Modular Dry Playground

Mario Verandi
Eight pieces for the Buchla 100 series

Mario Verandi is an Argentinean composer who currently resides in Berlin, who thinks of his work as straddling “…modern classical and ambient styles…” He also performs electronic music and produces installation work and produces music for dance, radio and theatre.

The two big hitters in terms of US synthesis design and engineering in the 1960s were of course Bob Moog, who passed in 2005, and Don Buchla. London was home to the EMS company, (also still trading), whose machines were admired by King Crimson, Tim Blake, Brian Eno, Basil Brooks, Peter Zinovieff, and perhaps most famously Pink Floyd. Buchla died in 2016 at the age of 79, yet like the Moog brand, the product line that bears his name is still being made; the Easel Command desktop synth is the current object of desire for many synthesists. Encouraged by electronic composers Morton Subotnik and Ramon Sender, Don Buchla started building his first modular synthesisers at the San Fransisco Tape Music Center in 1963 with a $500 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Later, Buchla made an arrangement for his modules to be sold via CBS’ musical instruments division. Buchla synthesisers were used by artists including Suzanne Ciani, Terry Riley, Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich, Hal Clark and others. More recent users include Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith and MimiCof.

To obtain an original Buchla 100 would cost a pretty penny these days. That’s if you can actually find one for sale. Thus, Mario Verandi uses the example situated at the Ernst Krenek Forum in Krems, Austria for this album. This institution sell itself as “…a journey into experimental minimal electronic music…” I’m sold!

To give it its full name, the Buchla 100 series Modular Electronic Music System is played via an array of touch and pressure sensitive surfaces. On all the pieces – or modules – ie “Modul I-VIII”, Verandi is playing the device “dry” as far as I can make out – with no additional instrumentation, devices or processing I believe, and this is all to the good as we benefit from hearing the beautiful character and timbre of the machine undiluted. Verandi’s arrangements come in second place for me, perhaps, but for the vintage synth nerd, that is possibly as it should be. He makes interesting compositions on the whole, with only “Modul V” a repetitive robotic sequence. That’s just me – I’m sure something technical is happening in a very interesting way for Verandi – and whoever else might have been in the room at the time. But as can so easily happen with such unpredictable system, part of the joy of using them is the surprise at being rewarded with something amazing and unique after hours of tweaking – for me, “Modul V” neither falls into a “sweet spot” nor finds its own secret world, making its inclusion a little perplexing for this listener. But I hasten to repeat, that probably has more to do with me; and the album as a whole deserves attention.

Eurorack modular synthesis has recently become very popular – and “affordable”, although certainly not what you’d call “cheap” – and can give beautiful results in the right hands, but the sound of a Buchla 100 Series is The Real Deal; the vintage sounds having an authority all their own. That is not to say there are no great exponents of Eurorack currently; Heather Stebbins, Annie Blackthorn, Lisa Bella Donna, T. Hakozaki, Oora Music, Elin Piel and Colin Benders are just a handful of examples.

Modular synthesis has been enjoying a renaissance of sorts over recent years; a resurgence of interest in the nuts and bolts of the matter of the fundamentals of the creation of pure electronic sound in the form of (relatively) affordable eurorack modules, so interesting to hear what Verandi has done with his period of access to an original source machine. He’s not alone; thanks to artist’s residencies and open access opportunities on offer at organisations such as Ernst Krenek Institut, Willem Twee in the Netherlands or Belgrade Electronic Centre, musicians and composers like Mario Verandi have been able to experience these fantastic machines.