Cues: Detroit innovator Alan Oldham talks to us about techno, creation

It’s easy to forget if we get too deep into hero worship and seriousness, but real creativity is fun and boundless. So nothing energizes like talking to people like Alan Oldham, the multidisciplinary Detroit techno artist.

Oldham, sometimes DJing as DJ T-1000, had a multifaceted series of roles in techno. So he’s served in Underground Resistance – including as “Minister of Information.” He did artwork for Derrik May’s legendary Transmat label. He’s a comic artist as well as a producer, savvy enough to interact with the art market and not only the music industry. A lot of us in the USA got our first introduction to techno and the full story behind it through his story “Fast Forward” on National Public Radio. But then, in this age of overabundant production, we need those kind of voices now more than ever – people who can narrate what’s happening in music, DJs in the club sense and DJs in the radio sense.

Meanwhile, as CDM finds its evolved voice this year, I got to invite Alan (now a Berlin transplant) to talk about his process, to jam a little, and to chat about music, aesthetics, and futurism.

Alan is a big Native Instruments Maschine fan, and it’s nice to see how the MPC and other hardware workflows have made the transition to the computer age. I think immediacy is important to tapping into that creativity.

Have a look:

Off camera, it was also great that Alan got to hang out with our other guests, HRTL and Oliver Torr and their live project Windowlickerz. Growing up in Detroit, meet growing up in Czech Republic.

Alan Oldham in the studio.

Making beats (MASCHINE MIKRO), making comics (paper and pen).

Since January, Alan has been busy, in the studio and in the club (as well as continuing his visual art work). Message Discipline is the EP dropping in October on Pure Sonik Records.. The timbres, the tech are decidedly future-looking, not nostalgic. But as a lot of techno gets cold and clinical, overthought, or overly … well, dreary (not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that) — this is none of those things. It’s “up,” as Alan says. Maybe it’s hard to find words for that funky, groovy feeling because it’s better to describe it me moving my body around than it is just wiggling my fingers over the computer keyboard.

You know you’re in for something special when you’re dancing around to the damned excerpts on SoundCloud. Tell me I’m wrong:

Even that last cut swings, like a nice makeout slow dance. And the title track sounds ready to blast into orbit to some, uh, really sexy space lounge, I would imagine.

Message Discipline is all bangers, but for a more tripped-out experience, DetroitRocketScience is the ticket:

Alan and Ellen Allien can often be caught side by side, so expect more on Ellen’s BPitch Control, like this excellent remix:

He’s also got a great remix of Sky Deep’s “In This,” but looks like I can’t share that – take my word for it.

Now who wants to don an Andy Warhol wig and dance around a bit? Yeah? Have a great weekend, y’all.

Related – in summer 2011, Wax Poetics provided us with this article they ran exploring early Detroit techno history, and even talked to Alan. of course, now you meet the Detroit artists in Berlin.

Future Shock: The Emergence of Detroit Techno, Told by Wax Poetics

Photos courtesy Native Instruments.

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This may be the 808 Marvin Gaye used to make ‘Sexual Healing’

No moment cements the TR-808 as a sex symbol quite like its role in “Sexual Healing.” And we may have a producer who found the actual drum machine used in the song.

As “Sexual Healing” opens, it’s just a slow, dry groove on this futuristic Japanese electronic box with a whisper over top. Then, that silky smooth keyboard part and crisp, funky bassline weave in together with the vocals. It’s deceptively simple stuff – and totally potent, proof of what electronic sounds can do.

That makes the TR-808 used in the track a genuine part of music history – even if at the time, it was just an inexpensive box. But where is that TR-808 now? We may have an answer.

None other than famed pioneering Belgian producer Kris Vanderheyden (best known as Insider, among other aliases) tells Roland and CDM that he’s got this very machine in his studio. Drum machines can’t talk (no soul and all), but Kris relates the story:

When I started out as a musician in the late 80’s, I was looking for some analog gear. New equipment was expensive but you could get good deals second hand.

I initially got my Roland TR-909 which I swapped for 5 mix cassette tapes – incredible huh? But back in those days it wasn’t such a big deal to own one.

Later on, I came across a guy named Eric who played in a New Wave band and was recording at Studio Katy in Belgium. The studio was only 5 miles from where I grew up. Eric and his band used to book the studio at night for financial reasons and Marvin Gaye was booked there during the day while recording his album “Midnight Love.”

One day, Eric left the band’s (his) Roland TR-808 at the studio and Marvin came in and started to play around. The rest is (“sexual”) history.
I bought that machine for one hundred and twenty dollars ($120.00). It’s just priceless now…

The story checks out – Midnight Love, including this single, was recorded at Studio Katy, Ohain, Belgium. This would appear to be validated by references in interviews in the 808 Movie, as well.

