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

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

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.

RATING 6 / 10