Synth love is reaching into the world of television. Teenage Engineering’s latest Pocket Operator not only features animated cult hit Rick & Morty, but involves a direct collaboration with that show’s producer.
Oh yeah, and I guess Justin Roiland kind of gets an edge on the rest of us in that he has an Emmy Award and we don’t. (Not yet. Hmmm… maybe Bastl Instruments and I will make a wacky sitcom set in a Czech village.)
From the description, it’s a little unclear what the PO-137 actually is, other than limited edition with various TV tie-ins. Yes, there are Rick & Morty animations added to the graphics. And yes, you get some custom samples voiced by Roiland himself. (You can hear some of those on the TE preview site.)
But I think it’s a safe bet that the PO-137 is really a re-skin of the PO-35 Speak. Both have “8 vocal characters,” but now those characters come from Rick & Morty. So look to the Speak specs for an idea of what’s in store:
vocal synthesizer and sequencer with built-in microphone for 8 different voice character sampling.
microphone for sampling
120 seconds sample memory
8 voice characters
transpose and change scale
replaceable drum sounds with microtonic (sold separately)
This reminds me a bit of when KORG unveiled their OK Go edition volca sample. But Rick & Morty’s rabid fanbase seem to make for a sure-fire hit.
Personally, I don’t want any of your cheap merch, and I can’t really get into Rick & Morty paraphernalia. I just want you to give me a damned portal gun. Now that’s something I’ll invest in.
Moogfest is inbound, and that means some new, limited quantity creation of the engineers at Moog. This year it’s a fascinating looking spectral shift module.
The packed festival season is inbound, and whereas that once meant bands and crowd pleasers, now there’s a lot of advanced technology and electronic music – from SONAR to Superbooth to MUTEK to GAMMA to Moogfest, among others.
And Moogfest with a renowned synth builder in the name, of course some of the hardware is also “headlining.” Moog this year haven’t even named their creation yet, but it seems there’s some spectral/vocoder (check the carrier knob) processing going on. They describe it thusly:
This year’s design (shown here patched into synthesizers from previous years’ Engineer Workshops) explores how electronic instruments create an analog of the human experience, speaking directly to the way in which physical circuits resonate within one’s self to create a “Spectral Shift”…
I’m in another country this Moogfest, but if you splurge on an Engineer Pass, you get to make this and take it home with Moog calibration included. The lineup is filling out, too, with the likes of Daniel Miller, nd_baumecker, Jlin, Martin Gore, GAS, Mor Elian, and others (just to name a few favorites).
It’s March the 3rd, which means in both hemispheres, our thoughts inevitably turn to basslines and squelchy resonance. Happy 303 day – here’s some video and reading to get you in the mood.
First, let’s take a step back, and before we idolize the box and transistors, let’s talk about just how immaculately early Detroit and Chicago records were composed and mixed.
1987’s “Acid Tracks” by Phuture (DJ Pierre and Earl Spanky Smith) never fails to floor me. (I’ll guess the same about you, as anyone sick of acid has already left the room.) It sounds at once ancient and futuristic, like it fell from some alien civilization. “Acid Tracks” is slow, elegant, meditative – apparently slowed down to appeal to conservative New York dance floors; check out the fascinating write-up at the top of Discogs:
And, oh yeah – it’s a preset bassline. And very little actually happens in this track. You get the sense of that fresh, out-of-box, what the hell is this amazing thing feeling as a result – but whether intentional or not, it also means the duo settle on this fascinating groove and don’t overthink it. There’s an almost ritualistic, mantra-like steadiness to the track as a result. House legend Marshall Jefferson captures all of this with a mix that holds everything together, and weirdly I think gets away with the extreme panning from side to side, a kind of hypnotic incantation.
It may be the only time a preset pattern worked in a track, but… it works.
That same DJ Pierre joins Roland today to celebrate 303 Day – and yeah, he knows how to program patterns now:
I know we’re not supposed to covet gear as the solution to our problems but … there is something beautiful about really wanting a piece of gear to find a particular flavor, right?
It’s also great to hear Pierre talk about the satisfaction of turning a knob, and feeling like an improviser – I think that’s the essence of synth design. (I, uh, disagree with Maestro Pierre that this is the only instrument that did this, but then I don’t run an all-303 blog.)
But you think Japan is going to let us Americans have all the fun, with the gear they invented? Here is “Japanese Techno Girl Love TB-303 & TR-707 & RE-201” to answer that from the ocean. I’m not entirely sure I believe this is part of her bridal practice, but do you need to know whether that’s true or not?
For a good intro to the 303 and how to program it, Tatsuya Takahashi – former chief analog engineer at KORG – did an intro for RBMA. Seeing Tats talk Roland is weird, but on the other hand, I think Tats and his team at KORG built a lot of similar ideas into their instruments – hands-on control, simplified compact design, and a focus on playability. For all the present worship of modular synths and complexity, sometimes a simpler design lets the player explore more.
