Thursday, 14 March 2019

Tangerine Dream live at Barbican Hall: yet another landmark of electronic evolution

More than half of a century of electronic music came to Barbican Hall last night...

The London venue is renowned for a very varied calendar, in the sense that it makes a self-conscious effort to select the very best of classical and contemporary music.

On the stage where historic performances of ancient to futuristic music could be seen and heard over the years, by legends ranging from Ravi Shankar to Philip Glass, now Tangerine Dream took the sold out Hall into another Universe...

It was an important live performance for numerous reasons, not "just" another live appearance of an electronic music legend. So below impressions are not a perhaps usual run-down of the tracks and moments the audience could enjoy last night...

Firstly, we are now at a point that is more than fifty years after the band was formed - and we could see and hear them turn into luminaries of what became known as the Berlin School of electronic music. However, as difficult it may be for some to believe this, this is as far from a nostalgia act as certain quasars at the periphery of our known Universe are from our planet...

Sure, the audience always welcomes the legendary classics, and Barbican Hall audience was no exception. One could hear and enjoy parts of SorcererStratosfear, Poland Live, White Eagle, and as a theatrical master strike, second part of Ricochet, among other classics... but each and every composition was given new life and new energy by the current Tangerine Dream line-up.

Some commented within minutes of the end of the concert, that some renditions of compositions like the one from the Stratosfear album were probably the versions to remember. Let's not forget, this is an album from the mid-1970s, performed by a new line-up in 2019, which sadly has lost the founding member and luminary Edgar Froese few years ago...

The fact that new live versions of such classics can be considered by hardcore fans not only full of new life energy, but also somehow 'definitive' versions, is a huge achievement.

Second important point about the Barbican concert is that in a landscape filled with electronic acts that are focused on a more stereotypical type of electronica, Tangerine Dream still, in 2019, represents a unique island.

Why? Well, this is not electronic music where technology is allowed, or happens, to take over. This is not electronic music that is focused on its functional role.

In other words, as strange as it may sound, unlike EDM or ambient acts focused on functional role of music (i.e. to make us dance or to relax us, respectively), Tangerine Dream is closer to the ancient Greek's views on music. This is music that wants and succeeds to be a reflection of the wider Universe, wants to make us feel a sense of cosmic wonder and to take us out of our everyday reality. Pythagoras, whilst working on his musical theories, would have been happy to hear this performance :)...

In this sense, Tangerine Dream, with a set list spanning half of a century of electronic music, have demonstrated yet again that they are still very attached to the central ethos of the very first experimental years of the band: this is, as new age-ish it may sound nowadays after too much aimless over-use of some terms, cosmic music.

Using today's consecrated EM terms and genre labels, it would be quite a challenge to many EM fans to try to squeeze what Tangerine Dream still creates and performs into one of those increasingly narrowing categories.

Technology is "merely" an instrument here, and we could again see and hear musicians jamming and improvising together on stage. Electronic music? No, not in the way many would understand that word pairing.

Thirdly, it is no accident and no empty semantics in the title under which the performance ran: Quantum Of Electronic Evolution - emphasis on evolution.

All the old and new tracks that were performed have demonstrated eloquently: Tangerine Dream has not been, and still refuses to be, a static band. We can enlist the line-up changes, sure, but also more importantly the many changes in (often highly risky) directions. We can consider the still fiery live performances that every time surprise us with something new, which does not destroy the central intent of the original composition that can date back several decades even. Last night's performance was eminent proof of that.

Technology and people have changed vastly over the increasingly many years, but one could challenge even specialists to come up with a solid number of electronic acts that have not stopped evolving since the late 1960s.

The Barbican Hall performance was at the same time, and as paradoxical as it may sound, sublime and Earth-shattering live night exactly because of this evolution.

We can come up with many names that have spent many years performing the same golden gems over and over again, with a few cosmetic or technological twists here and there. This was emphatically not a concert of that kind...

What may be the ultimate open secret of Tangerine Dream is exactly their attitude to technology.

The reason why current line-up of Tangerine Dream can spend almost three hours surprising, enthralling, and animating the audience is because they are firstly musicians, and only secondly tech wizards.

The vast powers tamed or unleashed by them are serving the musical purpose - let's think of the ethereal improvised sections in the by now traditional live composition that closed the performance, with sublime violin seamlessly blending with electronics.

Let's think of the same sensitive violin, then the achingly beautiful and delicate Mellotron flutes and strings of yesteryear, joining forces with sequencers that could make the building shake.