Take a look at Kris’ shots of the machine:

Kris’ story is a familiar microcosm of the 808’s role in music. But it also says something lovely about creativity and the toys we use, generally. It’s not that the TR-808 is a priceless invention. It’s a readily accessible, affordable machine that gets you into a flow. That’s certainly how I feel messing about with the 808’s latest successor, the TR-8S – and I mean that. As I got to hear from Susan Rogers at SONAR in June, creativity is this special state of mind. These devices can get us there, and then become something more.

Sexual Healing at Wikipedia

Kris’ site: http://www.insider-music.com/

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Mo’Wax, James Lavelle, DJ Shadow, and more in a new documentary

A new documentary is poised to take what looks like a personal, thrilling look at the UK turntablism revolution.

The film is “The Man from Mo’Wax,” a documentary set to premiere at the end of August, with a full digital release (disc and download) on September 10.

The film centers on James Lavelle and his label, the pioneering purveyor of trip hop, alternative hip hop, and other things involving vinyl. And because of Mo’Wax’s seminal role in the 90s UK music scene, you get Lavelle’s story, but a lot more. DJ Shadow, Joshua Homme, Badly Drawn Boy,
Robert Del Naja (3D), Ian Brown, Futura, Thom Yorke and Grandmaster Flash… you name them, they’re in this picture. And it’s a coming of age story about Lavelle, who launched his DJ career at 14 and the label at 18 – all the ups an downs.

And of course, a lot of what sampling and beat-driven music is today is connected to what happens in this film.

How you get to watch this – apart from the YouTube trailed we’ve embedded here – is also rather interesting. Via something dubbed ourscreen, you can actually order up a screening at a participating local cinema… erm, provided you’re in the UK. For the rest of us, of course, we can just wait some extra days and microwave some popcorn and make every crowd around our MacBook or something.

The real fun will be for Londoners on the premiere date:

On Thursday, 30 August at 20:30, London’s BFI Southbank will host a premiere launch screening alongside a live Q&A with James Lavelle and the filmmakers. The event will also feature a Pitchblack Playback of an exclusive mix from UNKLE’s new forthcoming album. Plus, join us for an after-party with a live DJ set from Lavelle. The Q&A with James Lavelle will also be broadcast via Facebook Live from the BFI.

Given the subject of the film, of course there’s also a lovely limited edition record to go with it:

http://www.themanfrommowax.com/pre-order/

If you can’t wait, though, here’s FACT’s two-parter on Lavelle from the label’s 21st birthday.

Images courtesy the filmmakers.

http://www.themanfrommowax.com

Thanks, Martin Backes!

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Watch Suzanne Ciani, thinkers on open music and future machines

Electronic pioneer Suzanne Ciani got interviewed by KORG guru Tatsuya Takahashi. Thinkers from MIT and the Open Music Initiative pondered the future. It’s all in the video lineup from this year’s SONAR+D. Here are a few of the best:

Keynotes

Red Bull Music Academy presents Suzanne Ciani:

A synth pioneer and adventurous electronic composer since the early ‘80s, Suzanne Ciani has defied assumptions about genre, sound design and technical knowledge ever since. Ciani’s ongoing romance with the synthesizer started with a Buchla, and her skills to create synthetic sounds made her one of the first sound designers, when the concept of sound design didn’t even exist. She is the creator of the sonic blueprint of brands like Atari, ABC and General Electric and she is proof that technology is not exclusively masculine.

Suzanne Ciani spoke at Sónar+D 2017 with Tatsuya Takahashi, one of the world’s foremost experts when it comes to analog electronics. After working as a chief engineer at Korg, developing series such as Monotron and Volca and the Minilogue, recently, synth pioneer Takahashi has taken on a new role hosting Red Bull Music Academy lectures.

From littleBits and the open source hardware movement, SONAR+D also invited Ayah Bdeir to talk open hardware, coding, and creativity:

Ayah Bdeir is an engineer, interaction artist, free hardware advocate and, most of all, a distinguished creative entrepreneur. Ever since Bdeir founded her company littleBits, her name has been making the top lists for most creative people in the world. Bdeir received her Master’s degree in Computing Culture from the MIT after graduating from the American University of Beirut with her BA in Computer Engineering and Sociology.

littleBits is a kit of open source electronic modules (engines, oscillators, batteries, even IoT modules) snapped together with magnets –forget your welder!– to easily create complex systems. littleBits is a platform focused on education used by hundreds of schools to teach electronics, and it is also one of the favourite tools of designers, makers and inventors. A must-have for prototyping.

And on other topics…

New models for learning, replicating machines

This one’s interesting – a peek inside fabrication in general, and the question of self replication:

Nadya Peek: Making Machines that Make

Nadya Peek from the MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms talks about the future of digital fabrication and the challenge to make the machines that make the machines that make the machines…

Amidst sometimes apocalyptic visions of machine learning and AI, here’s a product designer with a more optimistic view (though for our upcoming move into the subject at CTM Festival this year, we welcome futures dark and bright alike):

Carla Diana: How Our Robots Will Charm Us (and Why We Want Them to)

Something exciting has been happening to our everyday objects. Things that were once silent and static can now sing, glow, buzz and be tracked online. Some are constantly listening for sounds, sights and touches to translate them into meaningful inputs. Others have the ability to learn, refining their behaviours over time. They can be connected to one another as well as the Internet and will behave as robotic entities that accompany us through all aspects of everyday life.

