Instead of suffocating us with platitudes and exogenously generated personas towards which we should evolve abolishing ourselves in the process, it creates a Rorschach pool of soothing vibrations, windy melodies and synthetic conflagrations which hover in front of us like shards of crystal exploded in bullet-time.
We see our better, mellower, wiser selves reflected in those holographic sound-fragments. They exist inside us, and we use Arcosanta to bring them out.
In our mythological recombinator, Design A Wave’s Ke’s transforms Snake Plissken (or Solid Snake’s) stealthy traversal of devastated cities and gun-porn warehouses into a melancholy journey through the wastelands of his own solitude.
Those synthesisers which in John Carpenter hands convey the fear of the chase are here tinged with a M Mann-blue blur of sadness, the hero’s journey is a lonely one, and full of pathos.
The metronomic drum stops representing a countdown for explosion or execution, what lies ahead, to hint at what lies behind: A romantic collapse, a chance for human connection, that’s what’s being escaped, across city streets that could have been dreamt by Chromatics.
The legend earns a new dimension, and for that we are grateful.
Over the last 6 months or so, we have been involved in an interview with Tom Hirst (aka Design A Wave) in relation to “International Journey of Synthetic Emotion”, the spectacular 12’’ he released last year in Alien Jams (go and get it here).
The interview covers the philosophical and technical underpinnings of his music. It is very revelatory but instead of detracting with its information from the strange mystery of the sounds in IJSE, it intensifies them. We think this is a testament to the awesomeness of the music, and to Tom’s articulacy.
We hope you enjoy it. The interview concludes with a short mix that Tom put together for us, capturing some of the key ideas covered in our conversation.
Where does this music come from?
“Design A Wave” (initially “Designer Wave”) is a project I started in the late 90s. It’s essentially a “solo-project” but somehow I don’t regard it as “the music of Tom Hirst” (it makes me uncomfortable when people do) and others have helped me out with recording and live performance along the way. The initial name was taken from the name of one of the gangs in the Troma movie “Surf Nazis Must Die” and has since mutated (maybe I was scarred of getting sued?).
The movie’s synthy soundtrack was exemplary of both the aesthetic and technological approach that I wanted take at the time. I think if I have ever recorded a song that didn’t have a synth on then it would at least have had a drum machine on it, so there’s always an electronic element in the music. Of course, a re-imagining of historical times past and their potential futures has often been an aspect too, specifically through stylistic references and the audible residue of the equipment used. Over the years the quality of the equipment I have used has graduated from Zoom to Boss and now I’m pretty much at Roland, save for needing a replacement Juno 106 voice chip (wow, electronic muso joke).
Looking back over my time spent recording/performing music, if I was to extract anything that remained constant it would be a consideration of the potential to transform/put-in-motion the state of the listener’s mind. I’ve always felt that I’m very much not a “sound artist”. Sound for me is an itinerant and often cumbersome hurdle between a performance and any affect/effect which I may wish it to have. My current aim is not to be the architect/designer of sound objects and, perhaps more importantly, nor is it to conjure some kind of meta/transcendental pseudo-religious experience (I’d like to think I’m a punk rocker essentially, er, I mean existentially). That’s not to say I won’t have respect for or enjoy the creative endeavours of associates that might fit these withering definitions, it’s just not what I’m interested in doing.
Let’s say that there’s something called a Vortex whose complete description can at best only be alluded to by a vague notion of some alien geometry. When music is best for me is when language has been de-prioritised or switched off completely and your body feels like there’s a Vortex happening inside your skull. If there’s other people around and they’re feeling the same way and we’re all dancing then that’s nice, too. Music is best for me when you are actually unaware that you are listening – the sound itself is no longer at the forefront of your consciousness and you could just as well be sensing a crescendo of phantom tones. Music is best for me when its immediate cause of sensation is not from sound. So one way to conclude the answer to the question, in a roundabout and probably pretentious way, is to say that my hope is that this music does not come from sound.
