Unstable Structure: The improvising modular synthesiser

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The desire to work in real time and improvise with the possibilities of tape-based studio practice was a key design intention of early modular synthesisers. The resulting instruments, in particular the Buchla, emphasised possibilities for the creation of musical structure in combination with components designed to enable real-time, expressive interaction. As smaller, keyboard-based synthesiser instruments achieved broad commercial success, many of the possibilities for the real-time creation and manipulation of musical structures, developed in the larger modular synthesiser designs, were not carried forward into the new age of commercial electronic music instruments. The resurgence of the modular synthesiser has seen these possibilities for improvisation of musical structures revisited, opening up processes and approaches that were almost lost to a new generation. Following an analysis of the genesis of modular synthesisers, with a focus on the Buchla, this article describes three examples of modular synthesiser-based compositional processes that enable the performer to undertake improvised actions in real time that construct, influence and distort musical structure. These examples are then analysed to better understand the processes, motivations and experiences of using a modular synthesiser to construct musical structure in a real-time and improvised fashion.
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