In this talk, product designer and design futurist Carla Diana will explore the emergence of smart objects in the home, highlighting designers’ opportunities to pioneer new territory in rich interaction, while emphasizing the importance of creating products that are meaningful and responsible. Diana will share case studies from the front lines of design and creative technology, showcasing how art, science, and business are merging to enable new product experiences.

New economic models, openness

Here’s what happens when De La Soul meet Kickstarter:

Connecting Technology and Community: The new story of De La Soul

Brandon Hixon (artist manager, De La Soul) interviewed by Molly Neuman (head of music at Kickstarter). In this conversation, Kickstarter’s Head of Music Molly Neuman interviews Brandon about their approach and philosophy and how they continue to pursue innovation in their career.

When legendary hip-hop group launched their Kickstarter project to fund their first album in 11 years, it was a surprise for some. But not those who had been following the group and seen their celebration of their 25th anniversary in 2014 by making their entire back catalog available for free via BitTorrent. The group, along with their manager Brandon Hixon, have embraced new technologies and platforms with savvy and creativity.

A lot of the rest of the program this year covered new economic models for music distribution, centering on the Blockchain. That included a meetup of the Open Music Initiative, which is looking to put together those technologies and new currencies to change music distribution, and the likes of Resonate.

How to blockchain for artists, labels and fans

Peter Harris from Resonate streaming platform, copyrights specialist Cliff Fluet, visual artist and musician Blanca Rego and music strategist Bas Grasmayer talk about blockchain.

Open Music Initiative Meetup Panel

Open Music Initiative members and artist and technologist Richie Hawtin discuss the ideas and challenges that are changing the music industry’s landscape.

SONAR+D 2017 talks

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Watch as music luminaries revisit the first Buchla 100 modular

You can’t watch the Orville Brothers and Amelia Earhart go to your local airport. But you can watch music pioneers revisit the first Buchla 100 modular.

In a new clip from the Subotnick documentary, Morton Subotnick joins fellow San Francisco Tape Center founder and multi-disciplinary creator Ramon Sender. (I’ve heard Subotnick credit Pauline Oliveros with the Tape Center’s creation, too – Ramon Sender must have wanted her to be represented, as she appears on a t-shirt.)

That location was birthplace of a lot of what would happen in 60s electronic experimentalism – the anachronistic “tape” name little clue to the radical sounds to come. And one of those lasting accomplishments was Don Buchla’s Buchla 100 modular – the modular system that gave us what now is commonly called the “west coast” sound.

Here, we get to see that very first Buchla 100 modular system as it lives at Mills College.

They get to talk to a third major figure in American experimental music, Maggi Payne. (Payne’s Wikipedia entry gives some indication of how much she does, calling her an “American composer, flutist, video artist, recording engineer/editor, and historical remastering engineer who creates electroacoustic, instrumental, vocal works, and works involving visuals (video, dance, film, slides).” Got all that?)

Payne and Mills are now inseparable, which makes her instrumental in producing ripples in electronic music from that vital institution. She runs the music program, teaches composition and sound engineering and electronic music, and is co-director of Mills’ Center for Contemporary Music. You could think of few better caretakers for the Buchla 100.

The creators of the I Dream of Wires documentary are now doing a new documentary focusing on Subotnick, presently on IndieGogo. This clip does suggest it could be fun to watch.

Subotnick: Portrait of an Electronic Music Pioneer

It also makes me hungry for more work on the experimental scene – and there’s probably a lot more to say about Mills. (Don’t ask me; I was out on the East Coast!)

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Unlocking unimaginable sounds with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop

The BBC Radiophonic Workshop now has its own cover band.

Arturia have done a new documentary on England’s proudest home for electronic sound, the legendary BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Founded in 1958, the laboratory had the wildly ambitious mission of producing any sound any BBC program might ask for – foley to sci-fi. That of course took on especially unusual possibilities thanks to this trippy show for kids about an eccentric time traveler, Doctor Who – and the inventiveness of the likes of Delia Derbyshire made sounds with brute-force tape manipulations that seem futuristic even today.

Derbyshire and Daphne Oram may no longer be with us, but surviving Radiophonic veterans Mark Ayres, Peter Howell, Dick Mills, Roger Limb, and Paddy Kingsland join in this film. Apart from watching way too much Who, I feel especially inspired by the Workshop thanks to growing up with Kingsland’s score for the radio Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and getting to work with my composition teacher Thea Musgrave, who spoke fondly of her own adventure working in the facility.

