For more than seven years, M. Geddes Gengras has been a staple of the LA experimental music scene, producing and recording a wide array of work alongside the likes of Sun Araw, Akron/Family, and Pocahaunted. The 17 albums he has on his Bandcamp page often consist of drone-like sounds made with a moog and synth. The feeling I get from such a catalog of work is something like a computer asleep and orgasming at the same time, conjuring weird worlds of sound that mutate and bleed and dig out tunnels through one another, vibing the fuck out.
Gengras’s latest record, Ishi, to be released from Leaving Records on June 24, takes its name from “the last wild Indian,” a man who appeared from out of the wilderness in 1911, having survived late into his 40s completely unexposed to civilization. Also inspired by the death of two friends, Ishi opens wide and swallows the listener in a vast glimmering field, somewhere between Eluvium and Tim Hecker living under a sea of electronic water.
Gengras was kind enough to answer some questions via email about his creative and performance processes, as well as the recording of Ishi.
VICE: Watching you control and manipulate sound using a modular synth has a very different feeling compared with watching, say, a guy with a guitar play. Do you feel there is a different emotional quality there, an almost surgical feel, versus jamming out with an ax?
Gengras: I feel like that's a common perception of it, but maybe that has a lot to do with our history of music and its performance. The guitar mode has been so dominant for the last 70 years that bass and even some keyboards have adapted toward a similar portable, wearable form. And the freedom that is afforded performers who can roam the stage with their instruments makes people tied to their stage position seem pretty boring in comparison. I spent a lot of time playing drums in bands—another instrument where you are stuck in one spot—but I liked to think about it as a focal point for energy that you could just build and build over the course of the set. Modular synth is a lot like guitar in that small movements can create small or large change, immediately or over time. I also think the look of the instrument has a lot to do with that—to most people it looks more like an amateur science experiment than a synthesizer. I've done a lot of shows opening for more traditionally equipped “bands,” and many times I don't think entire segments of the audience were aware that I was even performing. They probably thought I was a roadie and the DJ was shitting the bed.
I like the idea of thinking of playing the drums as building within a space. Is where you record a specific piece of music very important to its mood? Where was Ishi recorded?
Except for the odd trip to Jamaica or an occasional session at a friend's place, I record everything at home. I have a decent sized extra bedroom in the house I'm in now, for a studio space, and I did the record here. After years of buying lots of goofy pedals and cheap keyboards and guitars on Craigslist while all my 4-tracks ground to a halt under a film of spilled beer, a couple years back I put a little chunk of money into a couple of nice preamps with good converters and some fun, studio-friendly outboard gear, so I'm pretty set as far as anything I might really need to make my music. In that respect it's incredibly important, because I’m usually recording or editing almost every day and having those tools at my disposal gives me the freedom to create off of a schedule. But the vibe of the room is certainly important—I keep all the records in here because I figure they make for good absorption. I also burn a lot of incense, have good lighting, a rug, and a comfortable chair. These things are really crucial because I spend a lot of time in here.
How do you approach the layout of a record like Ishi? Specifically, what did you know going in about what you wanted it to be, and what rules emerged along the way?
The performances the record was built around were selected from a pool of six that were all made around the same time and with similar intent. As I began the post-performance process of manipulation and expansion, these pieces floated to the top. They naturally fell into place: The first piece is the thesis statement, the second is the conflict, and the third piece is epilogue. The bonus track is actually an outlier, as it was the first piece of music made in the series and acts as a sort of amorphous playground for those ideas. On a purely emotional level, there were very specific states I wanted to evoke and some trauma I was trying to work through. Beyond that, one idea led to another, and the whole thing evolved in a very natural way.
You said somewhere that to some extent a written piece played through a modular synth “performs itself”? Could you elaborate on that?
When I talk about writing a piece, I feel like maybe this needs clarification, because the wording lends itself to a different understanding. The music I make isn't composed in the traditional sense (sounds arranged in predetermined orders), nor is it improvised—it's generative, which means that my role in it is to conceptualize and implement a set of constraints and event/signal chains that will output music with the desired emotional effect. Synthesizers are built around cycles; from the LFOs to the VCOs, sequencers are usually expressed as circles or pendulums. Once a process is initiated it generally continues until you tell it to stop. With creative programming, infinite variation isn't difficult to arrive at. Even three or four out-of-sync cycles can create almost endless variation. So I begin with that, then try to sculpt it into something that sounds like music to me.
What goes into developing a system for an individual piece of music that places some of the creative decisions on the machine, rather than on yourself?
Use of random or quasi-random sources mixed with fixed cycles (like a sequencer or LFO), creating constantly evolving combinations of notes and sounds. Most of the processes are controlled through other parts of the synth—for instance, when I manipulate a sample with a joystick, a trigger signal could be generated any time I touch it, with those pulses clocking other elements. Arranging small or simpler patches in “rings” like this allows changes to migrate around an entire patch, and changes on one side have unforeseen effects elsewhere.
Could you provide an example of the synthesis of a constraint and/or event signal chain? Like with what kind of impulse does the idea begin when writing, and how do you work toward knowing what each next instance in the chain will be?
There are a certain amount of “voices” (on average around 8 to 12, depending on configuration) in my system, mostly analog and digital voltage-controlled oscillators, but other things too, like samples or a drum module. I start with timbre, so somewhere in one or a combination of those elements, plus modifiers, such as filters, voltage-controlled amplifiers, phase, delay, etc. I either find the sound I’m trying to make or come up on something else that is interesting in that pursuit. The fully modular (no two parts are hardwired to each other in any way) nature of the instrument allows me to combine any of these things in pretty much any meaningful way, while providing no "stock" or pre-set options to do it. Compare this with an average software synth, which might have ten times the voices/operators available, but you basically have to unbuild something to start from scratch, and in most cases you aren't provided with the options to make "bad" or "wrong" patches. There are obvious benefits to both things, but starting with a blank slate and having to turn basically the same X amount of voices, Y of modifiers, Z of control modules into a system that creates something that sounds like music while being different from the one before—that just really inspires me creatively.
What about albums? What albums most inspired your approach to synth-based music?
Anything by Parmegiani and Pierre Henry (though La Création du Monde and Prismes are my respective faves) as far as pure sound and its organization goes. Angus Maclise's rhythm without accent. Space, time, and the motion of both come from King Tubby and Brian Eno. The ecstatic cool fluidity and infinite melody of Alice Coltrane and Terry Riley.
Do you think machines have souls?
God, I hope not. But they definitely have character.
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