Modulisme 062

Schema Musicalis

Cover Artwork : Yan Proefrock

A couple of years ago Paul Pignon introduced me to Stelios Giannoulakis and recommended him as a great player of the legendary Synthi 100.
Over the following months I had the pleasure to discover a genuine composer working with recorded and synthesized sound, live electronics, free improvisation, sound diffusion with real time control, as well as experimental instrument construction. Also doing music and sound design for concert, theater, video, dance, installations and video games, various cross-genre music group projects and a founding member of HELMCA (Hellenic Electroacoustic Music Composers Association).
Obviously I felt close to his aesthetics and music.

http://steliosgiannoulakis.wordpress.com

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

Finished the music for ‘The Silent Lake’ theater production in Athens (Theater EpiKolono).
Played a couple of improvised electronics gigs at OnOff Studio in Athens, with George Mizithras (MIZI) and Andreas Monopolis (MOCM). Teaching creative music tech, electroacoustic theory and the EMS Synthi 100 at the Contemporary Music Research Center, Athens Conservatory. Going to be spending more time there, working with the synth.
Working on a collection of beat based tracks, sort of minimal glitch techno / broken industrial dub feel.

How were you first acquainted to Modular Synthesis? When did that happen and what did you think of it at the time?
How does it marry with your other « compositional tricks»?

I was introduced to the studio as a tool for sonic art back in the 90s, at the Contemporary Music Research Center in Athens (microphones, tape machines, delays, reverbs, samplers and the UPIC). It all seemed very interesting but strange to me at the time – I was into heavy guitar music back then. A bit later I got into modular synthesis with the first version of Reaktor on a Pentium PC. Then, at Keele University (1998) I got into C-Sound, the Composer’s Desktop Project and early MAX/MSP. And then Propellerhead Reason happened and I was very much into that, using it as a modular system for all sorts of experimentation. Not with the sequencer and timeline, but with a couple of MIDI controllers, improvising with the modules.
I have an engineering background, so I was enjoying the freedom and the technical challenges in making sonic art in an open-ended ‘make your own instrument’ sandbox. Also, I kept playing electric guitar, with pedals and extended techniques.
At Bangor University, in 2000, I got to work with a VCS3 for a couple of years, which I loved. At studio Cesare, in Reims, I worked briefly with an RSF Kobol. Later, I kept looking into other virtual modular or “music programming” platforms, such as VAZ, Tassman, Arturia’s Moog clone and of course SuperCollider, MAX and PureData. At the time I was using a lot of recorded ‘real world’ source material, to make elaborate acousmatic pieces for multi-speaker diffusion, so I would use the synths to generate particular ‘synthetic’ textures and drones or transformative gestures that would help me transition from one type of material to an other. Later, I would use Ableton Live with controllers, as a modular system, for improvisation with real time synthesis and sound processing.

When did you buy your first system? What was your first module or system?

Although I was playing with hardware synths when I got the chance, I was a guitar and percussion, didgeridoo and weird devices guy. Not a synth person, as such, more of a field recording programmer and multi-instrumentalist. You know, contact microphones, the odd contraption, laptop with MAX and Ableton, midi and OSC. Most synth action was in software. As I got more seriously into circuit bending, I started migrating towards DIY hardware only setups, and I would play gigs with bent toys and mixers. Around 2018 I got a Korg Volca Modular, a Neutron and then a Crave, built a Dreadbox Antiphone and a BastleCastle kit. I have been buying and making various bits to add to this instrumentarium.

How long did it take for you to become accustomed to patching your own synthesizer together out of its component parts?

It is an ongoing process. I keep adding devices to my set and removing others, sometimes keeping it small, sometimes trying to use a lot of gear at the same time, depending on the flow of things. I tend to try out ideas, proof of concept type of setups, which produce pieces of music. Then I tear them down and start over. There is a core setup, but that changes and transforms depending on the situation. To abandon the seemingly endless possibilities of the computer world for the intimacy and quirkiness of the odd hardware setup is a great exercise in compositional economy, as well as technical strategics.

What was the effect of that discovery on your compositional process?
On your existence? You chose not to use modular only so what are your other weapons of importance ?