What’s interesting now is, apart from Ayres’ efforts to archive the exhaustive products of the lab, the gang have formed a live band to play greatest hits and experiment with new compositions. That generation’s efforts seem nicely aligned with younger artists’ own fascination with DIY technology – now mixing analog, acoustic, mechanical, and digital – and the growing interest in live electronics.

The plucky playground spirit of the early BBC seems right at home with today’s post-digital experimentalism:

We’d crash, bang, hit, stretch, reverse, and everything with tape. Most things were done with tape, cutting with razor blades, and putting things together. It was highly skilled and took weeks to make things. Whatever’s available, that’s what you’ve got to use.

Everything was highly original, because the sounds were all ‘found sounds’ so it might be a cork coming out of a bottle if it was a sort of theme tune, anything that twanged or clanged, scraping stuff, highly manipulated to get the final sound.

Of course, now with your phone a recording device, finding sounds is easier than ever.

That may mean that revisiting media archeology will prove a respite for those bored with presets and predictable outcomes. So, take a lesson from Delia:

When Delia Derbyshire did the Doctor Who theme, the bassline is basically a plucked string, a single plucked string. She’d record the single plucked string onto tape, make a loop of it, then record that onto another machine and you’d have a whole line of these notes, but then you’d vari-speed the loop so to create all the pitches, then you’d record those loops all onto the other tape, so you’d have half an hour of D’s and half an hour of E’s and half an hour of F’s, and that’s the way you’d go through it, that’s how you’d make music, you’d cut your notes from a piece of tape.

If you’ve got an Arturia MatrixBrute (you lucky sound pioneer, you), you can download a free sound pack from Arturia made by these BBC pioneers – and everyone can learn more about their work:

https://www.arturia.com/radiophonic

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Father of 808 and founder of Roland Ikutaro Kakehashi has died

Few people loom over electronic music instruments quite like Ikutaro Kakehashi. As founder of Japanese giant Roland, at Roland’s helm through decades of its most historic creations, and as an engineer, Kakehashi has had a hand in the evolution of electronic music instruments – and particularly the notion of the electronic drum machine – as we now know it.

Word is spreading that the maestro, known affectionately to fans simply as “Mr. K,” has died today at the age of 87.

It all started with organs. Kakehashi was an engineer first, repairing and later building organs. Like it did for so many of us in this business, that part-time passion evolved into a full-time career. In 1960, he founded Ace Tone, a forerunner to Roland Corporation (which later morphed into Hammond Japan). The consumer synthesizers and drum machines the company would go on to produce could reasonably be considered an outgrowth of the organ – expanding on the range of sounds and rhythms the organ offered, until those had become independent products.

A young Mr. Kakehashi, posing with his original Ace Tone creations. Original source unknown; from this wonderful Sound on Sound history.

A young Mr. Kakehashi, posing with his original Ace Tone creations. Original source unknown; from this wonderful Sound on Sound history.

In Ace Tone, you can see all the DNA of the Roland we know now. There were organs, synthesizers, drum machines, and effects carrying the Ace Tone name – many regarded as classics, if not as well-known as the Roland devices to come.

beat_box_ace_r1_rhythm_ace

The R1 Rhythm Ace designed by Mr. Kakehashi is a model of his vision for electronic drum machines. You can see it, and some other early obscurities, in this great gallery from The Wire (including the image above):

Gallery: Beat Box: A Drum Machine Obsession

It’s nothing like the drum machines we use today, but its approach to sound – through simple transistorized oscillators – is an elegant solution to producing drum sounds, one mirrored even in the circuits of something like an 808.

Drum machines are nothing without patterns, but Kakehashi also had a role in introducing the notion of pattern storage as part of the essence of a drum machine. And so it is that it’s his name on a patent for a technique he invented to do that, with the title AUTOMATIC RHYTHM PERFORMANCE DEVICE. Keeping in mind that the sequencer in the late 60s was a fairly primitive series of continuous analog steps, this was a clever analog technique for generating rhythms in circuitry, via a diode matrix. (It was developed in 1967 and a patent issued in 1972.)

The product that implemented that technique, the FR-1, wasn’t so exciting as an interactive instrument. Rhythms were selected with push buttons on the front of the unit. But you did get preset patterns, and the distinctive approach to sounds that marked the Ace Tone / Roland style. There were even dedicated buttons for cymbal, claves, cowbell, and bass drum – an early sign of the 808 and 909 sounds that would shape styles ranging from techno to hip-hop.

It’s very possible you encountered those same sounds via a Hammond organ or derivative (or clone), because Ace Tone’s sounds were incorporated into the larger global brand.

In 1972, Kakehashi went on to found Roland – reportedly by referring to a useful, Western-friendly name he discovered in a phone book. He would run that company from its founding until shifting to an advisory role in 2001; he would not even resign until the year 2013.

