'I Dream of Wires', Like Its Subject, Is Large, Intimidating and Multi-faceted

by John Garratt

28 August 2015

Before the film's halfway point, you are not dreaming of wires, you are in the wires.
 
cover art

I Dream of Wires

Director: Robert Fantinatto
Cast: Patti Schmidt, Trent Reznor, Gary Numan, Carl Craig, Morton Subotnick, Vince Clarke

(First Run Features)
US DVD: 4 Aug 2015
UK DVD: 31 Jul 2015

Our current state of technology is a peculiar one. As the scope of modern technology’s capabilities broadens to levels that would certainly baffle our ancestors, the devices carrying out these marvelous changes are shrinking. It doesn’t matter if you are comparing mid-20th century super computers to the common laptop or the average size of the current smartphone held up to the popular cellphone model just 20 years ago, it’s clear to see that data sizes and device sizes are racing in opposite directions. We like things to be small, accessible, and capable of more tasks than any previous electronic device.

Modular synthesizers don’t fit into this framework at all. They started out as large instruments and they remain large. The technological breakthroughs inside the world of synthesizers happened at a relatively slower rate than other technologies. While our phones have become miniature laptops, GPS devices, and cameras, modular synthesizers continue to be modular synthesizers with only modest embellishments along the way. As time has passed, these mammoth tools continued to eschew accessibility while finding favor among collectors, historians, engineers, designers, and musicians who are serious about their electronic music.

Robert Fattinatto’s documentary I Dream of Wires briefly (96 minutes) tracks the history of the modular synthesizer from its beginnings to the present day. That’s quite a bit of information to cram into a limited amount of time. Hence, the longer you stay with I Dream of Wires, the more the film takes on the nature of the very instrument it is documenting: large, intimidating, multi-faceted, and geared towards the enthusiast. Before the film’s halfway point, you are not dreaming of wires, you are in the wires—whether you understand what’s going on or not.

Fattinatto and his co-producer Jason Amm set themselves up for a sprint by taking the start of the story all the way back to the commercialization of electricity. They waste no time hopping from common household electricity to the dawn of computers, followed by the introduction of electronically produced music as if it were the next logical step for said machines.

A building on Columbia University’s campus, previously used as a secret headquarters for the Manhattan Project, becomes home base for academics equipped with a knack for tireless tinkering. A quiet race is on for the electronic manifestation of music. Robert Moog had his mail-order service of build-it-yourself theramin kits, which he used to bankroll his own lofty inventions, adapting the “east coast philosophy” of synthesizers (switches and knobs with a single function). Surrounded by hippies, Don Buchla developed his own groovy synthesizer model in Berkeley, California, adopting a corresponding “West Coast philosophy” (features carrying more than one function). Columbia University, meanwhile had the RCA Mark II, a room-sized synthesizer forever bolted to the concrete floor.

It’s roughly at this point where the film’s viewers can be divided into the genuinely interested and the hopelessly confused. From here, I Dream of Wires only increases the voltage.

The Moog model of synthesizers unassumingly became the standard. The addition of a conventional keyboard, the development of an easily controlled oscillator and the unleashing of a voltage control filter were all revolutionary shots in the arm for what was still a very fresh and radical instrument. The modular synthesizer’s acclamation to mainstream music was predictably slow.

Composers and musicians alike loved to fiddle around with the instrument’s capabilities, but a large price tag kept them among professional music’s elite class. Around the time transistors were becoming commonplace, I Dream of Wires briefly zooms in on two albums that were to become very different cornerstones of electronic music. Composer Morton Subotnick walks us through the complicated arithmetic that gave birth to the sequences of Silver Apples of the Moon, a large, abstract swirl of sound if there ever was one.

 

Subotnick’s thunder was snatched away by Walter Carlos’ Switched on Bach, a record that people like Subotnick and Daniel Miller (of The Normal/founder of Mute Records) found to be overly conservative. With such wide-ranging sonic capabilities at Carols’ disposal, why did he record such archaic material? And why was this ancient music such a hit with everyone? Looking back, it’s plain that there needed to be a link from the strange world of synthesized noise to the world of commercial music. Silver Apples of the Moon was not going to be that link. Even Subotnick understood that Carlos’ record was just as qualified to be labeled “electronic music” as his record was.

