This past Friday, the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra performed, live to picture, a new score written by Berklee professor Sheldon Mirowitz and eight of his film scoring students, for the legendary silent horror film Nosferatu. The performance, conducted by the Boston Pops’ Keith Lockhart, featured world-class theremin player Rob Schwimmer, and Michael Bierylo, chair of Berklee’s Electronic Production and Design (EPD) Department, who performed on the famous Moog System 55 Modular Synthesizer.
The System 55, which sold for $9,000 in the ‘70’s and now has reissues priced at $35,000, was loaned to Bierylo (also known as eMBee) and his department for the show. The modular synth—a synthesizer that is comprised of many different specialized parts or modules—is patched together by the sound designer using cables. Such a set up allows for an infinite number of possibilities in sound configuration and a hands-on synthesis experience. Its impermanent nature leaves for a difficulty in achieving the exact sounds over and over again, whereas modern synths have preset capabilities, which can save settings with precision for future use.
Interestingly, eMBee’s workflow involved the challenge of being able to reinvent a new sound virtually from scratch in the time between each piece. With this vintage synth, one cannot simply hit a button to recall the “chime patch” or the “big bass patch”, but rather organize the signal flow between the oscillators, filters and modulators to attain a desired sound. For a different type of sound, the designer removes all the cables and re-assembles them. Being an experienced sound designer, he had no trouble putting such sounds together under the limited time and pressure. Reading the score and interpreting the music seemed like the least tedious part of his performance. Although jetlagged after getting back from a recent trip to China, the department chair was still kind enough to show me around the mighty synthesizer and answer some questions I had for him.
What are some of your favourite aspects of using this synth?
It’s the original Moog synthesizer. This synth is really the prototype for all other synthesizers. The thing that’s really special is the fixed filter bank.
Modern technology has made it easier to access and use synths with the capabilities of something as big and expensive as the System 55, but has anything been lost in translation?
Small is good, but the thing with these instruments is that the size of it is a scale that’s easy to see and read. I have a bunch of Eurorack modules, but they are small and a little harder to get around. The System 55 is set up in a way that’s easy to get around. Software is great and there are many different capabilities but it’s really about the sound. In doing this particular show, it could all be done on the Moog Voyager—it has all the same capabilities and then some—but there’s a spectacle to this.
Does your approach to performance differ in a situation like this?
The thing is you’re part of an orchestra, so a violin player would play a violin part. In that sense, you’re thinking of your role differently. The show’s not about me. It’s not about the composer. It’s about the film. I have my small piece of this so my use here is to think about what do I do to make this whole thing work.
All in all, the performance merged traditional and modern sounds, and on the night before Halloween, there couldn’t possibly have been a more fitting event going on in Boston. Still a student of modular synthesis, I can attest that rebuilding instrument settings as well as implementing them with musicianship is no easy task, and watching eMBee work through his performance was inspiring, to say the least, especially in learning the role technology can have on my own performances.
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