And the rest is history. Roland’s run in world-shaping electronic instruments is simply breathtaking. There was an ongoing series of drum machines, eventually culminating in the TR-808, TR-909, and others – boxes that made entire musical styles possible. There were landmark modular systems (System 100, System 700). There was the Space Echo, the TB-303, the VP-330 vocoder. There were guitar synthesizers and endless benchmark effects. The Jupiter and Juno synthesizers were under his reign. There were a lot of machines that, to pardon the use of an overused term, truly deserve the name “iconic.”

Roland also had an enormous role, alongside Dave Smith, in creating today’s connected and computerized world of music making. Mr. Kakehashi was named alongside Dave Smith in the technical Grammy for MIDI; Smith is often called “father” and Kakehashi “godfather.”

Perhaps less known, except to those of us who grew up getting introduced to MIDI in the late 80s, Roland established the use of MIDI on the PC with the MPU-401 interface, and created a (sometimes despised) standard for MIDI instrumentation with General MIDI. They even created the first dedicated MIDI controller keyboard. And a whole lot more.

NAMM, 83. Kakehashi joined Dave Smith to show a MIDI connection, live, for the first time - between his synth's and Sequential's.

NAMM, 83. Kakehashi joined Dave Smith to show a MIDI connection, live, for the first time – between his synth’s and Sequential’s.

All of these things are team efforts, and in my experience Japanese engineers are particularly loathe to take individual credit (unlike us brash and sometimes overconfident and overly egoistic Americans, maybe). But I think it’s noteworthy that Kakehashi was a father figure to the company through all these years, and that its vision in that time remained as consistent and forward-looking as it did. Whether he deserves credit for the inventions as an individual, it’s a testament to his legacy that his tenure embodied such profound change in how music is made.

And you need leadership at some point to move forward. Kakehashi was gifted in a special way both in seeing the potential of categories like drum machines, and understanding how to build his own business, and the larger industry via standards like MIDI, so that it could grow.

I think coming up with ideas is actually pretty easy. Even engineering them usually is possible if you set your mind to it. But creating ideas that grow and spread, that’s another matter. And that’s something Roland and Kakehashi have given to us like few others.

And that’s why I can go out and spend a night dancing to sounds either produced directly by his machines or by machines it inspired. And that’s pure magic.

For more on the first connection of MIDI, see our previous article:
Grammy for MIDI Creators Dave Smith, Ikutaro Kakehashi; First Connection Mystery Solved

Gordon Reid wrote a beautiful history of Roland for Sound on Sound in 2004:

The History Of Roland: Part 1
1930-1978

Far from retiring from music after retiring from Roland, Mr. Kakehashi has gone on to found yet a third company (ATV), as well as finding time to author books and talks – including one book just published at the beginning of this year:

Ikutaro Kakehashi: An Age Without Samples – Originality and Creativity in the Digital World

That third company is Atelier Vision Corporation, which carries on two threads from Roland. First, it continues to expand the concept of electronic percussion, with its ad5 electronic drums and the inventive aFrame percussion controller. Second, mirroring the legacy of Edirol/Roland Systems Group in video, there are audiovisual products and mixers.

KVR Audio published what must certainly be the last English-language interview (if not the last interview, full stop) with Mr. Kakehashi:

Dream into action: An interview with Ikutaro Kakehashi

And he’s clearly touched a lot of partners in the industry personally, as seen by the outpouring of remembrances on my social media feed.

Thank you, Mr. K – and condolences to his family, friends, and the whole Roland family.

Japanese / French subtitles only, but this vintage MC-303-era interview and Roland Japan tour is amazing:

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Read about the state of women in electronic music – in 1977

Protesters in the United States today are introducing “A Day Without a Woman” on International Woman’s Day.

I wouldn’t even know where to begin imagining that in electronic music. For all we talk about the absence of more women in electronic music, the field is unimaginable if you were to leave female-identified artists out.

And that’s really the point. When we talk about gender equality in music, we’re not simply talking about achieving a balance of the sexes for the sake of doing so. We’re talking about the dangers of suppressing talent and potential. And if we do that, everyone who genuinely loves music loses. Gender balance isn’t even diversity – it means we’ve failed to even get to the diversity discussion because we haven’t gotten past the most basic obstacles around someone’s sex.

But that’s the negative formulation. And I think it’s more compelling to look instead at this simple fact: when electronic music is thriving, of course it’s not only men, and of course the music is better.

I feel personally obligated to acknowledge this, not only as one of the guys who have been come to be seen as the norm, but because I wouldn’t be making music the way I did without the women who have been role models and teachers and supportive friends. They’re part of my own identity, and I would deny my own being if I failed to acknowledge my debt to them.

To look at whole swaths of time is overly reductive, though. So instead, here’s just one tiny microcosm in the form of a compilation album from 1977. And I think reading the text that accompanies that album tells us a lot. On one hand, it suggests we haven’t come nearly as far as we should in gender equality in electronic music. (Those discussions should be irrelevant by now, you’d hope, and yet, it seems we’ve even slid backwards since the 1996 afterword.) On the other, it suggests without women in electronic music, we would never have gotten to where we are. 2017 electronic music isn’t even, well, possible. That seems a debt we have to admit – irrespective of our particular sex.

