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Space cases

Astronaut and Ernst Karel
December 14, 2007 1:15:52 PM

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Ernst Karel

Perhaps it’s something in the air, but in the last year or so it seems that Boston’s experimental outer limits has seen an analog-synthesizer renaissance. The city has long been home to a number of innovative synth players, such as instrument designer and noise musician Jessica Rylan and early-electronic-music aficionado and Kranky recording artist Keith Fullerton Whitman. But recently a new bumper crop of analog adherents has appeared on the scene. Armed with the latest modular instruments and/or vintage polysynths, they’re creating everything from abrasive drones to delicate sound works. Two up-and-comers — the neo-cosmic trio Astronaut and solo sound artist Ernst Karel — are performing together (with Whitman on the bill) at P.A.’s Lounge this Tuesday as part of an all-analog extravaganza.

As their name suggests, Astronaut — Dan Lopatin, Andy Plovnick, and Lee Tindall — are all about the far-out sounds of space-age synths. Inspired by the atmospheric electronics of early-’70s German groups like Harmonia and Tangerine Dream, as well as the eerie soundtracks on Andrei Tarkovsky and John Carpenter films, the trio generate hypnotic, roiling noisescapes. Or, as Tindall puts it, “Astronaut is really all about controlling the drone like a beast in the abyss.”

Drawn together by a mutual love of minimalism, noise, and Teutonic electronics, the group formed almost in spite of themselves. “When we all met, there was just this weirdo dynamic,” Tindall explains. “We all took roles in its creation without choice.”

Prior to Astronaut, Lopatin created grainy, ambient music as Dania Shapes, Tindall unleashed solo noise squalls as Lasercoffin, and Plovnick played synthesizer and guitar in the prog-psych group Healing Feeling. Tindall and Lopatin had just started jamming together when Lopatin met Plovnick. And the rest is history (or an analogue thereof). “He had this Crumar analog synth,” Lopatin recalls wistfully. “He hypnotized me with it at one of his shows, and I asked him to join us. It was really haphazard the way it came together. I don’t think any of us really knew we were in a band until after our first show.”

Contrasting with Astronaut’s thick, hazy drones, Ernst Karel’s music is spare and relatively quiet. It’s defined by small, rather than sweeping, gestures. Karel uses a Doepfer modular synthesizer, often in conjunction with meticulously sourced field recordings, to generate a broad constellation of sounds ranging from brittle bursts of noise and static to warm, subtly shaded hums.

A trumpet player by training, Karel began working with modular synthesizers almost 10 years ago. At the time he was living in Chicago (he moved to Boston only last year), where he was active in the city’s thriving experimental-music scene, most notably as half of EKG with Kyle Bruckmann. “At that time, I was really interested in expanding the vocabulary of the trumpet,” he explains. “I had used guitar pedals before then. I was listening to tons of academic music from the ’60s from places like the Siemens Studio in Germany and from Columbia-Princeton Center, and I really loved those sounds. It was at that same time that Doepfer started making affordable analog stuff, so I started buying some modules.”

In recent years, he’s jettisoned the trumpet (at least temporarily) and has worked primarily with analog electronics. Playing a modular synth in concert presents a challenge, since unlike its eminently predictable digital counterpart, it’s by nature a capricious instrument. And Karel chooses not to use a computer to control the modular system, preferring what he describes as a “got-to-play-it-to-get-sound-out” method of analog synthesis. “Part of the charm is the unpredictability, but it’s also part of the frustration. The few times that I’ve performed using a computer, it’s amazing what a relief it’s been, simply because things go exactly as you think they will. But that [unpredictability] is part of the roughness of the sound that I like.”

THREE LEGGED RACE + CABOLADIES + KEITH FULLERTON WHITMAN + ASTRONAUT + ERNST KAREL | P.A.’s Lounge, 345 Somerville Avenue, Somerville | December 18 | 617. 776.1557

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