That skips over a lot of the history to focus on the instrument. So for a deeper look at how the 303 came about, check “Baseline Baseline,” a crude 2005 documentary. It feels a bit like someone is reading you a history of the 303 in monotone, but it’s a nice watch, nonetheless, packed with detail.
Philadelphia’s Akhil Kalepu did a great write-up of that history for DJ Tech Tools a few years back, as well:
To use the 303 yourself, your first question may be – have I heard that pattern before? (There is this funny quality of the 303, where you’re never certain if a pattern was your own, or a preset, or a classic tune, or the 303 somehow hijacked your brain and an alien consciousness made it for you, or … some combination?)
Let’s just not get too precious about acid house, though.
Part of what I love about the 303 is that it isn’t a classical instrument. You aren’t limited to reproducing half-assed copies of Chicago House just because that beautiful history is there. The 303 can get weird, dirty, trippy, unrecognizable. (Seriously, fight me on this. I love Roland’s TB-03 recreation not because it’s a perfect copy, but because it has some weird digital distortion and delay that you can abuse and warp.)
So, for instance, Germany’s Dr. Walker and Liquid Sky took acid in a different direction, some “acid techno” or make that “afterhour acid techno druggEEE madness.” Oh, sure, you could walk into a Berlin afterhours and someone could play some inoffensive slow tech house track. OR … you could wind up in some dark cave, three days into partying, thick with smoke, unable to find the door, when some end-of-the-world weirdness you can’t follow takes over, or some way-too-fast techno that is slowly speeding up. That’s the sort of 303 you might expect would be part of an unfriendly M-class planet, the kind the one surviving red shirt warned you about, holes burnt in his uniform, after beaming back up.
Playlist of related tracks:
Hold on, though, back up – Sony Music published this? Interesting.
I bring this up just because it’s sort of nicely the opposite of the Phuture track. If the above is the 303 in calm meditation or headed to a wedding, this is a disheveled 303 stumbling out of a bar in Akihabara, its tie in shreds (uh, drunk on alternating current or whatever synthesizers get into):
Acid is getting new leases on life, too, as in the hands of Bloody Mary, the French-born, Berlin-based producer and label boss of acidic dame music. She’s keeping acid alive both as a DJ –
– and as a producer. (Got to talk to her about her love of the 303 and the ability to really focus on this instrument at ADE in the fall.)
So be sure – we love the 303, but its day is not a sacred one. It’s a chance to do what we do every night – make ridiculous sounds with knobs.
And just remember – don’t let anyone convince you synthesis is a game for the rich. The 303 found its way into history thanks to some guys who could only barely afford it, after it had already dropped in value. Speaking as someone who reads tons of press releases from artists bragging about their all-modular setups, this is something worth repeating – and a happy 303 day to you.
Reimagine pixels and color, melt your screen live into glitches and textures, and do it all for free on the Web – as you play with others. We talk to Olivia Jack about her invention, live coding visual environment Hydra.
Inspired by analog video synths and vintage image processors, Hydra is open, free, collaborative, and all runs as code in the browser. It’s the creation of US-born, Colombia-based artist Olivia Jack. Olivia joined our MusicMakers Hacklab at CTM Festival earlier this winter, where she presented her creation and its inspirations, and jumped in as a participant – spreading Hydra along the way.
Olivia’s Hydra performances are explosions of color and texture, where even the code becomes part of the aesthetic. And it’s helped take Olivia’s ideas across borders, both in the Americas and Europe. It’s part of a growing interest in the live coding scene, even as that scene enters its second or third decade (depending on how you count), but Hydra also represents an exploration of what visuals can mean and what it means for them to be shared between participants. Olivia has rooted those concepts in the legacy of cybernetic thought.
Following her CTM appearance in Berlin, I wanted to find out more about how Olivia’s tool has evolved and its relation to DIY culture and self-fashioned tools for expression.
CDM: Can you tell us a little about your background? Did you come from some experience in programming?
Olivia: I have been programming now for ten years. Since 2011, I’ve worked freelance — doing audiovisual installations and data visualization, interactive visuals for dance performances, teaching video games to kids, and teaching programming to art students at a university, and all of these things have involved programming.
Had you worked with any existing VJ tools before you started creating your own?
Alexandra Cárdenas and Olivia Jack @ ICLC 2019:
In your presentation in Berlin, you walked us through some of the origins of this project. Can you share a bit about how this germinated, what some of the precursors to Hydra were and why you made them?
It’s based on an ongoing Investigation of:
Collaboration in the creation of live visuals
Possibilities of peer-to-peer [P2P] technology on the web
Satellite Arts project by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz http://www.ecafe.com/getty/SA/ (1977)
I was also questioning some of the metaphors we use to understand and interact with the web. “Visiting” a website is exchanging a bunch of bytes with a faraway place and routed through other far away places. Rather than think about a webpage as a “page”, “site”, or “place” that you can “go” to, what if we think about it as a flow of information where you can configure connections in realtime? I like the browser as a place to share creative ideas – anyone can load it without having to go to a gallery or install something.
