Elektronička muzika za posljednjeg divljeg indijanca.
Whether or not time is circular, both life and matter move in cycles. Some have short periods; you breathe, blink your eyes, drink water, acquire food. They interact with longer cycles, infusing these biological needs with social obligations, desire and fulfillment. Behind them are political, economic, social cycles: the wax and wane of political systems, freedom and bondage, wealth and equality, artistic and philosophical dialectics, the conquest of space and its return to nature. Ecosystems cycle in masses of births and deaths, consumption and excretion, growth and decay. Stars and systems form out of dust clouds, grow, burst, and die, ejecting their material into space to become new star systems that will form, grow, burst, and die. From the micro to the macro, we walk in ellipses. Yet something is preserved against the cosmic microwave background; despite all the cycles wheeling around us and through us, our initial state can largely determine our direction. We are unequivocally unique, in that we each arrived at our own moment.
The modular synthesizer is uniquely equipped to emulate this cyclicality, since many of its components express themselves as cycles or patterns. These patterns can then interact with one another, shaping other cycles, which in turn shape still more cyclical elements. Sound itself is a constantly shifting cycle: a waveform, which synthesizers generate with oscillators of varying frequencies. On Ishi, M. Geddes Gengras has constructed a massive patch of shifting cycles that plays out in different forms across its three tracks. The constancy of these interactions animating his synthesizer means that nothing ever stands still, and yet refrains recur over long periods and larger spaces
In 1911, a man walked out of a California forest into the early stages of modern American civilization. This man, last of his tribe, finally decided to make contact with the European, now American, people who built on the lands his tribe once walked. In doing so, Ishi — which in Yahi (his tribe) means “man” — subjected the cycles and patterns of his life to the scrutiny of Berkeley anthropologists, disrupting many of them, and died within five years. The patterns that seem most comfortable to us, the rhythms that guide us through the modern world, feel drastically different to outsiders. Some start in positions so outside the larger social cycles in which we operate that those cycles destroy them upon exposure. Even within our society, patterns spit people into the gutter while others leisurely glide up the wave to the penthouse. Ishi’s heartbreaking story rhymes conceptually with the story of two of Gengras’ friends’ stories, for whom Ishi is a eulogy (as Gengras revealed in an interview with Vice). Gengras’ gentle manipulation of the patterns that govern his patches lulls their outsider souls to rest, revealing those vicious cycles we tread as cogs in a cosmic music box.
Some patterns eventually seem to subside totally when the many elements that propel and amplify those patterns cycle out. Despite the beauty of Ishi, it contains within it notes of sorrow. Gengras emphasizes music’s most tragic quality: its evanescence. Even in pieces built almost entirely on cyclical elements (with a bit of randomness thrown in to slightly destabilize the mixture), the interaction between these elements reveal that, though sounds do return, they are almost always changed in their absence into a new form. Music itself is constantly disappearing even as we continue to listen. Like flowing water, it escapes us just as we try to hold it. And we can never bathe in its stream twice. Ishi’s beauty is in its peacefulness; despite all the flux, despite loss, it continues calmly forward, never remaining static, never despairing.
Although Ishi changes mostly in subtle ways across its course, these subtle shifts come to symbolize events of great importance. It’s as if Gengras’ system recognizes these tragic events as part of a greater process, codifying them into a larger, beautiful whole. They exist at the margin of the work, but the work incorporates them into its grace. It passes them to the other side, conveys them across the threshold into a much larger cycle, so vast that against it we seem like so much dust with only a spark of energy moving us about. Perhaps that’s the function of elegy — it reveals to the creator and the audience the certainty of passage from the life cycle into the cosmic one, which we all forget that we move in constantly. Elegy assures us of the departed’s constancy, their indelible mark on existence, and reveals to us the greater motion that gave rise to us. Ishi may be a lullaby, calling Ishi’s and Gengras’ friends to rest, but ultimately it imparts a peace to all who oscillate within the flux of the universe. - Matthew Phillips
M. Geddes Gengras Makes Electronic Music for the Last Wild Indian
by Blake Butler
For more than seven years, M. Geddes Gengras has been a staple of the LA experimental music scene, producing and recording a wide array of work alongside the likes of Sun Araw, Akron/Family, and Pocahaunted. The 17 albums he has on his Bandcamp page often consist of drone-like sounds made with a moog and synth. The feeling I get from such a catalog of work is something like a computer asleep and orgasming at the same time, conjuring weird worlds of sound that mutate and bleed and dig out tunnels through one another, vibing the fuck out.
Gengras’s latest record, Ishi, to be released from Leaving Records on June 24, takes its name from “the last wild Indian,” a man who appeared from out of the wilderness in 1911, having survived late into his 40s completely unexposed to civilization. Also inspired by the death of two friends, Ishi opens wide and swallows the listener in a vast glimmering field, somewhere between Eluvium and Tim Hecker living under a sea of electronic water.
Gengras was kind enough to answer some questions via email about his creative and performance processes, as well as the recording of Ishi.
VICE: Watching you control and manipulate sound using a modular synth has a very different feeling compared with watching, say, a guy with a guitar play. Do you feel there is a different emotional quality there, an almost surgical feel, versus jamming out with an ax?
