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Synthesizer as Instrument With A Cultural History?
MUFF WIGGLER Forum Index -> Modular Synth General Discussion  
Author Synthesizer as Instrument With A Cultural History?
pinkandbluenoise
After doing some research prompted by the discussion on Clouds as a module ( https://www.muffwiggler.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=194164 ) I found some some quotes from a 2010 Guardian interview with Brian Eno that I thought might be worth discussing.

On the synthesiser: 1

"One of the important things about the synthesiser was that it came without any baggage. A piano comes with a whole history of music. There are all sorts of cultural conventions built into traditional instruments that tell you where and when that instrument comes from. When you play an instrument that does not have any such historical background you are designing sound basically. You're designing a new instrument. That's what a synthesiser is essentially. It's a constantly unfinished instrument. You finish it when you tweak it, and play around with it, and decide how to use it. You can combine a number of cultural references into one new thing."

On the synthesiser: 2

"Instruments sound interesting not because of their sound but because of the relationship a player has with them. Instrumentalists build a rapport with their instruments which is what you like and respond to. If you were sitting down now to design an instrument you would not dream of coming up with something as ridiculous as an acoustic guitar. It's a strange instrument, it's very limited and it doesn't sound good. You would come up with something much better. But what we like about acoustic guitars is players who have had long relationships with them and know how to do something beautiful with them. You don't have that with synthesisers yet. They are a very new instrument. They are constantly renewing so people do not have time to build long relationships with them. So you tend to hear more of the technology and less of the rapport. It can sound less human. However ! That is changing. And there is a prediction that I made a few years ago that I'm very pleased to see is coming true – synthesisers that have inconsistency built into them. I have always wanted them to be less consistent. I like it that one note can be louder than the note next to it."

In my opinion, there's s definitely cultural memory and history within the (modular) synthesizer world - e.g. the East/West coast divide - but the esotericism of a lot of synthesized music and the way that synthesizers camouflage themselves through their breadth of timbre has perhaps helped the synthesizer escape those broader cultural connotations (though perhaps esoteric and abstract synthesizer music is the only cultural repertoire and history there is.)

Do artists like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and the ambient modular artists represent a new cultural history/repertoire/baggage - popular modular music largely for the sake of modular or the fetishization of the instrument-as-form? (And is that instrument-as-form a bad thing?)
pinkandbluenoise
Another example!: Venetian Snares' "Traditional Synthesizer Music", with its reference Wendy Carlos / Switched-On Bach, troubles / explores what traditional synthesizer music is and whether it exists.
Arcana
I think there’s two considerations here: first, unlike the piano, the guitar, or most acoustic instruments, most people don’t actually know what synthesizers sound like. I think that is a huge part of the issue with “traditional” synthesizer music and is also largely related to the timbre issue you mentioned. If you showed someone the average synth soundtrack I feel most people would relate them closest to an associated acoustic sound rather than a synthesized one.

I do think though that there is a “traditional” synthesizer sound out there though: the 80s synthesized sound. Music from something like Stranger Things evoke this imagery, or Jump from Van Halen. That might be an unfair characterization for an instrument with so much sonic character, but, I think this is again related to the issue that synthesizers can sound like almost anything so people will tend to associate sounds that’s sound like other things to those things first before attributing it to the synthesizer.

The fetishization of gear kind of comes out of the fact that we all also know how it works and can talk about the difference between different types of stuff. “Oooh this synth has a great filter” “ooooh what a wonderful pulse wave” Lowe how cool is that FM synthesis Engine” “wow it can play samples??” Most normal people don’t know any of this stuff.

I think that pop music ends up shaping most people's view of traditional music. The fact that classical music predated and inspired a lot of pop music is kind of necessary - after all, classical music today was the “pop music” of the 1800s.
hinterlands303
This is super interesting to me! I've been having a long email exchange with a musician who is incredibly knowledgeable about all sorts of "traditional" music (they are a banjo player themselves) but is also pretty well versed in post-modern musical movements etc. They find it difficult to connect to electronic music because their experience of music relates to their context for it and also understanding the way an instrument is played - being able to imagine the musician in the act of playing the music. This is even more true when the voice is involved. When this friend of mine hears electronic music, however, they are completely unmoored. Without a context for how the sounds are made they have difficulty connecting to them. They can listen to Pauline Oliveros play a single note on an accordion for an hour and still feel connected to it because of the relationship between player and instrument, but if the same basic structure was played on a synthesizer they don't feel the same connection.

