Aragorn23 chats about his upcoming psychedelic modular synth album
Aragorn23 Eastern Roads, Western Lands is one of the very first South African albums composed entirely on a modular synthesizer.
We caught up with Aragorn23 to discuss the creative thought and process behind his upcoming modular synthesizer album. He describes the album as a “psychedelic road trip” and we discuss some of the technical details as well as the influences behind it.
I would love to be able to play the piano or the flute (yes, I’m a filthy hippie) and I think that the desire to play an instrument has deeply influenced how I’ve built up my modular system.”
The album’s title is a tip of the hat to the two common schools of modular synthesis, is there a deeper meaning behind the title in terms of how these ideas came together?
Aragorn23: I’m equally at home with West Coasters like Morton Subotnick and East Coast artists like early Tangerine Dream and I’ve always found the divide to be a little overstated; due to the abundance of Eurorack gear these days many modular artists use combinations of traditionally East (simple waveforms, filters, VCAs, step sequencers) and West (complex FM style waveforms, wavefolders, low pass gates, generative sequencing) synthesis approaches.
That’s certainly the case with me, and so on one level the title is just a reference to my own aesthetics and influences. However, the album is also meant as a kind of psychedelic road trip and there are several subtler allusions to everything from the legendary Merry Prankster cross-country travels in the yellow school bus to literary psychedelia like Herman Hesse’s Journeys to the East and William Burroughs’s Western Lands.
The back cover of the album contains some further clues about the title’s more personal meaning.
Some of the sounds in the album have a vivid dystopian, almost sci-fi feel. Did you employ any influences outside of music and synthesis?
Aragorn23: I tend to think very intuitively when I patch. Sometimes it’s almost like I have a kind of dreamlike visual atmosphere in my head that I’m trying to reproduce sonically.
My background is in very technical electronic music software, from early trackers through to audio programming languages like Supercollider.
With these approaches you have to have a very clear, logical idea about where you’re going and, while this has merits for more structured genres, I’ve always wanted to approach music creation in a more freeform, expressive way, kind of like abstract painting.
My first forays into this were through motion sensors connected to Supercollider, which allowed me to create soundscapes just by moving my body around, but modular has allowed me to explore this territory much more fully; it’s truly the most enjoyable and rewarding way of making music I’ve ever discovered.
I view my patching as almost a meditative exercise or experimental practice…”
The album showcases a vast landscape of composition elements, from the more chaotic generative style to more harmonious melodies. Do you have different techniques for approaching these styles of composition? Do you have different modules or signal paths for each task?
Aragorn23: I do rely on some tried and tested signal paths, but I’m wary of becoming lazy (in a Rings into Clouds kind of way, for instance).
As soon as I find myself patching up the same kinds of voices several times in a row, I shift modules around or pull them out of the case. In terms of broader technique, I tend to think more in terms of curation than composition.
I’ve always been fascinated by generative music and the idea that you can create a kind of interacting complex environment that has its own emergent sonic properties. I’m especially keen on the chaotic circuits invented by Ian Fritz and Andrew Fitch (Nonlinearcircuits): a lot of generative music relies on simple randomness like white noise through sample and hold circuits, but proper mathematical chaos is closer to what we find in nature – complex, semi-patterned, ever-evolving structures that occasionally branch off in new and unexpected directions.
I also find the music generated in this way more pleasing to listen to than either randomness or predictable structure. In fact, I’ll often lose myself for hours in some patched-up chaos without ever becoming bored.
Do you have a set workflow when composing? Or do you plug in, hit record and explore?
Aragorn23: I view my patching as almost a meditative exercise or experimental practice (which is why I’ve started putting informal ‘modular diary’ releases up on my Bandcamp page), so I tend to approach it in a very open, exploratory way.
If whatever I’ve patched up on a particular day sounds like a good basis for a recording, I’ll neaten it up a bit, embellish until I run out of cables (my patches are typically a complete spaghetti mess of 80+ cables) and just run it straight into my soundcard, usually via a touch of outboard reverb.
Because it’s mostly generative stuff, I’ll often record up to an hour of a patch before switching everything off, unpatching and then selecting and mastering a small section of the recording. Unpatching is very important to me: the transience of modular – the fact that you can’t, in any meaningful way, really save your work – forces you to think and work in a very different way.
I guess it’s kind of a Buddhist, non-attachment approach to music, although this is of course in constant conflict with the gear acquisition syndrome that afflicts pretty much everyone in the Eurorack world!
To be honest I don’t remember exactly which modules were used on which tracks.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, it sounds to me like Mutable Instruments Plaits features a few times on the album, any other modules in your system that are worth mentioning?
Aragorn23: To be honest I don’t remember exactly which modules were used on which tracks. Plaits is definitely in one or two, as are the other popular Mutable modules Rings, Clouds and Elements. NLC chaos modules like the Triple Sloth, Hyperchaos Deluxe and Hypster are all over the album. Apart from my Doepfer VCOs other staples are my Meng Qi dual low pass gate, ornament & crime and temps utile on sequencing duties, Makenoise Pressure Points and usually one or more function generators.
My current full setup can be viewed at https://www.modulargrid.net/e/racks/view/771760, although it’s constantly in flux.
It’s probably worth noting that while it looks like a pretty expensive bunch of fancy modules, a lot of it is DIY. Learning to solder tiny components onto bare PCBs has allowed me to build a far more ambitious system than my finances would otherwise permit, and there’s something especially satisfying about making sounds with modules you put together yourself.
Did you play any “traditional” instruments before discovering modular synthesis, how has your music creation process changed since then?
Aragorn23: I have no musical training apart from a handful of piano lessons I took over 20 years ago.
I would love to be able to play the piano or the flute (yes, I’m a filthy hippie) and I think that the desire to play an instrument has deeply influenced how I’ve built up my modular system: when I play live I focus on the more performative modules like Pressure Points, the Doepfer Theremin, my Mikrophonie contact microphone module and so on.
In fact, I’ve also done one or two live gigs using my 3d motion sensor (a hacked Kinect) to generate several channels of CV. Playing arpeggios and sweeping analogue filters by waving your hands about in the air is very satisfying.
The best way to get a sense of my musical changes over the years is probably via my website, www.further.co.za. I also have a bunch of tracks from as far back as the mid-90s (cringe) up on http://asqus.bandcamp.com.
When’s the album launching?
Eastern Roads, Western Lands is launching on 16 March 2019 both in digital and highly-limited edition lathe-cut vinyl. Check out Aragorn23’s Bandcamp for more details.