First let me set the stage for this unusual performance
Yesterday was Valentine’s Day. My wife and I have been together for 20 years and, frankly, we view the holiday with a health dose of cynicism. I’m sincerely happy for all the lovebirds out there, but couldn’t help taking the piss out of all the conspicuously public words of affirmations on my social media feed by posting my own take: an ode to my bicycle with lyrics appropriated from a George Michael song (yes I did listen to the song in the course of my research and it was delightfully awful).
Also, this particular Valentine’s Day fell in the midst of a global pandemic, a freak Texas ice storm, and while my wife is on a brutally strict exclusionary (diagnostic) diet requiring her to eat plain white rice for her meals.
So there was no steak and red wine this year. Just a bowl of instant ramen for me and a bowl of white rice for her. Our pet chickens, temporarily relocated to a pop-up dog kennel in our living room due to the extreme cold outside, watched us eat with some bemusement.
I remember saying “This is the weirdest Valentine’s Day ever.”
We went to bed early and I complained that it really was a shame that my modular synthesizer is too big to be able to play in bed where it is warm (yes, reading these words, it occurs to me that this is the very definition of a First World Problem). But before we turned in for the nights, I thought about what a waste the day and been and asked “Hey, do you want to go play synthesizers?”
To my surprise, my wife said “Sure” and off we went.
Okay, here’s the part you Eurorack nerds out there might actually be interested in
Back around the holidays I picked up PATCH: The Card Game and have been waiting for a special moment to break it out. This card “game” is really more of a creative catalyst for modular synthesists- something akin to Oblique Strategies. There is no way to lose, but there are plenty of ways to win at this game.
We drew a random Abstraction card, a type of card that sets a general framework for what we would be doing for the evening:
CREATE AN ENTIRE PATCH WITHOUT LISTENING
“Well we’re not doing that” I said and quickly moved to put the card back in the box. But my wife stopped me and said “No let’s try it” so of course we did. This was an interesting exercise in the sense that it we had to do some discussion and planning before diving right in to making beeps and bloops like we usually do.
We wanted to have some semblance of a cohesive composition, so we chose complementary voices (Mutable Instruments Rings on my side and Elements on hers). We came up with the idea of having the same Euclidean sequence from ALM’s Pamela’s New Workout be sent to both of our voices and hoped that they were still reasonably in tune from our last session.
To create a little more musical interest, we decided to send our gate signal through Plum Audio’s 1uO_c running Branches on the Hemispheres Suite firmware. This is a simple Bernoulli Gate based on Mutable Instruments Branches that sends incoming gates/clock pulses to one of two outputs, based on probability. Our hope was that this would alternate which voice was actively playing at a given moment and work as a sort of faux call-and-response.
We put on the headphones, pressed Start, and prepared ourselves for the worst.
Surprisingly, what we heard was vaguely musical.
So we began to introduce more cards from the PATCH:TCG deck. We were instructed to patch two modules together (which we chose to interpret as patching a module from my case to hers), to turn all the knobs on a module to the max, and to self-patch a module into itself. You get the idea.
I would be lying if I said the results were instantly magical. In fact, we twiddled and tweaked for quite some time and it became a muddy cacophony. We were tired and it was clear that this evening was not going to result in a masterpiece. I noticed my wife struggling to stay awake. “It’s getting pretty late” she said, to which I agreed.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage what we had, I buried the mix in some heavy-handed low pass filters and reverb. In order to give the patch some breathing room I came up with the idea of having PNW send phase-shifted LFOs to Veils (used as a mixer in this case) in order to alternate back and forth between the audio from my wife’s voice and mine. It cleaned things up a bit and I figured we may as well hit Record (why not) and call it a night. I stepped away for a few minutes and let the patch play without caring what we captured.
Then before we shut things down I said “You want to just fuck things up and see what happens?” which is our way of saying let’s do one last take and feel free to try anything, even if it messes up all of our patchwork. Just get weird and not care about the end result. I didn’t bother turning on the good camera, Just hit record on the iPhone. Right at the stroke of midnight, as it would happen.
We played around for a few minutes then called it a night. I think we were both secretly relieved be done with a less-than-inspiring session.
This morning I went to play back the recording with fresh ears and my jaw dropped. Right there at our kitchen table in the middle of a freak Texas snowstorm. Unassuming, with no expectations, and while wearing our pajamas. We made something incredible.
Listening to it now, I can’t believe I didn’t process all of this while performing it. The orchestral strings, the airy drones, the steel guitar-like glissandos, and the swelling dynamics. Clearly there is some magic happening here that transcends our humble abilities as amateur musicians.
There’s a lesson or two for me in all of this. In practical terms, about the need to make the effort and document progress even when it feels futile. And in a more philosophical sense, about how different our perception and judgement can be depending on our circumstances and headspace. Sometimes the difference between bad and good is just a matter of time and space.
At any rate, this Valentine’s Day will go down as one of our most memorable and one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy the recording.