of organization.

It’s certainly possible to play notes, chords, and phrases with a modular synth. But it’s not the best tool for the job. If you want to play note-based electronic music, a software system (Propellerhead Reason, for instance, or Steinberg Cubase and a few good VST plug-ins) is a much better choice. Using software, you can store and recall your sounds. You can keep the same set of notes and try it with different sounds, or vice-versa — and you can come back to the stored piece a month later and try out different combinations.

With a modular synth, you can certainly record reams of audio to your computer, cut and paste useful segments, add effects, and do a mix. But once you’ve pulled apart the chord-generating patch to do a bass, percussion, or melodic patch, getting the chord patch back again the next day will be difficult and perhaps impossible. As a result, the process of assembling a note-oriented piece using a modular synth faces some serious roadblocks.

On the other side of the aisle, quite a lot of composers are using modular synths and other kinds of electronics to perform and record new kinds of music. For the most part, however, this music is not based on the manipulation of notes, chords, and phrases. The predominant elements seem to be gesture and texture. A gesture or texture may contain a line of fixed pitches, which we may as well call notes, or it may not. But if it does, what order the notes are in doesn’t matter, because note order and note relationships are not parameters that are likely to be manipulated by the composer in meaningful ways. A line of notes is simply a gesture or a texture; it floats almost entirely free of the baggage of the last 400 years of European/American composition.

This is not a bad thing. I happen to like Bach and Haydn a lot, but (if Wendy Carlos will forgive my saying so) it’s fairly clear that Bach and Haydn don’t provide the best models for what is being done or might be done to create new music with a modular synthesizer.

The question, then, is this: How do (or how can) electronic gestures and textures relate to one another in meaningful ways within a piece? We can talk about how one texture evolves into another. We can talk about sudden contrasts, where one texture is replaced by another. We can talk about background gestures and foreground gestures. We can talk about dark moods, peaceful moods, and agitated moods. But how do these elements fit together to make a satisfying piece of music?

As I listen to how composers like Morton Subotnick are using these elements, it’s fairly clear that they’re doing something. They’re not just throwing bits together at random. But what are they doing? I don’t know.

Footnote: Last month I played Liszt’s symphonic poem Les Preludes in an orchestral concert. It goes through a number of moods — mysterious, playful, frantic, triumphal. Here’s the thing, though: All of the sections are united by the use of the same three-note motif. He transforms it in all sorts of clever ways, but once you know it’s there, you can’t miss it. That’s how classical composers did it in the 19th century, and it’s an effective way to unify what is, in other respects, a somewhat straggling or disjointed piece. Is there an equivalent technique in electronic music?

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6 thoughts on “No Notifications

  1. I suspect that for many, perhaps most, modular users there is no concrete musical goal and the primary point and pleasure is futzing with the thing. Composition is as much going along for the ride as it is anything else.

    There is also the antediluvian hero with a wall of modules,chasing the perfect synthesized flutes and French horns since before anyone else was even born. His results are astounding, but no one really cares.

    The sound designer with a deadline probably has the most comfortable relationship with a modular synth. Giant robot needs some clanking by tomorrow morning. Work, fun, art; who can tell the difference?

    I’ll gently pass over the Tangerine Dream-style jan-u-ar-y- feb-ru-ar-y guys even though their fluff is probably the music most identified with modular synthesizers. Using a modular synthesizer for that kind of thing is a mockery- like hiring Michael Jordan to sweep floors on his knees.

    What else is happening on modular synthesizers? Too many hours listening over at the Muffwiggler forum and on YouTube tells me that representative modular synthesizer music could well be described as nothing more, or less, than a very colorful pulsing. And this has been true since at least Silver Apples.

    I like that kind of thing very much, and for the last 30+ years of attentive listening I’ve far preferred the sound of tin cans rolling steadily down a glass hill to that of endless pseudo-musical arpeggios and atmospheric filter sweeps.

    But, like many others I suspect, there’s only so much pleasant rattling, squawking and blurping I can listen to without asking myself, where’s the rest of the music? That reaction is sure to scoffed at by those who think of themselves as sophisticates but I think it is a common reaction, and if you take a gander at how modular synthesizers are used in high-grade popular music, you’ll find it’s as colorful pulse within a larger and more varied musical setting, and not a lone affair. cf. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails.

    Personally I like using a colorful pulse, for example semi-pitched metallic polyrhythms, so much that I make such things even *without* a modular synthesizer.

    Anyway those are just some observations.

    1. Thanks for the comments. I think your experience as a listener is similar to mine. I sometimes find myself muttering, “Gee, that was a great 8-bar intro, but it went on for 7 minutes and then stopped.” Where’s the rest of the music? Listening to portions of Silver Apples and also Subotnick’s Wild Bull yesterday on Pandora, I did form the distinct impression that he was structuring his pieces. There are usually three or four distinct sonorities going on, and sometimes one drops out while another “takes a solo.”

      1. When I was a teenager I really enjoyed Subotnik. Now when I listen to his classics (I don’t know the later work, 80s for example) honestly I find it very “lite” and I think the gorgeous reverb- probably one of those huge plates- is more than a little responsible for the attraction of listening to the thing.

        There’s definitely structure,to both Silver Apples and Wild Bull, though, and I’m sure if we could sit down with a bong and spin the vinyl and talk about it,
        it would be easy to hash it out.

    2. But generally I hear nothing that even remotely resembles sonata form, or even verse-chorus-bridge song form. The question of how to organize the material, which was of abiding interest to classical composers from the beginning of the 18th century onward, seems not really to have been tackled by composers who are working with the new electronic instruments. Other than pop song and dance mix composers, of course.

      1. A typical default form for “unformed” music, at least in live situations, is what I call the Bolero form- more Freudian monikers will do just as well- which is just a long build, climax, fade out. I’ve done it myself in live noise concerts, it’s “enough”.

        As a promoter of all kinds of “other” music shows, I get to have excellent conversations with the dedicated audience, who are more sophisticated than most musicians. One thing that’s come up often in these conversations is that a distinguishing feature of good noise, glitch, ambient, free jazz, and so on musicians is that they know when to shift gears to keep things moving and interesting and very importantly *they know when to stop*..

        Another thing that’s come up in these conversation is that whether intentionally done or not, successful “unformed” music sounds programmatic, evocative, “telling a story”. I’m sure most making such music would protest- certainly the academically trained ones would. But there it is.

        .

      2. Hey, if telling a story was good enough for Liszt and Richard Strauss (not to mention Wagner), it’s good enough for me! Maybe I should look for inspiration in The Thousand Nights and a Night. Or even Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

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