What you say reminds me of the “Songs of Eden” fable about the origin of music and mind recounted by George Dyson in his book “Darwin Among the Machines”. According to this fable, music – sounds made by apes – eventually evolved into language as the apes realised that different sounds could be used to communicate a variety of useful messages, and started memorising, replicating and understanding them (as well as developing a conscience). Maybe the Vortex you refer to would be whatever exists in our brain before language takes over, and sound stops being pure structure or experience, and becomes a medium for something else. Either way, what makes you want to create this Vortex instead of, say, more conventional communication, or creating some sort of mood (often with a visual dimension, as seen in the ‘imaginary soundtracks’ of many other artists working with synths)?
I think in many respects a lot of the musics I make would constitute being described as ‘imaginary soundtracks’ and this concept of the Vortex doesn’t necessarily exclude that. The idea of the Vortex is more an observation of the nature of my musical “practice” (both as a performer and listener) and less a statement of intent and/or method. As my relationship with music has transformed, I’ve passed through varying and even contradictory methods, aesthetics, politics what-have-you of music but the Vortex has always remained to some extent.
My statement about the Vortex is an attempt (perhaps under the duress of my own status anxiety) to position myself with a critical understanding of what it is that I’m doing when I’m making music.
The idea about music as atavism/evolutionary throwback is a good parallel to describe my attitude: yes, the evolution of (human) music can probably be traced to a bunch of primates smashing skulls but I believe that’s not a necessity for the existence of music. It’s outlandish but it would be wholly possible that music is a symptom of an intergalactic genetic virus infected in us by some faraway mischievous alien beings. I’m of course not saying that is the absolute genealogical source of music but it’s a way to illustrate that, in my naive interpretation of evolution, it’s possible that there are multiple convergent pathways to the same end. Then the Vortex can be understood as an effect of listening to sound but not necessarily as such – perhaps another science fiction alternative would be the Vortex induced via neurological implants? In that sense, the job of exciting the Vortex becomes open to transformation and is not fixed in one method or another.
The point about language is that music does not have to be a primitive antecedent to language and that both are specific entities in our understanding of “nature”. Just as apes with bones is not a necessary precursor for music nor is music a necessary precursor for language. I believe both came about through evolution but neither are necessitated by any particular evolutionary process. The appeal of the Vortex for me is the possibility of a concrete space of human experience that is indifferent to the abstractions of language but I certainly don’t see that as a return to some lost essence of humanity.
Teenage metaphysics aside, I basically want to make music that’s going to shake some cobwebs lose in peoples minds/bodies.
The three songs in “International Journey of Synthetic Emotion’ are quite different from each other in form if not destination (erecting that alien geometry you mentioned). What process do you follow in generating them, in building that Vortex? How do these things start, branch out and take form?
It’s basically a pun but the word synthesis can be used in many ways to sum up how I make music. Synthesisers have had a hold on me for a long time. I’m basically a lot more dexterous mentally than physically and synthesisers provide me with a flexible way to to make music without having to spend all my time practising scales. They also sound great to my ears (but that probably contradicts the concept of the Vortex, oh well).
I don’t have any specific method but when I’m recording but until recently I’d generally start with either a percussion or a bass part, record that and then work out melodic and harmonic parts over the top. I might then strip away the original rhythm and bring in new parts and I’ve even quite a few times started a piece by putting in a recording by someone else which had a harmonic progression that I liked, worked out my own parts that followed the harmonic structure and then removed the original recording. So there’s generally a synthesis at work in terms of combining and constructing things.
Recently, my approach has been a lot more technical and this is part of a general movement on my part to “synthesise” my interests in maths and computer science with my music. I did a lot of research around both digital and analogue audio synthesis. I really enjoyed and learnt a lot from reading “The Theory and Technique of Electronic Music” by Miller Puckette (the creator of Max/MSP and Pure Data). It’s basically because it reads like a maths textbook, which says a lot about my taste in literature.
