Black Meteoric Star at National Sawdust

Support: Abe Seiferth
January 26, 2017 at National Sawdust
Promoter: National Sawdust

The recent revival and excitement over modular synthesizers, chronicled in the documentary “I Dream of Wires,” is reaching critical mass and trickling into the performance arena. No longer do New Yorkers need to head to fringe electronic music festivals to see someone tinkering with a modular creation – now, it’s right in our backyard. Supplementing the Monthly Modular series at Muchmore’s on the first Sunday of the month is a new series at National Sawdust called Movements in Modular. The series kicks off with two performers, one of whom is the series curator, Abe Seiferth.

The modular’s predominant charms are its timbral characteristics and infinite configurability, often leading to happy accidents in the form of novel sounds. Classic modulars also included some undesirable characteristics like unpredictable oscillator detuning, or sometimes parts would wear out and break. The modular renaissance has dispensed with these issues and approached the once-archaic technology with a sense of sophistication and enthusiasm in both analogue and digital assortments.

Tonight, the stage is littered with hardware and effects pedals, but also some “fixed” gear like the classic analogue Roland SH-101 synthesizer. Astute listeners head to the balcony, where they can watch the step sequencer lights blink on and off to Seiferth’s set.

“I Dream of Wires” has a hardcore version which clocks in at over four hours for the true diehards. I’m willing to bet the audience tonight has more than a few who know the documentary. It doesn’t surprise anyone when Seiferth begins his set with a fluttering line in 5/4 which later folds over a normal 4/4 beat, adding to the spacey ambience of the melody and challenging the electronic dance music status quo, the wide majority of which is in 4/4. Seiferth plays a modest Eurorack modular, supplementing it with the SH-101 for squelchy basses and lightweight pads. Seiferth displays an extremely attuned knowledge of his gear. Across the hourlong set, he settles into an accessible dance space filled with more arpeggios that sometimes parade along without the aid of percussion. At other points, he lets the drums take over, receding the bubbling synths into a single flatlined note. Most important, the set is exhilarated and gleeful, and could easily be at home at the synthpop-friendly Music Hall of Williamsburg next door, or the clubs sounds of Output right down the street.

The second set from Gavin Russom, who records as Black Meteoric Star, takes a completely different approach, one that is difficult to follow after Seiferth’s constantly evolving and danceable set. Star begins with a growling bass line punctuated with trebly sonar blips, also in an odd meter of 6/4, creating a shifting sense of time within his groove. There is much less variation in Star’s set, which serves as a bit of a whiplash after Seiferth’s set that includes many more musical points of interest. Star’s initial jumping off point persists for nearly ten minutes, so a funky, assertive start wears out its welcome, sapping it of its original punch. However, Star’s punk aesthetic comes into play after this section. He strips away the beat down to its kick drum, mashing the tempo so that the kicks flutter about, bereft and searching for a beat. This is an exciting part of the set, but soon settles into another song propelled by an industrial bass that persists for nearly as long as the first. A third section is much the same but here Russom contributes vocals as he screeches out a prepared poem. There is something of a disconnect here, as Russom’s released material is quite solid synthwave. Maybe it was just an off night.

Still, one subpar set does not a bad series make, and besides, Seiferth’s set was reason enough to make it out. Small modular configurations are practical to play with, but in future installments, it would be great to dig up and include some of the old behemoths like the Arp 2500 or 2600, or anything from the granddaddy Moog and Buchla series, if only to make the synth heads drool. I’m sure female electronic artists will also be considered for the next bill. National Sawdust is a venue I’ve gone to pretty much blind in the past due to the excellence in their curation, and I’ll be right in line for the next Movements in Modular event, excited with gearlust.

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