And I was interested in using the idea of a modular synthesizer as a way to understand the web. Each window can receive video streams from and send video to other windows, and you can configure them in real time suing WebRTC (realtime web streaming).
Here’s one of the early tests I did:
I really liked this philosophical idea you introduced of putting yourself in a feedback loop. What does that mean to you? Did you discover any new reflections of that during our hacklab, for that matter, or in other community environments?
It’s processes of creation, not having a specific idea of where it will end up – trying something, seeing what happens, and then trying something else.
Code tries to define the world using specific set of rules, but at the end of the day ends up chaotic. Maybe the world is chaotic. It’s important to be self-reflective.
How did you come to developing Hydra itself? I love that it has this analog synth model – and these multiple frame buffers. What was some of the inspiration?
I had no intention of creating a “tool”… I gave a workshop at the International Conference on Live Coding in December 2017 about collaborative visuals on the web, and made an editor to make the workshop easier. Then afterwards people kept using it.
I didn’t think too much about the name but [had in mind] something about multiplicity. Hydra organisms have no central nervous system; their nervous system is distributed. There’s no hierarchy of one thing controlling everything else, but rather interconnections between pieces.
Ed.: Okay, Olivia asked me to look this up and – wow, check out nerve nets. There’s nothing like a head, let alone a central brain. Instead the aquatic creatures in the genus hydra has sense and neuron essentially as one interconnected network, with cells that detect light and touch forming a distributed sensory awareness.
Most graphics abstractions are based on the idea of a 2d canvas or 3d rendering, but the computer graphics card actually knows nothing about this; it’s just concerned with pixel colors. I wanted to make it easy to play with the idea of routing and transforming a signal rather than drawing on a canvas or creating a 3d scene.
This also contrasts with directly programming a shader (one of the other common ways that people make visuals using live coding), where you generally only have access to one frame buffer for rendering things to. In Hydra, you have multiple frame buffers that you can dynamically route and feed into each other.
MusicMakers Hacklab in Berlin. Photo: Malitzin Cortes.
Livecoding is of course what a lot of people focus on in your work. But what’s the significance of code as the interface here? How important is it that it’s functional coding?
It’s inspired by [Alex McLean’s sound/music pattern environment] TidalCycles — the idea of taking a simple concept and working from there. In Tidal, the base element is a pattern in time, and everything is a transformation of that pattern. In Hydra, the base element is a transformation from coordinates to color. All of the other functions either transform coordinates or transform colors. This directly corresponds to how fragment shaders and low-level graphics programming work — the GPU runs a program simultaneously on each pixel, and that receives the coordinates of that pixel and outputs a single color.
What’s the experience you have of the code being onscreen? Are some people actually reading it / learning from it? I mean, in your work it also seems like a texture.
I am interested in it being somewhat understandable even if you don’t know what it is doing or that much about coding.
Code is often a visual element in a live coding performance, but I am not always sure how to integrate it in a way that feels intentional. I like using my screen itself as a video texture within the visuals, because then everything I do — like highlighting, scrolling, moving the mouse, or changing the size of the text — becomes part of the performance. It is really fun! Recently I learned about prepared desktop performances and related to the live-coding mantra of “show your screens,” I like the idea that everything I’m doing is a part of the performance. And that’s also why I directly mirror the screen from my laptop to the projector. You can contrast that to just seeing the output of an AV set, and having no idea how it was created or what the performer is doing. I don’t think it’s necessary all the time, but it feels like using the computer as an instrument and exploring different ways that it is an interface.
The algorave thing is now getting a lot of attention, but you’re taking this tool into other contexts. Can you talk about some of the other parties you’ve played in Colombia, or when you turned the live code display off?
Most of my inspiration and references for what I’ve been researching and creating have been outside of live coding — analog video synthesis, net art, graphics programming, peer-to-peer technology.
Having just said I like showing the screen, I think it can sometimes be distracting and isn’t always necessary. I did visuals for Putivuelta, a queer collective and party focused on diasporic Latin club music and wanted to just focus on the visuals. Also I am just getting started with this and I like to experiment each time; I usually develop a new function or try something new every time I do visuals.
Community is such an interesting element of this whole scene. So I know with Hydra so far there haven’t been a lot of outside contributions to the codebase – though this is a typical experience of open source projects. But how has it been significant to your work to both use this as an artist, and teach and spread the tool? And what does it mean to do that in this larger livecoding scene?
I’m interested in how technical details of Hydra foster community — as soon as you log in, you see something that someone has made. It’s easy to share via twitter bot, see and edit the code live of what someone has made, and make your own. It acts as a gallery of shareable things that people have made:
Although I’ve developed this tool, I’m still learning how to use it myself. Seeing how other people use it has also helped me learn how to use it.
I’m inspired by work that Alex McLean and Alexandra Cardenas and many others in live coding have done on this — just the idea that you’re showing your screen and sharing your code with other people to me opens a conversation about what is going on, that as a community we learn and share knowledge about what we are doing. Also I like online communities such as talk.lurk.org and streaming events where you can participate no matter where you are.
