When people think of synthesizers, it’s usually in the context of a well-ordered pop song. Synths provide the melody in a crunk track, the moody atmospherics of early-’80s new wave, the noodling byzantine solos of ’70s prog. When local experimental musician and instrument designer Jessica Rylan thinks of synthesizers, however, she thinks of chaos. And that’s a good thing.
Rylan began working with modular analog synthesizers in the late ’90s. Inspired by electronics magazines and late-night college radio, she started building lo-fi electronic instruments and soon became one of the most distinctive figures in the Lowell noise scene. “For me,” she explains, “noise was about confronting myself and taking responsibility for myself, but it could also be limiting, because I developed a kind of romance with throw-away junk.”
After building her first synthesizer, she confronted a different challenge when she tried to perform with it: the design seemed to inhibit rather than encourage musical expression. And then she saw a performance by the German analog synth virtuoso Thomas Lehn at the ICA, and a whole new world of performance possibilities opened up.
“When I built my first modular synth and started playing it, I thought, ‘This is really boring. This doesn’t sound like real life, or the world, or even a normal instrument.’ But Thomas Lehn had developed these new techniques and performance practices to get around an instrument that was almost too perfect. It was after seeing him perform that I began to develop my own ways of getting around the kind of uninteresting perfection that synthesizers can have.”
In her work, Rylan coaxes a broad range of expressive sounds — from wriggling blips to jarring squawks. And though her music can sound almost random, like the fluttering and chirping of birds, it’s governed by an idiosyncratic logic. “I’m interested in music that changes a lot. It doesn’t really have a melody, and sometimes it doesn’t really have a key. It’s based around textures.” Yet for all its complexity, it’s also something that she hopes is recognizable as music, with intricate patterns that often mirror, however obliquely, the strictures of a pop song.
These days, Rylan is a research affiliate at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. This Wednesday, she’ll give a public talk at MIT on analog synthesizers, chaos, and mass production. (Two days earlier, she’s performing at P.A.’s Lounge.) “It’s partially an artist talk,” she says of the MIT date, “so I’ll be discussing how I came to work with synthesizers and began building them. But I’m also interested in chaos. In the past, I was fascinated by random things, such as noise, because noise and randomness are really two words that describe the same thing. But more recently, I’ve been focusing on behavior that is chaotic rather than random. It’s a difficult distinction to explain, because the two can look and sound similar, but there are certain kinds of patterns that emerge in chaotic behavior that you learn to recognize and which are pretty interesting. I’m going to talk about what that means and how it’s being applied to music.”