03 February 2013

Keef Fullertron Whitman & Tom Bugs @ The Arnolfini

An evening of modular synth mayhem at the Arnolfini in Bristol, last night.

Analogue hardware is BACK in a big way, as everyone ditches their VSTs for Monotribes and Minibrutes (and how many of you out there saving up for one of those new Korg Mini MS-20s, eh?) but if you wanna get closer to the edge, modular is the way to go.

First we had local synth guru Tom Bugs providing sturdy support. Tom makes some sort of precarious living as a one-man cottage industry synth designer and builder, trading under the name Bugbrand, operating from a little room above the offices of Qu Junctions, just off Stokes Croft.

Did I say 'one-man'? Actually he employs one assistant: the notorious noise artist Mark Durgan (aka Putrifier) toils away by day soldering and stuffing circuit boards into small metal boxes, probably for below minimum wages. No wonder he always looks miserable.  But I digress...

Tom occasionally drags his inventions out for a spin in public, and usually treats the audience to an unscripted, slightly rambling verbal introduction. Last night was no exception, but at least he didn't get heckled this time. His modular synth is always unpatched to begin with. A blank canvas, as it were. He then sets about poking his 'banana' cords into small holes, which makes the various modules talk to each other. Gradually, from a low ominous drone, something vaguely rhythmic will begin to emerge, then after about 10 minutes of furious patching and twiddling, something really quite beautifully strange and enchanting begins to develop. Radiophonic blips and squawks entwining with undulating melodic patterns. Usually finishing with some kind of cathartic strum und drang blow-out. Here's some edited highlights...

Then, after a short intermission, the main event. Keith Fullerton Whitman. You know, the American dude with the long beard.

His modular is always pre-patched with a bewildering thicket of cords. One wonders how he can possibly see what he's doing.

With no stage area, the two artists had set-up their kit on tables in the middle of the room, with the audience surrounding them in a circle. The PA system was quadraphonic, which Keith exploited to the ultimate, his bewildering hyper-concrète barrage zapping around the auditorium and coming at us from all angles. It was like a post-drill 'n bass Schaeffer and Cage tribute, startling in its abstract intensity.

At times it seemed like the machine played Keith, rather than the other way around. Cycling around in some semi-chaotic system, the modular would occasionally pause for breath, and Keith would step back and do the same. Then it would hurtle into another frenzied burst of activity, jolting Keith's limbs back into action - the human marionette dancing to its electronic master's tune. Or so it seemed at times. Check this clip and tell me I'm wrong...

Gear-slut and fanboy that I am, I hung around afterwards, chatting with the lads as they packed-up, and captured this charming moment as Keith inspected Tom's creation...

Caption competition, anyone...?

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