Also, living in Detroit, there is a sense of some electronic music (techno, in this case) having a very clear cultural history, even if it is only a few decades old. Techno, in the context of Detroit (and even within the context of a larger rave scene), certainly fits within the classification of folk music in how most of it was made (for the most part by musicians who learned how to make/play it outside of a classical education) and where it is listened to (in dance clubs rather than concert halls). And in a sense, it is has become "traditional" at least within certain circles, and so have some of the instruments (the 303 and 909 for instance).

Thanks for that Brian Eno quote! I'm going to pass it along.
cptnal
pinkandbluenoise wrote:
In my opinion, there's s definitely cultural memory and history within the (modular) synthesizer world - e.g. the East/West coast divide - but the esotericism of a lot of synthesized music and the way that synthesizers camouflage themselves through their breadth of timbre has perhaps helped the synthesizer escape those broader cultural connotations (though perhaps esoteric and abstract synthesizer music is the only cultural repertoire and history there is.)


I'm wondering whether these days it's helpful to think of the synthesizer as a single instrument. My "cultural memory" of the synthesizer is of washy Tangerine Dream-esque sounds, but someone who grew up with DX7s as their backdrop might have something else.

You might think of it like the difference between a violin and a cello. To an untutored ear they're both string instruments, but to the musicians they're completely different.

Which brings me full circle to the point made by Mr Eno (and I rarely have cause to disagree with him) about the rapport. Maybe it's more prominent in modular, but I think now musicians +do+ have a rapport with their instrument. Or the best ones do. Eno had one with his DX7s (one of the few that did). I'm also thinking of Richard Barbieri, who apparently didn't like to make the same sound twice.

Anyway, that just fell out my head. screaming goo yo
starthief
Fascinating thread!

There is some cultural history in electronic music, but it's young. Places and times do have their own general synth sounds, as people have pointed out.

Some instruments in synth history have their own distinctive cultural associations too -- Moog in general, Buchla in general, 303, 808, CS-80, DX7, etc. -- that synth geeks and some fans are aware of, but not the general public. But then, someone who is not into guitars probably cannot tell you the differences between a Strat and a Les Paul either (and other than general shape, I couldn't either).
Parnelli
If anything I'd think that modular would amount to sort of a "counter culture" of music! I mean how can such a young instrument have garnered any sort of "traditional" standing? How would you gauge it; by who plays it? By what they play? Those two alone would present such a diverse scale as to negate anything being called "traditional".

Think of the genres of music that modulars have been used in; classical, techno, pop, dance, and a host of other musical types. I suppose it isn't much different than say a guitar, which is also used in so many different types of music that it has been broken down into sub-categories like Classical and Rock guitar. Perhaps one day modular will be categorized as such, I don't know.

At the end of the day IMHO the most traditional aspect of modular may well be that it is used in so many non-traditional ways, and not limited by a number of strings and neck length, or the size of your manual, for it is the one instrument able to not only be unique in and of itself, but it also has the capability to mimic any other instrument, and that's a claim to fame that is held by no other.
modularblack
I personally think electronic music in general has a huge cultural history. Even in modular music many components are designed on how we are used to hear sound. The best example for this thesis are ADSRs. Who said, that ADSRs have to go up, then down, then stay and then down again? Why can't they go up, have some little wobbling time and then go up again, before going down?

ADSRs are designed to imitate sounds in the real world. There might be no sound in general we associate with synthesizers in general, but that doesn't mean we don't have expectation on which sounds sound natural and beautiful.

That said, this doesn't mean you can't rebel against common sound structures. There are people like Merzbow, who are far away from "good" or "right" sounding music. There is a huge community for aleatoric music (Random music) in the modular community. And ambient/drone music often ignores expectations we have with rhythm.