At the moment, I’m almost entirely using an analogue euro-rack modular synthesiser. I’ve always felt my music was not that interesting rhythmically (often I have one drum machine loop all the way through a track) so I’m specifically trying to learn how to get it to make “generative” rhythms. I’ve read a bit about that but I’m yet to find a text that wasn’t unenjoyable and tedious so I’m having fun working it out myself and that’s starting to become productive.
The track III from International Journey of Synthetic Emotion was arrived at in a particularly elaborate way. At some point I stumbled on this youtube video of a speaking piano).
Musically I didn’t really find it that interesting but I was fascinated technically and set out to find out how it worked. I ended up with a Pure Data patch that would use fourier transforms to generate midi notes from audio input. In doing so, I discovered that the patch could be put to use as a pretty complex arpeggiator and this is what is generating the notes for the “lead” synth and the “acidy” bits that occasionally come in the background in the piece. The drums were made using “euclidean” rhythm generators. At first, the track had drums all the way through and was a bit boring so I added the “house”-y chords and bassline and stripped back the drums until the end.
I liked the way there was this harmonic weirdness with the melodies and the new harmony but I’ve some how become familiar with it now and so can’t “un-understand” it. The other 2 tracks on that record were made with my modular synth which was also triggering drum machines and then me playing keys over the top, all recorded to a stereo mix-down.
Could you elaborate on the idea of synthesising your interests in maths and computer science with your music? To which elements or ideas in those disciplines do you refer? What is it about them that makes you want to integrate them into your music, and the way you create it?
My position is highly ambivalent and if anything I’d celebrate that. I actually detest a lot of music that gets made with computers but on the other hand groking technical concepts is something that I find creatively fulfilling, in the same way that interacting with music is. The contradiction between my interest in immutable mathematical concepts and messy music making came to such a point that I simply had to “go there”.
It’s hard to say how these interests actually get used in practice, the attraction for me has always been more theoretical/philosophical. The primary interests for me are fundamental epistemological and ontological questions, as in, what are mathematics and computers and what can (and can’t) they tell us about the world. In reality, it’s hard to bring that to bear in the practice of music making. It certainly helps, if you’re recording music with a computer (as I do), to have a bit of understanding about what’s technically happening. In general, my music making is much more schematised than it used to be but that’s more on account of a conditioned attitude than for the purpose of any practical application.
The live set I’ve been performing recently is performed entirely on a modular synthesiser and I’m making use of a sample and hold module and a logic gate module to generate rhythms. These are the fundamental components required to a construct a digital computer with which to make music, so I like to jokingly think of that synth almost as a “deconstructed” DAW (digital audio workstation). It’s mostly likely hare-brained and deserves a deeper contextualisation than I’m willing to give but I’m working from a minimal proposition that all that is schematic is not computational and this manner of audio synthesis provides me with a creative way of feeling my way through that idea.
In our world populated with sci-fi allagories — dark hulking things, scrapping their battered metal bulk over the purple plains of twin sunned planets — we sometimes cannot help but retreat to the warm caverns of the discothèque. A place of nebulous identity, a relativistic space of individualists and solidarity. It is dark in there for a reason.
A Ballardian conflagration of the hi-tech and sexual; the sounds of electronic music so intractably bound in the aural flourishes of lasers and deep space. Booming like stars and metallic. Vast and often beautifully empty. The forces shaping those sounds, not immediately those of craft and intricacy, but something more elemental, more eternal.
Factory Floor‘s entry into this space seems drenched in the entrails of Industrial Records. A dry black birth into a space that plays so effortlessly with brutal dehumanisation and finds beauty every, single, time. The throbbing pulse to ~ (R E A L L O V E), ritualistic and mind-controlling; relentless and comforting. A heartbeat to an impossibly vast machine. Optimo (in the form of Twitch and Dave Clarke) turn the speeding pulse from a hurtling descend into a controlled glide the makes expert use of the electro-thermal currants drifting up from the haciendas below. Nik Colk’s vocal paces between the beats and beams, delivering her lines from every corner, sometimes barely heard, sometimes brushing just by your ear. The juggernaut of early electro noise barely contained as if caught by intractable tides, constantly ready to overwhelm and gorgeously relentless.