I’m also really amazed at how this is spreading through Latin America. Do you feel like there’s some reason the region has been so fertile with these tools?
It’s definitely influenced me rather than the other way around, getting to know Alexandra [Cardenas’] work, Esteban [Betancur, author of live coding visual environment Cine Vivo], rggtrn, and Mexican live coders.
Madrid performance. Photo: Tatiana Soshenina.
What has the scene been like there for you – especially now living in Bogota, having grown up in California?
I think people are more critical about technology and so that makes the art involving technology more interesting to me. (I grew up in San Francisco.) I’m impressed by the amount of interest in art and technology spaces such as Plataforma Bogota that provide funding and opportunities at the intersection of art, science, and technology.
The press lately has fixated on live coding or algorave but maybe not seen connections to other open source / DIY / shared music technologies. But – maybe now especially after the hacklab – do you see some potential there to make other connections?
To me it is all really related, about creating and hacking your own tools, learning, and sharing knowledge with other people.
Oh, and lastly – want to tell us a little about where Hydra itself is at now, and what comes next?
Right now, it’s improving documentation and making it easier for others to contribute.
Personally, I’m interested in performing more and developing my own performance process.
Strymon have already made a name for themselves in luxe effects hardware and pedals, including classic effects and reverbs like the BigSky. Volante moves into what’s likely to be hit territory – modeling magnetic tape loops and effects.
There are three tools in one here: magnetic delay, spring reverb, and a tape-style looper. It basically takes a bunch of things you’d do in a studio (back when studios did stuff with tape) — and crams that into a little box.
And it sounds great (Matt Piper here shares this music he made):
Tape delay: four playback heads with feedback, panning, and level for each.
Make tape-style looping: reverse, pause, splice, infinite repeat
Selectable models: drum echo, tape echo, studio reel-to-reel, with different sound characteristics
And still more control: choose low cut, mechanics, and wear, plus an input you can adjust (so crank it for extra tape saturation)
Stereo in and out
Foot friendly: tap tempo and even choose favorite settings with your foot, plus add an expression pedal if you like
MIDI in/out with full MIDI mapping of parameters and program changes
Strymon also promise premium audio fidelity, both on the analog front end and the digital conversion inside. And they build these in the USA.
It’s also a sign of the times: independent hardware is doing increasingly processor-heavy stuff. But just as the computer capacity has expanded, so has hardware – and more realistic emulations of nonlinear analog equipment is the result. This is still DSP-based, not ARM, for those interested – it’s a SHARC DSP – but those chips have grown in capability, too.
Novation packed new sounds – and 43 new wavetables – into an update for their flagship Peak synthesizer. Sound designer Patricia Wolf writes to share how she approached making some of those new sounds.
Peak, in case you missed it, has been one of the more compelling new synths in recent years. Novation designed a unique-sounding 8-voice polysynth, melding digital wavetable oscillators with analog processing, per-voice filtering and all-important distortion all over the place.
As with other Novation products, they’ve also been adding features in frequent firmware updates, listening to users in the process.
The big deal in Peak 1.2, released this month, is 43 additional wavetables (which evidently some of you were asking for). But you also get:
16 tuning tables
Two more LFOs you can assign to anything (not just per-voice)
Pitch bend wheel modulation (if you like)
A quicker interface for the Mod Matrix
A new four-slot FX Matrix – so you can route four LFOs to effects parameters
A hold stage for the envelopes (on top of the existing ADSRs)
An option to initalize with current knob/fader positions (instead of defaults)
New soundpacks from GForce and Patricia Wolf
Now, as it happens, Patricia Wolf wrote us on her own to share what she has done with her 50 sounds. Patricia is leading what sounds like a great career working in sound design, and her approach to these sounds is really musical – including sharing these etudes of sorts fo illustrate them, inspired by the likes of BBC Radiophonic Workshop pioneering composer Delia Derbyshire. Listen:
Here’s what Patricia has to say:
Hello CDM:) I am a sound designer and electronic musician based in Portland, Oregon. I am one of the official sound designers for the Novation Peak synthesizer and just made a sound pack of 50 patches for their firmware update launch. My soundpack is available for free through Novation’s Components App.
I created a recording demonstrating my patches in a musical/artistic way.
Patricia playing live in Seattle for Further Records. Photo Valerie Ann/DJ Explorateur, framed by video art live by Leo Mayberry.
This recording is a demonstration of the sound design work I did for the Novation Peak. I created 50 patches demonstrating some of the new features that the v1.2 firmware update has to offer. My sound pack is available for free with the update through Novation’s Components App. Select the Novation tab on that app to access them as well as GForce Software’s free patches.
The patches are performed with a mixture of Octatrack sequencing (using sequences from songs I have written) and live performance with a MIDI controller. I was inspired by artists like Delia Derbyshire and wanted to record little vignettes and sonatas using the Peak without other sound sources.
I made this recording so that friends can hear the sounds I made and so that other Peak users can get a closer glimpse into how I envision sound design.