Another thing I realised through the (in my eyes unnecessary debate) about cultural appropriation, is that electronic music in general is (at least here in Germany) often performed and consumed by white people. This might be like this in Germany, because of 3 reasons:

1: Most POCs in Germany are Turks (and other People from muslim countrys) which came to west germany as foreign workers in the 60s to work in the era of the Wirtschaftswunder. They basically came with no money and no education to germany for work. This also means, they simply didn't have got the money to buy synths. And because poverty is inheritable, this also applies to their kids. This results in that most of migrant heritage musicians in germany are actually rappers. Simply because for rap, you need nothing but your own mouth. You don't need all these fancy stuff we have in our rigs to rap. Synth music is simply too expensive.

2: There aren't simply as many POCs in Germany like in other countrys, because germany began very late with colonisation due to being split in many micronations. Generally I've got the feeling the more you got east in europe the less POCs live there because of history.

3: Due to ghettoization, there are areas in Germany where are many POCs and some where are less. This might apply to the USA 10x harder than to germany, but this also applies to Germany a little bit e.g. Offenbach, the nearest city with payable rents to the Airport in Frankfurt, is home to 37% people without a german passport while only 4% of Germans have a migrant background. I personally wouldn't have started electronic music, if a good friend of mine wouldn't have shown me FL Studio and his father didn't show him either. When nobody in your area makes synthesizer music, it is very unlikely that you start with it.

(I know this can be interpreted, as if I'm racist, so here the disclaimer: Everybody should do what he wants to, regardless of the melanin percentage of their skin, not being white doesn't make you a bad synthesizer musician and what I've written doesn't apply to everyone, because in the end we're all individual humans with individual interests, just because there aren't as many POC-synth-musicians doesn't mean there are none.)

Another thing I objected is that the heritage of musicians can often be displayed in their music. For example Germans are known for having no feeling for backbeat rhythms. Typical German rhythms are straight forward with high accentuation on all quarter notes. This can also be seen in electronic music, many german techno tracks have very dominant kickdrums and often use claps rather as a one time event than a steady backbeat accentuation.
mg05
Quote:
"One of the important things about the synthesiser was that it came without any baggage. A piano comes with a whole history of music. There are all sorts of cultural conventions built into traditional instruments that tell you where and when that instrument comes from


In a big museum nearby me one can see very clearly the technological and cultural development starting from Cembalo- to Pianola-like instruments, Mellotron-like, self-build-university modular systems, Moogies, CR-78, old sample machines, etc. and since a few months ago a Novation-PC-Ableton-System represents more recent innovations.

Theremins, Theremin compositions and microtonal music start very early as well as the cable telephone broadcasting of the Telharmonic.
The Make Noise Telharmonic and and a lot of pattern generators are other examples for reflecting the cultural 'baggage' as well as the musician playing a synthesizer is not independend from his personal musical cultural history nor the engineers design instruments independend from their knowledge and history.

Quote:
You finish it when you tweak it, and play around with it, and decide how to use it. You can combine a number of cultural references into one new thing."

Applies for any acoustic instrument too?

Quote:
If you were sitting down now to design an instrument you would not dream of coming up with something as ridiculous as an acoustic guitar. It's a strange instrument, it's very limited and it doesn't sound good. You would come up with something much better.


When people invented harps some thousand years ago they did what they could imagine and build. Nobody thought about playing heavy metal with an electronic bass guitar rather chanting hymns to the gods and ecstatic dancing in mind.
Several years ago people start to think about how to play a portable organ in a rock concert but nobody was thinking in sound designing with a granular synthesizer.

Quote:
But what we like about acoustic guitars is players who have had long relationships with them and know how to do something beautiful with them. You don't have that with synthesisers yet.


A musician mastering his instrument (synthesiser) is probably able as good as any other musician to express the beauty of the relationship between the instrument and it's musician and the audience would notice.

Quote:
So you tend to hear more of the technology and less of the rapport. It can sound less human. However ! That is changing. And there is a prediction that I made a few years ago that I'm very pleased to see is coming true – synthesisers that have inconsistency built into them. I have always wanted them to be less consistent. I like it that one note can be louder than the note next to it."