The various musical diversions that occur during the synthesizer’s gradual rise are treated as nuisances. Punk rock is discussed as a backwards art form where radical social thinking met technological conservatism. Chris Carter of Throbbing Gristle explains that, by building his own equipment, he was exerting more effort than the punks who were accusing him of just “pushing buttons”. There are those who saw Robert Moog’s development of the Mini Moog as a step backwards for the synthesizer scene. Even Moog himself didn’t seem too thrilled with the idea that he had just helped streamline synthesizer technology for the working musician. The large hardware was becoming for “show” in the manner of Keith Emerson. A computer singing “A Bicycle for Two” foreshadowed the digitization of electronic sounds. The synclavier and the Fairlight, the latter both being praised by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and Vince Clarke of Erasure, are now perceived as early destroyers of analog technology.

What happened next was something that, if it didn’t disgust every subject interviewed for the film, they hid their feelings through pragmatic explanation. It was the development and swift rise of the Yamaha DX7. If the early modular synthesizers were Yellowstone National Park, the Yamaha DX7 was Disneyland. It was small, inexpensive, and loaded with preset sounds. Narrator Patti Schmidt says the DX7 hit the synthesizer business “like a tsunami”. “I hated the sound of them” said Miller. “There was nothing organic about sitting at a DX7 and poking at numbers into a field,” complains composer Drew Neumann. Reznor calls it the “birth of the primitive workstation. Interesting new sounds took a backseat to cheaply-made junk that could do lots of things half-assed but not anything with any character.”

“The 1980s were dark time for modular synthesizers” narrates Schmidt as the camera points out the side window of a car, capturing generic urban decay in black and white as it drives. Oh, brother. But before you have time to feel too badly, the story snaps back into the late ‘80s acid house movement where new life was being breathed into old synthesizers. By this point, regardless of your opinion about electronic music, you will find yourself toasting the instrument’s slight return. Analog was on the rise again, but big modular models were going the “vintage” route where obsessive designers and enthusiastic collectors sniff out old parts and swap secrets at the various “meets” that happen around the world.

This is when the film’s “love fest” component settles in for the long haul. Analog synthesizers aren’t just a neat instrument, they are an object of obsession! Everyone’s affection starts to run high as I Dream of Wires takes the story through present day. In-concert footage of synthesizers in action leans on dance-heavy acts, with only an artist like Keith Fullerton Whitman demonstrating anything truly daring.

 

The DVD of I Dream of Wires comes some generous extras. There’s an extended interview with Trent Reznor and his Nine Inch Nails colleague Alessandro Cortini where they expound on the points that were lightly touched upon in the film. “Made in Canada” gives the Canadian enthusiasts (the designers who barely break even while practicing their love of modular synthesizer design) who otherwise get a slight mention in I Dream of Wires.

The “making” of the film’s soundtrack is, despite the score’s high quality and originality, not very enlightening. Jason Amm, a.k.a. Solvent, gives you a rudimentary walk-through of his thought process for creating musical cues to match specific synthesizer concepts, but the most intriguing aspects of that extra probably ended up on the cutting room floor. The three music videos from Solvent are more stimulating.

There’s one feature designed to make the synthesizer nerds and Erasure fans alike salivate: a tour of Vince Clarke’s private studio. Wow, this guy has collected quite a bit of hardware over the years. The footage feels like it’s boiled down to a highlight reel, where Clarke and Amm are shown discussing only the rarest of gear. And if at any point you were confused during I Dream of Wires, there’s a quick and dirty tutorial of modular synthesizer basics plainly named “Modular Synth 101”. At the end, the voice-over advises you to forget everything you just learned, freeing you up to just noodle around.

I’ve been told that I Dream of Wires grew out of a much larger project, and that’s very easy to believe. The history of modular synthesizers appears to be so dense that covering just the basics in only an hour-and-a-half will still feel like the Greek alphabet to the uninitiated. Having said that, it’s probably better for all involved if I Dream of Wires was stretched out into a mini-series. But a full-length documentary that moves a little too fast is still better than nothing, because the modular synthesizer certainly deserves our admiration.

I Dream of Wires

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