Let's think of multi-layered and uniquely Tangerine Dream musical lines and curves that build up into compositions where the brain simply, and joyously, gives up trying to follow and analyse what is going on. The renditions of parts of the latest studio album, Quantum Gate, or the classics from Poland and Stratosfear, can be enumerated here.

If Tangerine Dream fans ever needed it, the Barbican Hall performance is once again reassuring them: this band does not stop evolving... 

Paul Frick, very notably, joined the Thorsten Quaeschning, Hoshiko Yamane and Ulrich Schnauss trio in the second part of the concert... and as a theatrical master strike, he surprised us with the legendary piano intro to Ricochet Part II, which still remains a master class in live electronics.

As a fan, a huge thanks to the band for making more than fifty years of electronic music sound utterly contemporary, relevant, meaningful and, above all, moving!

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Horses for courses... and dogmas for decorum

The British expression "horses for courses" originated from the world of horse racing, and it means that different things are best suited for... different things, as certain horses were better suited for certain types of races.

Despite a horse racing parallel, this post would take a leap into the field of sound synthesis methods (and the hype around them) - hence the reason for the expression might become apparent shortly.

So... this post was triggered by a recurring question seen on forums: why doesn't somebody make an analogue FM synth (in specific context, meaning multi-operator complex FM synths)?

Another trigger was  a "demonstration" of "wavetable synthesis" done some time ago with 2 analogue waveforms, triumphantly stating that this is proof that it can be done via analogue means.

This is the point where, in some minds, the analogue synthesis methods move from a solid technological sphere into a realm of fetishes. It is also a perfect example for the case when the astute 'horses for courses' principle is clearly being violated.

Yes, analogue synthesizers have superb capabilities and a distinct personality - unique even, in some cases.

Vast research and development efforts have been spent by companies of all sizes in attempts to perfectly imitate the "analogue sound". Their imperfections and instabilities are one of the, if not the, most crucial features that give them their unique sound. Emulating these imperfections via digital means only seems simple, but actually it is a fiendishly difficult and complex task.

Yamaha DX7
However, if one sees analogue synthesis, due to all its merits and stemming also from undoubtedly hyped discourses on quite ill-informed forums, as "the" method to apply to everything, then one commits a fundamental technical and conceptual error.

This leads to proposals like the mentioned case of making a multi-operator FM synth to "beat" the digital beasts dating all the way back to the era-defining DX7.

It can be imagined, and to an extent, even created in a lab - yes, technology certainly allows it. However, it would be eminently pointless and a supreme waste of effort, if one considers the fact that the mentioned instrument needs to leave the lab and is to be used as an... instrument.

Reasons? Well, tiny changes to the so-called FM operators' parameters can cause vast changes to the sound. What is a mere case of oscillator drifting out of tune in case of substractive analog synths, in FM case this often brings radical changes to what we hear. Reasons are buried in FM synthesis theory, but they are far from obscure reasons.

In simplest case, we can imagine these operators as oscillators with simple waveforms, but later generations of FM synths do vastly more than that. Changing their frequencies can radically alter the resulting spectrum, as one operator modulates other(s) and even has feedback - and if their frequency  drifts, the resulting spectral components shift around - hence fundamentally affect the tones we hear. Not to mention the controls to these operators, which have to have well-synchronised envelopes and precise amounts usually.

Also, in this hypothetical example, even if we assume the analogue multi-operator FM concoction is stable and perfectly controllable (it would be neither), the musician would want to recreate later the FM patch he or she arrived at. This can only be imagined with copious help from digital technology and digital to analogue converters - similar to how early analogue synths acquired patch memory.

However, even in this case (and obviously we already have digital creeping in, albeit not strictly in the sound synthesis part itself), the resulting complexity is, simply put, a mind-blowing mess.

Even in the case of digital FM synths, the constant and justified polemic is centred on the difficulty to program them, and the need for very intuitive and stable interfaces in often outboard software, so that one can cope with even thousands of parameters at play. A supreme and to this day not equalled FM monster like the Yamaha FS1R died as a product shortly after its release, and this was not due to its astonishing (!) sonic capabilities, but its user interface.

Similarly, what was once triumphantly demonstrated in a Facebook synth group as "wavetable synthesis", as an analogue concoction managed to morph the output signal from one simple waveform to another, was something that still firmly resides in a hobby lab.

PPG Wave
Also, it simply just wasn't wavetable synthesis, full stop, in the Wolfgang Palm sense (which led to the revolutionary PPG Wave and its successors, like the current Waldorf Blofeld).

