Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Apprenticeship: Teach me the Buchla like it's Shakespeare

I’ve always been drawn to intergenerational learning. I don’t know if it’s because I spent so much time around my grandparents as a kid, or if it’s just some sort of pathological need to appeal to authority, but I’ve found that my “elders” have always been a great source of information, and they’re almost always happy to pass their wisdom along.

I’ve done this more with music than with anything else. This started when I was an always hungry, always questing listener, and I was helped along the way by older zine publishers, “gone native” college radio townie lifers, older dudes I worked at record stores with, and so on. There’s something beautiful and collegiate in the purest sense about this - the person-to-person, generation-to-generation transmission of knowledge and enthusiasm about music that didn’t get canonized within the existing narrative. I’m eternally grateful to these guys, as well as a bunch of other people who just love records but don’t really publicly write about music for the “education” that they’ve helped me out with along the way and I’m always doing my damnedest, in turn, to pass these thing along to the younger hoppers coming up.

Musicians have been even more accommodating and indulgent along the way, especially when it comes to less formalized or dying techniques. I learned to bias tape from an old hippie with an amazing rural studio who worked on a bunch of records in the seventies and was shocked that a young kid wanted to learn everything he possibly could about the analog world instead of just grabbing Pro Tools. He’s dead now, and his studio is gone, and I’d probably happily pay more than I did for my college education for the education that he gave me. I’ve learned more about working with synthesizers, writing songs, and how to be a band from Ronnie Martin, in a specific discipline that’s basically completely vanished and barely existed in the first place, than from anyone else. Going on tour with him and doing shows over the years taught me more than I would have figured out on my own, a true trade apprenticeship. Dude is always there to pick up the phone or return a text to this day. Similarly, I often feel like I ought to put Jon Sonnenberg on some sort of paid retainer for how much he continues to teach me about modular patching, troubleshooting ancient gear, composition, etc. Who else would pick up the phone and talk for an hour about FSK Tape Sync at 11 at night? When I realize how much education I’ve gained from these relationships over the years, I feel incredibly lucky and grateful. This is true organic learning which arises out of relationship building.

Sitting through Todd Barton’s amazing Buchla Music Easel lecture at Knobcon, I was struck at just how “university lecture” it felt, and my brain became giddy at the idea of a formalized synthesizer college. (They disabled embedding, but I encourage anyone to click through and spend an hour with that video!)

Not everyone is as lucky as I’ve been to have access to older, smarter people who are willing to take the time to teach, and I love the idea of freeing this information from just internet village wisdom. Many have tried to create “DJ/Multimedia/EDM”-type schools over the years, and most have failed, although Dubspot seems to be the most successful. Still, these programs tend to be (by financial necessity) lowest common denominator and ephemeral, mostly continuing to perpetuate laptop/plugin musician culture and the resulting boring music. I’m sure they’re better for their audience than just watching YouTube tutorials, but I think we can do better. There’s a wonderful and hilarious Pandora’s Box effect that happens when people get a chance to experience modular synths, voltage control, tape, old sequencers, etc. - suddenly it’s really hard to go back to the laptop and the cursor. A rising tide lifts all boats - the more people that we bring into the fold, the more everything there is to go around - people to play shows with, release music with, work on music with. There’s more synthesizer gear available now than ever before - we live in a new golden age. Reach out and spread the word.

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