Gengras: I feel like that's a common perception of it, but maybe that has a lot to do with our history of music and its performance. The guitar mode has been so dominant for the last 70 years that bass and even some keyboards have adapted toward a similar portable, wearable form. And the freedom that is afforded performers who can roam the stage with their instruments makes people tied to their stage position seem pretty boring in comparison. I spent a lot of time playing drums in bands—another instrument where you are stuck in one spot—but I liked to think about it as a focal point for energy that you could just build and build over the course of the set. Modular synth is a lot like guitar in that small movements can create small or large change, immediately or over time. I also think the look of the instrument has a lot to do with that—to most people it looks more like an amateur science experiment than a synthesizer. I've done a lot of shows opening for more traditionally equipped “bands,” and many times I don't think entire segments of the audience were aware that I was even performing. They probably thought I was a roadie and the DJ was shitting the bed.
I like the idea of thinking of playing the drums as building within a space. Is where you record a specific piece of music very important to its mood? Where was Ishi recorded?
Except for the odd trip to Jamaica or an occasional session at a friend's place, I record everything at home. I have a decent sized extra bedroom in the house I'm in now, for a studio space, and I did the record here. After years of buying lots of goofy pedals and cheap keyboards and guitars on Craigslist while all my 4-tracks ground to a halt under a film of spilled beer, a couple years back I put a little chunk of money into a couple of nice preamps with good converters and some fun, studio-friendly outboard gear, so I'm pretty set as far as anything I might really need to make my music. In that respect it's incredibly important, because I’m usually recording or editing almost every day and having those tools at my disposal gives me the freedom to create off of a schedule. But the vibe of the room is certainly important—I keep all the records in here because I figure they make for good absorption. I also burn a lot of incense, have good lighting, a rug, and a comfortable chair. These things are really crucial because I spend a lot of time in here.
How do you approach the layout of a record like Ishi? Specifically, what did you know going in about what you wanted it to be, and what rules emerged along the way? The performances the record was built around were selected from a pool of six that were all made around the same time and with similar intent. As I began the post-performance process of manipulation and expansion, these pieces floated to the top. They naturally fell into place: The first piece is the thesis statement, the second is the conflict, and the third piece is epilogue. The bonus track is actually an outlier, as it was the first piece of music made in the series and acts as a sort of amorphous playground for those ideas. On a purely emotional level, there were very specific states I wanted to evoke and some trauma I was trying to work through. Beyond that, one idea led to another, and the whole thing evolved in a very natural way.
You said somewhere that to some extent a written piece played through a modular synth “performs itself”? Could you elaborate on that?
When I talk about writing a piece, I feel like maybe this needs clarification, because the wording lends itself to a different understanding. The music I make isn't composed in the traditional sense (sounds arranged in predetermined orders), nor is it improvised—it's generative, which means that my role in it is to conceptualize and implement a set of constraints and event/signal chains that will output music with the desired emotional effect. Synthesizers are built around cycles; from the LFOs to the VCOs, sequencers are usually expressed as circles or pendulums. Once a process is initiated it generally continues until you tell it to stop. With creative programming, infinite variation isn't difficult to arrive at. Even three or four out-of-sync cycles can create almost endless variation. So I begin with that, then try to sculpt it into something that sounds like music to me.
What goes into developing a system for an individual piece of music that places some of the creative decisions on the machine, rather than on yourself?
Use of random or quasi-random sources mixed with fixed cycles (like a sequencer or LFO), creating constantly evolving combinations of notes and sounds. Most of the processes are controlled through other parts of the synth—for instance, when I manipulate a sample with a joystick, a trigger signal could be generated any time I touch it, with those pulses clocking other elements. Arranging small or simpler patches in “rings” like this allows changes to migrate around an entire patch, and changes on one side have unforeseen effects elsewhere.
Could you provide an example of the synthesis of a constraint and/or event signal chain? Like with what kind of impulse does the idea begin when writing, and how do you work toward knowing what each next instance in the chain will be?
There are a certain amount of “voices” (on average around 8 to 12, depending on configuration) in my system, mostly analog and digital voltage-controlled oscillators, but other things too, like samples or a drum module. I start with timbre, so somewhere in one or a combination of those elements, plus modifiers, such as filters, voltage-controlled amplifiers, phase, delay, etc. I either find the sound I’m trying to make or come up on something else that is interesting in that pursuit. The fully modular (no two parts are hardwired to each other in any way) nature of the instrument allows me to combine any of these things in pretty much any meaningful way, while providing no "stock" or pre-set options to do it. Compare this with an average software synth, which might have ten times the voices/operators available, but you basically have to unbuild something to start from scratch, and in most cases you aren't provided with the options to make "bad" or "wrong" patches. There are obvious benefits to both things, but starting with a blank slate and having to turn basically the same X amount of voices, Y of modifiers, Z of control modules into a system that creates something that sounds like music while being different from the one before—that just really inspires me creatively.
What about albums? What albums most inspired your approach to synth-based music?
Anything by Parmegiani and Pierre Henry (though La Création du Monde and Prismes are my respective faves) as far as pure sound and its organization goes. Angus Maclise's rhythm without accent. Space, time, and the motion of both come from King Tubby and Brian Eno. The ecstatic cool fluidity and infinite melody of Alice Coltrane and Terry Riley.
Do you think machines have souls?
God, I hope not. But they definitely have character. - www.vice.com/read/m-geddes-gengras-makes-electronic-music-for-the-last-wild-indian
NEW PROCESS MUSIC (2013)
eight pieces for modular synthesizer and multivox tape echo. originally conceived as a follow-up to 'THE EMPTY SPACE', using many of the techniques first explored in that album to create a more condensed & organized work.