This is the second part of my interview with Ezra Buchla. If you haven’t already, you can read part 1 here.
At first I only wanted to ask him about his experience with the AE Modular system which he had ordered a few months ago. But as we were talking we naturally touched on some more general topics about the current commercial landscape of modular synths and about making and appreciating music in general.
As a DSP programmer by trade, in which direction would you like to see DSP-based modular synth modules evolve in the future? Are there any exciting projects or developments you’re following closely or looking forward to?
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the proliferation of small computers in modular synthesizers (and elsewhere). On the one hand, it's pretty awesome that embedded computing is so accessible right now. On the other hand, it seems like a strange allocation of resources to have a eurorack system with 20 computers in it or something, all of which are similarly spec'd with different panel art and firmware. not every problem needs to be solved by throwing a 100 MHz processor at it. :)
My tendency is to want my digital devices to be maximally flexible and reusable. there's a huge number of used smartphones and laptops in the world, available basically for free...
So, I like the fact that there are open-source digital modules and that there is a large active community engaged in modifying them. (e.g. Mutable Instruments.) any digital module that isn't open-sourced seems weird to me.
My long association with monome.org speaks to our shared design values with regard to functional minimalism and openness. Last year they released "norns," which I was instrumental in designing and implementing; it is their take on the portable, linux-based desktop sound processor. The upcoming "crow" will be a complementary unit for analog hardware interfacing.
At this year’s NAMM 2019 we’ve seen some big companies getting into the modular world. Especially the Korg Volca Modular came as a big surprise and it introduces the “masses” to west coast synthesis. How do you feel about this “east coast vs. west coast” synthesis and do you even think about this when you are making music?
For what it's worth, I think it's a silly marketing conceit, and always was. Neither Don nor Bob appreciated the terms. Just say what you mean! (sequenced, generative, keyboard-based, FM, additive, subtractive, whatever.) I chose to disengage from the music tech industry in my daily life a couple of years ago and am now working in the hearing industry, which is a lot more fulfilling to me. I’m not sure I like the “toy” aspect of where things are heading and especially how many little computers are now being used and sitting in your rack. You know, there’s a $25 digital board and a nice aluminium panel and it becomes this collector or fashion item and is really marketed towards this certain upper class people that seem to mostly just collect these things. These are just not my values and especially with these digital boards you’re engaging with this global supply chain that artificially deflates the cost of the components. This is just not great for the world. We are now living in a world where people in the developed countries throw away their phone every three years. That’s why I like the really analog designs which have much less impact. I would like to do more with fewer computers.
I can see this is so true. There are so many new Eurorack modules coming out all the time and everyone has to have them. And then on YouTube you don’t really find many people that actually do interesting or even musical things with them.
Yeah, and I don’t really consider myself a musician nowadays. Although I did for ten years when that was my job. Nowadays I don’t feel like releasing electronic music because it feels like a very saturated world. I much prefer to do live performances.
I think it’s really cool, too that the synthesizer market empowers people to created their own sounds. That’s what this is really about, you can create and compose anything you like for your own enjoyment in real time with these machines and that’s the magic of them. At the same time I think it’s a poor fit with the traditional recording industry with their record release cycles. So it’s not appealing to me for instance to release for ambient synthesis music as a professional package because to me it feels unnecessary. It just feels strange to say, here is a recording made by a professional and you should value it more than other recordings made by non-professionals. And at the same time you’re saying, here is a machine that you can buy and make your own ambient music that sounds just like it [was made by a professional]. It is a strange and ego driven world where you’re trying to have both. And people are pushing their own creations out there at this breakneck pace that to me discourages reflection and listening with presence. And this is what I appreciate most in some aspects of ambient or minimalist music. That it’s ephemeral, that it exists in time and is a conscious experience of time and not just the clicking of the next Youtube link.
That’s interesting, that you’re talking about your love for ambient and minimalist music. Where is this interest coming from, what are your main musical influences?
The term “ambient” is a strange one and most of what is called ambient music I don’t care for, it’s too tame for me. But I like Minimalism as a compositional philosophy and ambient music in the sense of Satie’s music or Feldman’s music that is about really experiencing duration. That’s what I grew up listening to. Probably my most formative experiences were a lot of John Cage performances, Feldman performances and Éliane Radigue and Steve Reich which I experienced as a young person. Those were very formative for me in the aspect of how to approach process driven music. Because the interesting thing that synthesizers can do is create autonomous musical processes that provide a different way of accessing the same sort of compositional space that Feldman or Steve Reich were addressing. When I was enrolled in a conservatory as a string performance major and composition major and whether it’s acoustic instruments or electronic, those were always the compositional frameworks that I was interested in and that still interest me.
