Musings on modular synthesizers, cinema and arrested development

Some thoughts in case somebody finds it interesting.

I see a lot of statements popping up around why to use synths and stuff, and modular in particular (online in general, not here specifically), when laptops now are all that anyway, and thought to attempt to answer questions such as why you would use some ridiculously expensive analogue gear when you can do more with a DAW for a fraction of the price and and what is the point of playing electronic music live anyway and bla bla.

Which to be fair is all very true, at least to a degree.

Because sure you can do anything with a computer, and probably more than you technically can with a lot of these music machines, and a lot of things better at that. You loose something though, but what? What makes it worth the price of the car or the mortgage or the liver?

I mean I have no regrets, but why?

Don’t get me wrong I also use a DAW for stuff like editing and mastering and so.

I use Ableton Live which is great for what it does


There is some levels you cannot really do in those kinds of environments I think,

And I don’t think so because I’m an analogue fetishist or even a gear head necessarily, but for me this question of “why modular synthesizer”, although it contains things like body memory and limited possibilities, is I think mainly something of a philosophical one, and it has to do with entropy and limits to control.
(As well as very much keeping shit vague to a degree).

I’m gonna use film as a parallel for this, mainly because I went to film school and am used to thinking in such terms, but also because film is a great example of everything that a music performance with a modular analogue system is not.

Film in a way is the perfect medium for telling a story, because it not only encapsulates story, image and sound, but it is also Super totalitarian as a storytelling medium. It completely dominates and control all the aspects of how you experience it, hitting you on all fronts, using all your senses. Controlling completely how you relate to the story and what you think of the people in it, it builds up what you expect, sometimes throw that back at you, but in a very very deliberate and controlled way, so like if you are surprised it is because you are supposed to be, because it is a part of how you are supposed to relate to the thing.

I mean at least when it is good, or well made or whatever.

Its very precise in how it plays with that, or how it plays you in that.

I had this teacher in film school to whom I am eternally grateful for opening up my understanding of how this works, and also kinda pissed at for ruining it in a way.

My direction teacher Nacho Gomez, started the first session of his class by walking in with a huge duffel bag full of DVDs, which he proclaimed contained all the, you know “good” movies made in the last century, and then he would grab one at random, and hold it up asking if we had seen it. When somebody had he would grab another one, until he found one that nobody had seen, which was “once upon a time in the west”.

He then put it in the DVD player and let the opening scene play for something like 30 seconds, after which he stopped it to ask us what we see.

What is the movie about? He asked.

What is going to happen?

In the beginning we were confused, because how could we know what the movie was about when we had only seen a 30 second credit roll with an image of a train rolling into view.

But he pushed on,

“Ok, a train, what else do you see?”

He had us analyze those 30 seconds for an hour and a half. Without giving away any information about the film, but just probing us to observe what we saw and speculate about the story of the movie until there was nothing left to say about it.

At that point we had established not only the time and location of the setting, but seeing how the train cut through the frame in its entry, this particular wild west settlement had probably been remote and unaccusable until very recently, bringing new sort of troubles illustrated by the smoke of the locomotive. The cacti in the scene might symbolize the villagers resistant to this, the bloom in the cacti might symbolize a rare event taking place, but also something romantic, perhaps a rough kind of lone hero masculine type rising up to the challenge faced by the love of a woman? A woman who just arrived on the train? Along with a new threat?
Everything was noted on the whiteboard until we had completely exhausted any topic relating to this scene of a train passing through a prairie landscape, upon which point a reasonable synopsis and story arc had been established. We then watched the movie.

When the end credits started to roll Nacho eyed us and asked “So? How does it hold up?”.

The story of the film indeed matched almost to the letter with the synopsis outlined on the whiteboard.

“But then what?” I asked, “Are you saying you can always tell the story from the first scene?”

“Not necessarily” he replied, “but in a well-directed film the whole story embodies every scene”.

“But then doesn’t it become kinda predictable? what about the element of surprise?”

“That is exactly the trick!” Nacho exclaimed, “A good surprise is not unexpected, it makes sense. As directors we need to balance these things. We need to control them, be aware of the bigger picture”.

In one way I fell in love with the craft of cinema then and there. In another way I started to loath it. For if an expression is so very controlled on the atomic scale, how could it ever surpass anyone’s preconceived idea of it? Wouldn’t this inherently limit the potential to the already established and envisioned?

Perhaps this is why I like books. They leave enough space for things to happen outside of the plotted actions of its creator. In music and art even more so.
But it is not a given. If a piece of music becomes to expected it loses its edge, and so also often its quality. You can see this happening to many musicians after the peak in their career. They lose it. Not because they become worse, but rather they become too good. They learn their instruments and their music theory to well, the structuring of their stylistic expressions. It becomes too predictable. Too tame.

I felt like I became too tame in the video-craft. Not because I didn’t have interesting ideas, but because I arrived at one point to that soon as I had conceived of an idea, I could already imagine way too well exactly how I would realize it. I became predictable to myself, and hence probably also to everyone else.

I think perhaps the only ways to avoid this happening are either to keep switching mediums of expression all together (which have the downside that you can never master something enough to reach a state of flow), or to work with an inherently unstable medium, with behaviors too complex for your brain to comprehend, yet simple enough to manage. One LFO affecting another LFO is in all aspects simple enough to interact with without having to think much about it, and so even connecting that to a third parameter or a forth still stays within the parameters of things we can comfortably -if not comprehend- at least handle and interact with in an intuitive manner, yet to predict how that will sound like is entirely beyond our scope of micro-control.

I personally really enjoy the surprises and freedoms this give in terms of creative expression.

Just some thoughs.

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Ouf. I’m going to have to finish my first coffee before I tackle this properly. But there are a lot of gear heads around these parts, myself being one of them. BRB ;p coffee ahoy.