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Film

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

Director: Robert Fantinatto
Cast: Trent Reznor, Carl Craig, Cevin Key, John Foxx, Vince Clarke, Gary Numan, Morton Subotnick, Luke Abbott, James Holden
Distributor: Scribble
Rated: N/A
Year: 2013
Release date: 2013-11-05

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.

6
Culture

Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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