In a typically tense conversation with Friedrich Kittler, Paul Virilio notes one of the more salient facts of the computer age: "the content of information is being semantically reduced, something cognitivists know very well, by the way, and this, it seems to me, is something we should take note of."[i] The "semantic reduction" Virilio speaks of will be very familiar to any computer operator of the past few decades. Graphic user interfaces have evolved to the point where the functionality of everything from music players to word processors to video editors is controlled in roughly the same way, and thus relies upon the same limited type of not only semantic but semiotic content (a small repertoire of trackpad or touchscreen controls, targeted at on-screen icons, are connected to a comparitively large variety of functions.) In this way, we have seen the occasional triumph of the virtual (read: exclusively audio-visual) object over those that can be apprehended by the entire human sensorium, part of a marketing strategy in which computer manufacturers "sell computers, but…tell people that they are desks, or desktops, or…tell them that they are television sets, the television sets of the future."[ii]
Jason Amm (a.k.a. Solvent) and Robert Fantinatto, the directors of the 2013 documentary film I Dream of Wires, must have had these developments in mind when they set out to make the definitive film exploration of a sound-shaping tool birthed in a more sensorially enriched era: the modular analog synthesizer. The filmmakers' simple thesis - that the modular rig is being revived owing to an increasing need to preserve a sense of 'connectivity' and semantic richness - takes them and us on a journey from the most primitive of electronic instruments up to the present "revivalist" phase of modular synthesizers. These imposing, wall-spanning beasts may frequently be refered to by the film's participants as unwieldy or as hopelessly addictive, but even these comments seem like the mildly disapproving comments that a mother might make of an otherwise beloved child. Throughout I Dream of Wires, the directors relentlessly telegraph the message that losing this mode of sonic creation will be a sad capitulation to the semantic paucity of the digital age. Although many of the music performers in this film have their Apple MacBooks prominently placed, they also seem opposed to a complete takeover by the seamlessness of "no movable parts" digital electronics that, for all their conveniences, seem to disrupt the understanding of action and consequence that has helped us evolve to our present state.
The full dose of I Dream of Wires, including both the original documentary and the "Hardcore Edition" addendum that eclipses the original by more than 2 hours, runs for around six hours total. The two highly interwoven films marshall a very impressive array of electronic musicians, instrument builders and general enthusiasts to their cause. Few musical sub-genres will feel like their favorites have been 'left out' here; everyone from pop titans (Nine Inch Nails, Gary Numan) to unclassifiable experimenters (my friend Runar Magnusson) are featured to some extent. Almost all speak with conviction on the subject at hand, and make it clear that they were not arbitrarily chosen for inclusion in the project. There are a couple questionable roster additions, though: the less said about knucklehead participants like Deadmau5, who looks like a Nathan Barley character and has nothing to say that a random passer-by couldn't have contributed in his place, the better. The real "stars," of course, are the modular rigs with all their daunting complexity and their value as stand-alone art objects. For fetishists of the instruments, the film will be nothing short of pornographic in its exhaustive scope, with many, many loving close-ups onto the rainbow arrangements of patch cords and clusters of shivering LEDs that identify these unique tools. It is a feast for the eyes, to be sure, and for the ears - lest we forget, modular synths' claim to fame was their hitherto unachieved wealth of timbral combinations, hypnotic sequencing and astounding adaptability to one's own compositional vision.
The initial hour of the first documentary follows a kind of past-present-future historical arc, which doesn't deviate much from the standard heroic narrative of analog synthesis (making careful, as always, to note the irreconicable gap between 'preset' digital emulations of existing sounds, and the more radical use of analog synths to create a completely new sonic vocabulary.) The "Hardcore Edition" of I Dream of Wires seems like it has been intended for classroom viewing over several sessions, given the slight overlap / repetition between different segments - I'd submit that this is, in fact, the best viewing environment for this work. This part of the project is more loosely stuctured, less predictable for watchers already familiar with the history of the synthesizer, and given over to a much more fine-grain discussion of what it takes to build and market modular synthesizers on one's own. That discussion in particular turns into a socio-political one, involving as it does the virtue of cottage industry over mass production (on at least one occasion, these forces are seen as being represented by North America and China, respectively…as if the evils of Chinese hyper-production came about with no help from North American investment.)
One interesting subcurrent of I Dream of Wires is the contrast - whether intended or no - that it draws between the solutions-oriented geek and the mystery-craving romantic, along with the unspoken attempt to find some grounds for reconciliation in the form of the modular synth. Early on in the historical timeline of the film, the battle lines between technician and dreamer are shown as something that existed well before the present day: the 'East Coast' technicality of Robert Moog and the more 'West Coast' spiritual questing of Don Buchla are pitted against each other. Moog's addition of a keyboard controller to his devices is posited as one of the major dividing lines between modular synthesis as an extension of existing traditions, and Buchla's explicit desire for modular synthesis to be a portal to wholly new ways of perceiving. My impression from watching these films is that the geek has largely won this battle. Talk of the spiritual connection to this machinery steadily diminishes over time, with notable exceptions: the eccentric and affable cEvin Key (of Skinny Puppy and Subconscious Communications) talks wistfully about 'building a spaceship' from his module designs, while Meat Beat Manifesto's Jack Dangers speaks evocatively on the burbling sound of his massive EMS Synthi 100 system and how it resembles the modules "gossiping" about the other machines in his studio.
