Synth Sculptures with Eirik Brandal

Art doesn’t need to be functional even when it makes perfect sense. This creator blends synths and circuits to create sound sculptures that will blow your mind, but not your ears.

Eirik Brandal is an artist and composer currently based in Riga, LV. While originally studying music composition, his work has shifted toward electronic sound sculptures, looking to uncover the intrinsic beauty of circuits.

After catching wind of Eirik’s unique work creating bespoke synths, we had to chat with the man himself of the process and product. Somewhere between an intricate art piece and functional sound add, these installations may not complete your studio but they look damn good.

Let’s start with bit of background about yourself and your introduction to music as a creator, what was the spark?

I was born in Norway, but I’ve been living abroad for most of my adult life, first completing a Master’s degree in composition at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague, NL, before moving to Riga, LV. I’ve always been interested in music – as many of us are – but the real spark I would say came when I got a home studio set up in the basement of my family home and I started to experiment with recording. This wasin the early 2000’s, so still slightly ahead of – or at least riding – the internet broadband wave, and not a lotof information was available online to learn from. It did, however, allow me to record my own songs and play all the instruments myself, which enabled me to see the music from a more holistic perspective than what I would have if I, say, only played one instrument. It also got me into the world of music technology, which would later lead me to create my own instruments.

You started out composing music, what made you decide move into building synths and sounds sculptures?

By the time I enrolled at the conservatoire I had already been making electro-acoustic music with my computer for a while, so the idea of music without instruments wasn’t particularly new. It was further reinforced, though, as I attended classes at the Institute of Sonology, where they taught digital signal processing, computer music, analog synthesizers, acoustics and anything remotely related to the science of sound. But overall I think the liberating feeling of being able to directly sculpt the sounds I wanted without having to rely on other musicians reproducing the music for me was the driving force behind the switch to becoming an artist working mostly through electronic means. Because having an ensemble read your music from a score is just that – a reproduction of the image the composer had while writing it. I know others willargue that the performance is the music itself, and that could be completely right for their music, but for theway I go about composing, having control over every parameter is more important than a lively performance.

During my degree I also took a single lesson in electronics with a friend, just for fun. But I kept working at it and a bit more than a year later I had built my first modular synthesizer. It was during the last two years of my six year long degree that I started making sculptures. I think anyone who works with electronics at some point have been thinking about making something freeform, so it’s not really a super fresh idea – and most certainly not my idea. Considering that Peter Vogel and Walter Giers did this stuff in the 60’s – and even Vogel was inspired by William Grey Walter, who had been making kinetic robots for a long time evenbefore that – I think we will see a whole new wave of artists working in this medium. That doesn’t mean wewill only get regurgitations of the same old stuff, however. Every new sculpture I discover is characteristic to the artist who made it. There are many means of expression – from size, complexity, playfulness, rigidity; you could be abstract or figurative, high-tech or old-school.

Tell us more about these sound sculptures, where do you get your inspiration as a sound creator with a physical palate?

If you look at traditional analog sound synthesis you would see that it’s almost as if there are recipes for every sound. You have your classic four waveforms, envelope generators, VCA’s and filters. There are alsomore whacky stuff like the Lunetta synth idea of using chips meant for digital purposes and turning them into sound creating devices, but the basic ingredients are the same. Having built a couple of modular synthesizers without using any kinds of pre-manufactured PCB’s by now (it’s very educational), I have builtup a vocabulary of small and efficient circuits for various purposes. You could say I have “stolen” a few tricks from every module I have built through the years – most of them designed by the late Ray Wilson, and some others from people like Thomas Henry and Ken Stone – and repurposed them for use in my sculptures. But then again, electronic components are a bit like LEGO’s, and at some point you just know all the pieces you own by heart. The CD4051 IC is an example of a chip that gets used a lot in my work because not only does it do the multiplexing business it was designed to do, but it can also be tricked into creating more complex waveforms or even be used to create random melodies.

The things I would normally keep in mind when creating a new circuit are the usage of space, whether or not the sculpture will be physically big enough to warrant a bipolar power supply, and of course what I would be able to do sonically while being limited (or unleashed) by the two factors above. All of my sound sculptures are in essence small synthesizers, and we all know the intricate sounds you can produce with these things, but in a freeform setting there’s a balance to be struck between complexity, function and size.

I like to think of all electronics as being modular; it’s like a production chain contributing to a final outcome, or an eco-system where the result is larger than the sum of its constituent parts. These are great analogies to have when it comes to explaining what’s going on in a given circuit. When I first started making these sculptures, I wanted the function of the circuit to be as transparent as possible in order to allow the audience to “follow the production chain” (to stick with my analogy), and it shouldn’t necessarily require any previous knowledge of electronics. Thus I had to imagine the sonic product of my circuits as the result of a sonification process rather than sound for the sake of making sound. To explain this further – I would do simple things like inserting relays (which produce a mechanical clicking sound as well as giving a visual clue whenever things are happening) in the paths of signals that would trigger other events, as well as using LED’s to visualize the same type of control signals in other parts of the circuit.

Each of these sculptures seem pretty unique to their names, what’s the story behind naming a sculpture?

I’ve always been appalled by overly descriptive or poetic titles, so mine are just abstractions rather than anything that could predispose anyone to a specific mood. The same goes for program notes in contemporary music concerts. Having people try to explain their music with words just ruins it for me.

How do people react when they see your sound sculpture, do you prompt them or just let them explore?

I’ve generally tried to avoid labeling my sculptures as “instruments”. I much prefer them as individual entities that you may or may not be able to communicate with, so I implore people to explore on their own. It’s always fun to watch people try to interact with a sculpture without sensors, but it’s equally gratifying tosee someone enjoy the sounds they create when they find the correct angle to wave their arms at.

How the music and art scene in Riga? How do your surroundings contribute to the project?

It’s obviously quite small here, and perhaps I haven’t been as outgoing as I could or should have been, but I get the impression that it’s a lot of the same people behind the scenes of most events and exhibitions. There are a few well-known companies and organizations here though, like Erica Synths and Sonarworks, as well as festivals like Baltā Nakts and Skaņa Mežs which organize more experimental stuff. If nothing else, there are great opportunities to find old Latvian and Russian equipment, as Riga was housing the manufacturing of a lot of electrical and mechanical equipment in the Soviet Union. I got an old tube radio in the basement waiting for an overhaul right now, in fact.

What’s next for you as an artist and experimental creator?

Any goals for the future?I always beat myself up for not learning more about microcontrollers. I did one series of sculptures with theESP8266 which enabled them to communicate with each other over WiFi simultaneously, further expanding on the idea of an eco-system in that way, but the sheer amount of different voltage levels it required made it an architectural nightmare. I would like to get back at it again at some point.

I’ve also grown quite tired of the sound reproduction capabilities of small, enclosure-less speakers by now, so I’m experimenting with using bigger speakers and maybe incorporating some resonating cabinets for them within the sculpture to improve the sound. Weight is an issue, however.

Lastly, I’m working on an album which heavily features my synthesizers. It’s very focused on the juxtaposition of odd subdivisions, so for example you have a rhythmical pattern that alternates between quintuplets and septuplets over what seems to be a 4/4, but then in the next section turns out to be 6/8, so you suddenly view the former pattern in a totally different light. These types of rhythmical paradigm shifts are a staple throughout my more “classical” instrumental pieces as well, so it’s interesting to bring them into a more modern setting where they potentially can have a stronger sonic impact.

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