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Joseph Paradiso's Massive Modular Synthesizer

Joseph Paradiso is professor of Media Arts and Sciences at the MIT Media Lab, where he is co-director of the “Things That Think” workgroup. Paradiso is trained as a physicist and electrical engineer, but in his spare time he has built one of the world’s largest modular synthesizer configurations, a creation known simply as “Massive Modular Synth.” 

In the age of computer music triumphant, the towering banks of modular synthesizer units often seen in histories of electronic music are typically portrayed as relics of a technologically obsolete era. But these physically clunky devices continue to exercise a powerful allure on experimentally minded musicians, as shown by the recent resurgence of interest in custom-built analog components.

Paradiso, who has been building his own synthesizers since 1974, approaches his instrument not as a means of creating static “sounds” to be played by means of a keyboard or other kind of interface, but rather as a sophisticated form of “hands-on” composition:

I don’t play this rig any more as a keyboard instrument. My main use for it now is to make gigantic sound installations with huge patches that I continue building over several hours, until I run out of patch cords. The process is perhaps closer to sculpture than music, where one starts with a small “seed” patch that expresses a simple musical process that is progressively augmented and refined as the patch builds. It is a large, complex feedback system, with signals that control the modules fed back to their inputs through a massive network of digital and analog processing . The resulting sounds are mainly autonomous, babbling and droning on for hours and days, as each patch achieves a distinctive groove or atmosphere without really repeating.

This approach strongly resembles the so-called “cybernetic music” of the German composer (and Acousmata favorite) Roland Kayn (1933-2011). The act of wiring the components together becomes itself a form of composition, expressed not in musical acts or notation, but rather in the distinctly technological language of oscillators, filters, sequencers and logic gates. Although some of the components of Paradiso’s synthesizer are digital, there is no computer involved, and Paradiso sees his instrument as a testament to the aesthetic values of tangibility, ephemerality, and unpredictability possessed by analog electronics.

November 26, 2011, 1:51pm

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