I Dream Of Wires – Berlin Premiere [28.7.15]

I Dream of Wires 3

On the 28th JulyI Dream Of Wires celebrated its release premiere in Berlin. Hosted at Babylon Kino in the central district of Mitte, the evening consisted of a screening of the film, followed by a live Q&A with director Robert Fantinatto and legendary musician Morton Subotnick (moderated by Atari Teenage Riot front-man Alec Empire), as well as a live performance from Subotnick in an immersive V/A collaboration with Lillevan.

As the theatre filled up, the cinema’s organist rolled out old rag-time tunes beside the stage, a rare traditional retroism that off-set the film’s subject matter in a strangely amiable manner. The documentary’s opening scenes were very much expressive of the other-worldly, future-looking sentiments of which modular synthesizers portrayed. At a time when the world was beginning to change at an increasingly alarming rate, modular synthesizers somewhat expressed and reflected these uncertain times, with their intimidating nu-age machine interfaces and the utterly bizarre sounds that they were capable of producing. A pair of hands energetically patched cables, flashing lights, the turning of nobs. Quick cuts and erratic camera work accompanied strange machine rumblings, as the narrator established the scene.

Audience 2

The balance between interviews and historical narration worked really well to tell the story, and the inclusion of more dance-leaning musicians such as Carl Craig and Legowelt, alongside Morton Subotnick and Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) illustrated the breadth of not only the instruments’ capabilities but also their intrigue. While parts of the documentary delved deep into the mysteries of artistic creativity, Fantinatto also switched up the mood with some humorous moments too – notably when Subotnick recalls the release of his seminal LP Silver Apples Of The Moon: “I walked in and asked for Silver Apples and the guy said ‘we don’t have any left. I don’t know why people keep asking for it, it’s a piece of shit'” – moments like this had the whole audience laughing.

Morton Subotnik

Morton Subotnick

Rather than a fanatical account of a niche obsession, which can easily be done in this context, the film achieved a warmth and informativeness that chronicled this hugely fascinating movement. The candid story-telling from that of Subotnick, William Maginnis and Ramon Sender (amongst others) really helped to communicate not only the rather insular nature of their passion, but also the ethereal escapism that the world of modular synthesizers offered. The individual nature of using and experimenting with the technology gave way to the highly individual minds that were producing these sounds; indeed, understanding the ‘DIY’ nature of harnessing this technology explained how, through blind experimentation, an unbounded creative process could end up producing highly individual and original music.

Another salient feature of the documentary was the rivalry and eventual divergence of the Moog and Buchla synthesizers. The competitive engagement between both companies turned out to be fruitful. The need to drive the technology forward and provide for an existing and quietly growing market pushed for further innovation, driving Moog and Buchla to develop their technologies to even more sophisticated levels. Sadly, however, this resulted in the Buchla receding into obscurity due to its unwieldiness, as Moog consciously updated his machines to cater to the known specific needs of the musicians using them.

Interviews with the artists that used this gear really illuminated the issues associated with the Moog-Buchla divide. One particular instance of this is when Subotnick recalls the addition of the keyboard on the Moog synth as being limiting to his creative faculty: “I said right from the get-go: I don’t want a black and white keyboard […] If i got a keyboard, I was going to produce regular music. That’s not what I wanted to do”; though the decision on whether to add a keyboard to the synthesizer was hugely debated, arguably this philosophy paid its dividends for Subotnick, not least for producing the first ever published piece of electronic music – quite a feat for an album of avant-garde music in 1967. Conversely, the addition of a keyboard made modular synthesizers accessible to the normal musician, and ended up becoming the reason for Moog’s huge commercial success.

The trajectory of the modular synth, first from little-known beginnings, to becoming a trending fashion piece with music’s international elite (everyone, from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones), and then to eventually fall back into obscurity is at once a fascinating and turbulent history. However, acknowledging the resurgence of modular synthesizers and their renewed accessibility in today’s world, it is clear that the story is not yet over.

The live Q&A that followed the screening was also informative and entertaining. Questions were largely varied but Subotnick and Fantinatto answered them with engaged and open minds. One particular answer stood out when discussing the integration of technology and humans, with Subotnick stating: “it’s not a brain thing, it’s a muscular thing”, with reference to the physical and musical connection between synthesizer and human. I found this to be quite poignant, as all creation begins as an abstract idea of the mind, but the true creation and manifestation of it is found in the physicality of the relationship with the machine – this seemed all the more significant when the world has made such a seismic shift into digital technologies, seemingly laying absent the original physicality of producing music and art. Subotnick also highlighted an often overlooked aspect of electronic music in the sense that progression is often attributed to technological affordances, yet Subotnick quite profoundly flipped this around: “Instruments never developed because of science… It came because people made music.” Further speculating on the future integration of technology and the human body rekindled and evaluated the ever pressing relationship between ‘man and machine’.

Synth 2

Once the Q&A had ended people flooded into the foyer where a mini-synth workstation was set up for people to play with. This interactive element of the evening was nice to consolidate some of what was expressed in the movie, and kept some people occupied while waiting for the final part of the evening to commence.

The short interval made way for an absolutely stunning performance from Subtonik and Lillevan. It was a long evening already, but as soon as the pair started the audience locked back into concentration, sitting in stark darkness as they unfolded their synthetic journey into space. What was precisely so engaging about this performance was the use of their modular gear; there was a feeling that really this kind of performance just can’t be achieved through a more conventional method. Some sounds were disorienting, so far abstracted from the sounds of our usual parlance that they immediately demanded careful attention. Silhouettes on stage were marked by the low purple light glowing from the machines as well as the overhead screen where accompanying visuals were being projected; hands moved slowly and deliberately under the violet incandescence, adjusting, sculpting, creating.

Aside from the musical content, it was actually the marriage of the visuals that really brought this performance to another level. The performance opened with mysterious undulations, while quiet scuttling panned round the room, like a creature of the night navigating through the foliage. Up on the screen footage of flowing water spilled into itself in a flurry of overlays. Progression is made as quietly probing synths are undermarked by echoes of the underworld. Ghostly embryonic shapes slide and pulse like a breathing organism as the music itself grows and breathes, organic, unwritten. Certain passages are truly chilling, while at others moments of chaos and unrest rise through, only to retreat back into the darkness. At times the performance was spellbinding, at others almost terrifying, while everyone sat entranced, breath held. Surprise appearances of major harmonies take an unsuspecting turn into the light, brightening the atmosphere and alleviating the angst that had previously built up.

Morton Subotnick Performance 4

The gig was split into two performances, with the second one more upbeat and erratic – matched with faster visuals of grey, blue and black that seemed to mirror the less clearly defined sections. This performance was shorter, and although a great contrast to the previous piece, didn’t quite match the magical atmosphere of the first.

It’s not everyday that you get to enjoy such a holistic experience all in one evening. The success of this event is evident in the sense that for those who have no prior knowledge or experience with modular synthesizers, this event pulled them into this immersive world on a whirlwind tour, and almost certainly left them wanting more…

Morton Subotnick Performance 5

 You can purchase a copy of ‘I Dream Of Wires’ here, and the documentary is also now available on Netflix (US only), iTunes, VOD, and Vimeo.