One of the most exotic and most misunderstood instruments in modern music is the modular analog synthesizer. With its mass of knobs and wires, it looks more like something that belongs on the console of a spaceship than on a music stage. Its cost and size have kept it firmly out of reach for most musicians and its daunting interface, with virtually limitless options for customization, can dissuade all but the most dedicated sonic alchemist. Nonetheless, these synthesizers and their digital descendants revolutionized music over the last half-century to the point that it is unfathomable what popular music today might sound like had these devices not been invented.
Robert Fantinatto’s documentary I Dream of Wires aims to peel back some of the mystery surrounding the modular synthesizer and to explain to the general public where some of their favorite sounds originated. Partially funded by an Indiegogo campaign a few years back, I Dream of Wires is a love letter to an arcane and archaic piece of machinery which nonetheless continues to inspire wonder from listeners and fetishistic devotion from proponents and practitioners, many of whom participated in the creation of this documentary. Luminaries such as Morton Subotnick, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails), Vince Clarke (Depeche Mode, Erasure), Gary Numan, Chris Carter (Throbbing Gristle), Deadmau5, and others wax poetic and romantic about the allure of electronic music and the tactile joys of creating it.
Co-written by IDM producer Jason Amm (who records and releases music as Solvent, and who composed the film’s soundtrack), I Dream of Wires broadly traces the entire history of electronic sound generation, picking up in earnest with Columbia University’s Electronic Music Center in the 1950s where Robert Moog, then a physics undergrad with a knack for building DIY theremins, created one of the first modular synthesizers. It then jumps a decade forward and 2500 miles west to California where Don Buchla was creating his own analog synthesizers and sequencers for the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Buchla’s designs, unlike Moog’s, completely eschewed a piano-inspired keyboard and the western twelve-tone scale it facilitated; instead, Buchla’s synthesizers favored complete tonal freedom and sequencing parameters which recalled recent and contemporaneous experiments with tape loops and repetition by experimental composers such as Steve Reich, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley.
Wendy Carlos’s Switched on Bach album, which featured a selection of the composer’s works performed on a Moog synthesizer and inspired the soundtrack to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, was a turning point for the instrument. The album was a hit, popularizing the synthesizer for listeners and legitimizing it for more classically-minded musicians and scholars who didn’t believe an instrument was valid unless it could perform works from the established canon. It also shifted its trajectory toward the East Coast design philosophy and away from the esoteric and experimental ideals of Buchla’s designs. Fantinatto and Amm use this moment in the synthesizer’s history to bring up questions of art versus commerce and of innovation versus evolution. Unfortunately, they don’t follow it up with any real argument or insight.
Therein the lies the biggest problem with I Dream of Wires: in its effort to appeal to both the enthusiast and the layman, the film functions as a serviceable and enjoyable overview, but not much else. Perhaps not wanting to alienate the musical novice, Fantinatto and Amm avoid technical jargon, but their concessions to a general audience weaken the film. The casual listener probably has no idea what a filter control or a sine wave are, but explanation of the knob-turning and cable-patching on frequent display would do more to demythologize the synthesizer than historical contextualization alone. For the enthusiast, however, the filmmakers have made an extended four-hour cut called the Hardcore Edition which features extended interviews and abstruse technical pedantry which will sound to most viewers like a foreign language. Somewhere between these two extremes is a great film about a fascinating instrument. In its theatrical cut, however, I Dream of Wires is a pleasant paean which tries too hard to have it both ways. Nonetheless, the enthusiasm the filmmakers feel for their subject is palpable, and that unabashed love for such a singular and mysterious device overcomes many of these limitations and may be enough to entice viewers to learn more.