pioneers

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

The post Watch Suzanne Ciani, thinkers on open music and future machines appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

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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Enter the trippy, fanciful world of Soviet light art studio Prometheus

Somehow, tucked into the Kazan Aviation University in Tatarstan, USSR, inside a Faculty of Radio Engineering, the Studio “Prometheus” explored experimental aesthetics. In short, while performing the complicated dance of keeping Soviet authorities and the KGB happy, Professor Bulat Galeev and his colleagues managed to create an enormous body of work in visual music.

These projects included everything from small light organs to full-scale projections, in a seemingly endless parade of inventions. And lately, Russian and Western artists alike have been rediscovering them, thanks to ongoing curatorial work by Kazan’s surviving Prometheus Institute. So while a museum was lost, Galeev is gone, and some of the machines are destroyed or in non-working order, there seems to be an imminent rediscovery in the works. I expect that will range not only to the work in Kazan, but a full-on reappraisal of experimental aesthetics throughout the former communist sphere.

Bulat Galeev at the controls of the Crystal, a mid-60s light organ now  being reconstructed.

Bulat Galeev at the controls of the Crystal, a mid-60s light organ now being reconstructed.

I’ve gotten involved through a project first initiated by curator Natalia Fuchs (while in the capacity of coordinating the Polytech.Science.Art program of Moscow’s Polytechnic Museum). That has led to some experiments of our own, including collaborating with the institute in Kazan, and reconstructing the Crystal, a tetrahedron-shaped light organ packed with lightbulbs. Artist Dmitry Morozov (vtol) has been working on that with us, recreating the visual instrument to its original plans and specs, and providing modern computer-based control of its incandescent lighting. (That’s not easy, either – only a fragment of the internal device was left, and the plans themselves were sketchy at best.)

In the process of our latest work with ZKM in Karlsruhe, I’ve come across two vintage videos. One is apparently from the late 80s, with English narration, and gives an overview of the project. The other is a 1972 video.

"Electronic Artist" is an analog television painting instrument from 1976.

“Electronic Artist” is an analog television painting instrument from 1976.

The newer video is a great overview of the projects and narrated in English, sadly held back by some murky imagery. It’s worth watching the whole thing, as some of the wildest moments are fleeting, to be followed by long panning shots of Galeev’s desk. (Not totally sure who edited this one.)

You’ll have to use some imagination. Having seen some of these devices, the effects are lush, colorful, and futuristic, which is totally lost here. But you do get an unparalleled look at the range of work the studio did through the years.

The spatial audio system is one I’ve thought of recreating — it just uses an array of photodetectors and a lightbulb, a clever X/Y array, hooked up to the multichannel audio system. A lot of the devices here do still work, but this film most notably shows the elaborate cinema setup with its levers.

In the 1972 video you see various visual techniques. Narration is in Russian, but you can follow what’s going on visually – and there’s a lot. Even something as simple as waving a bulb around in front of a lens is a fairly effective technique.

In fact, what this video shows most clearly is the power of layering optical effects. (I think it’s significant, too, that the majority of what’s used here is specifically optical rather than “analog.”) Russia has a rich tradition of optical visuals through the 20th century. And the Prometheus group build on that by managing to produce rich organic effect through relatively simple combinations – layering two irregular gobos (stencils or templates) and then rotating them. It’s not unlike what you do in analog synthesis, but it has all the depth of an optical technique.

So while a full history of Galeev and Prometheus Studio could easily fill a full-length book, let’s enjoy those videos for the time being.

Maybe these will spawn some interest from other readers in similar experiments from around the world. Do send any of those in.

In the meantime, here are two histories of the project.

Available in both Russian and English, an article in INDE details the extensive history of Prometheus. It also illustrates why compiling a history is challenging, as running an institutional experimental art project in the USSR meant layering meanings a bit like those optical effects. “Semi-underground” is a description that seems to fit the paradoxes of modern media art, too, though, that said, in political and aesthetic and institutional meanings.

Into the Light: the story of the the Soviet media-art pioneer Bulat Galeev and his “Prometheus” Institute

Russian only, but there’s also an interview with Natalia Fuchs about the beginnings of the recreation project.

I also wrote an English-language article last year. I actually want to go back and make this history a lot better, but the folks in Kazan tell me they’re referring to it, so it can’t be all wrong.

Light Music

A big thanks to my friends and collaborators working on this project, and the institutions involved, including vtol and Natalia Fuchs (now at Moscow’s National Centre for Contemporary Arts).

Sila Sveta has also joined us on the project as of its latest iteration.

Prometheus Institute has their own site, but it’s fairly outdated – to the point of listing its founder’s email, despite his having passed away over seven years ago.

