Many Controls but No Master: ‘I Dream of Wires: Hardcore Edition’

The history of the modular synthesizer is one that involves competing origins, unwieldy equipment, aesthetic disputes, and the whims of business and art.

I Dream of Wires: Hardcore Edition is advertised as a “companion to the feature-length documentary I Dream of Wires.” The press notes for the Hardcore Edition, which is now available on DVD and Blu-ray formats, promote the home video release as a “limited…extended cut” but also acknowledge the existence of wider audience demand: “It seems that a 4-hour documentary about modular synthesizers isn’t as niche as we thought!” Add to those claims the promise of a “theatrical release coming 2014” and it seems that the distributors are trying to short-circuit their own rollout by confusing the potential audience member with competing products.

Inadvisable as it seems, the above scenario is a strangely appropriate promotional strategy for a movie about the topsy-turvy world of modular synthesis. After all, the history of the modular synthesizer is one that involves competing origins, unwieldy equipment, aesthetic disputes, and the whims of business and art. In short, the modular synthesizer has had many controllers but no master. The documentary describes the human-to-machine relationship with words like “commitment”, “obsession”, and “love”. By the end of the four-hour running time, one clearly understands the powerful position these machines hold in the lives of their devotees.

In part one of this edition of I Dream of Wires (“The Dawn and Near Extinction of the Modular Synthesizer”) director/writer/editor Robert Fantinatto interviews a wide range of individuals who are passionate in their devotion to modular synthesizers. Through these interviews and archival and performance footage, key conflicts emerge. Chief among them is the discussion concerning niche versus popular appeal. In its arrangement of interviews, the documentary displays an eventually problematic ambivalence about the machine’s popularity.

Initially, however, there is the fascinating retelling of the beginnings of the modular synthesizer. We hear stories and see pictures and footage of radio test generators, inventors, academics, and others who were becoming acquainted with electricity as a source of sound. Following early experiments with signal generators, oscillators, and mixers, Robert Moog’s innovations with sound-shaping devices and voltage controlled resonant filters led to his iconic synthesizer. Around the same time, Donald Buchla was creating synthesizers at the request of Morton Subotnick from the San Francisco Tape Music Center.

The Moog/Buchla tale effectively frames the differing opinions about what a modular synthesizer should do. On one side, there were traditional inventors and academics, and on the other, hippies and counterculture artists. This east coast/west coast divide represented divergent approaches to musicality, as Moog’s design had a pitch control of one volt per octave, whereas the Buchla machine had “no relationship to the traditional Western scales.”

Within this framework of conventional music versus outsider art, the documentary succeeds in illustrating how Moog’s machines became popular, as they featured piano-style keyboards that were conducive to creating popular music. And while the Buchla devotees are articulate in their stated (non-commercial) aims, there is an unnecessary piling on of negative opinion concerning Wendy Carlos and Switched-On Bach. Fantinatto presents a series of talking heads that are overwhelmingly cynical and apparently unchallenged in their dismissive outlook of Carlos and the popularity and commercial appeal of Switched-On Bach. Hence, the documentary seems to share the negative opinion about such music, alleging that it prevented the expansion of the “vocabulary of music”.

Allen Ravenstine (formerly of Pere Ubu) makes a more reasoned case for the outsider musicians’ viewpoint when he recalls using an EML ElectroComp. He says, “The idea of playing notes was never interesting to me.” Indeed, I Dream of Wires: Hardcore Edition is most effective when conveying the simple joy of making noise.

Also featured in the film is the impact of punk on the modular synthesizer, which was to make the machine passé. Challenging that trend were artists like Gary Numan (also featured here), who transitioned from punk rock to the synthesizer, choosing the imposing machine over punk, which was the cultural noisemaker du jour. The film covers other developments, such as presets and sampling, as evidence that commercial musicians chose portability and ease of use to the detriment of additional developments in classical modular synthesis.

Though older, bulkier modular synthesizers were sold off, they weren’t to be neglected for long. Prescient collectors were able to buy them cheaply in anticipation of their continued relevance. This trash-to-treasure trajectory of the modular synthesizer is at the heart of part two of the Hardcore Edition. While part one is organized around the history of the machines, part two (“Return of the Big Machine”) is primarily interested in the personalities and communities of the individuals who have rescued/revived old machines, sustained interested in modular synthesis, and/or continued to innovate.

Part two expands on the variety of perspectives introduced in part one. Interviewees offer additional ways of using and/or relating to their machines. For some, an interest in modular synthesis is mainly about the hardware, rather than the effect of music or noise. Another testimonial mentions “stress release”. Yet another likens her collection of gear to family members that share her apartment. As the number of viewpoints expands, so does the picture of modular synthesis enthusiasts as a diverse but close-knit community. From massive showcases like NAMM to small “synth meets” to online forums, the current modular synthesis lifestyle is one of generously sharing and receiving information about a mutual obsession.

The community appears to be growing, encompassing manufacturers, musicians, artists, casual users of Euroracks, and other variations too numerous to mention. Of course, such proliferation works against the underdog/outsider/niche status that part one champions, so I Dream of Wires: Hardcore Edition is somewhat inconsistent in its ideals. Through featuring Junior Boys’ Jeremy Greenspan in a performance that he says is inspired by Switched-On Bach, the film tries to celebrate the new/next generation but fails to acknowledge the specific irony of his tribute (considering part one’s treatment of Carlos).

Despite the presence of musical, artistic, and engineering luminaries, the true stars of I Dream of Wires: Hardcore Edition are the machines. Fantinatto shoots them with a clear eye for their tactile pleasures, and the documentary deserves praise for how often the videography creates a desire to reach out and touch the screen. The production values are high. And while this intense visual focus on the machines creates an abundance of direct product placement, most of it seems justified by the narrative of innovation and the fact that machines are never presented as anything less than the main features of the project.

Yet there is one product placement that feels phony, and it is a featured character called Jason Amm. His presence in part two is formally awkward, as he is one of only a couple of characters followed through recurring segments that exist outside of the interview setting. Another such character is a young performer/artist/designer. Her journey within the film links old machines (like vintage telephone switchboards) with new DIY custom design and performance techniques.

But Amm pops up in multiple settings, the most entertaining of which is a personal tour of Vince Clarke’s synthesizer collection. Eventually, the narrator outs Amm as the composer of the documentary’s musical score. However, a close look at the credits reveals that he is also listed as the co-creator, co-writer, and producer for the documentary. Advertisements for his personal musical project are packaged with the DVD.

After a four-hour commitment from the viewer, the sudden realization of forced product and producer placement is akin to being told “Be sure to drink your Ovaltine”. If Amm wanted to push his product on camera, then he should have hosted the documentary instead of pretending to be its subject. Perhaps his featured role will be excised from the upcoming theatrical release. It would be a wise edit, because I Dream of Wires functions best as the story of a machine that creates community. The shared dream it envisions needs no commercial interruption.

RATING 6 / 10