Tag Archives: modular performance

Live Performance with Modular and Esoteric Electronic Instruments

Last night I performed at the Goethe Institute in DC as part of DC Listening Lounge’s annual event Sound Scene. My usual performance rig as PraxisCat is Serge format modular synth panels (4U), and a Ciat-Lonbarde Dousk.

Modular synthesizer instruments are usually known for their studio capabilities, but in terms of live performance they were often avoided because from a traditionalist perspective making them “repeatable” is a difficult task. Those who embrace more improvisational methods in terms of electronic and experimental performance though have embraced them for just this element of unpredictability, myself included.

The big thing is keeping an open mind in terms of musical performance if one does tend to take on both modular instruments, as well as more esoteric instruments. This is both true for the audience and performer. Performance will never be the same twice, and the nature of the music itself will sometimes pull one outside of their comfort zone.  Noise, varying frequencies, arrhythmic music, are all likely elements when seeing somebody with a modular instrument perform.  This is likewise the case when one brings in esoteric electronic instruments as well.  There is an embrace of the beauty of chaos in music.

The great thing about performing with such instruments is the fact that what this can bring is a sense of newness with seeing an artist each time, even though they may be using the same equipment their approach on that given night may wildly vary.

Jazz by Any Other Name: On Performing Live with a Modular Synthesizer

Modular synthesizers are often instruments that behave in an unpredictable fashion.  Sometimes this is by design, chaos generators are not meant to be calm, other times it is just the nature of analog instruments. This unpredictability can be tamed in a studio setting where one can sample and edit and control the environment. But as a live instrument, one must embrace these unpredictable aspects as part of performance itself. Those of us who perform with modular synthesizers, understand the improvisational element is essential to performing with them. While one can certain degree of control, the reality is nothing is under pure control. Understanding the instrument and knowing how to play it is essential, but part of that understanding comes from know how one is not in control with a modular synthesizer, and applying those chaotic elements to the performance itself.

Playing with a modular synthesizer then may be “electronic”, but those of us who perform with these instruments try to dance around another label, a label I think needs to be embraced on some level. That is Jazz.

Yes…Jazz. Seriously. When did Jazz become a dirty word. Well I mean besides it’s origins as an actual euphemism for sex.  I think the reason why is pretty simple, we see the arrogance of some parts of the jazz community by those who hold close to traditionalism, and I think when many people face elitism they tend to run the other direction. But this needs to be understood, while there is the traditionalists in jazz, there is also things such as punk jazz, free improvisation, and free jazz. All of which are less constrained by convention, and fully embrace the unpredictability of improvised live performance.

There is also the fact that electronic music has it’s own rich history and legacy. We look at Delia Derbyshire and Kraftwerk as part of this musical history. Many of us in the studio are pretty close followers of Ambient,  Minimalism, Musique Concrete, Radiophonics, and Elektronische Musik when it comes to composing and producing Electronic Music. But the personality and performance with live performance is another story. We should realize none of these musics came about in a vacuüm. They were defined by their times, and other music popular during their creation.

Where electronic music (make no mistake, the non-dance type) has gone with modular synthesizers, especially in the Avant Garde community is placing it in somewhat in a jazz context, though in this case one based in improvisation.  While this may feel like an odd fit, it is not really. One cannot go to a Borax show and not see the relations to free jazz and improvisation.   My own shows are pretty much laced with a free improvisation ethos. Additionally, the instruments themselves, and the philosophies around them are taking on such constructs that Jazz often feels like the best category even if the sounds and structures are defined by bleeps and bloops, instead of the sound of a horn or a guitar.

All this being said, I still would not suggest showing up with a Serge at a Jazz club on a random night. But in the right spaces at the right times, magic could happen. There is not as much as a disconnect as the perception may suggest.