And more on our contemporary project as it progresses.

Do let us know about other light art history from around the world — this sounds like a feature waiting to happen.

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The demise of Keyboard Magazine, after 42 years

Keyboard Magazine will cease to exist as a publication, after having been continuously published since 1975. And this isn’t just another “print is dead” footnote. Keyboard was the publication that defined commercial writing about electronic musical instruments. And whatever the logic behind the decision, the demise of Keyboard says something about the state of both publishing and electronic music production – and its absence will be felt.

Keyboard will be rolled into Electronic Musician, with only the EM name surviving. Gino Robair will continue as editor-in-chief of EM.

This is truly the end of an era – an era Keyboard itself began.

Originally, electronic musical instruments were the domain of electronics publications for hobbyists and similar enthusiast magazines. That’s how Bob Moog’s Theremin design came to appear in 1954 in something dubbed Radio and Television News. Keyboard wasn’t the first dedicated publication to cover the field of electronic musical instruments. The first publication of some significance was Electronic Music Review, a somewhat informal and wonky quarterly begun in the late 60s right in the R.A. Moog plant itself. That publication hosted articles by the likes of Stockhausen and Berio alongside Carlos and Moog – a reminder of how experimental early synthesizer use tended to be.

It’s almost hard to remember in the Internet-saturated age just how different the world in which the synthesizer came into being was. Academia had access to the cutting edge; hobbyist publications covered simple circuits. But there was nowhere for bleeding edge technology to come together with popular musical practice; nowhere where musicians and tech might easily overlap.

This is how Electronic Music Review announced its intentions back in 1967. (Source.)

This is how Electronic Music Review announced its intentions back in 1967. (Source.)

So just as it mattered that Moog eventually shipped the Minimoog with a keyboard, it was ground-breaking that Keyboard was, from the start, a commercial endeavor with widespread appeal. This was the first publication to go into real circulation, the first with glossy ads.

Minimoog, as seen in the September '79 issue. Just the Moog ad archive alone is something to see - and it's basically all from Keyboard/Contemporary Keyboard.

Minimoog, as seen in the September ’79 issue. Just the Moog ad archive alone is something to see – and it’s basically all from Keyboard/Contemporary Keyboard.

Oh yeah – the ads. Advertising isn’t something people outside of publishing tend to talk about, except when they’re annoyed. But do an image search online for vintage synths, and spot how many of the advertisements you’ll find are from Keyboard. Some of these are, quite frankly, beautiful. There are futuristic images of luscious keyboards floating in space; full-page and double-page spreads.

Keyboard was defined by advertising. It covered the expanded full-time staff, and made a platform where rock stars wanted to be featured. It filled the pages between articles with lust-inducing electronics shots. As much as people talk ad blockers and complain about editorial independence, how many of you reading this spent time pouring over every page of Keyboard – every editorial word, every ad, alike? This is the lifeblood that allowed Keyboard to rise above a simple manufacturer-made hobbyist publication with a few hundred readers, like the wondrous but obscure Electronic Music Review. And it was the lifeblood that virtually everyone who ever worked on the publication imagined would someday run out – and mean the end of the publication.

(What you now know as Electronic Musician had a similarly humble origin story to EMR – as Polyphony, published by PAiA Electronics. That’s why Keyboard, not EM, gets the credit in synthesizer history for originating the mainstream publication as a genre.)

I mention ads because I think only those who have worked in publishing know just how much this is an industry that’s about keeping the lights on and the business rolling. It’s a struggle. It’s doubly so in print, because print requires the outlay of capital to print the publication. And advertising payments in print don’t happen immediately, either – meaning the whole business endeavor begins with a significant cash flow challenge.

In print, you can add to that challenge corporate consolidation – both the distribution apparatus that gets publications into people’s hands (as at the newsstand at your airport), and the companies that publish the magazines.

I trust Gino Robair of all people to continue the heritage of Keyboard in EM. At the same time, it’s worth reflecting on the loss of a publication with a particular angle. That angle was right in the name – what was first awkwardly titled in 1975 Contemporary Keyboard.

keyboardcover

Keyboard was a magazine for keyboardists. The publication always had some challenges in popular tastes in that regard – the keyboard as an instrument tends to come in and out of bands. But in losing Keyboard, you risk losing everything that went with it – including those articles about keyboard technique and excerpts of sheet music.

And I think that’s significant in and of itself. The economics of music gear publishing tend to pull us away from technique generally, and from musical instrumental technique in particular. If we aren’t careful, the gear may push the artist right off the cover; “how to sound like…” takes place of how to play.