I stumbled on this particular album just digging through old Laurie Anderson releases around her appearance last weekend; it was her first commercial LP. (None other than Philip Glass put her up to it.)

For electronic music nerds, you’re likely to hang on every word – there are fascinating stories embedded there. But I’ll skip to some significant tidbits. Most importantly, this was an all-female compilation that intentionally didn’t advertise itself as such, instead loosely taking the title of a Mills College course, New Music for Electronic and Recorded Media.

cover-1600

From 1977, California composer (and here curator) Charles Amirkhanian writes:

The music on this album exhibits an exciting, wide-open, freewheeling approach to the medium of electronic music which has come to be typical of this genre in the late 1970s. No longer are composers obsessively concerned with the agonizing, expressionistic, and purely “electronic” (synthesized) sound formulas that marked much of this music composed between the mid-Fifties and the late Sixties. Instead, today we have composers willing to mix media and sonic materials in thoroughly inventive ways to achieve ends that are new-sounding, and often more engaging, than that of the “academic” avant-garde.

This is the outgrowth of a fundamental change in concerns which has been evolving not only among the composers on this album but also in a growing segment of the musical avant-garde, of which these members are some of the most fecund and inspired. These new sources of inspiration certainly were not as widely shared fifteen years ago. Several composers represented here are deeply concerned with Eastern influences: meditation, healing, trance, states of serenity. Others are inspired by traditional (or “ethnic”) musics and their subsequent metamorphoses into such popular forms as rock-and-roll. Still others bring to bear a sense of wit and satire, rarely a prominent feature of avant-garde music in the early 1960s.

(I realize the text I’m quoting here comes from a man, but – well, two things. One, go listen to the music, as that says everything. Two, labels and curators run by women shouldn’t be the only ones selecting and sharing female artists – in 1977 or 2017. The role of anyone collecting and sharing music ought to be able to look beyond themselves, in every dimension.)

That’s nothing short of the seeds of the spectrum of electronic variety we have to day.

And then there’s the clincher: this change is possible partly because men and women worked together:

Particularly in the United States, where the struggle of the women’s movement has been waged most successfully, there have been a great number of composers such as Pauline Oliveros, Annea Lockwood, and Laurie Anderson, whose music has been instrumental in beginning trends and influencing others to carry on similar experiments in veins which they first have mined.

It’s political – and that makes for different music.

But you know, let’s not get too caught up in the abstract or the political, because just this one album I think deserves to be heard. There’s a stunning recreation of almost unknown German composer named Johanna M. Beyer. There’s the stunning organic music of Annea Lockwood, whose work on healing and sound is way ahead of the curve. There’s landmark Pauline Oliveros, the elegant sparseness of Laurie Spiegel … and the list goes on.

Laurie Spiegel’s is my favorite composition, personally – building on her Renaissance and Baroque lute training, she finds entrancing melodic constructions on Max Matthews’ GROOVE computer music system:

Laurie Anderson here is especially charming, and – minus the anachronism of land line telephones, surely recalls today’s arts life. I’m going to put this track on as an auto-responder, maybe.

This is in no way representative. My point is, you can needle-drop on electronic music and find that the role of women is profound. (This does happen to be a nice record to needle-drop on — thanks to 1750 Arch LP, the adventurous Tom Buckner label from Berkeley, California. But there you go – now we need some 2017 netlabels to do the same.)

And that deserves a reminder. Because even in the midst of advocacy for improving gender balance, we have to be clear about the role women have played. “Male-dominated” is a description of men’s exertion of power, not of the depth or value of our relative contribution.

But this is why ultimately whatever obstacle we find in music – gender, sexual orientation, race, income, geography – everyone can be a partner, and everyone can benefit. If you love music, overcoming those barriers and allowing more people in is never a burden. It’s a privilege. It’s a pleasure. And if anyone behaves otherwise, be immediately suspicious – or, better yet, get away from them and find some real music lovers. Life’s too short. So yeah, happy International Women’s Day.

https://www.dramonline.org/albums/new-music-for-electronic-and-recorded-media-women-in-electronic-music-1977-2/notes

Listen online [you’ll find various versions hosted around]

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Visionary Tatsuya Takahashi leaves a huge legacy as he departs KORG

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Tatsuya Takahasi has changed the face of the modern synth industry.

And I can even say that literally. “Tats” has become a household name in the international synth community in a way no other Japanese engineer, designer, or leader has. (Compare, for instance, Hiroaki Nishijima, creator of the MS-20 – a name people rarely know as readily as they do the synth.) Korg products are still the work of big teams, like any large maker, but Tatsuya has been a public figure, outspoken and eloquent in the description of the instruments he’s created and the philosophy behind them. (Perhaps his Western upbringing has mattered, too – Tatsuya spent a lot of his formative years in London and speaks English as if it’s a first language.)

