Watching a modular synthesizer performance — like this Caterina Barbieri concert — is a bit weird, if only because there’s none of the activity typically associated with live music. The musician stands there, hunched over a tangled mess of cables plugged into an array of boxes covered in knobs, dials, and flickering displays. Occasionally, they’ll fiddle with a knob here, adjust a slider over there, or — in a real flurry of activity — move some cables around. Aside from that, they don’t seem to do much of anything.
The British music press back in the ‘90s loved to poke fun at shoegazers like Slowdive and Ride for staring at their feet. They would’ve murdered modular synthesists for performances that have all the apparent passion and thrill of someone studying for their electrical engineering final.
But then there’s what you actually hear. That seemingly innocuous knob-twiddling, when done right, results in a wide spectrum of sounds: delicate, ethereal textures, sorrowful cascades of pure tone, and massive walls of sound that threaten to shake the earth and shred your speakers (not to mention eardrums).
Although he first appeared on my radar due to his work in several excellent dreampop and slowcore bands (i.e., Au Revoir Borealis, For Wishes), Detroit’s Steve Swartz has been primarily focused on his ambient and drone-inclined solo work as of late, which he releases under the Swartz et moniker. And 2020 has been a particularly productive year for him, as he continues to eschew guitar-generated soundscapes for modular synthesizers.
On August 14, Swartz will release his newest title, the Like Waves Between Us EP. As per the title, the EP’s extensive tracks contain massive, crashing waves of sound that can seem ominous, overwhelming, and even alien — though patient listeners might detect a fragile beauty that lurks beneath, and occasionally rises above, the songs’ churning, roiling surfaces.
Earlier this year, Swartz released “Drowning In the Light” and Light Leaks. The former is a single released as a fundraiser for the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. According to Swartz, it “was created using the recorded sounds of a loved one crying and screaming in the throes of a mental breakdown to trigger melodies on a modular synthesizer.” That might suggest to listeners that they prepare themselves for a harrowing, even nightmarish listen.
But the song is actually quite beautiful and haunting. It starts off at a solemn pace, with Swartz’s frayed synthesizer tones and drones slowly growing in volume and number. And in the song’s final moments, when the individual drones have dissolved together into a shuddering, distorted mass, there’s still a forlorn aspect to Swartz’s sounds that keep them from feeling oppressive or intolerable.
Light Leaks, on the other hand, is a full-length album that continues Swartz’s exploration of modular synthesizer composition. In Swartz’s words, the album “explores how we see and interpret the world, how our experience of it is shaped by the giving and receiving of light, and how being alive, in itself, is to be a fathomless and complex anomaly.” To that end, the album’s eight songs are shimmering, scintillating beauties, with Swartz manipulating his synths to create haunting atmospherics.
(If you find comparisons helpful, think lovesliescrushing and Flying Saucer Attack’s beautiful abstractions, Oneohtrix Point Never and Ben Frost’s more contemplative moments, and/or Jason Corder’s kaleidoscopic work in Off the Sky.)
There’s something quite tactile about the sort of modular synthesis that Swartz explores here; his tones have a weight to them, such that when they slowly descend upon the listener during “Forest of Trees,” they can feel oppressive. And yet, snippets of gorgeous melody can be heard flitting about in the background.
Meanwhile, “Pain Prism” finds similar melodies attempting to shine through an increasingly dense fog of noise, like a lighthouse trying to light the way through a heavy ocean storm. And on later songs, like “A World of Subtext” and the title track, his drones ring out like bright, heavenly clarions — or the first rays of dawn pushing back the previous night’s darkness.
Regardless of the release or song, I find myself constantly wanting to turn up the volume while listening to Swartz’s music, if only to better hear the myriad of lovely, evocative details contained within the dense latticework of sounds emanating from his synths.