BR: I Dream of Wires (2014)

July 4, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Waveshaper Media

Region: All

Released: 2013 / 2014

Genre: Documentary / Electronic Music

Synopsis: The history of the modular synthesizer from birth, popularity, dismissal, and resurgence is chronicled in both a theatrical and epic-length Hardcore Edition.

Special Features:  Stills Gallery.





Robert Fantinatto (Echoes of Forbidden Places) and Jason Amm’s film is ostensibly a chronicle of the birth, rise, development, refinement, explosive use, decline, rejection, rediscovery, nostalgia for, and resurgence of modular synths, and that’s probably the main take average viewers will have on the 96 min. theatrical cut of the film released in 2014, but there are layers beneath its formal structure, especially in the follow-up 4 hour Hardcore Edition which was handcrafted for fans including composers, musicians, technophiles, and those seeking inspiration to delve and experiment with any technology dismissed as obsolete.

Both edits follow the same linear path, introducing us to the first efforts by composers, musicians, and engineers to create sounds which could be manipulated into a cohesive work, and gradually introduce key players in two distinct developments of modular synths: Robert Moog’s musician-friendly creations which combined a keyboard with still-classic filters, and Don Buchla’s system of plugs, a multitude of knobs, stacked cables and looped components which allowed for more abstract, avant garde creations which to some extent put composition and performance into the hands of anyone.

Wires is one of the few docs that compels repeated viewing because it’s packed with so much visual and aural information, and although the focus is exclusively on modular synths, any single chapter in its history could be spun off into a separate short or long-form documentary. The research is impeccable, the mass of interviews extraordinary, and the sounds of vintage and contemporary synths are allowed to breathe instead of appear compacted and sampled in fast-paced montages. Both edits offer a wealth of information, but little is sacrificed in the learning curve that makes this one of the most fluid yet edifying docs on music, technology, and art.

Prior to the aforementioned brand names, composer like Morton Subotnick saved precious dollars to buy lab test equipment that emitted frequencies and pulses whose pitch could be controlled with large knobs, but it wasn’t until Moog, then building DIY Theremin kits, collaborated with the University of Toronto’s Electronic Music Lab department and created a prototype that ultimately led towards his commercial instruments. His gift was a voltage control which, as musicians repeatedly attest, was perfectly chosen to create warm sounds with just the right spectrum and most pleasing sonic results. He also fulfilled the needs of musicians, taking in suggestions and tweaking his design to make the Moog practical, adding a standard keyboard interface.

In between these two giants were variants by other manufacturers (ARP, EMS), with systems getting bigger and more powerful, if not more impractical from a live performance stance, yet their usage didn’t decline in the early 70s, even when pricing was aimed at professionals. To meet the demand of musicians in the 1980s, newcomers Korg, Roland, and Yamaha like created more compact, all-in-one machines with synth patches for drums and other traditional instruments, slowly eating away at the modular synths client base until the behemoths went out of fashion. Some were mothballed, sold off, and tossed out, and analogue-digital hybrids like the Synclavier and Fairlight digital workstations offered a wealth of instrument samples and be capable of sampling whatever was fed into its brain. When it seemed as though software would eradicate analogue gear, acid house music inaugurated a rediscovery of the bulky devices with assorted knobs and a powerful analogue output.

Wires‘ theatrical cut (narrated by Patti Schmidt) offers a succinct wrap-up to the new manufacturers that entered the market as vintage gear began to reach crazy pricing, once again making the classic gear unattainable for newcomers, but the Hardcore Edition (narrated by Brit Nawroz Abbany) takes it further: after Part 1’s 87 mins., Part 2’s 2 hours and 36 mins. focuses on new designers, DIY manufacturers, clients, fans, and musicians, with regularly interpolated comments from veteran musicians who seem more than pleased both their pioneering work and the rare gear they retained since the 70s and 80s are now prized.

Wires also features significant Canadian content, with native vendors Modcan and Intellijel given equal time as Germany’s Dopfler and America’s, and Grant Avenue Studios in Hamilton, Ontario where musicians can book vintage gear that’s tuned and ready for recording sessions or pure experimentation. International locales include Detroit, NYC, and Berlin, and a range of vignette interviews that also include modular synth fans who design and build their own gear, and amateurs who just want to get lost in the discovery process.

Fantinatto’s rich visual sense offers warm colours tied to the multicoloured patch cables that dangle from hangars and hooks in musicians’ playrooms, snappy editing and montages, and plenty of archival stills and footage. Rather than be an exhausting experience, Wires is kind of an encyclopedic introduction, and it’s unsurprising Fantinatto’s begun separate chapters – Electronic Voyager: Retracing Bob Moog’s Sonic Journey via Kickstarer, and Subotnick via Indiegogo.

The doc’s soundtrack features plenty of vintage sounds being demonstrated, captured live, and incorporated into Jason Amm’s original score, performed under his Solvent moniker. (During the film’s original release, Amm’s music was available digitally and on a limited vinyl LP.)


Special Features: Blu-ray vs. DVD / Digital

Whereas the Hardcore Edition features the two halves on DVD and Blu-ray plus a modest stills gallery featuring submitted images from a Matrixsynth-sponsored contest, the DVD edition (and digital editions in specific territories) of the theatrical cut contain some interviews not included in the longer edition, and unique bonus features.

5 bonus shorts include an extended and more candid & profane interview with NIN’s Trent Reznor and Alessandro Cortini on the joys of “being in a sound lab” (11:46); “Synth 101 for Beginners” (10:00) slows down and expands the basics of a modular synth’s design, components, and usage, and features narrator Abbany from the Hardcore Edition; Jason Amm / Solvent on making the soundtrack (6:15) using vintage gear; the rare collection of Depeche Mode’s Vince Clarke (13:42) is a longer walk-through with Amm shooting questions on specific brands and models; and a Made in Canada featurette (9:41) on manufacturers Modcan and Toronto-based founder Bruce Duncan, and Intellijel (Vancouver) with Danjel Van Tijn and his Eurorack modules and the designer’s respective philosophical approaches.

Lastly, the DVD offers a trio of music videos by Jennifer Juniper Stratford featuring some of Wires’ main thematic material. The hard synth beats in “Burn the Tables” (6:46) reconfigure Amm in a stairwell using assorted glitches as shot off a CRT monitor; Amm’s pulsing ‘thinking motif’ in “Pattern Recognition” (4:04) is supported by waving feedback patterns; and “Themogene” (3:46) features the doc’s Main Titles set against flickering macro shots of pans through masses of multicoloured patch cables.

Fantinatto and Amm’s film is packed with plenty of delicious quotes and philosophical nuggets, but the most apropos stems from William Blakeney, founder of Hamilton’s Grant Avenue Studios, who opines that although an argument can be made to preserve vintage modular synths exclusively in museums, most analogue gear – in music, video art, and otherwise – is meant to be played, and if left unused for decades, it may no longer function properly, and if the knowledge to repair and maintain dissipates, what’s ultimately left for future musicians & composers are mere emulations that might be reasonably faithful to but lack the unique qualities of the original analogue gear.



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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