Whether or not time is circular, both life and matter move in cycles. Some have short periods; you breathe, blink your eyes, drink water, acquire food. They interact with longer cycles, infusing these biological needs with social obligations, desire and fulfillment. Behind them are political, economic, social cycles: the wax and wane of political systems, freedom and bondage, wealth and equality, artistic and philosophical dialectics, the conquest of space and its return to nature. Ecosystems cycle in masses of births and deaths, consumption and excretion, growth and decay. Stars and systems form out of dust clouds, grow, burst, and die, ejecting their material into space to become new star systems that will form, grow, burst, and die. From the micro to the macro, we walk in ellipses. Yet something is preserved against the cosmic microwave background; despite all the cycles wheeling around us and through us, our initial state can largely determine our direction. We are unequivocally unique, in that we each arrived at our own moment.
The modular synthesizer is uniquely equipped to emulate this cyclicality, since many of its components express themselves as cycles or patterns. These patterns can then interact with one another, shaping other cycles, which in turn shape still more cyclical elements. Sound itself is a constantly shifting cycle: a waveform, which synthesizers generate with oscillators of varying frequencies. On Ishi, M. Geddes Gengras has constructed a massive patch of shifting cycles that plays out in different forms across its three tracks. The constancy of these interactions animating his synthesizer means that nothing ever stands still, and yet refrains recur over long periods and larger spaces
In 1911, a man walked out of a California forest into the early stages of modern American civilization. This man, last of his tribe, finally decided to make contact with the European, now American, people who built on the lands his tribe once walked. In doing so, Ishi — which in Yahi (his tribe) means “man” — subjected the cycles and patterns of his life to the scrutiny of Berkeley anthropologists, disrupting many of them, and died within five years. The patterns that seem most comfortable to us, the rhythms that guide us through the modern world, feel drastically different to outsiders. Some start in positions so outside the larger social cycles in which we operate that those cycles destroy them upon exposure. Even within our society, patterns spit people into the gutter while others leisurely glide up the wave to the penthouse. Ishi’s heartbreaking story rhymes conceptually with the story of two of Gengras’ friends’ stories, for whom Ishi is a eulogy (as Gengras revealed in an interview with Vice). Gengras’ gentle manipulation of the patterns that govern his patches lulls their outsider souls to rest, revealing those vicious cycles we tread as cogs in a cosmic music box.
Some patterns eventually seem to subside totally when the many elements that propel and amplify those patterns cycle out. Despite the beauty of Ishi, it contains within it notes of sorrow. Gengras emphasizes music’s most tragic quality: its evanescence. Even in pieces built almost entirely on cyclical elements (with a bit of randomness thrown in to slightly destabilize the mixture), the interaction between these elements reveal that, though sounds do return, they are almost always changed in their absence into a new form. Music itself is constantly disappearing even as we continue to listen. Like flowing water, it escapes us just as we try to hold it. And we can never bathe in its stream twice. Ishi’s beauty is in its peacefulness; despite all the flux, despite loss, it continues calmly forward, never remaining static, never despairing.
Although Ishi changes mostly in subtle ways across its course, these subtle shifts come to symbolize events of great importance. It’s as if Gengras’ system recognizes these tragic events as part of a greater process, codifying them into a larger, beautiful whole. They exist at the margin of the work, but the work incorporates them into its grace. It passes them to the other side, conveys them across the threshold into a much larger cycle, so vast that against it we seem like so much dust with only a spark of energy moving us about. Perhaps that’s the function of elegy — it reveals to the creator and the audience the certainty of passage from the life cycle into the cosmic one, which we all forget that we move in constantly. Elegy assures us of the departed’s constancy, their indelible mark on existence, and reveals to us the greater motion that gave rise to us. Ishi may be a lullaby, calling Ishi’s and Gengras’ friends to rest, but ultimately it imparts a peace to all who oscillate within the flux of the universe.