Dreaming of Electrified Wires: Robert Fantinatto & Jason Amm’s epic documentary on modular synths

July 4, 2017 | By

In junior high school, most kids are exposed to musical performance, and after a certain point have to decide whether to pursue orchestra or band, and I was perfectly fine learning the cello until one morning the teacher got snippy and kept the windowed door locked because I was a few minutes late for early practice. Apparently her take was ‘to be a professional, be on time,’ whereas my take was I am 12 years old, and this is my first offence. It also didn’t make a good impression that she just smiled and slammed the door in my face.

Ergo, choosing band as the main music stream was a no-brainer. The teachers were more fun, and so was the course. I learned clarinet and Dave and I were both pretty good, and also goofballs, making specifically annoying sounds while hitting the right notes and slipping back to normal when we’d see the teacher angle his / her head our way.

I stuck with band into grade 10, but stopped the next year because the teacher, while learned and challenging, was also a smarmy bastard, and would isolated weak members and apply seriously sarcastic hits. That I could take, but the class wasn’t fun in any way. There was no joy in the learning process, and it didn’t help when Dave, pitch-perfect, would saunter in after skipping class for weeks, ‘borrow’ my reed, and sight read the test piece and ace it, whereas I’d get a C+ or B- after weeks of practice but ruin that effort with Shaky Hand Syndrome. The intimidation of performing live to even a prof in a quiet room was too terrifying, so I picked moviemaking in Grade 12, since it offered more creative freedom and rule breaking than band class.

I’ve probably raised this memory before, but when my pal Bill & I were making a corporate video and we rented York’s then brand new online ¾” SP edit suite, we hired Raj to cut the banal project, and the first thing we did (“We gotta do it, man!”) was turn on every VCR, TBC, switcher panel, etc. (hydro was cheap in those pre-Wynne days), kill the lights, and watch the equipment’s blinky-blinky lights in front of us, and reflected off the large glass window that overlooked the soundstage.

Then we turned on the lights a bit, and started working.

Some have an attraction to hand-crafted organic instruments, but there’s also a magnetic allure from instruments that involve electricity, knobs, sliders, bulk, scale, and blinky-blinky lights, to which I tend to lean (namely with video mixers and related blinking paraphernalia).

I didn’t realize the depth of electronic sounds stemming from its massive, blinking modular gear until I gambled on Tangerine Dream’s score for Thief (1981).

The radical sounds were completely hypnotic, especially the epic textures that kept thickening, shifting, and reaching powerful densities before the inevitable fadeout which you wanted to postpone. All the cues were magic, but “Dr. Destructo,” “Burning Bar,” and “Igneous” are masterpieces.

It is a bit surreal that the sounds from iconic musicians and big synths came back into vogue, and the soundtracks that got me hooked were also responsible for inspiring many faux soundtracks / conceptual albums, often embracing the nuances from anything created by John Carpenter.

Of course, Carpenter (in association with Alan Howarth) was one of many film composers who applied electronic instruments to film, but he certainly wasn’t the most important figure – the wave of works inspired by Carpenter, TD, and Goblin just make it seem as though these three were the core revolutionaries.

Robert Fantinatto and Jason Amm’s 2014 documentary on modular synths is a sobering re-alignment of what preceded and inspired film and prog-rock musicians & composers, but I Dream of Wires isn’t the final word on the modular monsters that now exist in both large and compact formats.

Wires chronicles early experiments, the development of two separate design approaches, key pioneers, struggles to gain a toe-hold in commercial and avant garde arenas, popularity, demise, and resurgence, but it also reveals there are many more separate stories worthy of specific docs short and long.

Fantinatto is embarking on exclusive examinations of Robert Moog and Morton Subotnick, and Suzanne Ciani is currently profiled in the new doc A Life in Waves, while The Rise of the Synths delves into the iconic sound of 80s synthesizers.

It’s easy to regard these docs as retro pieces, efforts to wallow in nostalgia, and perceive their attraction to a thin margin of fans obsessed with a period and little else, but in sharing one or all of these biases, one misses the point in which unconventional ideas, nutty thoughts, quirky fixations, and engineering genius made concepts real and applicable in many facets of music and contemporary art.

Wires is about making music, as well as applying experimentation and unconventionality to other art forms, and what results when an idea ignites a revolution from repurposed gear – in the case of modular synths, old lab equipment – and creating custom gear that meets the needs and also offers options artists to go in directions its makers never intended, but allowing for explorations should they be so eccentric and adventurous.

Fantinatto and Amm’s film exists in two forms – the 96 min. theatrical edit and the 4 hour Hardcore Edition – and each release comes with differing extras. I should point out the Hardcore Edition’s DVD and Blu-ray incarnations are technically out of print, whereas the theatrical cut is available directly from www.waveshapermedia.com.

Coming shortly: Gary Numan: Android in La La Land (2016), and Blackenstein (1973) from Severin, a film I’m pretty sure was nominated for a Golden Turkey Award.



Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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