The Novation Peak was recorded directly into a Steinberg UR44 interface. No external effects. Subtle mastering from Tokyo Dawn Labs software to balance recordings of different patches.
More on Patricia:
Patricia Wolf is an electronic musician, sound designer, and gallery curator based in Portland, Oregon. After years of working in the synth pop duo Soft Metals, Wolf became interested in exploring non-linear songwriting and new forms of synthesis. Alongside working with Novation, Wolf co-founded the gallery Variform which focuses on sound design and modern composition. Patricia Wolf is a recipient of the Precipice Fund, a grant funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, to explore synthesis in the contemporary art world.
Latlaus Sky’s Pythian Drift is a gorgeous ambient concept album, the kind that’s easy to get lost in. The set-up: a probe discovered on Neptune in the 26th Century will communicate with just one woman back on Earth.
The Portland, Oregon-based artists write CDM to share the project, which is accompanied by this ghostly video (still at top). It’s the work of Ukrainian-born filmmaker Viktoria Haiboniuk (now also based in Portland), who composed it from three years’ worth of 120mm film images.
Taking in the album even before checking the artists’ perspective, I was struck by the sense of post-rocket age music about the cosmos. In this week when images of Mars’ surface spread as soon as they were received, a generation that grew up as the first native space-faring humans, space is no longer alien and unreachable, but present.
In slow-motion harmonies and long, aching textures, this seems to be cosmic music that sings of longing. It calls out past the Earth in hope of some answer.
The music is the work of duo Brett and Abby Larson. Brett explains his thinking behind this album:
This album has roots in my early years of visiting the observatory in Sunriver, Oregon with my Dad. Seeing the moons of Jupiter with my own eyes had a profound effect on my understanding of who and where I was. It slowly came to me that it would actually be possible to stand on those moons. The ice is real, it would hold you up. And looking out your black sky would be filled with the swirling storms of Jupiter’s upper clouds. From the ice of Europa, the red planet would be 24 times the size of the full moon.
Though these thoughts inspire awe, they begin to chill your bones as you move farther away from the sun. Temperatures plunge. There is no air to breathe. Radiation is immense. Standing upon Neptune’s moon Triton, the sun would begin to resemble the rest of the stars as you faded into the nothing.
Voyager two took one of the only clear images we have of Neptune. I don’t believe we were meant to see that kind of image. Unaided our eyes are only prepared to see the sun, the moon, and the stars. Looking into the blue clouds of the last planet you cannot help but think of the black halo of space that surrounds the planet and extends forever.
I cannot un-see those images. They have become a part of human consciousness. They are the dawn of an unnamed religion. They are more powerful and more fearsome than the old God. In a sense, they are the very face of God. And perhaps we were not meant to see such things.
This album was my feeble attempt to make peace with the blackness. The immense cold that surrounds and beckons us all. Our past and our future.
The album closes with an image of standing amidst Pluto’s Norgay mountains. Peaks of 20,000 feet of solid ice. Evening comes early in the mountains. On this final planet we face the decision of looking back toward Earth or moving onward into the darkness.
Abby with pedals. BOSS RC-50 LoopStation (predecessor to today’s RC-300), Strymon BlueSky, Electro Harmonix Soul Food stand out.
Plus more on the story:
Pythia was the actual name of the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece. She was a real person who, reportedly, could see the future. This album, “Pythian Drift” is only the first of three parts. In this part, the craft is discovered and Dr. Amala Chandra begins a dialogue with the craft. Dr Chandra then begins publishing papers that rock the scientific world and reformulate our understanding of mathematics and physics. There is also a phenomenon called Pythian Drift that begins to spread from the craft. People begin to see images and hear voices, prophecies. Some prepare for an interstellar pilgrimage to the craft’s home galaxy in Andromeda.
Part two will be called Black Sea. Part three will be Andromeda.
And some personal images connected to that back story:
Brett as a kid, with ski.
Abby aside a faux fire.
More on the duo and their music at the Látlaus Ský site:
From countries across Europe to the USA, migration is at the center of Western politics at the moment. But that raises a question: why aren’t more people who make music, music instruments, and music tech louder about these issues?
Migration – temporary and permanent – is simply a fact of life for a huge group of people, across backgrounds and aspirations. That can involve migration to follow opportunities, and refugees and asylum seekers who move for their own safety and freedom. So if you don’t picture immigrants, migrants, and refugees when you think of your society, you just aren’t thinking.
Musicians ought to be uniquely qualified to speak to these issues, though. Extreme anti-immigration arguments all assume that migrants take away more from a society than they give back. And people in the music world ought to know better. Music has always been based on cultural exchange. Musicians across cultures have always considered touring to make a living. And to put it bluntly, music isn’t a zero sum game. The more you add, the more you create.
Music gets schooled in borders
As music has grown more international, as more artists tour and cross borders, at least the awareness is changing. That’s been especially true in electronic music, in a DJ industry that relies on travel. Resident Advisor has consistently picked up this story over the last couple of years, as artists spoke up about being denied entry to countries while touring.
