The bleeps and bloops of modular synthesizers can be heard all over music these days, says Travis Thatcher, the technical director for the composition and computer technologies program in UVA’s music department. It’s audible in pop music, techno, house, trap, even indie rock and hip-hop, and that’s precisely what makes it interesting. Plus, he says, “synthesizers allow you to endlessly explore new sounds if you have the patience.” The instrument naturally lends itself to experimentation.
“Electronic and experimental music…allows anyone to express themselves creatively, even if they’re not traditional ‘musicians,’” says Crimson Youth, a UVA student who enjoys the anonymity that his moniker affords him. “Music is a very subjective experience, and having a place or genre where anything goes pushes people to redefine what they think a musical experience really is.”
Here are four local acts that push against the boundaries of the traditional listening experience. Plug in some headphones, close your eyes and just listen.
“I like the idea of longing—for love, a time or place, a feeling, a person—anything,” says Crimson Youth. “I’m interested in the idea of being nostalgic for something that a person has not lived through or could not have lived through.”
On Valleys, a record loosely inspired by the time between youth and adulthood, Crimson Youth sampled clips from old ephemeral movies he’d found—educational films, weird corporate videos and nature documentaries—and manipulated the audio into original keyboard parts he’d improvised or previously written. On the track “Grief,” he starts off with a haunting string sample before adding synth and the found audio to create an emotionally ambiguous sound. “It’s a sad song, but in almost a confusing way, like you’re crying and you don’t know why,” he says. “The looped sample at the end epitomizes for me the idea of youth. It’s carefree and happy, but placed over the rest of the song, it takes on a more melancholy feeling.”
Thatcher and Dave Gibson perform as Personal Bandana, drawing influence from Krautrock groups like Cluster, Eno, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. The Krautrock, or cosmic music (kosmische musik in German), movement emerged out of the psychedelic/avant-garde/experimental rock scene in late 1960s Germany and contributed to the evolution of electronic music, ambient music and post-punk and new wave. Personal Bandana keeps minimalism “at the core” of its lengthy, outer space-y jams, Thatcher says, as he and Gibson limit their instrument usage to some simple drum machines and Casio CZ-101 phase distortion synthesizers. They plan to drop a tape sometime in the next few months.
Joseph Zehner, who records and performs as Winterweeds, says he turns to a synths-and-guitar-pedals setup when there’s no solution to something that’s bothering him—“playing music is the only thing I’m really capable of when I’m in that…debilitated but introspective state,” he says. “You Are My Horizon,” a track that Zehner released last year, is a one-take series of random, layered sequences, only some of which involve rhythms. The changes throughout the nearly 20-minute song are so subtle and gradual that by the time you reach the middle, it sounds different from the beginning, but you wouldn’t be able to tell unless you tracked back to the start.
“Even if I wanted to play the same thing twice, I wouldn’t be able to,” says Zehner, who runs Valence Shows and books music at Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar. “So, [music is] a kind of forced evolution for me. Memories cannot be relieved. The recordings are there, but only to be replayed, not reperformed.”
“I’m pretty into science fiction and I have a very optimistic view of technology,” says Alexander Tanson, whose tape, The Eventuality of Destiny, was influenced by ideas of artificial intelligence, technological singularity, people becoming cyborgs and space exploration. Its 7:58 lead track, “Deep Learning,” which opens with a deep, vibrating synth that expands into a sonic cavern of shifting noise patterns, is about artificial intelligence developing consciousness. It makes sense, then, that Tanson’s songs often flourish from experimentation on hardware synths and a drum machine. “Either I come up with a melody on my own or by accident with a sequencer,” he says. “I’ll record that, or incorporate it into a live set; I don’t like doing production or anything. It’s nice to have tangible instruments as opposed to just using software. I heard someone say it’s kind of like herding robots. I like that analogy.”