Music box dancer

Tracks by Dan Tepfer, Caterina Barbieri, Kallisti and others, wise words from Orson Welles, the punk-rock anti-Pro Tools of techno production and more.

Kallisti, “Alright,” The Rave Is Not a Sacred Space (B&R Records)

Anyone who’s poked around the electronic musical instrument community in the past decade or so will have noticed the vintage and modular synthesizer’s explosion in popularity. This also means an explosion in price, making many of the more sought after instruments prohibitively expensive for most musicians — the ones who don’t have their own private planes, that is. That’s why trackers are cool. Trackers are software-based sampler-sequencers with arcane, hexadecimal interfaces. Nerds used them in the 1980s, mostly to program video game soundtracks. They save files in proprietary and sometimes obsolete formats. They’re often complicated and intimidating for the non-technically minded. But the silver lining is that most trackers can be found online for free, or for a small donation to their programmers. It’s encouraging to see that people are still using trackers in the face of all this fancy synth one-upmanship. I think of trackers as the punk-rock anti-Pro Tools of techno production, proving that you don’t need a small fortune to make your own bedroom bangers.

CCL x Flora FM, “Winding Plod,” Missives (Bandcloud)

Bandcloud, the weekly email newsletter run by Irish techno enthusiast Aidan Hanratty, recently released its first charitable compilation of original music, aptly titled Missives, a nod to the mostly epistolary nature of cultural interaction in the age of social media. It has become cliché to say that Facebook and Twitter have changed the way we interact, have brought out the worst in people and provided platforms for ugly ideas to proliferate. Or that Instagram and Snapchat make us shallow and superficial, hopelessly competitive, presenting unrealistic versions of ourselves to the world. What Hanratty does seems in opposition to all of that noise. Bandcloud rounds up music that might not have existed were it not for these frequently awful social networks. Certainly, the artists who contributed to Missives produced this assemblage of tracks for a community that is largely held together by wi-fi. It’s not the technology that is inherently good or bad; it’s what we do with it that matters.

Fischerle & Persuasion, “Inlet,” Winter Studies (Idioms)

“I think if an artist wants to pontificate, he ought to get off in another area than his own shop. I don’t believe that a professional is the best critic; I believe in amateurism and an amateur approach to criticism — and to everything.”
—Orson Welles, The Paris Interview, 1960

Dan Tepfer, “Constant Motion,” Natural Machines (Sunnyside)

In the late 1990s, what now feels like several lifetimes ago if it was a day, I used to make electronic dance music using a Windows 95 PC with a SoundBlaster 16 card and FastTracker II. Even then, it was like the Millennium Falcon, duct taped together, modified by hand, crashing all the time. It’s unthinkable today to imagine opening up the guts of an Apple laptop, but my computer tower didn’t even have a casing on it, because it was constantly under construction. I played in a band with a friend named Tony. We called ourselves Swooop Audio. With three Os. That seemed important.

One night, Tony and I were playing live at a nightclub in downtown Edmonton called Vicious Pink. Vicious Pink was a short-lived combination goth/gay bar, and one of few places that booked live electronic acts. There were DJs galore in town, but nobody knew what to do with two guys with computers. We certainly didn’t look like a band, especially to the Edmonton crowd, who really needed to see a blues outfit onstage doing Stevie Ray Vaughan covers to believe that real music was being made. But there we were, two dorks on a stage, running our sequences in sync, the blue flash of our computer screens reflecting across our pasty faces.

During the set, somebody from the audience came up and stood right beside us, looking over our shoulders as we clicked tracks off and on, mixing sounds in and out, cycling though patterns on our respective machines. “It’s like a music box!” he exclaimed with excitement. He was right. That’s exactly what it was.

Caterina Barbieri, “Fantas,” Ecstatic Computation (Editions Mego)

There are two things that bring me immense joy in this world, two things which can pluck me out of any sad or sorry state: gardens and music. In a recently published posthumous op-ed in The New York Times, the late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote that they were the only two types of “non-pharmaceutical therapy” that he ever found effective. As I watch my garden come in for the season, I can’t help but see the connection between the two. A beautifully tended garden is like a symphonic masterpiece, and vice versa. In nature, one can see the patterns and meters that recur in the most pleasing of melodic compositions. Musical forms and currents appear to grow and mutate like leaves branching further from the trunk of a great tree — always similar but never exactly the same. “Music and poetry is of such sovereign importance,” wrote Plato in Book III of The Republic: “Rhythm and attunement sink especially deep into the innermost soul and take the strongest hold there, bearing gracefulness to it and making it graceful.” ■