under the influence

As it does every so often, the topic of “influencers” or “synthfluencers” has come up on forums again.

I’m not interested in ranting about the unbalanced level of resentment that some people have over it — instead I want to consider actual influence. And that’s personal.

When I was a child, my dad had eclectic tastes in music and I picked up on them. Isao Tomita, Wendy Carlos, Synergy, the Beach Boys with that sweet Tannerin solo on “Good Vibrations,” Pink Floyd, the Alan Parsons Project with some very clever production tricks (and solid funk, and of course vocoders were awesome to a kid who loved robots and space). Really Tomita was the big one for me though, and I appreciated his sound design and aesthetic sense more and more as I grew up and started to find my own favorite musics. Dad has never been a musician, but Mom played the piano a bit, and both encouraged me.

I should also add that Dad encouraged an interest in electronics and how things worked, and also his job with a chain of video arcades exposed me to a lot of games and some sense of how they worked on the inside. Mom as a computer programmer did all kinds of mysterious magic with big cool machines. So it’s not really a surprise that I wound up as a programmer, in the video game industry for quite a while, and of course computers are a little bit important in electronic music.

Some credit to my brother too: though much more of a visual artist, he had some interest in synths too and is the one who introduced me to FL Studio and VST plugins originally. And while I’m on family and out of chronological order, my spouse has been supportive and tolerant of my weird noises and weirder devices. 🙂

I had a fantastic music teacher in elementary school, Helene Malpede, who later was my violin teacher. I strongly suspect that the joy she shared in music and the emphasis that everyone can be involved in music in some way, really made a difference.

In middle school, as a science project I tried to build a TI talking clock chip-based speech synthesizer and interface it with a Commodore 64. It was only partially successful, and unstable in fun ways and I wish I still had it (“elevennn.nn.nn.nn.nn.nn.nn.nn.nn EIGHT oh”). My science teacher at the time gave me an old oscilloscope of his, hoping it would inspire me further. I hooked it up to the 8-track tape player and watched Tomita’s waveforms dancing across the old round tube, in rapt fascination. So I think it inspired me more musically than to go further in electronics.

I started on the violin in middle school, and while it can certainly be a frustrating and difficult instrument, there was joy when things came together. The sense of control and expression… I know electronic musicians often talk about a collaboration with the machine, but even with acoustic instruments there is a similar feeling. And playing in an ensemble, there’s also satisfaction when the group is tight and creates something greater than the sum of its parts. So, I might add the conductors and instructors who taught me, quirky as they each were (and in many cases, biased against electronic music or anything outside their own comfort zone).

I also joined the high school jazz ensemble — starting from a position of not really being able to play the piano, and ending in a position of barely being able to play it and not very well. But I learned some comfort with improvisation and rhythmic complexity, and had an amazing almost out-of-body experience at one show with a wild solo that stunned the rest of the band. As it happens, the group was directed by the same teacher who’d conducted the middle school orchestra, so he gets some extra credit.

The time I spent in the Society for Creative Anachronism, and then more so, the House of Netjer Kemetic Orthodox Church, led me to appreciate hand drums and get a bit into bellydance music. And I also enjoyed other folk music from around the world with “unusual” and complex rhythms. A lot of my own pre-Starthief music was heavily influenced by those rhythms and timbres, and even though I’m so much into drone and use very little of a percussive nature now, I still love an asymmetrical rhythm and they do creep in at times. I also think the trance-inducing nature of some rhythmic music has an influence.

The House was also the impetus for actually releasing music. I first decided to make some music to honor a few of the major gods for a holiday, and then just kept going, and shifted gears to other purposes, and then I was just making music for the love of making music. So, the encouragement I received through my religion was a very big deal.

And back to rhythm: there was St. Louis Osuwa Taiko. I loved seeing them perform, because it seemed so full of ferocious joy, and friends convinced me that I should go ahead and join their beginners’ group. I went on to audition for the performing group and did that as my primary musical (and physical!) activity for a couple of years. There’s perhaps not much of taiko in a Starthief album, but many public performances did give me more confidence. And one of my favorite (yet all too rare and brief) parts of playing taiko was improvisation, and that’s a key part of my music now.

At a time when I was spinning my wheels, Jonathan Coulton’s “Thing A Week” project encouraged me to try the same, and those habits are what really made Starthief happen.

What influenced me to get into Eurorack was playing the Arturia Microbrute, with those fascinating few patch points — and then Émilie Gillet of Mutable Instruments donated some modules to a charity auction I was watching, which really got the wheels turning. And while I’m on that subject, credit to instrument designers in general. The responsibility to create, and to choose the tools, lies with the musician — but building instruments is an art too and one does very much influence the other.

I could name a lot of musicians whose work I have enjoyed, and who opened my ears and mind to what was possible. The more obvious ones to me (aside from Tomita) have been Skinny Puppy, Nathan Moody, Belief Defect, and Caterina Barbieri. But there have been hundreds and I can’t rule out the influence and inspiration than any of them have given.

Inspiration comes from many other places though: many authors of novels and nonfiction books could be named, and many different life experiences. The list could start to get pretty absurd if it were entirely complete.