The victory of the nerds over the romantics doesn't necessarily presage worse things to come - although the domestic 'synth meets' shown in the film are not places where I'd personally want to spend a lot of time, it's heartening to see individuals who work with modulars simply as an exploratory hobby and with no expectations of public recognition and acclaim for their membership in the modular club. One interviewee calls them a more "engaging" way of spending freetime and blowing off work-a-day stess than watching television, and that in itself seems like a positive development.
In one sequence occuring in the film's final stretch, a selection of modern artists from Factory Floor to Xeno + Oaklander all salute the modular as a kind of "no safety net" performance tool that can satisfy an audience's primal need to 'map' stage movements onto audible results, while also featuring a built-in element of risk (i.e., the machines may not do precisely as they're told.) Interestingly, this comes after another segment in which the supposed banality of laptop-based performance is mocked by an individual who signs a 'fingers-on-trackpad' movement in the air while laughing cynically. This is indicative of the documentary's major shortcoming: its almost exclusive reliance on interview subjects who are either in the "pro-modular" camp or who see the liberating qualities of these devices as exclusive to them.
From my own 'field work' and immersion in electronic music, I know that even this vaunted "element of risk" is not exclusive to the modular, and that software patches for personal computers can be programmed to have a staggering array of aleatory or unpredictable functions making them more than mere "playback devices" (even if they may look like precisely that.) It would have been interesting to have heard from some modern members of the akusmatikoi school, who are skeptical of all attempts to visually enhance a sonic immersion environment, but - again - you will be searching in vain for any contradictory voices in this film. Because of this, I'm sure that at least a few enthusiasts for finding behind-the-scenes machinations will have good fun wondering who had a part in secretly bankrolling the project (Doepfer's Eurorack modular system certainly gets lavished with enough praise, from luminaries like Vince Clarke and others, that I might suggest them as one possible candidate.)
Having said that, the 'Hardcore' portion of I Dream of Wires does stress that brands like Eurorack remain far more open to the d.i.y. spirit than many other sectors of the music industry, and that d.i.y. spirit manifests itself in other parts of the modular community. In one stand-out vignette, Lori Napoleon provides an interesting analogy between telephone switchboards and the interface of the Buchla 200, and uses this similarity as the basis for her creating her own synth housed within a switchboard itself. Again, it is very inventive, yet we're left wondering why this similarity between the two apparatuses provides her inspiration to begin with. Is it that the cable patching of modular synths offer, like the switchboard, some hint of a fully 'connected' oceanic consciousness? I have a feeling that Napoleon has personally considered this, but it seems that the filmmakers see her instrument construction skill as fascinating enough and thus ignore what might be an even more interesting point of inquiry.
Another thing that is left painfully unsaid in this documentary's substantial running time is the huge expenditure of money that can be involved in the pursuit of modular synthesis, or the similarly huge expenditure of time involved in instrument building, though there is some discussion on the 7-day-a-week commitment that goes into running a small modular business. The benefits of modulars' intuitive design is cited early and often as a boon to non-musicians, but there is decidedly less talk about their accessibility to the non-affluent. The possible remedies to this situation are not, to my mind, discussed in enough depth. There are some hints that extant modular synth boutique shops (e.g. Schneiders Büro in Berlin) can act as 'community centers' where visitors can freely play with equipment without any expectation of having to purchase something, although the subject of whether a modular rig could ever be owned by a member of the working poor is not breached. It is interesting to compare these instruments, then, to the UPIC music synthesis engine developed by Iannis Xenakis, a tool that from the outset had much of the same aesthetic appeal as modular synths (Rodolphe Bourotte and Cyrille Delhaye recall how "UPIC users reclaim the tools of scientific analysis and invert their direction, which was originally stemming from nature towards representation…it now becomes a question of producing a new sound reality from a representation.")[iii] Yet the development of the UPIC system was intimately involved with the democratization of the personal computer, and that causes a thorny ethical dilemma to come into focus: does the "access principle" of personal computers trump that of modular synthesizers? Is it preferable to have a more limited population of sound creators that composes with the more "semantically rich" modular gear, or to have the larger overall pool of creators that is enabled by PCs? While the filmmakers of course acknowledge that these different tools can be synchronized, the fact remains that a PC is a more versatile tool for those who have only enough resources to choose one or the other.
As an introduction to the 'who-what-when-where-how' of modular synthesis, there is clearly no other film available that has the educational potential of I Dream of Wires. The evangelical feel of the film, though, makes it inadequate as an investigation of modular synths' relation to the larger sonic universe. Too many pat statements are allowed to go unchallenged - when Trent Reznor emphasizes yet again that a computer mouse has less tactility than a modular's knob controllers, it brings to mind TV hockey commentary in which announcers praise a team's "physical style of play" (as if an immaterial style of play is even possible.) Or, when the film concludes on the optimistic note that more individuals are using modular synthesis than in its supposed 'heyday,' it takes some willpower not to spoil this optimistic mood by yelling back at the screen that, well, the whole population of the world has ballooned since that time. Especially when considering how much time is given over to the power of modular synths' ability to create new worlds from chance encounters and non-purposive play sessions, the subject would be much better served in a format other than the expected "talking head + archival footage + performance footage" commentary. I might offer something like Presque Rien, the documentary on Luc Ferrari, as a more suitable approach.
[i] Paul Virilio, Friedrich Kittler, and John Armitage, "The Information Bomb: A Conversation." Angelaki:
Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, Vol. 4 No. 2 (1999), pp.81-90.
[ii] Friedrich Kittler quoted in Ibid.
[iii] Rodolphe Bourotte and Cyrille Delhaye, " Learn to Think for Yourself: Impelled by UPIC to Open New Ways of Composing." Organised Sound, Vol. 18 No. 2 (August 2013), pp 134-145.