In a full-length podcast documentary last year, they dug into the ways in which the visa system hurts artists outside the US and EU, with a focus on non-EU artists trying to gain entry to the UK:
Andrew Ryce also wrote about a visa rate hike in the USA back in 2016 – and this in the Obama Administration, not under Trump:
Now, being a DJ crossing a border isn’t the same as being a refugee running for your life. But then on some other level, it can allow artists to experience immigration infrastructure – both when it works for them, and when it works against them. A whole generation of artists, including even those from relatively privileged Western nations, is now learning the hard way about the immigration system. And that’s something they might have missed as tourists, particularly if they come from places like the USA, western Europe, Australia, and other places well positioned in the system.
The immigration system they see will often come off as absurdist. National policies worldwide categorize music as migrant labor and require a visa. In many countries, these requirements are unenforced in all but big-money gigs. But in some countries – the USA, Canada, and UK being prime examples – they’re rigorously enforced, and not coincidentally, the required visas have high fees.
Showing up at a border carrying music equipment or a bag of vinyl records is an instant red flag – whether a paid gig is your intention or not. (I’m surprised, actually, that no one talks about this in regards to the rise of the USB stick DJ. If you aren’t carrying a controller or any records, sailing through as a tourist is a lot easier.) Border officials will often ask visitors to unlock phones, hand over social media passwords. They’ll search Facebook events by name to find gigs. Or they’ll even just view the presence of a musical instrument as a violation.
Being seen as “illegal” because you’re traveling with a guitar or some records is a pretty good illustration of how immigration can criminalize simple, innocent acts. Whatever the intention behind that law, it’s clear there’s something off here – especially given the kinds of illegality that can cross borders.
When protection isn’t
This is not to argue for open borders. There are times when you want border protections. I worked briefly in environmental advocacy as we worked on invasive species that were hitching a ride on container ships – think bugs killing trees and no more maple syrup on your pancakes, among other things. I was also in New York on 9/11 and watched from my roof – that was a very visible demonstration of visa security oversight that had failed. Part of the aim of customs and immigration is to stop the movement of dangerous people and things, and I don’t think any rational person would argue with that.
But even as a tiny microcosm of the larger immigration system, music is a good example of how laws can be uneven, counter-intuitive, and counterproductive. The US and Canada, for instance, do have an open border for tourists. So if an experimental ambient musician from Toronto comes to play a gig in Cleveland, that’s not a security threat – they could do the same as a tourist. It’s also a stretch of the imagination that this individual would have a negative impact on the US economy. Maybe the artist makes a hundred bucks cash and … spends it all inside the USA, not to mention brings in more money for the venue and the people employed by it. Or maybe they make $1000 – a sum that would be wiped out by the US visa fee, to say nothing of slow US visa processing. Again, that concert creates more economic activity inside the US economy, and it’s very likely the American artist sharing the bill goes up to Montreal and plays with them next month on top of it. I could go on, but it’s … well, boring and obvious.
Artists and presenters worldwide often simply ignore this visa system because it’s slow, expensive, and unreliable. And so it costs economies (and likely many immigration authorities) revenue. It costs societies value and artistic and cultural exchange.
Of course, scale that up and the same is true, across other fields. Immigrants tend to give more into government services than they take out, they tend to own businesses that employ more local people (so they create jobs), they tend to invent new technologies (so they create jobs again), and so on.
Ellis Island, NYC. 12 million people passed through here – not all of my family who came to the USA, but some. I’ve now come the other way through Tegel Airport and the Ausländerbehörde , Berlin. Photo (CC-BY-ND “>A. Strakey.
Advocacy and music
Immigration advocacy could be seen as something in the charter of anyone in the music industry or musical instruments industry.
Music technology suffers as borders are shut down, too. Making musical instruments and tools requires highly specialized labor working in highly specialized environments. From production to engineering to marketing, it’s an international business. I actually can’t think of any major manufacturer that doesn’t rely on immigrants in key roles. (Even many tiny makers involve immigrants.)
And the traditional music industry lean heavily on immigrant talent, too. Those at the top of the industry have powerful lobbying efforts – efforts that could support greater cultural exchange and rights for travelers. Certainly, its members are often on the road. But let’s take the Recording Academy (the folks behind the Grammy Awards).
Instead, their efforts seem to fixate on domestic intellectual property law. So the Recording Academy and others were big on the Music Modernization Act – okay, fine,
a law to support compensation for creators.
I don’t want to be unfair to the Recording Association – and not just because I think it might hurt my Grammy winning chances. (Hey, stop laughing.) No, I think it’s more that we as a community have generally failed to take up this issue in any widespread way. (I sincerely hope someone out there works for the record industry and writes to say that you’re actually working on this and I’m wrong.)
More than anything else, music can cross borders. It can speak to people when you don’t speak their language, literally. When music travels, emotion and expression travels – artists and technology alike.
It’s personal – isn’t it for you?
