Live: Keith Fullerton Whitman + BugBrand @ Arnolfini, Bristol, 02/02/13

Two very different modular synthesisers sit at the centre of Arnolfini’s venue space, lit by spotlight in an otherwise dark room like the sole stars of a theatre production. One of them is opened out with wires spewing over eachother in a bewildering tangle, like a torso ripped apart to reveal the plethora of veins and organs within. It aptly represents my understanding of modular synthesis – intensely complex and comprised of acute, mathematically-informed processes that lay far beyond my own comprehension – the mesh of countless interconnections and intricate adjustments, the output of which fascinates me to no end, perhaps partially because of the alien (seemingly elitist maybe) mystique that shrouds its creation.

The other belongs to Tom Bugs. The same array of holes and knobs comprise its faceplate, yet there’s no spaghetti of wires obscuring the view – instead, they hang neatly off to one side. His set begins with a brief ad-lib description of what he does and what he’s about to do: he’s constructed the modular synthesiser from scratch, and uses the wires to create various processes within the machine that ultimately comprise the sonic end product. What’s remarkable is the simplicity of his explanation, but also his confession that he plans to simply “roll around” with the machine and see what happens; he’s not masterfully in control of how each new adjustment will affect the sound that results, and in fact, he’s no more aware of how the piece will unfold than I am. Maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but still – his humanisation of a seemingly complex field of sonic study is refreshing, and it’s fantastic to see the illusion of modular synthesis’ base in laboratory academia exposed for the knob-twiddling and “let’s see what happens” mindset that actually lies within. BugBrand is there with you as part of the exploratory party, shining a light down the labyrinthine network of chance operative pathways that comprise the unknown of improvisation. The wires are subsequently applied one by one, and the sound appears to gain in complexity; single-celled sine hums evolve into intricate organisms that flex and bounce in unique ways, increasingly more unpredictable in terms of timbre and movement. At one moment, the noise becomes erratic and aggressive, with Bugs’ interaction with the machine becoming more frantic too – squeals of serrated electronics strain at the leash, and Bugs hurriedly tames it back into meditative muffled drones.

Now across to Keith Fullerton Whitman’s rocket cockpit of flashing lights and wires. Surprisingly, rather than unravel Bugbrand’s demystification of modular synthesis, Fullerton Whitman continues to remove the clinical stiffness of electronic music appreciation. “It often helps to walk around during my performance,” he says. “Treat it like a painting – find an angle that makes sense to you”. Personally I didn’t find a particular angle more meaningful than any other, but the ability to “mix” the music via my own change in position felt somewhat liberating. The sonic field changed in dimension as I drifted around the room – certain sound moved to central focus while others became mere flecks of backdrop colour. The ability to retain some control over the music – along with Fullerton Whitman’s offer to look over his shoulder and examine the handiwork behind the sound’s transformation – evens up the distribution of power between performer and audience, in a musical style that can often lord of the listener with its inaccessibility.

This is ultimately a much more masterful exploration of quadrophonics than Bugbrand’s experimental forays. Sounds are crammed into the corners, emerging from electronic crackle and teleporting swiftly to the other side of the room in a mere instant. It’s dense, sometimes dizzying – like a rubber ball thrown at a wall, eternally accelerating as it bounces off the venue surfaces – and timbrally feels akin to a computer virus engulfing a hard drive, spitting chunks of techno drumkit and circuitry beep in some sort of multi-direction projectile chunder. At one point the four channels align, almost miraculously, into a clacking and thumping 4/4 dance track, causing a fleeting spate of nodding heads throughout the encircling audience. Interestingly enough, I spy a couple of headnods occurring even during the piece’s most incomprehensible explosions of noise, with umpteen rhythms attacking eachother from all four corners; surely these people aren’t unearthing conventional rhythm within the mess, so I can only assign this reaction to a constant, pendulumic gesture of ecstatic approval: an assertive “YES”, motioned over and over again.