Session 25Thighpaul Sandra
- 01. Five Steps To Tyranny
- 02. The Floating Ear
- 03. Trouble With Breeders
Timothy Lewis worked as a recording engineer in the 1980s and made several recordings with Julian Cope. He recorded and toured with him throughout the 90s having two ARP 2600s, two Mellotrons a VSC3 and a Minimoog on stage. In 1997 he joined in Spiritualized and toured/recorded with them as keyboard player until 2008. He was simultaneously a member of Coil from 1998 until their demise in 2004. Since 1999 Thighpaulsandra released eight solo albums and various EPs and his last album « Practical Electronics » was released on Editions Mego in 2019.
« I am also a member of the group Uruk with Massimo Pupillo (Zu) and a member of UUUU with Graham Lewis and Matthew Simms from Wire and Valentina Magaletti from Vanishing Twin. I’ve also recorded with The Waterboys and toured with Wire and Elizabeth Fraser. I’m currently playing keyboards with Tim Burgess and still engineering and producing records for other people. »
What have you been working on lately, and do you have any upcoming releases or performances?
I spend every day in the studio so I’m always writing, and am currently recording my next album. I was supposed to be touring with Tim Burgess and performing various solo shows this year but because of the pandemic everything has been put on hold until 2021 when, hopefully, things will be able to resume.
How were you first acquainted to Modular Synthesis?
My first contact with a modular synthesiser was in the 1970s whilst I was at boarding school. One of my fellow pupils’ father was a lecturer at Cardiff University and he arranged for our physics department to have an EMS Synthi A on loan. I’d heard synthesisers on record but never seen one. I was immediately obsessed with the instrument and did everything I could to gain access to it outside of class time. I didn’t understand it at the time but I loved all the sounds I managed to get out of it. I remember sending a letter to EMS requesting their catalogue and price list and being totally devastated when I found out that a Synthi A cost £345 which was a huge amount of money in 1973!
When did that happen? When did you buy your first system?
I think I bought my first modular synthesiser in around 1983. My next-door neighbour was a guy called Steve Howell (who ended up designing the Akai S6000 sampler) and he had an ARP 2600 which I loved. He’d bought a Yamaha DX9 and decided to sell his 2600. I still have it today. I bought a second 2600 and an EMS VCS3 in around 1995. The biggest revelation for me was when I got a Serge system in 1998. I’d always followed Roger Powell’s column in Contemporary Keyboard magazine and he often extolled the virtues of various Serge modules and banana based systems in general. I love the functional density of Serge and the general layout of their modules. I always regret that Eurorack adopted 3.5mm jacks rather than bananas. Regardless, I think I bought some Plan B modules in around 2007 which was the start of my Eurorack journey.
What was the effect of that discovery on your compositional process? On your existence?
The Serge made me approach synthesis in a different way. Before, I had always regarded audio and control voltages as two separate worlds but on the Serge those divisions were less important. I also began to approach synthesis more as a chain of sonic events rather than necessarily having a tonal or melodic path. It freed me from the tyranny of strictly tempo based music and allowed me to concentrate more on texture and colour.
Quite often modularists are in need for more, their hunger for new modules is never satisfied? How do you explain that?
I think that’s just human nature, a certain degree of competition and the overwhelming effect of social media. In pre-internet days I can’t remember feeling so pressured to try the latest thing. Innovation was at a much slower pace then. A few years ago I tried in vain to keep up with the current trends in Eurorack. Luckily I have discovered that I don’t really gel with certain types of modules. I have a terrible memory so anything that has a menu or requires me to learn combinations of buttons or coloured LEDs doesn’t work for me. Modular synthesis is a very hands-on process. I like to work very quickly when I have an idea, and having to consult a manual or chart to perform a function really kills my creativity. I love modules with one knob per function.
Instrument building may actually be quite compositional (as you're defining your sonic palette, each new module enriching your vocabulary). Would you say that that their choice and the way you build your systems can be an integral part of your compositional process? Or is this the other way round and you go after a new module because you want to be able to sound-design some of your ideas?
Yes, I’d say I’m largely trying to realise the ideas in my head and seek out the necessary tools. For example I have at least ten oscillators in my Euro system and I quite often like to create clusters of pitches or microtonal washes. I was very pleased when Xaoc brought out the Odessa module as this simplifies this process for me somewhat. Controlling specific frequencies with Odessa is difficult but it gets me in the ballpark of many of the ideas in my head, and it’s easy for me to add specific harmonics from other oscillators if necessary.
Would you please describe the system you used to create the music for us? Can you outline how you patched and performed your Modulisme session?
