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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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On January 5th, 2011, the composer Roland Kayn departed from this world.  In tribute to this departed god of sound, I offer the track “Matrix” from Kayn’s 1974 LP Simultan in its entire 21-minute duration.

For more information on Kayn, see my previous posts and his official website.


Played 229 time(s).

January 06, 2011, 8:05pm

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Roland Kayn: “Isotrope,” Part II

From the album Infra (1978-79)

Roland Kayn is surely one of the most fascinating and obscure composers in the history of electronic music.  Kayn was a journeyman in the avant-garde European music scene in the 1950s and 60s: he made appearances at several of the newly-founded electronic music studios, undertook advanced composition studies with Boris Blacher in Berlin, and had works premiered at the famous summer courses in Darmstadt.  

In 1964 Kayn joined the Gruppo d’Improvvisatione Nuova Consonanza, a collective of composer-performers founded by Franco Evangelisti in Rome.  He was a member of the group until 1968, when he left in order to pursue his vision of “cybernetic music,” which had haunted him since his first contact with electronic sound production at the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne in 1953.  In 1970, Kayn was invited to work at the Instituut voor Sonologie (Institute of Sonology) at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.  The composer Gottfried Michael Koenig, director of the studio since 1964, had recently overseen the installation of a state-of-the-art analogue system of independent modular units, such as oscillators, filters, envelope generators, and logic circuits. At the center of this configuration was a “variable function generator,” essentially a primitive sequencer that could be programmed to store a series of voltages which were then used to control the various components of the studio.  With this system, Kayn was able for the first time to realize his ideas of cybernetic music, which involved elaborate configurations of connections and feedback loops that create complex and unpredictable sonic interactions.  Kayn “composes” the initial setup of the studio components, but once the sound is set in motion, it is allowed to take its own course.  In this way, Kayn believes, “the electronic system develops a sort of capacity to think for itself, a capacity which in a sense can be described as artificial intelligence…. Existential Being, as it were, takes the place of a logically functioning consciousness.”

For more Roland Kayn, check out my earlier post and his official website.  In the meantime, here are some lovely images from the liner notes to Kayn’s albums (with the exception of the picture of Kayn himself, which is from the 1967 documentary film Nuova Consonanza: Komponisten improvisieren im Kollektiv):

Excerpt from the score for Allotropie (1962-64)

Excerpt from the score for Galaxis (1962)

Excerpt from the score for Cybernetics

A glimpse into Kayn’s studio

Roland Kayn in 1967


Played 439 time(s).

July 12, 2010, 4:41pm

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Roland Kayn: “Tanar,” Part 1 (excerpt)

From the album Tektra (1980-1982)

Since the late 1960s, the German-born composer Roland Kayn has been exploring a type of sound art he calls “cybernetic music.”  Using the equipment of the “classical” electronic music studio (wave generators, filters, etc.), Kayn sets up sophisticated mechanisms of feedback and regulation to create sonic processes that behave in unpredictable and yet non-random ways.

Kayn studied with the philosopher Max Bense in the 1950s, and his compositional development was strongly imprinted by his mentor’s thoughts on technology and artificial intelligence.  In the 50s and 60s, Kayn worked at some of the most prominent electronic music studios in Europe (in Cologne, Munich, and Milan) before settling down at the Instituut voor Sonologie in Utrecht around 1970.  It was here that he realized what is widely regarded as his magnum opus, the nearly five-hour-long Tektra.

Tektra, like much of Kayn’s music, can be described as “drone-based,” but paradoxically so.  It consists of fields of sound instead of isolable notes, but unlike much drone music, it is not concerned with creating the effect of timelessness or stasis.  This is music of the most shattering dynamism, but its energy is distended over vast, glacial expanses of time— like Beethoven on Quaaludes. A brief excerpt such as this cannot do the music justice.


Played 72 time(s).

April 27, 2009, 11:45am

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