"Modular on the Spot" is a nomadic feast in the physical sense of the word: a monthly performance held at an outdoor location in Los Angeles. The location is revealed a couple of days in advance where modular synthesists -- aided only by a generator and a sound system -- come together for an evening of electronic music for anyone who wants to venture out to hear them. It’s an amazing idea (and one which is spreading, too – there are now MOTS events in several other cities around the globe) and more amazing in real life. Read more about it! I’ve been attending (and occasionally performing at) these events for a while now, and I thought it’s about time I took you along for a trip down to the river (the Los Angeles river)….
I first became aware of MOTS sometime late 2015 through images that would pop up in my social media feed. Lush grassy parks filled with people enjoying modular synthesizers is always bound to catch your eye, but they didn’t seem to be in the same place twice. Also, there were no geo tags and no Instagram handles at that time either.
Fast forward a few months: I ran into Bana Haffar and Eric ‘Rodent’ Cheslak - co-producers of the event - when they were helping out at the Make Noise booth at NAMM. They told me about the next one (a few days later in January 2016) and that Make Noise founder Anthony Rolando and Droid Behaviour's co-founder Moe Espinosa (aka Drumcell) would be playing, along with a bunch of other folks. I knew I had to attend!
Fast forward another 18-months and I now find myself sitting at the same location as an attendee of the 2-year anniversary of Los Angeles’s most nomadic monthly live music event. Modular on the Spot has one prerequisite, you must play a modular synthesizer in some form or another!
Since those early days, MOTS has really caught on. In fact, the events are now happening across America, Europe & the UK. As modular synthesis has grown in popularity, so too have the MOTS events.
The second anniversary saw a great lineup that included:
Mike Dobler Rodent516 (Eric Cheslak) Andrew Ikenberry C1t1zen (Kylee Kennedy) Shawn Jimmerson & Stephen McCaul Duo
Mike Dobler has quickly become legend as being the guy that turns up with his synth without a single patch cable inserted, which is surprisingly uncommon. What you get with a Dobler performance is one hell of a journey every time with no idea of where you’ll end up. I like the way he works: It shows that guts and determination can prevail over the wildest synth, and that it's always a great reminder to just experiment more. Dobler's set tonight is full of twists and turns, glitch, ambient, beats & more, he expertly knows when he’s hit a sweet spot and seems to sit a savour it before adding more cables and transitioning to something else.
Next to play was Eric ‘Rodent’ Cheslak, co-founder (with partner Bana Haffar) of MOTS. Eric had been away from Los Angeles for nearly 4 months, and it was great to have his familiar MCing back at the event. Both Eric and Bana are very welcoming people who run the event openly and in an inclusive manner. Modular on the Spot is many people's first exposure to both electronic music and synthesizers, and they are fantastic ambassadors for the arts.
Eric’s set was incredible - like nothing I’d ever heard him do before. As I recall, every previous set I’d seen/heard Rodent516 do was very glitchy and combined many levels of polyrhythmic synth lines, morphing textures and syncopated beats. This set felt like a new direction and exploration, perhaps coming from his time spent working and playing on the East coast. It was some of the nicest minimalist ambient music filled with subtle rhythms that I’ve heard live in some time. Combined with the fact that the river creates this beautiful amphitheatre-like quality and that I was seated right in the sweet spot between the speakers, it felt truly immersive.
Performing next was Andrew Ikenberry, founder and head honcho at Qu-Bit Electronix. I’ve personally been a long time fan of Qu-Bit modules, and more so with Qu-Bit's move in the past 18 months or so toward stereo/multi-voice designs with great spacing for live playing. Given my own background with both Max and the Nord synthesizer (both of which have almost limitless voicings), I really appreciate this new direction with respect to polyphonic design and playability.
For his set, Andrew used a small system (it looked like a 104hp/6u setup) consisting of modules from Qu-Bit and their sister company 2hp. He sure knew how to showcase them - the high-fidelity polyphony made for a thick but clean sound. I commented to a friend sitting next to me that this sounded like a mix straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster. Andrew moved rapidly, the material engaged the ears and felt like it was over in a very short time. I didn’t time it but it felt like he transcended my perception of time, whenever that happens I’m left in awe, wanting more!
Immediately following Andrew, was Kylee Kennedy (aka C1t1zen). Some of you might know C1t1zen from the DIY synth community and his generous contributions over the years, which include the lunch box modular kit, USB portable power for said kit and his more recent ProtoVero prototyping boards for Eurorack.
Kennedy bought along the silver #2 balloon (see pic above) to celebrate the evening and also his original beloved ARP2600. His set was monstrous, and - to be frank - I was expecting nothing less. Kennedy knows synths both inside and out. I always feel this kind of inner knowledge translates to being able to wield said synth on another level, at least with the builder/maker/players I’ve witnessed live over the years.
There was a density to Kylee’s set that I didn’t hear from the other performers that night. He seemed to be able to conjure some lows out of the sound system that made me think he’d snuck a sub down onto the river just for his set. I'm not sure how he did it, but I certainly enjoyed it.
Last but certainly not least was Stephen McCaul (one half of Noise Engineering) and Sean Jimmerson. I’ve heard these two play solo before a number of times but couldn’t imagine how they were going to work as a Duo. In my experience, it's tricky to make this kind of playing sound cohesive, and - as far as I know - they hadn’t spent a lot of time preparing (perhaps none). This was confirmed when I mentioned to Stephen I was looking forward to their set and he said, “It’ll be interesting…” which is usually code for "We don’t have a clue what we’re going to do and we’ll be flying by the seat of our pants."
Their set starts off shrouded in darkness, then BOOM! - some kind of trigger launches an LED RGB strip and board during the intro sound - the first time I’ve seen a visually-oriented set at MOTS, and it looks neat: Suddenly the LA river becomes a full-blown scene for a SciFi soundtrack. What started as “it’ll be interesting…” turned into smooth sailing and a level of cohesiveness that I certainly wasn’t expecting. When I closed my eyes for a moment and tried to think about each sound I was hearing as a singular element, it was actually difficult. I’m unsure on what kind of synchronicity they were sharing on the modular level (triggers, clocks etc.), but the changes were smooth and this all happened without a lot of looking or nodding at one to another (from what I could see up on the bank). I looked over to a friend who was also fully immersed in the moment nodding away with his eyes closed - we agreed later that it could have been an alternative score for the new Blade Runner film. It’s the darkest I’ve heard Stephen and Sean go, and I loved it!
My only criticism for the night? Since it was the two-year anniversary, I would have liked to have seen more of an even gender mix across the bill. After all, I must have seen 20+ different women perform at MOTS in the past 2 years, and it seemed a bit of a shame to not see them represented.
All in all these were some of the best sets in one evening of electronic music I’ve ever seen - and not just in the context of Modular on the Spot. I truly hope that Eric, Banna and others continue producing these events (and that they enjoy doing so). It goes without saying that this event single handedly gave me a new appreciation for 'outdoor music' and Los Angeles as home, a place that can sometimes feel like a vast soulless concrete jungle. With the recent closures of vital creative spaces in LA and across the country, the availability and continuation of events like MOTS are even more important than ever!
*supporting images by Ben Clark