Published on August 15th, 2016 | by John J Nicol0
Review: Datach’i | “System”
Years ago, I remember reading an article on Karlheinz Stockhausen, and it mentioned the use of electronics alongside more traditional “musical instruments” like pianos and violins.
The point was made that when you hear a piano being played, as a listener, you have an understanding of how the sound is achieved. It’s easy to conjure up a mental image of how the sound relates to the instrument, how a player made the instrument make a sound, and how a vocabulary is established.
It’s also clear that’s what an excited listener is thinking about when unleashing a face-melting air-guitar solo or smashing the air drums.
But what happens when you can’t really understand what is making the sounds or how they are being created?
This element of mystery in the instrumentation doesn’t necessarily spoil the pure enjoyment of music, but it does mean it creates its own unusual frame of reference.
I’ve long been fascinated by how these sounds/fragments/sequences affect listening, more so than the technical and possibly nerdy aspect of circuitry and soldering irons.
Although it might not be immediately apparent on System, composer Joseph Fraioli is playing a live instrument called a Eurorack Modular Synth. It’s also clear that calling the album System is a statement of basic fact: it’s a result of strategies and formulae.
There is an ingenuity and magic at play here.
In a general way, it sounds like a lot of other very good electronic albums. But here, I suspect the drive is to do that from deliberately limited palette. Life made difficult with no complex overdubbing, computer sequencers, or polished post-production.
There is an ingenuity and magic at play here. While the music sounds new, there is something in it that points to pre-digital times when electronic pioneers were grappling with far bulkier room-sized bleep-making equipment.
An understanding of the historic context of equipment used on System or the live-performance element to its creation is not important to enjoy this album, but it adds an interesting layer. Joseph expands on this idea over email:
“It’s nice to let people know that there are many different ways to create. Performing full tracks on the modular is what inspires me, and I just love the process and results, though for someone else they may prefer to make music with chopsticks and pots.
“I would hope this album could open people’s minds to exploration of different types of creativity that are suited for them to take part of or just to enjoy.”
Alongside System, I’d recently revisited the work of Conlon Nancarrow. Most of his work was made on a Player Piano, a kind of mechanised piano. The input was a paper score with holes as a means of notation being fed in via long rolls.
He cites Wendy Carlos’s Moog work on A Clockwork Orange soundtrack as his entry point into electronic music.
As the process was replacing a musician, the music can exist outside of human limitations.
How fast and complex can you go?
No need to consider if a pianist’s fingers could stretch to hit all those keys at the same time, or the speed of the player’s brain.
The output is just a stream of all these parts in unison – a musical engine.
It’s no surprise that Joseph similarly sees a connection with pioneers of avant garde and electronic music. He enthusiastically cites Wendy Carlos’s Moog work on A Clockwork Orange soundtrack as his entry point into electronic music.
“I suppose the connection would be with process and discovery,” he says in reference to the electronic music pioneers. “Like we’re all explorers and can relate on that level.
“Funny you should mention the pioneers, Wendy Carlos’s A Clockwork Orange score, the more rare release where all of the music is done on a Moog modular, is what got me into electronic music in the first place.
“I was always amazed how she made this amazing beautiful music on a modular synth. Especially Timesteps. Still one of my favs!”
Add the fact shown in videos of Joseph playing what looks like a vast old telephone switchboard helps to understand the way various interlocking elements are knitted together. And as an electronic instrument can process and perform differently to mere humans, things can be highly detailed, intricate and whip up consuming patterns.
It’s expanding and magnifying what the performer can activate from his fingertips. For me, the trick that’s showcased excellently here is that all this complexity is used sparingly, retaining human warmth and emotion.
Finely chopped-up rhythmic splinters orbit around big warm smudges…
In the Field with Brian sets the broad scene with soft pulsing transmissions.
Monarchs is an invitation for butterflies to visit his garden, and it’s here that I’m transported to the dreamy environment carved out by Boards Of Canada.
Margin of Error for me is the highlight, though. Finely chopped-up rhythmic splinters orbit around big warm smudges. Different elements fade in and anchor themselves into the backbone of the track as others evaporate in a glorious a 2 minutes 52 seconds.
Joseph Fraioli is a professional sound designer noted for his work in cinema. I think the creation of System was undoubtedly a process he thoroughly enjoyed and was driven to make.
We ask if any ideas on this album come from those deemed too risky/crazy for clients?
“Well, more specifically, post-production sound design is my profession, not composing. Oddly, I make most of my music while being busy with client work as there’s often downtime while waiting for client feedback or a new picture.
“My studio and creative brain are up and running, so rather than sit there and wait, I transfer the energy into patching and exploring, which often turns into music.
“Sometimes processes I find in creating music translate to client projects and vice versa.”
The result, System, is an album I’ve listened to loads. I’m not sure if anyone is guilty of playing air modular synth, but System is proof that only an exhilarating and highly listenable release made in such an innovative way would make someone think of such a crazy idea.