 

My compositional concepts often deal with relationships among different types of material and sonic behaviors. Navigating the chaos, be it found sound, processing options, synthesis, noise, generative networks, identifiable sonic characters or references to genres. Musical discourse that can integrate disparate materials within an organic poetic structure, with transformations and counterpoint.
My goal is to be able to do this in real time, without looking at a screen. Maybe together with other musicians.
Also, it is nice to have something more interesting to interact with, other than generic MIDI controllers. I like to use my skin and touch surfaces and I am also experimenting with ribbon, stepper motors, light, contact mics and other DIY interface options. Having said that, I still cannot do away with the laptop completely, especially when I want to manipulate lots of large audio files, when I mix my electroacoustic pieces in live performance for example. Have to look into that. Other options include electric guitar, microphone voice input and other instruments I play (bowed, percussion, wind).

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

I totally get it. Buying and selling or just hoarding modules can be a wonderful but trying addiction, as maybe with guitars or workshop tools. What this has to do with music or actual work is complicated. Modules that do one simple thing come in different flavors and you need many of them, modules that can do many things are complex but you end up committing them to particular tasks within a patch anyway, so you need more again. So many exciting things that do a little something different and interesting. Eurorack is highly addictive and becomes very expensive, especially when you relate your sound and musical narrative to particular modules and patching stereotypes. Maybe, if one has settled for a specific genre and workflow, then a wisely built system will do for a while, but if you are into experimentation you are always tempted by something. I push myself to use and build much more than I buy, not as much out of frugality, but as a more cool way to end up with unique musical products and custom workflows. I keep thinking “if I feel I need more, I probably need go back to using less”. Of course, there is something very romantic in a wall of modules, but so is in a laptop that runs a custom super multi-functional workspace, or in a diy – indescript devices and crocodile clips – setup. It’s a matter of style.
Choosing your own strengths and limitations is a project for life that will definitely pass through many stages.

Instrument building may actually be quite compositional, defining your sonic palette, each new module enriching your vocabulary. Would you say 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?

It goes both ways. In principle, I can do virtually anything sound-wise, in the box with software, in physical form with foley and mechanical or electronic engineering, or collaborating with someone else. So, the choice of hardware tools and instruments is more of a decision on workflow. How a desired sonic result will be realized as time passes. For real time improvisation I need instruments that can create a wide palette of sound types and provide the right level of control. And they need somehow to fit together in a system. At the same time, music instruments are stylistic shortcuts, in the sense that they encourage or facilitate particular musical aspects. I wanted some basic modular tools, so I got a Neutron. When I felt the need for some easy beats without a computer I got a drum machine. I needed nice tunable drones, so I got an Antiphon to tune together with my logic chip oscillators and my looping toys. Electron groovebox for presets, varying probability and FM bits, and so on. And then there are the circuit bent devices which exist in their own weird universe, combining meme value with extreme sonic behaviors. The thing is that it is very easy to get caught in any cliche each instrument is readily serving. Maybe this is whats needed for a musical project, but maybe not. One way I try to get around that is to use the parts of the system not as exactly intended, or as customary, making my life more difficult but getting more interesting results this way. The other pitfall I see is letting the instruments do the work instead of the composer. It is easy to let the machines grind and sing away, and there may always be a sub-genre definition that will accommodate the outcome. Structure and economy and evolving threads of musical narrative are important for me, so I try not to rely on my modules too much to make my music for me. This means changing things all the time and keeping a sharp ear over everything, especially when improvising in a lengthy set. Of course too much change becomes boring, too. Maybe, I see my music as well as my modules, as a system of environments, sonic landscapes, that interweave and inter-modulate. And as they are part of a developing story, these sonic elements go in and out of focus and become scenes and actors with particular characters.

How has your system been evolving?