~(R E A L L O V E) (Optimo Remix) is taken from the forthcoming Optimo Music 12″ out on April 6th.
Design A Wave take another route. Far from descending from a cloud-black sky they emerge from an ice-flow; glacial, blue and pristine. Magicar is a neon-lit Fortress of Solitude, a dance party for geological processes: glacial disco.
Magicar is taken from the Snake Jam tape out soon on (our good friends) Sex is Disgusting Records. the tape itself is made up of tracks culled from a four year period (2005-2009) but manages to slip right in to these days of synth-wave obsession. This takes us back to a time when Glass Candy and Chromatics filled these dark pages with ethereal delights and for that, we are grateful.
Not much is know about the last few years of Preston G Parallax‘s murky existance. After we found the floundering Sci-Fi hack in a Berlin backsreet, trying to proclaim the intermingled co-existence of rubber-masked energy beings to a red Volkswagen Polo, he seemed to be suffering from some form of amnesia. To say that this amnesia was selective was a hideous understatement. Preston’s power of recall was an over-fastidious Emperor, whose capricious taste would readily gulp down bitter memories of being dropped by his publisher or some interminable anecdote with glee, yet would toss remembering to take out the rubbish over his shoulder like a half gnawed chicken leg.
His journal offered little assistance. For the last 5 years Preston had recorded his life in Crawloz, a language spoken by the Crawillian race who appear only twice in his early work. With less than a passing interest in the magnificent complexities of linguistics, he spent the summer of 1985 fabricating an entire alien language, so that the brief passages of Crawillian dialogue contained in his would be more ‘realistic’*. Unfortunately he forgot to tell anyone anything at all about the language. He also destroyed all the documentation he created in that heady summer – in case the human race ever made contact with the Crawillians, and he could thus warn them of the brutal C.I.A pursuit they would inevitably encounter .
The quasi-coherent, paranoid last of Preston’s recorded days make for disturbing reading, and we only share these grim extracts with you today in the hope that someone is out there is able to dechiper them.
†ø∂å¥ I finished chapter &*&*(. I can’t wait to see the look on that old ç¨~†’ß face when he reads my manuscript. He will take it all back. I think maybe the scene where å¬¬¬¥ seduces˙^˙∂^˙∂ with a ˙˙∂∂∂∂ would work better if there was more of a ¶¶•¶¶√∫~, and then å¬¬¬¥. That would really ¨^¨^¨^~~∫~µ.
*They were translated in English before publishing.
Design A Wave are one of 20JFG’s secret obsesssions that we have been yearning to share with you since the sublime day we first heard them. Now they have a new 12′ out, and a track duly featured on Rough Trade’s recent synthwave comp – meaning that we may finally see them in these eager pages.
Design a Wave are a London based occasional ensemble comprised of the Synth Genius from Cleckhuddersfax, and a cast of rotating vituosos who lived for the last 15 years in the warped part of Bernard Edward’s mind. Hippasus is a scratched early Pulp vessel piloted by a post punk vocalist elite, his only companion on this journey a marbled plastic drum machine who robot claps out the unique time signature that sends this pop-enhanced vessel into Crawillan Hyperspin. The magical ‘Remedy’ also featured on the Rough Trade comp is Gloria Gaynor being sat down and told that she wasn’t 100% responsible for the disco movement by a well meaning Swell Maps.
Live on Your yard EP is availiable from the magnificent Alter records, who also recently broadcast an ancient codec from the Hieroglyphic Being, and in fact their entire back catalogue is severely worth checking out.