Sounding more or less human is not possible. Human voice sounds normally human. A song played with a guitar sounds like a guitar song with small rhythmical irregularities and a sequenced synthesizer rhythm is very consistent. Whether one likes it more straight or more random is just matter of (cultural) taste.

The main difference of acoustic instruments is just playing (and designing) electronical instruments with their specific potential and limitations in our cultural context nowadays.

So synthesizer, synthesizer music and muscicians are basically not different to any other instruments, music and musicians.
jam457
pinkandbluenoise wrote:

[i]"One of the important things about the synthesiser was that it came without any baggage. A piano comes with a whole history of music. There are all sorts of cultural conventions built into traditional instruments that tell you where and when that instrument comes from.


I get why Brian is thinking this might be true but I suspect its wishful thinking. At the time it might have seemed like that because of all the massive possibilities of sound creation in a relatively new seeming instruments, but as mg05 basically implied its all relative and there is a trajectory.

Nothing is devoid of politics, history, or context, if anything the synthesizers cultural baggage is the same as all technological developments: various wars/arms races, the military/industrial complex, accelerating capitalism, and the beginning of massive environmental degradation.

Also.... maybe Im missing something but significant effort has gone into developing synthesizers to do exactly what brian says they are not doing, usually to make them commercially viable. The reason why something like the minimoog was able to be so prolific and successful is it had a keyboard on it that basically reminded people of a piano.

Im not totally disagreeing with Brian Eno or anything though... I just feel like that quote lacks a lot of nuance.
ranix
Synthesizers were finally an instrument I could use without comparing myself unfavorably to Bach, since it was the first instrument he never used! That is, until Wendy Carlos came along and ruined everything lol
luchog
I think Eno is a little off-base. Synthesizers do have a history, and they do have cultural associations. It's also better to think of synthesizers as a "family" of instruments, rather than as a single instrument.

Most traditional instruments have a very long history and path of evolution, with few branches. Violins have their origins in much older instruments, which evolved over time into the modern Violin variants, as well as Violas, and Cellos. Others are composite instruments borrowing from multiple evolutionary paths. For example, the Saxophone, a historically recent instrument, less than two hundred years old, but which borrows from much older traditions -- the single reed and mouthpiece of a Clarinet; the brass construction, conical bore, and stops similar to an Ophicleide, fingering similar to other woodwinds and wind instruments like the Flute.

Synthesizers have a much shorter history, but precursors can be traced back nearly as long as the Saxophone; such as the Telharmonium, Theramin, and in particular the Trautonium. Sound synthesis goes back even farther, to the electric sound eplorations of Alexander Grahame Bell.

There have been numerous branchings, particularly throughout the '40s and '50s. And today, as others have noted, there are two primary branches of sound synthesis the "East vs. West Coast", and a myriad of variation of those, creating probably the largest single instrument family, with greater variation than any other.

What I think is truly unique about synthesizers is the lack of dependence on traditional musical forms. Despite the imposition of a traditional keyboard on some variations, most notably the Moog family, others lacked that tradition, and were far more flexible in their playing style, eg. the Trautonium, whose lack of traditional instrument structure was echoed in the later "West Coast" design epitomized by Buchla.

While the history and cultural impact of synthesizers may be shorter than most traditional instruments, it's definitely just as rich and complex, and even more diverse.
ranix
a pipe organ is an additive synthesizer
big job head
Very interesting thread.
For my point of view, the statements of Eno are just not true just because you don't need a synthesizer to create new sounds and to do sound design.
People have been experimenting with tapes and telecommunication equipment a long time before he did touch a synth.
Synthesizers are just a tools amongst others, an instruments with his own history and "rules" like every other instrument.
I think a synthesizer is a finished instrument (even a modular one) and you don't really decide how to use it, there are just a lot more possibilities than say a harpsichord.

I don't the think the instrument-as-form will ever exist but some kind of music are related to a particular instrument. Rock and guitar for exemple.
In that way, synthesizer are traditional in electronic music family.
So artists like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and the ambient modular artists do of course represent a new cultural history/repertoire/baggage, but as much as somebody like Daniel Lanois with his guitar. Same kind of music, different tools. the music itself is the cultural object.

a bit of topic but i think the east coast/west coast divide isn't relevant at all for sound design, it's just an opposition of two point of view (of it's time and in a very specific context). It's like being listening only 2 people talking within a group of 50. Sound design is so much more than that (physical modeling, fft, field recording editing, etc, etc).