Normally when I perform live modular improvisations I include my Nord Modular so that I can have some pre-programmed patches to fall back on. As I was performing these in my studio during the pandemic I thought it would be good to not use the Nord and limit myself to the modular and maybe just one or two other instruments. I set up the patches and made notes on one day and then performed the improvisation on the next. I recorded the whole performance and just used Pro Tools for some reverb and to repair a couple of lumpy fades. My modular system is a bit of a mess. Apart from the EMS I tend to use everything else as one system. I have two Synton Fenix, some Serge panels, two ARP 2600s and 24U of Eurorack. I just cherry-pick the modules I need from each system to do the job. Each Fenix has two outputs, as does my Serge and Eurorack so I’m able to feed everything to my mixing desk to be panned or effected separately. I’m in the process of building a new case for the Eurorack modules because at the moment I don’t have enough rack space and have about 20 modules sitting in boxes which I have to swap out when I need them. It’s also really inconvenient to have to lie on the floor to do some of the patching… 01. Five Steps To Tyranny I used my modular system for the bulk of the sounds. I used an ASM Hydrasynth for the polyphonic parts and the parts where I play a melody, and an EMS Synth AKS in a couple of sections. I also played a French Horn in one section which is only picked up by the spring reverb in the AKS. The drum-like sounds are created with a Verbos Compex oscillator and the Xaoc Odessa through two channels of a Natural Gate and a Plan B Model 13. When improvising with the modular I like to create a few patches that are in some way self-generating so that I can just fade them up and have something to play against. For this I use my ARP sequencer and my Plan B Model 21 sequencer as I am able to voltage control the clocks for some random elements. I love the Plan B Model 24 for random voltages and triggers. For the percussive sequence in the last section I used an Arturia Beatstep Pro. The melodic solo section was played on the Hydrasynth through a modified Electro-Harmonix 16 second delay. 02. The Floating Ear The first section of this piece is another self generating patch on the modular. The trombone-like sound is played on a Realton Variophon. The second section is dominated by a polyphonic patch I created on a PPG Wave 2.2 MIDIed to a Waldorf Microwave. I wanted a pseudo-random polyphonic patch which I created by tuning the eight voices of the PPG and the Microwave to different octaves. So playing a simple triad will distribute the notes into different octaves and different stereo placements. That way I can achieve a broad canvas of sound using only one hand. I used similar wavetables on both instruments so they sound largely like one part although my PPG has a fault which results in one voice being much louder and brighter than all the others. It’s a fault I’ve grown to love and am loathe to have repaired. The sequence that fades in the middle section was created on Mutable Instruments Rings FMd by a Plan B Model 15 oscillator. 03. Trouble With Breeders It was probably because I had been listening to Kurzwellen by Stockhausen a few days earlier that I was inspired to create a piece using prepared and ring modulated piano and the modular system. I used singing bowls placed on the strings of the piano for the first section and miked the piano in stereo using a ring modulator from the Fenix on the left and a Plan B ring modulator on the right. I initially intended to use two Fenix ring modulators but thought I’d just listen to the Plan B to see the difference and forgot to change it. The carriers for the ring modulators are two Plan B M15s tuned initially to the same note (Bb) which I change half way through the piece. To be honest, I used two oscillators slightly detuned to mask the sloppy tuning on the piano as I’ve not been able to have the piano tuner visit since March. The modular is creating a random percussive patch and two random washy patches. These are two unsynced random sequences of the same thirteen notes tuned an octave apart, feeding Fenix oscillators and controlled through VCAs by very slow randomly modulated LFOs and eventually summed into a Make Noise Erbeverb. I had no control over the washy part — it being in the control room while I performed in the live room — but there were some very fortunate harmonic synchronisations and accidents. I had a small Eurorack modular case set up on the piano for the percussive parts along with a Haken Continuum for a couple of polyphonic interludes.
What would be the system you are dreaming of?
I was lucky enough to spend a couple of day’s with Rick Smith’s Buchla 200 in Vancouver. That was such a beautiful system. Danny Carey also has an immaculate Buchla 200 and a very impressive wall of Emu. If you can arrange delivery of any of those to my studio I’d be most grateful.
Are you feeling close to some other contemporary Modularists? Which ones?
Not being very sociable I don’t know many but I really like Rashad Becker’s work, and Peter Grenader has taught me a lot. I’m sure there must be lots of amazing people around but I don’t listen to new music unless someone actually gives me a copy of something.
Which pioneers in Modularism influenced you and why?
Wendy Carlos for her sensitivity and musicality. Tod Dockstader, Barry Schrader and Charles Cohen for their command of the instrument. I’d say that I’m largely inspired by non-electronic composers like Messiaen and Ligeti, but Varèse’s Poème électronique, Visage by Luciano Berio and Stockhausen’s use of electronics in the 70s were definitely a big attraction for me when I was younger along with my teenage admiration for Keith Emerson.
Any advice you could share for those willing to start or develop their "Modulisme" ?
Don’t buy too much at once. I think it’s best to fully explore a small system and be certain you’ve explored every aspect of it before expanding too quickly. I’m also very aware that modular is not really what every artist needs. It always amuses me when clients come to my studio and ask me to patch something on the modular, agonising over the merits of a particular oscillator or filter when the end result could have been achieved in thirty seconds on the Minimoog. Yes the modular looks cool but it’s just a tool. Be open to all influences. Listen as much as you can.