Currently, my full setup integrates a varying number of voltage controllable circuit bent toys in customized enclosures, diy oscillators, an Axoloti based complex granulator, a modified Monotron, contact mic noise box, a Volca modular, Bastle Castle, a modified Dreadbox Antiphon, Behringer Crave and Neutron, a Korg SQ1 sequencer, Electron Model Cycles, a Pocket Operator and a Deton8 sample sequencers, modified cassette tape, modified radio, a couple of mixers and maybe a laptop with Ableton and midi controllers. Maybe also an IPad running some weird and wonderful app. Plans include the integration of more circuit bent devices into a box, a diy multi LFO and trigger device, a set of diy VCAs, a set of large control interface elements, and maybe the acquisition of an Octatrack. Or I will just settle on having the laptop there as well, running whatever might be needed or imagined, with a couple of Nano Controls. VCV Rack is not bad at all, by the way. Of course, now I have the great opportunity to work with a Synthi100, at the Contemporary Music Research Center in Athens. I would like to combine the Synthi100 with elements from my home setup, the toys will have an interesting dynamic – the serious giant dinosaur and the colorful deadly insects… I also consider some respectful mods or additions for the Synth, along some long needed repairs, we will see. For modern standards it seems unthinkable not to be able to CV the resonance or the pulse width, I keep fantasizing about adding vactrols to any knob with a function not present in the patchfields – filterbank, noise color and random generator included.

On our hommage to EMS you had collaborated with an «inside-pianist», is that cross of acoustic w/ electronic of importance to you? Do you tend to use pure modular systems, or do you bring in outside effect and devices when playing or recording?

I have been playing with this group, RSLG Quartet, for more than six years now. Drums, piano, electronics, sax, sometimes bass. Great musicians and good friends. So, when I saw that in the Synthi100 room there was an old grand piano, I had to call Vassilis Roupas for a jam. It is important for me to play with other people, and I always have. It is so enjoyable to experience a process that transforms differences into complementarities, almost transcendental and magical. As the ‘electronics’ part in that group, I felt the need to have a distinctive contrasting voice, so for a long time I have been playing a couple of circuit bent toys through a mixer, and that was it. As we kept playing I started experimenting with the addition of various other bits, from the list above, to widen my palette. The limitation was my table space. But then I realized that in that context less was more, and that total focus on the group’s sound and the interaction between players is paramount. I don’t want to have any processing or large system management responsibilities, because they detract from the quality of interaction. Just a couple of dry sound makers, that I can fully control as an instrument in concert with the other musicians.

Session 062

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?

An outline of the thinking and the processes behind my pieces would be as follows:

Synthi100 Drones&Grains2 (9:32)
Synthi100 DronesGrainsChords (7:42)
These two pieces were made with material performed on the Synthi100 and recorded over two weeks, in July 2020. It was a huge patch using all the oscillators, the noise, most filters, the three envelops, the random CV generator and most VCAs. Basically, I tried to use as many modules as I could, with joystick and keyboard control, in an FM generative network for glitch-drone improvisation. I kept patching around, adding control options turning knobs and recording. Then I cut and mixed selected parts of the recordings, without any other processing, as studies on the particular sound morphologies I have been playing with.

Session 062

Chaotic Lucidity (15:04)
This piece was made in Bangor University as part of my PhD composition portfolio, during 2000-2001. It contains all sorts of sound materials, field and studio recordings, including some very important (and recognizable among everything else) signature VCS3 stuff. Joystick controlled gestures, from dense fm noise to resonant clicks and back. I think I was fast modulating the filter cutoff, with VCO FM pair and noise going through it, and the joystick controlling the rates. As a composition, Chaotic Lucidity is concerned with patterns and chaos in a number of archetypal contexts. It is about unity and time, about energy transformations and exchange, complexity and unpredictability contained in something simple. At the same time it is about the structuring of information. Simple concepts are normally standing for zillions of individual shapes made by complex interactions and they trigger individual images, thoughts and emotions when they are being experienced. Everything around us can be seen as structured like that and the way we think, communicate and create takes some really involved information structuring processes for granted. I shaped or distilled very complex sounds into simple forms out of which, in a cycle, they develop into complexity. At certain points in the piece sonic units are being excited by some kind of energy violently released or pumped into the system. We can then follow the sonic particles and landscapes cascading through degrees of order and types of organization.

AthensModularSoundscapes (13:04)
The material for the piece comes from an improvisation with the soundscape of Athens, during October 2020. I had a stereo mic pair, with fairly high gain, set up on my balcony, 6th floor, Athens center. With the city sound as a dry feed and passing through a filter and a resonator, I was playing the mix and live circuit-bent toys, Neutron and Volca, patched for drones and generative blips. About one and a half hours of recorded sound material was edited into a piece with much tighter form. Thinking about winds of traffic and electro-mechanical lifeforms, as a meditation on noise and the interplay between texture and gesture.