Keyboard was most awkward because of this mission, perhaps, but also most meaningful. Wendy Carlos could talk composition; Herbie Hancock could talk about playing. I wrote an obituary once for Andrew Hill.

The future of the keyboard, of course, is now as uncertain as that of Keyboard. And I know some people have eloquent arguments for why synthesizers shouldn’t necessarily be chained to keyboards as input devices – or, by extension, to musical genres that prefer those keyboards. But if you forget about the keys and think about the human hands that touch them, Keyboard at its best was about what those hands were doing, too.

There’s actually too much of Keyboard over these decades for this to be a proper obituary. For that, I’d turn to colleagues who spent a lot more time than I did at the publication.

What I will say is that CDM, and my career, likely wouldn’t exist without Keyboard. In addition to Chris Breen at Macworld, Ernie Rideout at Keyboard gave me my start and got me hooked on writing in this field. Stephen Fortner continued to be a great partner to work with on some tremendous stories, including the cover story that marked the Minimoog’s 40th anniversary. I got to know Jim Aikin, a veteran of Keyboard back to the 70s, who was the toughest and most important editor I ever had. Somehow, Jim put up with me through the 600-page Real World Digital Audio and saved it. (Now, bizarrely, people are reading it in its Polish translation – so Jim, you’ve helped with that, too, unwittingly.) And Francis Preve, who has been a particular inspiration to me and early on honed in on the modern state of electronic production for the publication, I met thanks to the magazine, too.

That’s my own history. Synthesizer history is also tied up in this publication, one in which Kate Bush was a cover, Wendy Carlos was a voice, and Bob Moog had a byline.

These fragile projects bring people together, in ways that are nearly impossible to predict or even describe. And yes, often someone out there is reading, and that leads people places too.

So, now things are changing. And to think that positive change is easy and inevitable, or indeed that change is ultimately positive, is incredibly naive.

Whether it’s Gino at EM, or any of our colleagues, or me, all of us in music technology face some real challenges and rapid changes. Audiences, technology, and the business of publishing are all changing at tremendous speed, and all present major uncertainties looking forward.

We have to navigate those waters in order to keep telling stories about music.

And I think it’s very important that we not lose what Keyboard has represented. We need connections to musical practice and technique. We need, I believe, keyboard players. And we should even think about the power of those ads over the years, because commercial publications are, for all their flaws, what enable writers to follow their passion and readers to hear their words.

Through that weird alchemy of revenue and editorial, we have to find some way to make sure we can share stories of how humans and technology come together to make music.

Keyboard may be gone. But I hope what it accomplished can continue in new places.

Any Keyboard writers and editors wanting to help make a history, I’d love to chat. The good thing about the Internet is, content can exist separately from time – and some things can seem to live, if only in illusory fashion, forever.

A side note / plug — one slice of history I got to edit is Keyboard Magazine presents the Evolution of Electronic Dance Music. In it, you’ll see that Keyboard could prove its independence from advertisers – there’s an extended discussion of the early bugs in the MPC. And you’ll watch as music evolves alongside the magazine. But that’s only one tiny microcosm.

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Delia Derbyshire gets her own road

Here’s a sure new pilgrimage site for electronic music fans. Late great composer Delia Derbyshire of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop will have a street named after her in her hometown of Coventry, as reported by the BBC.

And because Delia is more than a composer, but a state of mind:

Pete Chambers BEM, director of The Coventry Music Museum, was among those to campaign for the recognition. He said: “Originally it was to be named Derbyshire Road, but I suggested “Way” instead, so it gave a double meaning, as Delia was a genius and strong personality and really did do things in her own way.”

Once you’ve Instagrammed yourself next to the Derbyshire Way sign, maybe you’ll want to visit The Coventry Music Museum. If you’re not a fan of ska, the museum pleasantly reminds you that 55% of the museum isn’t ska. If you are, well, apparently 45% is all about 2-tone music, including a “2-Tone Village,” a Caribbean restaurant, shops (including record shops), and a recreation of a 1980s bedroom.

But more likely of interest to readers of this site, there’s Delia’s tape recorder in the permanent collection.

Even better, it seems (from their somewhat spotty website) they have the infamous “tatty green lampshade.”

I think Delia Derbyshire is the only composer in history to have a lampshade associated with her approach to timbre, let alone extensive frequency analyses of that particular lampshade. (Cool. iPad app, anyone? iLampshade?)

For more:
http://www.covmm.co.uk/2016/the-delian-way/

Other UK stops for fans of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneers? The Science Museum London is a must, natch, as it has a display of Daphne Oram’s machine:

http://daphneoram.org/oramics-at-the-science-museum/

Photo: BBC.

delia

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