That in itself is important, but even more so is the direction Tatsuya and KORG have taken with making synths more accessible, popular, and influential.

Ask a few years ago what would have the biggest impact on synthesis reaching new audiences, and I’ll bet a lot of people would have pointed to mobile apps. Instead, in his role leading design and engineering for analog synths, Tats made synth hardware the democratizing force. I think you could even go as far as saying that hardware, more than apps, has been what has most impacted the culture of music making in recent years and inspired the greatest passion in the present generation of electronic musicians.

Why is this man smiling? Why, because Tats has just finished what's likely to be another big hit for KORG.

Tatsuya visiting my studio last year with his (then-new) Minilogue, which I think is one of the best synths in recent years.

The long string of synth gear launches Tats has overseen has some clear themes. These are instruments that are fun to play with, offer lots of hands-on control, and typically feature battery power and portability. And what a roll he’s been on: the monotron (monosyth), monotribe (drum machine), volca series (synthesizers and drum machines), and most recently minilogue polysynth and its follow-up the monophonic monologue were all projects he led. He’s also been behind the analog reissues of the MS-20 and ARP Odyssey ad the SQ-1 sequencer. And he did the littleBits synth kit in collaboration with littleBits.

Tats talks about his populist philosophy in his public letter on Facebook (below, in case you haven’t read it already). But it’s worth noting just how far this realm has come.

Serial number 101 = the first serial number for volca, ever. No, we don't get to keep it. This is the unit Tatsuya himself was carrying around.

Serial number 101 = the first serial number for volca, ever. No, we don’t get to keep it. This is the unit Tatsuya himself was carrying around.

Making synths in this way really has transformed music. When a synth costs under $200 (like the volca series) or even under $100 (like the monotron), there’s a vastly larger segment of the population that can afford it. This isn’t a question of quality; there are some people who simply don’t have the disposable income to invest in a pricier instrument.

Reducing the price also telegraphs that this is something you can play with, something open to experimentation. It begs you to relate to the object differently on an emotional level. And actually, I think music benefits when you imagine a toy and all the freedom that implies, rather than a tool. An inexpensive synth is something you can try without saying something like, “hey Mom, hey Dad, I’m enrolling in ten years at the music academy, will you buy me a ‘cello?”

Singing has that kind of accessibility. Folk instruments can be handed down, like a mandolin, and have a similar emotional relationship. But synthesizers risk becoming the domain of people with extra cash and with an already established love of the field. When we say “too snobby,” we mean literally that an instrument becomes an expression of class. And I don’t think that’s something this world needs more of at the moment.

I have a personal connection to that saga, because it’s a story that has followed CDM, too. And that message came from people who read this site. Before KORG released the monotron, readers were already devising cheap DIY solutions to produce their own portable, cheap synths. Readers were telling me how important these values were to them, before KORG responded with a product with those values. Then Canadian engineer James Grahame started talking to me about the inexpensive, portable digital monosynth he wanted to produce. We had already started on schematics when the first monotron arrived on the scene – and instantly recognized that it embodied a lot of the philosophy we had talked about.

But that was really an important moment. Big companies – any big companies, even in electronic music – don’t tend to move quickly. So to see an individual bring this kind of new philosophy to one of the so-called Japanese “big three” was a revelation. Here was someone who “gets” it. And Tats and his team have continued to deliver hit after hit after hit. This has benefited our community twice over. One, KORG have a scale, technical competence, and distribution and marketing apparatus that smaller makers can never match, which means these products can reach a wider array of people worldwide. Two, there’s been the significance of having that resonance in a larger maker – it validates this populist agenda and even sets a standard for those of us who don’t have our own factories at our disposal.

Moreover, Tatsuya has helped lead the resurgent interest in analog synthesis, much in the way that Lomography has rejuvenated film photography.

It’s also redefined what’s important about analog and hardware, which is not so much the analog circuitry itself as hands-on control and simplicity – stuff that’s fun to play. So you can see KORG’s mark not only on new analog stuff from some of its competitors, but also on the (digital) AIRA and Boutique series reissues from Roland, and Yamaha’s Reface keyboards.

And I think KORG’s leadership has also helped all the other synth boats rise, too. Tats’ commitment to openness – releasing filter schematics and hackable boards, and working on the littleBits as an educational tool – has aided other boutique DIY makers (like us, for sure). KORG were the first major maker to embrace open source hardware licensing for one of their products, after some of us did it in much smaller enterprises.