I personally feel the impact of all of this, now having been seven years in Berlin, and able to enjoy opportunities, connections, and perspective that come from living in Germany and working with people both from Germany and abroad. I feel hugely grateful to the German state for allowing my business to immigrate (my initial visa was a business visa, which involved some interesting bureaucracy explaining to the Berlin Senate what this site is about). I’ve even benefited from the support of programs like the Goethe Institut and host governments to work in cultural diplomacy.
I’ve also had the chance to be involved writing in support of visas and financial backing for artists coming from Iran, Mexico, Kazakhstan, and many other places, for programs I’ve worked on.
And all of this is really a luxury – even when we’re talking about artists traveling to support their careers and feed themselves. For many people, migration is a matter of survival. Sometimes the threats to their lives come from geopolitical and economic policies engineered by the governments we come from – meaning as citizens, we share some responsibility for the impact others have felt. But whether or not that’s the case, I would hope we feel that obligation as human beings. That’s the basis of international rule of law on accepting refugees and granting asylum. It’s the reason those principles are uncompromising and sometimes even challenging. Our world is held together – or not – based on that basic fairness we afford to fellow humans. If people come to where we live and claim their survival and freedom depends on taking them in, we accept the obligation to at least listen to their case.
Those of us in the music world could use our privilege, and the fact that our medium is so essential to human expression, to be among the loudest voices for these human rights. When we live in countries who listen to us, we should talk to other citizens and talk to our governments. We should tell the stories that make these issues more relatable. We should do what some people I know are doing in the music world, too – work on education and involvement for refugees, help them to feel at home in our communities and to develop whatever they need to make a home here, and make people feel welcome at the events we produce.
That’s just the principles, not policies. But I know a lot of people in my own circle have worked on the policy and advocacy sides here. I certainly would invite you to share what we might do. If you’ve been impacted by immigration obstacles and have ideas of how we help, I hope we hear that, too.
Some likely policy areas:
Supporting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers
Supporting refugee and asylum seeker integration
Advocating for more open visa policies for artists – keeping fees low, and supporting exchange
Advocating the use of music and culture, and music technology, as a form of cultural diplomacy
Supporting organizations that connect artists and creative technologists across borders
And so on…
But I do hope that as musicians, we work with people who share basic beliefs in caring for other people. I know there’s no single “community” or “industry” that can offer that. But we certainly can try to build our own circle in a way that does.
Some examples from here in Berlin working on refugee issues here. I would argue immigration policy can find connections across refugees and migrants, asylum seekers and touring musicians, as everyone encounters the same larger apparatus and set of laws:
Don’t have a ticket to Ableton’s Loop “summit for music makers” in Los Angeles? There’s an overabundance of music and conversation from the gathered artists streaming, much of it live, available now.
It’s easy to imagine Loop as turning into something really focused on the particular software and hardware products from Ableton, but the people programming the event have made it something very different. Loop’s programming itself extends through a range of artistic and technological frontiers, many of them only tangentially related to Live or Push – everything from AI to electronic instrument engineering to sonifying data from space. Most of that does require a ticket – which means you need to be in Los Angeles right now, and tickets were in short supply. (Even for ticket holders, capacities are constrained as workshops and seminars often take place in small quarters.)
What you can get access to is a couple of the mainstage talks, and a whole bunch of the music culture around Loop. That says a lot about the kind of artists Ableton has befriended, and the sort of hub Los Angeles can be for musicians. So Dublab Radio are broadcasting, for instance – and they’ve made Loop their home.
We’ll be talking to artists, too, in our own way – stay tuned for that. But meanwhile, part of what I get is that there’s a ton of music to experience. It’s not just one genre, and it’s also not just about the people Loop programmers thought were important. If music production tools are driven by an urge to create and share, then it’s little wonder that the participants here have self-organized their own collaborative playlist to share what they’re doing.
Timing on the West Coast of the USA tends to run a little late even in the Americas, and winds up at weird hours for Europe/Africa and the Eastern Hemisphere. But here you go — think afternoon – early evening LA time Friday and Saturday and afternoon Sunday. That means evening east coast USA, early morning Japan, and … Europe you might want to wait for the archive unless you’re a night owl.
Highlights for me include Sunday – Damien Licht has been doing some great productions and has a new album, and shesaid.so, Naomi Mitchell & Coco Solid should be terrific as they’re bringing in loads of new and diverse music interests and community activation. Plus Dennis DeSantis, Laura Escudé, Patrice Rushen, Photay talking Saturday about what happens when plans go awry – well, that’s relevant to all of us, and this is an utterly amazing selection of different life experiences professionally. We all talk about the Instagram-friendly perfect side of our creative lives, and very rarely about the failures – even if adjusting to failures is usually where the good stuff happens.
Plus there are live performances in the evening if you can catch them.
Music you can tune in any time, though, via Spotify.
