Written by Noe Loyola. Photos by Kevin Hawley.
In the city popular for its "Seattle Freeze", a group of enthusiasts of modular synthesizers are warming things up by creating a welcoming and vibrant community.
When I moved to America two years ago, I had to mostly make by on my own. Discovering Seattle, getting accustomed to this country’s culture, and making new friends was my one man homework. I noticed others around me also struggled building their lives in such an individualistic environment. And when work got hard and the news showed an increasingly complex world, such a situation became very alienating.
Though this process was rewarding and a great learning experience, sometimes I also felt directionless. We humans are social animals, and we often do better when interacting and working with others. Communities are very important, as they allow us to work together towards a goal, make us feel like we belong, and giving us a sense of purpose amidst the chaos of life. I believe this is what many have found in Modular Seattle.
In a trip to LA, co-founder Josh Lim experienced his first Modular on the Spot event. These are a gatherings of modular synthesizer aficionados playing in a park, letting onlookers stop by and enjoy the music for free. Josh was captured by the unique and positive energy of the performance, and felt inspired to bring the experience to Seattle.
This is where he met his fellow co-founder Bradley Millington, who already organized some instances of the event himself. Sharing a desire to give a space and a platform to others passionate for the craft, both decided to organize recurring Modular on the Spot shows.
As more bystanders became fans of these events and the amount of musicians that wished to play grew, the founders started hosting them year round. Modular Nights was born, moving the action indoors to deal with Seattle’s rainy weather in colder seasons. In these concerts, the modular synth only restriction was lifted to allow any person with a synthesizer or a computer to join. Today, these monthly events welcome more than a hundred spectators consistently.
When I attended a Modular on the Spot show at Gas Works Park, I felt the same energy that Josh described. Performers chatted among themselves, sat cross legged carefully listening to the music, and cheered each other. It was clear that the event was much more than a simple performance. Rather, it felt like a celebration hosted by a very close group of friends.
There are no expectations to what type of music needs to be played. A Modular Seattle show can be host to hip hop, harsh noise, house, drone, techno, and ambient in a single evening. Besides allowing for a wonderful sampling of what electronic music has to offer, this lack of restrictions helps create an open, accepting, and supportive environment where anything goes.
Experimentation is embraced and artists are encouraged to try new things. Without genre labels boxing people to certain ideas, creativity skyrockets. In one show, I witnessed an artist creating bizarre songs mostly built from vocal samples. In another, I saw a father teaming up with his son, the former playing an overwhelming noise barrage and the latter screaming from the inexhaustible well of energy that only children possess.
With such a fountainhead of creativity, members of the community improve their skills, learn from other’s usage of gear, and cross pollinate concepts and ideas. When Josh and I got together to chat, he shared with confidence that he and many of his peers saw a massive improvement from their first performance with the group to their latest one.
Months before meeting Josh, I saw him as an excited audience member of another modular show. At one point, he uttered a “HOLY SHIT!” expression and smiled enthusiastically. I didn’t get why he was that excited, as I hadn’t noticed any drastic changes in the music. But then I realized he was impressed not by the composition of the piece alone, but by the technical prowess of the artist and her dominion of the modular technology.
It became clear to me that modular synthesis was not only about creating music, but about exploring technology and creation of sound. Many members of the community do not come from a musical background, but rather from an interest in hardware, electronics, and science. Modular synthesis can be seen as the intersection of music and STEM, making nerding out together an essential component of the craft.
Modular Seattle is helping fill out a void in Seattle’s music scene. With the city mostly catering to rock, indie, and metal, there aren’t many spaces where experimental electronic music can find a home and flourish. This has become more prominent with the disappearance of relevant promoters such as Decibel Festival, Elevator, and MOKEDO.
With the determination to make Seattle a relevant place for experimental electronic music once more, Modular Seattle is gearing up for their largest venture to date: VELOCITY. Coming up the 5th of October, the festival will host both educational events and performances. It will stand as a celebration of Seattle’s modular community’s achievements and growth.
The first half of the day will service modular enthusiasts by offering workshops that teach how to get more hands on with synthesizers, seminars on topics like production and composition, and a trade show where major brands will showcase their products to potential buyers. All of these are free and make the event a must for anybody that is devoted to the craft.
When the sun starts setting to give in to darkness, VELOCITY will shift gears to full fledged music festival mode. It will feature three different stages hosting both local talent and renowned modular and electronic artists from Los Angeles, Portland, New York, and Vancouver. It is a lineup that fans from Portland and Vancouver find worthy of a cross city expedition.
Putting the Seattle scene on the map means shedding light on the talented artists that make it happen. This is one of the things the folks at Modular Seattle are most excited about, as they believe this vibrant group of musicians deserves a bigger audience and recognition for their skill and creativity.
With the desire to achieve their mission of serving their community, Modular Seattle embrace collaboration with other organizations and modular enthusiasts. The local synth shop Patchwerks, the Podular Modcast, Waveform Magazine, the educational Bleeps and Loops, Spokane’s Technological Taxidermy, and even other modular groups across the globe support each other as their end goal is the same: promoting people creating with synthesizers.
Up to this point, Modular Seattle has sustained its efforts thanks to community support and volunteering. Whether it is recording performances, setting up websites, taking pictures, or giving donations, the participants of Modular Seattle are always eager to contribute. VELOCITY is the first stab at trying to make the organization profitable, outlining a bright future for everyone involved.
Josh mentioned that they wouldn’t be where they are without the community that has supported them: “It goes two ways: We help build the community and at the same time the community lives us up”. This is the heart of Modular Seattle, which is beating stronger than it ever has.
Even though I am not a musician of any kind, I felt as if I belonged to Modular Seattle. The entire reason this article even exists is that I became infected with the group’s overwhelmingly positive vigor, the same that compelled every of its members to engage and participate. They revealed to me the importance and power of community. Alone, things can seem hopeless from time to time. But accompanied by others, greater things can happen. I am convinced that with collective passion, we can strive to make the changes that we want to see a reality.