(hope i made myself clear, i'm not very fluent in english but this subject is fascinating!!!)
Urubu
big job head wrote:

Synthesizers are just a tools amongst others, an instruments with his own history and "rules" like every other instrument.
I think a synthesizer is a finished instrument (even a modular one) and you don't really decide how to use it, there are just a lot more possibilities than say a harpsichord.


I’ve just arrived to this amazing world of modular synths so who am I to say this but I completely disagree with you.

I’m not even sure if a modular synthesizer can correctly be defined as an instrument in the classical meaning of the word even less a finished one.

In the right hands, modular synths are indeed capable of limitless musical possibilities but on the otherhand, an Instrument, is defined by exactly the opposite, instruments are inherently limited.

I believe the only way to look at this problem is to define intrument, not by WHAT IT IS but by WHAT IT IS NOT.

For something to be a specific intrument, it must NOT be something.Dead Banana

Therefor, you could in theory create a modular synth that is a finished intrument and that would require that after you define what it means to be finished you wouldnt add a single more module to it and by doing so, restrain it and making of it an instrument.

...and from what I’ve been reading in this amazing week of synth discovery, it seams nobody in the history of humanity was able to stop adding and changing modules, Guinness ftw! so, yeah modular is by definition an unfinished something, because we are all humans and we are never happy.

Then there is the case for the ultimate synth, which would be able to produce any sound imaginable and unimaginable, the sounds that everybody is looking for but no one can find and the most perfect sequencer.
Would that finally be a finished intrument?

No man, that would just be...Music! Rockin' Banana!
cptnal
I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it. Guinness ftw!

Defining anything negatively (i.e. by what it isn't) is never a good idea. Generally. Just not. zombie

But it's an interesting point. With what other "instrument" could you compose an entire muti-voiced piece, that changes over time, and that can effectively perform itself once it's been set up?

In these fora I've seen the words "environment" and "system" used, which I think is more appropriate than "instrument". I certainly approach mine as if it were a collection of instruments - a studio in a box - rather than a single thing.

On the other hand there are those who will use the flexibility of modular to create their own "custom" instrument - a single voice with elements they've chosen themselves. This also rocks. SlayerBadger!

So yes and no. Neither and both. All of the above. This is why we love modular. This is fun!
luchog
Urubu wrote:
I’m not even sure if a modular synthesizer can correctly be defined as an instrument in the classical meaning of the word even less a finished one.

In the right hands, modular synths are indeed capable of limitless musical possibilities but on the otherhand, an Instrument, is defined by exactly the opposite, instruments are inherently limited.

I believe the only way to look at this problem is to define intrument, not by WHAT IT IS but by WHAT IT IS NOT.


It's not possible to define something by a negative, because your definition must inherently be open-ended, and therefore unusably complicated.

It's a better to say that an instrument is defined by its limitations. There is a core characteristic to every instrument.

For example, in simple terms a saxophone is a long, belled, conical tube, typically made of brass, with a set of harmonically spaced finger stops, whose sound is produced by the mechanical vibration of a single reed induced by the passage of air, the tone of which is modified (again, mechanically) by the tube and finger stops.

In similarly simple terms, a modular synthesizer is an instrument whose sound is created by the oscillations of electrical voltage and current, created by a particular configuration of electronic hardware, which modifies the tone of said oscillations through the use of additional electronic hardware, and which is eventually produced by the vibration of a electricity-driven speaker mechanism.

That defines the nature and limitations of the instrument. A saxophone cannot modify sound electronically, and a synthesizer cannot modify the sound through mechanical means.

As to whether it's a "finished" instrument, it's really no more or less "finished" than any other, since synthesizers are not a single "instrument" any more than a saxophone or guitar is. All are families of instruments, with multiple variations, and synthesizers, particularly modular synthesizers, are a much more varied family than pretty much any other. To me, it makes more sense to think of them this way, as families of instruments, rather than a monolithic "synthesizer" abstract.
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