What’s great is the chance for participants to share with one another:
And Dublab would love to welcome you to LA’s extraordinarily dynamic scene:
For more sounds – including the lineup at Loop and a guide to why the venue EastWest Studios has put out music you already know and love:
At the turn of the 21st century, one Detroit duo was way ahead. Almost two decades later, the world is revisiting Drexciya and their imagined underwater future – the time is right, and the deepest insights come from James Stinson speaking in his own words.
Drexciyan Cruise Control Bubble 1 to Lardossan Cruiser 8 dash 203 X!
Drexciya, the underground electro duo of the 90s, is enjoying a new resurgence … wait, make that the underwater electro duo enjoying a new submergence? Anyway, cue the Tresor Records re-release, the Resident Advisor spot, the works.
And if you’re not already immersed in this duo’s work, now is a great time to discover or rediscover them. The electro tracks are raw, powerful, grimy, totally Detroit, and in these deadly-serious techno times, unafraid of their own irreverence. “Aquabahn” is sexy and totally, wonderfully, ridiculous:
(They’re not totally kidding, though; everyone I’ve talked to from Underground Resistance has talked about being genuine Kraftwerk fans.)
“Afrofuturism” as a term got applied after the fact (to Drexciya as to the likes of Sun Ra and Juan Atkins). When Drexciya’s 1997 release “The Quest” came out, this was just plain futurism in the words of its creators. But in the liner notes, their journey to imagine an underwater utopia spells out the connection to African-American diasporas and discrimination in overt terms.
From The Quest liner notes – diasporas to global techno to underwater worlds and African return.Source.
The Quest, 1997.
Drexciya were not prone to doing interviews. But apart from being a great musical voice, the late James Stinson, revealed in phone interviews from around the end of the project, had a great voice and articulate vision. And while an under-the-sea world of dreams might seem a preconceived conceit, Stinson says it all came naturally out of the vibes of the music. “We flow with the current,” he told Andrew Duke in 2001. And then he expands on how the concept and life flow out of that, and how water figures into the music.
Listen to him about trying the impossible, ignoring what is supposed to be in music – a perspective that seems in perpetual need in creative life. The whole half hour with journalist Andrew Duke is worth hearing. That’s appropriate, too, as Stinson encourages people to get beyond needle drops and listen to whole tracks and the whole world of Drexciya:
The guy talks about the feeling of music being like the sensation of sitting in a liquid chair made of water. And equally great questions. (“What’s it like to ride a manta ray?”)
Spirit of the underground? James Stinson sums it up perfectly: “Anywhere. Sewer. Underwater. Swimming pool. In the middle of a swamp. In a back alley somewhere … we’ll appear anywhere.”
(This is doubly interesting to me, as a friend from Tehran has recently staged an underwater concert with hydrophones, singing underwater – partly as a way to get around prohibitions on female performance in the country. Stinson was onto something with the radical possibilities of underwater music.)
For still more words from the source: in 2002, shortly before his death, James Stinson talked to Liz Copeland, with tracks driving away in the background:
“Just give me the music; forget all the other stuff,” he says. “People need to … dig more into themselves and pull it out, and be more of who they are, and believe in what they do. Don’t worry about what other people are doing.”
Resident Advisor recently summed up all of this in a ten minute video, drawing heavily from those two interviews:
Another navigational chart to the music came in 2012 from the ever-reflective Philip Sherburne, who reviewed an anthology that year and also sums up the music as more than just “electro”:
Adapting the lurching rhythmic template of 1980s electro-funk acts like Man Parrish, Cybotron, and Jonzun Crew, Drexciya emphasized the depth-charge qualities of a booming 808 kick, and the electric-eel jolt of a zapping filter sweep. But it went deeper than that. The music was punctuated by cryptic interludes and scraps of code … Drexciya weren’t just trafficking in metaphor and affect; they were telling a story.
It’s also worth reading this interview from 1994 in UK zine The Techno Connection, by Dave Mothersole, republished by fan page Drexciya Research Lab. Yeah, it’s 1994, but it’s easily just as relevant in 2018, though it seems now with the Detroit originators hot as ever on the international scene, it may be time to go back to the surviving Underground Resistance members to hear their current take on the landscape and the word “techno.” As for learning to mix better, even when there’s no 4/4 kick, uh — yeah, we can all listen to that one; that can’t be wrong!
More listening – even Spotify are into this now:
From Función Binaria, a full mix (tracklisting on SC:
It’s also great that Tresor are re-releasing seminal works, including Drexciya – ‘Neptune’s Lair’ – (Tresor.129)
is out November 30th, 2018 on 2LP vinyl. (In time for Hanukkah, even.)
It’s a gift, really, to get to go buy that vinyl and set it on a record player. I do also come back to what Stinson says about originality, though. So maybe the best way to honor the Detroit – Berlin connection is, perversely, to listen, take this in, listen end to end (record players are nice for that), let your mind get altered, and then forget all that and take that energy and vibe and go make your own thing.
And certainly everything’s better down where it’s wetter and all that jazz.
Fan art, Jim McCormack. Also via Drexciya Research Lab. Go check that.
For more Drexciya obsessions, follow Drexciya Research Lab on Blogger(!) and Facebook: