Karlheinz Essl



sound performances for 0-COAST modular synthesizer
2022 ff.

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I have been working with computers in the field of music composition for almost 40 years. For my first computer, an Atari ST I bought in 1985, there existed hardly any useful software. So you were forced to program everything yourself. Using Logo (a LISP derivative), I developed a software library for algorithmic composition, which I ported to the real-time environment Max in 1991 while working at IRCAM. This so-called "Realtime Composition Library" (RTC-lib) - a constantly evolving software library for generative music - has become an important toolbox for electroacoustic experiments and compositions, not only for me.

Last summer I fell into a deep crisis - not least because of the war in Ukraine - which also brought my artistic activities to a standstill. It was no longer possible for me to continue my work with my accustomed and beloved methods. I realized that I had to leave my comfort zone and enter new territory once again. But how can I compose electronic music without computers and software?

During a general "digital detox", I was searching for new possibilities. In the archives of my studio, I stumbled upon some old analogue synthesizers that I had experimented with a long time ago, like the legendary KORG MS20. By connecting the different modules – voltage-controlled oscillators, filters, function generators or modulators – with patch chords, one can create individual setups that define an instrument and it’s behaviour. However, apart from this welcome architectural openness, I found it difficult to realise my artistic ideas. These synthesizers have been designed for a genre of music that I'm not particularly interested in. In addition, many of them are equipped with keyboards, which is an absolute "no-go" for me, as it represents a concept of musical thinking based on notes, which does not play a major role for me in the field of experimental electronic music.


MakeNoise 0-COAST modular synth
Setup: 3 Mar 2023 @ Studio kHz

At that time I stumbled upon the modular analogue 0-COAST synthesizer with a rather unconventional system architecture. Neither based on the classic Moog synthesizer of the "East Coast" nor on the Buchla system of the "West Coast", it tries combine the best of both worlds. Although it is possible to connect a keyboard or a MIDI sequencer, that was out of the question for me anyway.

I have to admit that it was quite a challenge to submit to a system that I had not built from scratch. And it took me a lot of sometimes frustrating experimentation to get reasonable sounds out of this little box, because the wiring possibilities are enormous. Also, the individual control signals and parameters cannot be considered in isolation, as they are interdependent. And finally, it‘s nearly impossible to recall the state of the system which cannot be stored. Everything appears quite fragile and volatile.

During my research I discovered how feedback routings can create non-linear systems with chaotic states that sound fascinating. However, this requires constant balancing of the control signals with the countless knobs. Performing live on this newly constructed 'instrument' becomes an adventure that leaves a sonic trail: It's like riding a wild horse across the Lake Constance.

The Making of Coastlines
Karlheinz Essl explains the underlying concepts and answers questions from the audience.
CERN (17 Aug 2023)


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Updated: 29 Oct 2023

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