It just isn't wavetable synthesis, by definition... as latter needs perfectly stable and precisely "sliced" waveform parts stored in precise manner in a table, and then precise sweeps that index in this table in perfectly controlled and even modulated manner.

Also, those waveforms are eminently digital, because the wavetables store samples of these waveforms... and then a synth based on this method is scanning those tables. By definition, one cannot have analog waveform slices kept in a static table of values... only digital samples of those waveforms...

The resulting revolutionary sounds' spectral content simply cannot be achieved by a few analogue waveforms morphing into each other. Latter experiment posted on Facebook some time ago was similar to a demonstration of a slow and careful forward parking manoeuvre in a Trabant and then stating "tada, it is perfectly capable of doing all that a Bugatti Veyron can do!".

As a person who spent half a lifetime in signal processing technologies, it is, admittedly, a deplorable sight to see such waste of time, effort, and enthusiasm channeled in completely misguided directions and utter dead ends.

Personal note aside, where above two characteristic examples spectacularly fail is the factual misconception that a certain technology is THE answer for everything in sound synthesis.

The hype and downright fetishisation of analogue synths have a big role to play in the birth of such misconceptions.

Analogue synths are absolutely fantastic in... analogue synthesis, which usually means substractive or additive synthesis whereby oscillator waveforms are taken away from (via filters) or added to (by wave shaping or modulation effects that add harmonics).

Korg Kronos MOD7 top level view
Multi-operator and hybrid FM synthesis engines (e.g. FMX by Yamaha or MOD7 by Korg), wavetable synths (like PPG Wave or Waldorf Blofeld, etc.), granular synths (Waldorf Quantum and countless plugins are capable of this among many other things), the vast array of mighty samplers and so-called romplers (list would be simply huge), plus numerous eminently digital signal bending tricks (think wave sequencing and waveshaping from Korg), constitute vast and complex worlds - often very unique worlds.

Then we have the hybrid synths... Even the aforementioned PPG Wave was actually a hybrid,  since it had famous analogue filters after the digital signal chain. These synths can create phenomenal possibilities. The Korg Prologue flagship analogue synth with a digital add-on engine even lets the user write his/her own oscillators and effect engines, with any algorithm one can think of (that fits in the multi-engine's memory). The Roland JD-Xa can layer and combine complex sounds from both digital and analogue synth engines under its bonnet.

These all add to our sound synthesis and processing capabilities entire new and vast universes of sounds, which are simply impossible to create via analogue synths.

Excluding them in some absolutist hype is a classic and misguided dogmatic approach, and we can encounter it in many forums about electronic music and sound synthesis.

However, trying to replace some horses with others that are eminently unsuitable for, and factually incapable of running, certain courses is a futile at worst, tragicomic at best, attempt.

Conceptually, apart from signal processing theory and technology, where this exercise goes wrong from the start is the failure to see appropriate horses as mere devices to get us, via appropriate courses, to the finish line. Dogmas are not left for the decorum or the viewing area to talk about over a beer, they actually make their way onto the race track...

Analogue, as splendid and as hyped it may be, is not the answer to everything that recent decades of music technology produced. As shockingly obvious it may be to many, each approach has its strengths and weaknesses - and some horses are simply not suited, not even designed, to run certain courses.

Nobody attempted, certainly nobody succeeded, to create cobalt blue, cadmium yellow or ultramarine paints from plant-based pigments just to score some dogmatic point in the art of painting. Well, maybe some have tried, especially when e.g. certain minerals ran into some trade difficulties as it happened in the case of ultramarine, but the results are not exactly surrounding us in galleries... Artists used different paints with different characteristics for different tasks, and with a good reason...

The huge problem is when hype crosses a certain boundary, and makes certain words magical. Not
Waldorf Quantum display
only can hype achieve that, but also it can then make one forget that all, absolutely all, of our electronic instruments are... instruments. Nothing more.

If we forget that, then we can ask questions like one seen recently on a forum: why doesn't a certain major manufacturer see sense and "finally" create an analogue workstation.

Why the question was phenomenal nonsense, well, one can leave that to the reader (small hint, synth workstation product category definition with a feature list)... However, the fact that such conflating of methods, instruments, and categories is even possible, it is a testament to the power of synth hype.

It is a free world, and everybody is entitled to their prejudices, misconceptions, and beliefs - but this particular area is one in which those are at the same time creatively, artistically, and technologically self-defeating...  If hard to swallow, challenge is to name one single groundbreaking creative electronic artist who artificially excludes majority of sound synthesis methods from his or her arsenal, instead of looking at a range of tools to achieve his or her creative aim.