Saturday, June 18, 2011


I recently watched the 2006 DVD a concert by German band Einsturzende Neubauten. I had seen them twice live and this special show, while quite expanded in instruments and stage, reminded me of the balance between sound, silence, noise, and music. They are masters of their craft and employ the same control and skill to banging on a 250 kilo turbine engine as they do plucking a bass, guitar, or whispering a processed vocal. Truly artistry at work in everything they do.

This reminded me of the challenges of making "noise" or ambient/experimental (or whatever one calls it) Music. My use of modulars and synthesizers in general stems from my desire to aurally sculpt new sounds with fades, dynamics, filter and modulation sweeps, etc. I rely heavily on mixing modules to bring new sounds up and down in the overall live performance. Having LFOs and other modulators pinging envelopes and VCAs open and closed adds an element of the synth "playing itself" back at me while I then interact by adjusting the various parameters of said modules. It's a dance many "tweaking" synthesists know well. In this sense the Buchla 200e allows itself to be "played". The 250e sequencer alone allows for semi automated controlled voltages, pulses, sub triggers, etc to flow out and be assigned to other parts of the overall system. That said it is not straight forward or even direct as more complex sequencers such as a Serge TKB. You need to get inside the computer of it and make sure it is doing what you want. And this takes time.

I have not broken the code yet. Programming, either in midi or a computerized module setting, is not my strong suit. I appreciate what the 250e is capable of in it's minimal state but continue to struggle with it's various outputs, run settings, and loop options. I can academically see it's potential but have not done the work necessary to bring myself to understand it outside of it's more mundane knob=pitch, knob=pulse time single loop functions. I'm not a synth or sequencer/drum machine newbie by any means, but the 250e is a hardware/software/modular instrument of a different color.

As I see bands and artists that have clearly spent most of their lifetime perfecting their use of unusual instruments and techniques I wonder about the balance of learning anew. I have stated before the 200e challenges the user in unique and rewarding ways and this is clearly an example of such. I have abandoned instruments in the past, most recently the Monome 40H which looked promising to me but in reality came with a learning curve and computer interaction that, for me, didn't justify it's overall potential. It's a personal decision based on available time and energy and the other instruments and life's demands than constrain that.

I believe having to work for what you want brings a new level of sophistication and satisfaction to the process. When I have played in live bands or arranged pieces for other members I find it has often been more rewarding than when I do solo work no matter how complex. To put this another way: if everything were easy to do few things would be as special.

So far the conversation I am having with the 200e has been a give and take. We don't always get along but we do work together. I recently finished a piece for an upcoming compilation and have made great progress in taming this beast to complete the task as defined and on time. But perhaps taming it is not the right way to even be looking at it. With an instrument as complex and interactive as the 200e and a musician as experienced yet set in certain ways as myself where does the control really lie?

The question is hypothetical of course but if it's not a cop out I can at least say these types of questions don't come up very often with I use a preset groove box or rompler. Perhaps the answer lies more in the process than the end result. If that is the case then certainly, modular synthesis and a "Complex Waveform Generator" is as good a companion as any to take the journey with.

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