But I also played a lot in bands and I’m very influenced by Punk music and metal and all kinds of stuff. But in those frameworks the synthesizer has a different role, which is to make a sonic object that is impactful and that is maybe hard to do with other tools. For instance I used to tour with a band where I was mostly singing and I also played this tiny modular that was basically just a triangle core and some feedback - a dual oscillator setup that produced really aggressive sounds which were very physical when you cranked it up in a big room. So I would turn it on for like a second - [vroom] - and that’s what it did.
But these are all just tools like a cello is a tool and you can play Feldman or Xenakis with it [laughs].
So probably many people who are getting into modular synthesizers nowadays aren’t composition majors or may not have much musical education at all (myself included!). What advice would you give these people? What could they study or experiment with?
In don’t know really. I think you should just be aware of what your interests are and what kind of experiences you find enriching. That’s really the only advice I would give anyone, whether they’re a musician or not. One thing that I never understood is this desire or the attitude that I see expressed a lot of “How do I make this kind of music on my synthesizer?” or even “Which synthesizer do I have to buy to make this kind of music?”. This baffles me although I kind of understand it, but to me it misses the point. To me, music is a communicative medium and even to communicate just with myself to express through sound how I perceive the universe. Kind of like a lens through which I see what’s happening right now. And then you can transfer that experience to other people, and that’s what I’m interested in. I never thought “Oh I want to make something that sounds like a Kraftwerk song.” I just never thought that. So maybe this is very cultural. The environment that I grew up in was very much about this sort of experimental sound community in the Bay Area. And this music community was very much influenced by listening practices, maybe even more so than sound production. So if you look at the history of electronic music and how for instance Pauline Oliveros writes about music, she doesn’t write about how do you produce a sound, she writes about how to listen to a sound. The same with John Cage and other of my role models, they were all more interested in listening than sound production. And that’s what I still continue to do.
So my compositional advice is to just listen! But to do this in a really attentive way. This may sound obvious, but I think that a lot of people aren’t really listening in a critical way. You know? It’s really difficult to really listen to what you’re doing. It’s extraordinarily difficult.
On the same topic, I met with Sam Aaron recently who produced a computer language environment called SonicPi, mainly to teach kids music and programming at the same time. And I asked him, how do you teach this to kids? And he said “You don’t. You just show them the command that plays a note at 440 Hz and then you tell them that this number can go up and it can go down. Then you add the command for a pause and you just gave them the tools to play all of western classical music.”
And that’s what is was like for me, too. I had a lot of music education, but the most educational single memory that I recall was actually sitting down at the piano with my dad and he asked me to play just one note. And my dad actually got piano lessons from David Tudor, who was a great John Cage interpreter and an electronic composer in his own right. So these exercises were like “Play and hold this one note and then listen until you can’t hear it anymore.” And that was very impressive because when you pay really close attention then it’s very hard to say that you’re not hearing the sound anymore on a piano. Another exercise was, how soft can you play the note. Just like a lot of Feldman piano pieces have the direction “as softly as possible”. Softness isn’t just about volume, but also about touch, how softly can you touch the keys.Those things together give you an appreciation of the incredible sensitivity of human hearing. The dynamic range of human hearing has about a factor of a million between the strongest and the weakest stimulus that you can perceive.
So my music education was very non-traditional and some of the pedagogical techniques that were most influential to me were not traditional ear training or music theory, but a practice that was rooted in deep listening and experimental performance. Another person I like alot is W.A. Mathieu who wrote a book called “The Harmonic Experience” which has a lot of a sort of meditative training exercises, a lot of singing. This is how I would approach talking to kids about sound and music. I have taught the violin and piano to young kids, but never synthesizers. Only once did I play an old Buchla with my nephew who’s one and a half. He was just fascinated by the fact that you can turn a knob and the sounds goes up and down. That was enough for him and was an almost magical experience.
Thank you Ezra for this very interesting chat!
If you haven’t already, please also check out and listen to this piece that Ezra performed with the AE Modular, his Viola and tenor guitar:
Here are some links to composers and performers that Ezra talked about:
You can read part 1 of this interview here.
(Interviewer: Carsten Eckelmann, Skype interview from 10th February 2019)