Modulisme 037

Köhn

Cover Artwork : Yan Proefrock

KÖHN is Jürgen De Blonde who is not using Modular Synthesis per se although his music has always relied on synthesis…
We have known each other for more than 20 years and I had the great pleasure to release some of his music on my defunct BiP_HOp label, back in the early 2000s, when I was considering him to be one of the most interesting electronicist in Europe alongside Fennesz and Frank Bretschneider… Jürgen has released on KRAAK, Western Vinyl, Deep Distance, Sonic Meditations and brings an original approach to sound experimenting with soundscapes, electronica, and collaborations with musicians from different backgrounds.
Still active today he is at the forefront of the experimental scene in Belgium and was among the lucky few to be allowed to work on the mythical EMS Synthi 100 Synthesizer @ I.P.E.M. (Institute for Psychoacoustics and Electronic Music) and we feel lucky to share such works.

+ he has a lot to say:

Would you please give a resumé of your musical activities? 
Musical biography?

I started making and recording music when I was 11 years old. I started with a small Casio keyboard. A year or so later I got a bigger Casio, the HT-3000 which was able to do basic sound synthesis based on PCM (pulse code modulation) and also a radio with double cassette deck with dubbing function that unintentionally allowed me to make overdubs while dubbing tapes. So, that’s how I made my first recordings. I had a strong urge to do so, even at a young age I dreamt of layering sounds and melodies and stuff. I was also fascinated by synthesizers and electronic music. This started when I was 9 or 10 in the mid-eighties. All those synthesizer sounds I heard coming from the radio just fascinated me. Jean-Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Kraftwerk, Nova… That’s where it all started. Also, one of the first tapes I ever bought around that age with my own money was “the essential” by Jean-Michel Jarre. My very first LP when I was even younger was the soundtrack to E.T..
A couple of years later I got also into Pink Floyd a lot. And some of the synthpop also appealed to me: Pet Shop Boys, Aha, Yazoo, Depeche Mode, O.M.D., Howard Jones, Art Of Noise and some New Age also crossed my path like Enya, Kitaro…
I guess Pink Floyd’s track “On the run” from Dark Side Of The Moon is what first drew my attention to the existence of the EMS VCS 3. So, you see, a lot of my gear knowledge I acquired like this. Checking out the gear lists on CDs, spotting instruments in occasional videoclips or live perfomances on television, guessing what sound was made by what instrument…
But… I also like guitars and heavy metal and rock. So, a couple of years later I saved up money to buy an electric guitar. But I also dreamt of owning a sampler. Sampling really triggered my imagination. So, I started looking for second hand samplers. And at the same time I acquired my first cassette four-track recorder, I must have been sixteen by then. And that’s how it all developed.
I started joining a couple of local bands, one was a noise rock band that played own material and sounded a bit like a cross between Sonic Youth & early Ween maybe… The other band was a jazz band, amateur level, but we played an interesting set of jazz tunes ranging from classic Miles Davis ‘So what’ to Wayne Shorter’s ‘Footprints’, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, some Zappa too… I learned a lot from that too. Jazz harmonies. Improvisation. You have to know that I learnt most of what I do artistically by myself, I’m an autodidact. All this happened when I was between 15-20 years old, rough estimate… my memory tends to get sloppy.
Musically, my love of electronic music was at a low point and drifted more and more into guitar oriented stuff and more experimental music. After ‘New Beat’ when EM turned more and more into House Music and Techno I lost interest. The only type of electronic music that could more or less still interest me was Ambient. So, ‘noisy guitars’ was my new haven. MTV played an important role here, especially the show 120 Minutes which played all this fantastic Indie music. Lots of shoegaze. That’s what caught my attention. Shoegaze. That blend of noise, guitars, melody, pop, energy… that’s what pulled me in. But also, sometimes they played interesting electronic music on that show. What’s more, on sunday evenings they also had “The Chill Out Zone” afterward, and that played some good ambient too. And then Nirvana happened and then halfway the nineties guitar music went apeshit. 120 Minutes morphed into Alternative Nation and became total crap. And then came Britpop. Meh.
I got into lofi music and the tape scene. And then in 1996 I released my first tape under the name ‘ed nolbed’. This got me in touch with the Bruges music underground and labels like Studio Muscle and Toothpick which later became KRAAK.
All this time I was recording lots of stuff on my fourtrack tape machine. Songs, experiments, electronic music, noise… everything was blending and I was searching to bring it all together. A couple of more tape releases followed.
I found out about this magazine called “Gonzo Circus” and that was also a bit of a gateway to alternative music away from the alternative mainstream which had come into existence in the aftermath of Grunge and Britpop.
At the same time, in 1997, I joined “de portables” who are actually still around and I’m still a member of. We’re working on new material to celebrate our 25th anniversary.
Anyway, second half of the nineties was a lot of indie bands and post-rock bands on the one hand and weird electronic music on the other hand. I was on the search. There’s two album that had a huge impact on me and pushed into making electronic music again and that was “Parrot” by Germ and “Re:provisers” by Various Artists remixing Microstoria. These two albums, plus Psychic TV’s “Mouth of the night” and recordings from pre-Oxygène Jean-Michel Jarre, that I had acquired from a fellow student who was a member of the JMJ fanclub, and a showing of “Step across the border” on Dutch Television is what mainly informed the making of the first Köhn album that I released on CD only in 1998 for KRAAK. Last year this album was reissued by the great Cortizona on double Vinyl.

This album was made on a MiniDisc fourtrack that I had acquired as a payment for delivering a couple of tracks for an album by “the late great planet earth club” on R&S. I made two or three tracks for that album and I got a Yamaha MD4 for that. This was a great machine! It had a midi out so I could sync a sequencer and do overdubs in sync really easy. All my music up until 2000 was made without a computer!
This 1998 album caused a lot of things to happen. Shows all over Europe. Radio sessions. And my second album came out in 1999 and that caused even more. I was invited by Sonic Youth to open up for them when they came to Brussels. Played more shows. Played some festivals. And I think it may have been around that time that I got to know you as well, Philippe. Also, I met Michael Beckett (kpt.mich.igan) around that period who became a really good friend and musical buddy with whom I formed the duo “Super Reverb”.
Anyway, from there on I continued making electronic music which became more and more computer-based. I also started working for a choreographer in 2003 so that was a new direction for me, and a new way of making music that was perhaps less free, more functional and also elaborate. I took me a while to get use to that mindset.
From then on I made all kinds of work for theatre, dance, performance, installation, improvisation, research… I stumbled into the world of field-recording and sound art and focussed on that. I teach and work for an art school and I do freelance artistic and sound-technical activities.

What have you been working on lately, and do you have any upcoming releases or performances?

Due to the Covid crisis I have very little performances planned. There is at least one release planned after the summer and that’s an album I made with Brecht Ameel (Razen) and it also features the amazing drummer Dirk Wachtelaer. It’s very moody, hypnotic music with synthesizer, baritone guitar and drums. There’s also recording sessions planned for a new album by ‘de portables’ and who knows what else.
I’m doing quite a bit of songwriting and piano playing at the moment. Meanwhile I’m diving into Blender to see what I can do with that and I’m immersing myself in 360° audio and its possibilities.

More than 20 years ago you were a key figure in the so-called « Electronica » scene, so how were you first acquainted to Modular Synthesis? Synthesis in general since you mostly work using softwares, don’t you?

Well, I only started using a computer for making music around the change of the millenium and I had already been making music for over a decade then. I had already put out four tapes and two CDs without using any computer. So, my double album “KOEN” from 2001 contained a lot of stuff that was made with the help of software, mainly Audiomulch and Cooleditpro (now Adobe Audition), but not softsynths yet. The interesting thing is that Audiomulch is very modular in approach: you get modules for generating sound and modules for transforming sound and you can connect them any way you want. There’s no limitations except your computer’s processing power. I recognize a lot of Audiomulch in the Modular Approach except that it’s hardware and a lot more expensive.
Now, you might wonder, what did I use before I used a computer then? Well, I used a lot of hardware, I actually still do. I recorded everything onto a Yamaha MD4 (Four-track Minidisc) and the instruments I used were a Sequential Circuits Pro-One, Yamaha QY-10, Roland MKS-100 and S-10, electric guitar and bass guitar, acoustic guitar, Boss Metal Zone and the occasional borrowed instrument or effect. I pushed all that gear to its limits.
I have been fascinated by synthesis and sampling from the very beginning, I always wanted to make my own sounds and sample sounds to make new material with it. The first two Köhn albums, the Jürgen De Blonde album (“Hidden Rabbit” on Tomlab) and half of “KOEN” (on KRAAK) was made with this setup and recorded on Minidisc Four-track. By the way, I also used that MD4 as a sound generator and distortion by patching it as a “no-input feedback” machine. “No-input feedback” is a technique where you connect inputs and outputs of the same device to generate internal feedback. In other words, you turn a mixer into a sound generator and manipulator, which is pretty close to what you do with some modules. I still use this technique and I’ve used it extensively on my most previous album (“Kreis Plön” on KRAAK) which also features quite a bit of analogue synths (Doepfer Dark Energy, MFB Synth ii, Sequential Circuits Pro-One and Arturia MicroBrute) and some EMS Synthi 100.
So, early stages of the new millenium, when I started using a PC, I already was quite familiar with sound synthesis and I know how to program synths. So when I started using Logic I was very happy with the Virtual Synths that it featured. And then Logic was bought by Apple and became Apple only (bastards!). So, still a bit later, along came Ableton Live which seemed pretty great and combined a lot of what I was doing into one platform. I then bought version 4, also because I thought I needed that for producing the score of a contemporary dance piece I was involved in. I quickly evolved into a laptop producer around that time (ca. 2005). So, then it all became about VST plugins. I explored tons and tons of freeware softsynths, some of which were and are still really really great!
Ironically, this evolution tapped into my love for synthesizers and “kosmische musik” and this slowly lead to the making of the album “we need more space in the cosmos” (2009) which is an ode to all the synthesizer and krautrock heroes that showed me the way. Now, this is perhaps the only album that was mainly made with mostly plugins and VST synthesizers. Funny things is, I presented the album and toured with that album with a laptop. The album presentation was quadraphonic. But it didn’t feel ok. I felt like I was doing playback. Sure, everything sounded very close to the album, but it didn’t feel “live”. I only performed one or two layers live, and all the rest was pre-recorded. At that time, that was an issue for me. So, I started dragging more and more gear around again and my performance became more and more these “kosmische” jams with my gear. That was a lot more fun. This was also the time when Korg put all those analogue crap toys on the market: Monotron, Duotron, Monotribe and such…
So, since I’m always on a budget, I got me some of those. I then put out quite a bit of tapes with the best of those live shows. You can find every release since “we need more space in the cosmos” on kohn.bandcamp.com

