The latest instalment of our podcast series comes from Punctum: an emerging duo whose attention is fixated on repetition, reduction and hardware. Punctum formed through a shared affection for synths that defined a generation: the 303, the 606, the Buchla. During a residency at the legendary EMS studios, Punctum recorded their debut record: Remote Sensing. This is a curious album for many reasons. Nothing about its ‘inherent’ musical structure is new. There are no fancy production techniques or juxtaposition of styles. No dazzling displays of technology nor in-your-face theatricalities. Instead, one is simply invited to hone in on subtleties of tone and be subsumed by them.
Too often, music that aims to commemorate classic synths carries with it a nauseating sense of sycophancy. Think, for example, of the worst excesses of solo synth-worship: acid house, Jeff Mills’ tedious 909 sets and Vangelis. Punctum stand clear of those excesses because there’s a never a sense of self-parody or synth-for-synths-sake. Their ethos rings more like Moodyman’s classic line, now immortalised by Blawan: “It ain’t what you got, it’s what you do with what you have / it ain’t what you do, it’s how you do it…” Ahead of the Remote Sensing premier show at Berlin’s Spreefeld Bootshaus on Saturday, we caught up with Punctum to talk synths, sound and Stockholm.
Can you tell us a little bit about this project and how it all came about?
Ever since we were studying at the same Conservatory in Bologna we have wanted to collaborate. We were in love with the same artists and obsessed with the same synths. We even shared a common affection for minimalist music design and wanted to apply this compositional attitude to some of our favourite instruments. Namely, the TB303, TR606 and Buchla. Soon after meeting, we arranged an artist residency at the electronic music studios EMS in Stockholm, where we recorded our first album, Remote Sensing, in February 2016.
And how does it work between the two of you? I understand that you both have your own separate solo projects?
Yes we both have our own solo projects but since we share many preferences for musical concepts, it was very natural to collaborate. We both had musical experiences with early synthesizers and this lies at the core of our musical practice and deeply informs our mode of listening and composing. We were inspired by the idea of approaching the infamous Roland boxes with the same compositional attitude we developed on those synthesisers: playing the TB303 and TR606 as if they were early synthesizers, you know? This allows to the ear to uncover the naked solo voice of these synths and focus on the inner timbral qualities. By means of reduction and subtraction, the iconic sound of these silver boxes is virtually projected into an ideal desert. Where extrinsic links are hard to grasp, the perception of the sound-object itself is enhanced and refreshed, revealing new listening perspectives.
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with Summe?
We have double LP coming out on Summe very soon. The label got in touch with us before this project was even born. We sent them Remote Sensing as soon as we got it. We appreciate how the Summe collective tries to remain obscure and preserve anonymity, not investing much on image and media promotion, but focusing instead on the quality of their records. They have released so much solo synthesiser music that we find inspiring and close to our sonic research, such as the work of Sarah Davachi and ∑.
We first heard the Punctum material on Maria W Horn’s podcast, I’m guessing you know each other from Stockholm?
Yes, Maria and I [Caterina] attended the same Music University in Stockholm. We studied electronic music composition and became part of the burgeoning local musical scene gravitating around EMS and Fylkingen… Particularly the Stockholm Drone Society, a collective of artists focusing on slowly evolving timbral music. They’ve had several showcases at Norbergfestival and are now releasing on Maria’s and Kali Malone’s label XKatedral.
A lot of the material on Remote Sensing sounds improvised, like live jams on the various bits of hardware that you use. Can you walk us through how you two work on a track together?
Yes, many tracks from Remote Sensing come from live jams. We basically set up our gear in the studio and started developing a common practice from improvisation, deriving our workflow from the design of the machines themselves but also from the emotional connection we have with those specific synths. Once you set a sincere emotional and creative feedback with the machine, the compositional process happens very naturally: it’s like entering the electromagnetic field of the machine and becoming part of it… Then it’s just a matter of tuning yourself to the ongoing electric stream and learning how to interact with it. Finding that sweet spot where the limits of your own ego and ideal projections don’t affect the limits of the machine’s design and vice versa. It’s like a mutual brain frequency modulation™.
In this sense, collaborations allow for the possibility of filtering out individual ego in favour of a common denominator, one which makes mutual intersection possible. On a more specific level, we have been working a lot with melodic pattern repetition, using delay as the main constructive tool for generating our compositional design. Through multilayered delay lines and resonant chorus effects, the recognisable Roland sound signature turns into an hybrid where the culturally established source is dramatically blurred. The choice to limit the sound palette of such a legendary timbre further reinforces the subversion effect of sound disembodiment and revisionism.
How about your live shows, how do they work?
In the live set we bring the same gear we have been working with in the studio, playing and processing patterns from the TB, TR and Verbos Harmonic Oscillator through a complex chain of delay based effects. The only thing missing from the original setup is the Buchla 200 series that we used at EMS to expand the sonic palette of the Roland machines. Unfortunately, we cannot take that one to shows (eheh…)
Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the podcast you have recorded for us?
In this podcast we simply wanted to feature music from masters of solo synthesizer music united by a strong sonic investigation of isolated timbres, who inspired our own practice and work…
Cyrus - Recall [Basic Channel]
Sarah Davachi - Olsun [Summe]
6k - Tighter [Pi Recordings]
Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe - M Bondo [Type]
Rhythm & Sound - Carrier [Rhythm & Sound]
ø - Roentegen [Sähkö Recordings]
F.U.S.E. - Nitedrive [Warp]
COH - 06 132 [Editions Mego]
Alessandro Cortini - La Sveglia [Hospital Productions]
Punctum - Uncharted [upcoming on Summe]
Eleh - Sleeps Golden Drones Again [Important Records]
∑ - 2.45 [Summe]
Catherine Christer Hennix - The Electric Harpsichord [Die Schachtel]