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Accepted Paper:

Synthesizer Sceneries: Performing Natural Music on Social Media  
Rik Adriaans (University College London)

Paper short abstract:

In recent years electronic ambient musicians have increasingly embraced modular synthesizers for the creation of audiovisual social media content. This paper locates modular synthesists in a culture of digital detoxing in which immediacy is pursued through the sensory mediations of the non-digital.

Paper long abstract:

Since the early 2000s an increasing number of electronic musicians ditch their laptops and other digital devices for music creation in the Eurorack modular synthesizer format. The Eurorack modular synthesizer format allows musicians to assemble unique, customized musical instruments from a wide range of electronic circuits and generate music by distributing analogue voltages across these circuits with physical patch cables. In this paper I explore how modular synthesists relate to their instruments as vibrant, organic and energetic systems by exploring the commonly held idea that analogue synthesis is more natural than digital sound generation.

Drawing on fieldwork with ambient musicians and synthesizer circuit designers, I explore how modular synthesists experience tactile cues from patching and tweaking their instruments assembled by hand, integrate environmental and feedback sounds into their system and emulate the imperfections of traditional musical instruments though practices such as the tuning of oscillators by ear. I look at the emergence of the ‘ambient field trip’ in which modular systems and camera equipment are brought along by young synthesists on hiking and mountaineering trips to generate soothing and meditative content for YouTube and Instagram. I also look at critiques of the naturalness of the analogue by other synthesists who embrace a more artificial aesthetic and refer to overly formulaic or accessible synthesizer music on social media with the derogatory term 'houseplant ambient’. The paper situates modular synthesizer subculture in a wider culture of digital detoxing in which immediacy is pursued through the sensory mediations of the non-digital.

Panel P104
Sensory media anthropology, an introduction
  Session 1 Wednesday 27 July, 2022, -