Would you please describe the system you used to create the music for us?
Can you outline how you patched and performed your Modulisme session?

For this session I used the EMS Synthi 100 without any extras. This is pure Synthi. No overdubs, no sequencers, no sampling. The only thing I did was make little edits here and there. Cut out bits or create a better transition.
The patch for the long piece was pretty simple: 9 oscillators + 8 self resonating filters were patched to the outputs and tuned in real time to create interesting pulsations and clusters. Later some LFO’s were introduced to produce some further modulations. But what your hear is mainly layers of oscillators and self-resonating filters. The long piece was performed entirely live, starting from the simplest patch possible: sound source to output and gradually expanding the patch.
The shorter pieces make use of the envelope generators and LFO’s to manipulate the Oscillators, sometimes multiple envelopes and LFO’s combined and crossinterfering to modulate multiple oscillators. I’ve also used the syncing capabilities of the Synthi. Here I took more time to prepare patches before recording and I also did more editing. These pieces are taken from two long two hour jams in which I tried a lot of things.

When did that happen? How come you started using such a wonderful instrument as the Synthi 100?

I have been invited a number of times to perform on the EMS Synthi 100 that resides at IPEM in Ghent, where I live. The first time was six years ago, when I also recorded the shorter pieces of this session. There is a funny anecdote about that. I was also invited to do a live performance on the Synthi in the city castle. It was an evening full of Belgian artists performing on or with the Synthi, or just using it as a decor. What happened was this: shortly before I had to perform, I had just ordered another beer in a bottle. When it was my turn to perform, I stepped onto the stage, put my half full bottle of beer on top of the Synthi and started performing. The Synthi is a big piece of furniture that can easily support a bottle of beer, and it was safe up there, on the wood. 
Anyways, somebody in the audience had noticed that and had taken a picture of that and had written an article about it on Matrixsynth as he was shocked… Very funny! 

Especially, because I had been the only artist truly performing only on the Synthi 100, without accessories or sampling… And the Synthi WAS used! It’s not at all as the guy claims. Besides, you have to know that the Synthi in Ghent has never been fully operational, it’s never worked the way it should. The sequencer, for example, has never worked, ever and neither has the double keyboard. So, I basically had to perform on a faulty machine. By the way, it was in better shape when I performed on it at the Antenna festival in 2020 where I met you for the first time in ages, my friend.

What was the effect of that discovery on your compositional process?
On your existence?

