Colin Benders vs The Modular Gang; The ups and downs of Synthesisor Gigs

On a bad day, synthesiser performances emulate the experience of watching someone play video games on their laptop; you’re disconnected from the music, as you watch this solipsistic act of sound manipulation without an interpretive entry-point. Whilst acts such as Kink and Kiasmos tackle this issue by holding up units of light-up machinery to the crowd as they perform or pairing the music with immersive visuals, this doesn’t tackle the deeper issue; loss of communion. For a performer to focus on machinery, they must cut off their reception of the crowd, in such a way that risks contradiction with the ego-erasure central to House and Techno. Perhaps this is why cynical writers for Vice and GQ have attacked live techno with such vitriol, calling it necessarily boring and telling readers to leave a club the moment they any kind of live performer is present.

To watch the kind of performance that inspires such cynicism, look up Colin Benders’ Against The Clock performance, filmed at Amsterdam Dance Event. Having caught a screening of the brilliant Suzanne Ciani documentary the previous night, I was excited to find myself standing in a clean white room next to a massive modular synthesiser. My mate and I had no idea how this object operated, or what kind of sound it would make, which excited me. As it turned out, it sounded like run-of-the-mill euphoric techno. Once it was over, I made some inane comment to my mate, who bluntly replied ‘I don’t think it was very good.’ I imagine this performance was enormously satisfying to Benders, as he mentally delved into the complex machinery’s potential, but as a member of the crowd the experience simply felt incomplete.

After shuffling out of the Fact suite, we went onto another weird midday dance event, wherein my mate’s other mate Gabby Gunn was djing in a dark hall to a group of punters on beanbags, with a massive screen broadcasting the deck-work. A huge portrait of Seth Troxler smouldered above her, giving the programme of new DJs a gladiatorial feel. Despite the lack of novel machinery, this was far more involving and interesting to watch. First off, her set was exciting and energetic, demonstrating taste, talent and technical know how where Bender’s performance felt limited to the latter quality (although this was more down to the individual performer than the format). Moreover the visual component allowed you to clearly map and understand phases in the live mixing, fleshing out the music like any great gig.

A month later I collapsed onto a backroom sofa in Berlin’s ://about blank, and found myself facing another modular synthesiser, this time operated by the Modular Gang, a trio including the brilliant трип-signee Volruptus. It was their debut performance. Instead of clean white light, there were candles and cigarettes set amongst a dark, swaying crowd. A low hum of conversation peppered with snapping, clicking, cantering beats made it feel like a Blade Runner open-mic night. Dressed in tracksuits, a black dress, and minimalist paintball gear, the performers faced away from the crowd, into the twisted wires and flickering lights. At certain points one would calmly gaze for a few minutes before laying hands upon an exposed limb of machinery, slotting their input back into the mutating rhythm. At no point did any of them speak. Perhaps it was the extra hands on deck or a different artistic mantra, but the music felt suffused with humanity, as if they were sculpting it into a representation of shifting mental states rather than pushing it into a dancey direction.

It was fascinating for the same reason that the documentary was; its insight into the mutual, exploratory interaction between machine and person. One of the theories about dance music that I disagreed with most when writing my dissertation was that – moreso than other genres like jazz – the music is about technology (rather than humanity). It’s important to remember saxophones are still essentially machinery, and jazz clubs don’t obscure them behind strobe lights. Dance music is about dancing, the people who dance and the scenes that facilitate their expression. But, at its best, these performances can help fans respect and explore the human musicianship that goes into making it.