PowerToyFantasy (7:44)
All sound for this piece comes from my circuit-bent musical toys recorded live in a performance at Festival Pollis Mousikis, SixD.o.g.s. Athens, 2016. Controls include pitch, mix volumes, filtering, light and touch modulation. Subsequent processing involved shortening and overlaying events, keeping the structure of the performance mainly intact, from start to finish. While trying to compress a 30-minute free improvisation into a 7-minute piece for sound diffusion, I ended up using also some frequency shifting and time warping. The changes in stereo imaging come from mixing the sound from stereo microphones with that recorded simultaneously over the mixing desk.

MicroModularMenagerie (9:15)
This is a new piece I made in Dec 2021. It is assembled from recordings of jam sessions on parts of the setup described above. Midi inter-connected and voltage inter-modulating. Again, I edited and mixed parts of the lengthy recordings, with almost no extra processing. The compositional idea is an interplay between soundscape and rhythm, as relating to different modes of listening and sound appraisal.

What do you think that can only be achieved by modular synthesis that other forms of electronic music cannot or makes harder to do?

I would say it is the ability to freely mix and interchange audio and control signals, in a network. This allows for the articulation of the perceived materiality of abstract sound streams, as related to particular sonic archetypes and thresholds of human audio perception. For example, we can go from the idea of an ‘event’ or a ‘thing’ to that of a sequence, to that of a texture, towards a note. And the other way round, a pitched note can reveal a whole sonic system hidden within it, with a single gesture. These effects can be achieved using non real-time sound design and micro-montage techniques with great precision. But in real-time improvisation scenarios, modular synthesis rules for these kind of things. Adding a controlled randomness element is also very nice, in addition to envelope based or cyclical control for any parameter. A feature like that, when played as an instrument, can create sounds with complex evocative power, organic or mechanical, that seem to tell stories as they interact with each other. And this also seems to be the key to transitioning freely between metered and chaotic sound assemblages in real-time.

What would be the system you are dreaming of?

An endless repository of modules, like Modular Grid or VCV Rack, with a ‘materialize’ option. So I could design a system and then play it in physical form. That would be great! I suppose this could be done with enough money or with some kind of partnership arrangement. Or a huge wall of modules and a selection of small cases for gigs. Alternatively, a vintage Buchla for the vibes and a Syntrix for the digital patchfield. In all seriousness, I would like to have a way to digitally design my system for any particular project and then make it take physical form, with all modules and necessary controls totally present. Something like the idea behind the new high tech embedded computing modules, that can run max patches and such, like the Axoloti granulator I have built. But much much better. The problem with the approach so far is that the controls are never enough and very generic and the individual modules are embedded and hard if not impossible to play individually, outside the scope of that patch. Physicality has significant costs. In any case, I am grateful for all I have and for the potential to do what I can.

Are you feeling close to some other contemporary Modularists?
Which ones?

I haven’t followed the scene that much, but I am inspired by people like Hainbach and LookMumNoComputer on Youtube. I feel close to Ophir Ilzetzki, making music with noise, basic devices and feedback. Jan Jelinek was also one of my earlier finds, for a more easy listening experimental electronica feel.
The Synthi100 brings me close to Paul Pignon.

Which pioneers in Modularism influenced you and why?

I was influenced by the early electroacoustic composers, such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Bernard Parmegiani, Francis Dhomont, François Bayle, Horacio Vaggione, Beatriz Ferreira, Trevor Wishart and many others…

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

To look at the studio, a collection of gear, a DAW, a collection of software applications, an operating system, or any creative environment for that matter as a modular system. There will be sound/image sources, processing pathways and control options, manual, cyclical, time based or random. There has to be a certain physicality relating to the form of things and to our interaction with them. And there is going to be some kind of permanence, some things will be there as we set them, connections, assignments, recordings, files, knobs, switches or cables. Add to this any object that can make sound and any sound that can be captured, as source or as control. This way the world becomes a modular music system! Be creative and connect stuff together, make things work together, literally or figuratively.

EMS Synthi 100: Making Drones, Grains and Jungle

Stelios at the Last-minute Cracker Gig. OνOff studio, 23Dec2021

Circuit Bending Strategies – Little Beast Modular

City Sound, Mechanical Lifeforms and the Folds of Time

Noise Wash Synesthesia Spectrogram

Marginal Transformation – Fantasy on a Catastrophe Point