Look, in a way I have always been composing as if it was with a modular system. I have always been exploring and experimenting with hooking up all sorts of gear in ways that weren’t supposed until they turned out results that were interesting. A lot of my music is messing around with machines and/or software. As far as I understand, this is pretty much the way you compose with a modular system: you mess around with a patch or you get an idea for a patch that might deliver interesting results. That way of working is pretty close to how I often work, especially when making electronic music, be it hardware or software based.
Well, in one way I realised that the EMS Synthi 100 is a very impractical and large machine that looks incredibly spectacular and impressive. It feels like being in the control room of the Starship Enterprise. Really awesome. I also realised, once I got the hang of it, that it’s a lot easier to operate than I’d imagined. Sadly enough, like I said, the Synthi 100 in Ghent has never been fully operational. The sequencer has never worked, and still doesn’t and neither has the double keyboard. This is because, back in the days, EMS starting selling these machines before they were fully operational in order to be able to finance the production of more machines and buyers were promised to have their machines finished at a later stage. Alas, this never worked out for the Synthi in Ghent.
So, by playing with the Synthi, I realised there was a whole lot I was able to do with my own gear. Playing and getting acquainted with the Synthi 100 made me play different with my own gear. I think the Synthi 100 could easily be replicated and made a lot smaller these days, maybe even back then, I don’t know.
The most interesting part about composing on the Synthi 100, and I guess typically for modulist approach, is that you make a patch that fascinates, that keeps you interested and that’s evolving in interesting ways or that can be altered in interesting ways by turning knobs or repatching. Once again, for me this is also very similar to working with Audiomulch or with my hardware.

Any system you’d be dreaming of?

I don’t know. Any system that helps me produce interesting results could be satisfying. I feel it’s a matter of tweaking until I feel I’m okay with what I hear, and that’s possible with a lot of stuff.

Quite often modularists are in need for more, their hunger for new modules is never satisfied? How do you explain that since you focus on one instrument?

I like limitations. So, that’s why, when I was invited to work with the instrument, I decided to focus only on the instrument and its capabilities and not to connect any external gear or sample it or whatever. I wanted to work with this monster.
I learned the hard way that limitations are good for me when I started working with a computer. Initially I completely lost myself in the endless possibilities. This was very confrontational and initially this worked against my creativity. I could do literally whatever came up in my mind, and that was too much. I was much more comfortable pushing the limits of my gear and using my imagination and creativity to go beyond the boundaries of what seemed possible with this gear. All of a sudden, the sky was the limit because of the PC and I was lost. It seemed as if there weren’t any boundaries to be pushed, no thresholds to be exceeded… I really had to adapt myself to working with a pc and impose limitations on myself.

Instrument building may actually be quite compositional (as you’re defining your sonic palette, each new module enriching your vocabulary). Would you do the same chasing new plug ins? Would you say that that their choice and the way you build your systems can be an integral part of your compositional process? Or is this the other way round and you go after a new module because you want to be able to sound-design some of your ideas?

There was indeed a time when I accumulated (VST) plugins in a manner, I imagine, one collects modules. The same problem of limitlessness manifested itself again. But, it’s true that some plugins and presets inspire certain musical ideas or sound design ideas.

Would you please describe the Synthi 100?

Ok, I will try, this may be not entirely accurate, I’m doing this from memory. It’s got 4 LP and 4 HP filters with self resonance. These filters, when self resonating, generates the cleanest sine waves the machine is able to generate.
There are 9 oscillators and 3 LFOs. There is a noise generator. I think that’s it in terms of sound generation.
(Each oscillator has two components that can be mixed and morphed: sawtooth-triangle-inverse sawtooth OR squaretooth OR sine-rectified sine- inverse rectified sine… something like that)
There’s three envelope generators than can be triggered or looped, two random generators.
There’s a sequencer (not working). There’s two joysticks. A bunch of VU meters, an oscilloscope, a 8 channel mixer. There’s 8 audio inputs and outputs and then there’s a bunch of CV inputs as well, all via XLR.
There’s a double keyboard than can be connected (not working).
There’s two patch bays: one for audio routing and one for cv routing.
It’s a beautiful and gigantic piece of furniture that looks like the control panel of a spaceship. It also feels like playing “Battleship” when you’re pushing pins in the patch bays, because that’s that way to patch. You don’t use patch cables but connector pins (or whatever you want to call them).
I looks impressive and a tad intimidating at first, until you get to know it.

Which pioneers in Modularism influenced you and why?

Morton Subotnick might have been an influence, because I had the pleasure of being on tour with him for a couple of gigs. He was such a nice and generous man to be around. That was inspiring. 
Eliane Radigue has made amazing work and her use of duration, pulsation and editing has been of undeniable influence.
Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Co. and the work of David Borden. The way repetition is used.
But of course, I also have to admit, that in my younger years, when I first got acquainted with electronic music through Jarre, Schulze and Kraftwerk, who also extensively used modulars, have been of influence without me being fully aware of it.

Any advice you could share for those willing to start or develop their “Modulisme” ? 

No, well, actually, yes. Don’t lose yourself in thinking you need this or that module, be creative with what you have and only go for a new module if you’re really, really convinced it might challenge you.