For KORG’s part, it’s clear that this spirit won’t depart alongside Tatsuya. He promises in his letter to remain in an advisory role. And I think he’s taught the whole organization a lesson in what’s possible and commercially viable – indeed, all of us. You can also bet that some less publicly-visible people at KORG will carry on his new spirit and dream up some new ideas. Tatsuya mentions “Tada” in the Facebook post, for instance. He confirmed with me that that’s a reference to Tadahiko Sakamaki, product planning. Figuring out who will carry the torch – if perhaps a bit more quietly or less publicly – will be something I’m sure we’ll all be trying to suss out. But it is important to note that these are team efforts. That’s not to take away from Tatsuya’s talents – far from it; I think it’s harder to drive clear product focus with big teams and large scale.

Looking beyond KORG, though, I think it’s inspiring to read Tats’ email partly because there’s a lot more to do. If we really want to make synthesizers more accessible, if we want to make them work in education, if we want them to reach more people including those who lack the financial resources of our main market, if we want to be socially responsible instrument makers and musicians, we’re only getting started. And I think there’s a role not just for big players like KORG, but also all of you one-person and two-person shops making modules and kits and weird inventions. All of you CDMers, that is.

Tatsuya is moving to my country of residence Germany. I have no idea what he’s working on next when he says he will “explore new areas where sound and technology can have positive social implications.” He does assure us that’s not in this industry. But I wish him the best – and hope we all meet in Köln or Berlin soon, as this country is home to ever more inventors. I can’t wait to see what the next chapter will be.

Korg's Tatsuya Takahashi stops by our studio, playing his volcas (and a bit of MeeBlip with us, too!)

Korg’s Tatsuya Takahashi stops by our studio, playing his volcas (and a bit of MeeBlip with us, too!)

Here’s his parting letter:

THANK YOU!!!
It’s been a good ten years at Korg!

A few years after starting at the office, Tada and I, over a cigarette break, started shooting ideas around for a battery powered pocket analog synth. The monotron was the humble beginnings of what became a mission to make synthesizers fun, exciting and accessible again. To give synthesizers back to the people. To make synthesizers less snobby. To open up creative opportunities. To get people interested in electronic sound and see some kind of light in creating their own sound using technology amidst a world that is inundated with it.

monotrons, monotribe, volcas, minilogue, monologue, some reissues, SQ-1, littleBits synth kit – we put out a lot of gear.

After a blur of 21 products we released over seven years, I look at the world of synthesizers and it’s a pretty cool place. I see kids getting their first taste of synths with the volcas. I meet people who have their dormant synth passion rekindled by the minilogue. And it’s not just Korg. The whole industry has set out to achieve this common goal.

The name volca comes from the German word Volk: “the people” or “crowd”. Like Volkswagen “the people’s car”, the volcas are “the people’s synth”. I have fond memories of meeting Mike Banks and being told how the volcas reached poverty-stricken youths in Detroit. That manufacturers have to take responsibility for the social implications of putting out gear.

On the 17th of February I will be leaving my full time position at Korg and will sidestep to advisor. I will also be moving out of Tokyo to Cologne to explore new areas where sound and technology can have positive social implications. I won’t be going to any of the competition, but rather will be shifting direction of my main line of work while at the same time guiding the now super team at Korg venture into the future.

I am hugely indebted to everyone in engineering (my super duper team will keep designing the best of the best), production (love you all in Vietnam we did this together!), sales (job well done), marketing (fun times making those movies), distribution / dealers (essential work the world over), media (you guys got the word out) and most of all the musicians out there who are creating music with our synths – without you our work is meaningless.

THANK YOU

it’s been a ton of fun. more to come.

Tats

Via Facebook

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Enter the wondrous world of Walter Giers’ electronic sound art

Few people could make circuits into art quite like Walter Giers. He made them into visual objects, into aesthetic and design statements, into loud and even “annoying” performative constructions, into instruments. They aren’t simply utilitarian means to an end, but imaginative medium.

Electronic Beats takes a look into Walter Giers’ mind this week in a new film, featuring interviews with family members that reveal some of his way of seeing the world. Off to Schwäbisch Gmünd, we go:

The featured works here:

00:20 – Weisser Vulkan (1979)
1:08 – Erotischer Zyklus (1975)
1:14 – Hänge-Kugellautsprecher (1968)
2:14 – PE II (1992)
2:37 – Handbild/Hände (1971)
3:11 – Impertinent (1976)
3:40 – 54 Millionen Jahre (2004)
4:54 – Der Stammtisch
6:01 – Musik für 3 Sender (1977)
10:19 – Raoul Hausmann (1994)

You can find a rich gallery of additional works at his official site, for more visual inspiration – and a healthy dose of whimsy:

erotischerzyklus_900

space

waltergiers

http://www.waltergiers.de/work.html

In many ways, art and technology go in cycles. And I imagine that Giers’ approach is more relevant than ever. Artists like Tristan Perich have taken a similar approach, returning to more basic circuits and elemental logic in favor of the “black box”/”white canvas” space of the general-purpose computer. And I imagine his free-form approach to visual aesthetics as well as the use of randomization and variation could inspire a new generation of artists in a variety of media.

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