Three days of electronic music fun curated by Electronic Sound and Molten Modular

Day One: Morton Subotnick: Portrait Of An Electronic Music Pioneer / Adam Buxton & Steve Davis / Luke Sanger

After 2023’s inaugural edition, 2024’s Synth East at the Norwich Arts Centre, put together by Electronic Sound in partnership with YouTube channel Molten Modular, was a more ambitious affair. Synth East 2024 expanded the concept from 2023’s one day expo-plus-gig all-dayer, to three days of electronic music adjacent entertainment and general japery.

Friday evening kicked off the weekend’s festival of synth with the UK premiere of the film ‘Subotnick: Portrait of an Electronic Music Pioneer’. It’s a story which takes in his teenage years as a clarinet prodigy in the Denver Symphony in the 1940s, through to his commissioning Don Buchla to build a synthesiser for the San Francisco Tape Center in 1963 and the composition of the landmark 1967 album ‘Silver Apples Of The Moon’. Subotnick, now 90 years old, also reveals how a bizarre psychosomatic symptom of being unable to use his right arm at key points during his life has helped guide his decision making, from being booted out of the regular army when conscripted for the Korean war and reassigned to the Army orchestra for failing to salute an officer, to realising that he was going to have to turn down a lucrative advertising job. This frank inability to compromise resonated with a sold-out crowd of modular synth enthusiasts.

After the documentary screening and a suitable break for refreshments in the Arts Centre bar, former snooker champion and inspiration for one of Spitting Image’s less flattering puppets Steve Davis joined podcast legend Adam Buxton for a live chat. It was revealed how Davis made the transition from the above-mentioned ball-potter to purveyor of modular synth interventions in the contemporary popular music combo The Utopia Strong. In a wide-ranging, hilarious and more snooker-heavy chat than was anticipated, which included clips of Kraftwerk, Wendy Carlos and Chas ’n’ Dave, the story was told, thanks to Adam Buxton’s prompts and his interviewee’s enthusiastic and occasionally psychedelic responses.

The evening was topped of in the venue’s bar where synthesist Luke Sanger, aka Luke’s Anger, aka Duke Slammer, aka International Sangman, played an unfolding improvisational set of ambience with a table of slender and mystifyingly minimalist instruments he had coded himself.

Day Two: Synth Expo / The Influencers / Ultramarine / Blancmange

Another sold-out day of maximum bleep in all corners of the beautifully converted medieval church with Korg and Electronic Sound in the foyer, and Source Distribution in the bar, where the Buchla was star of the show. In the main hall there was the maze of stalls featuring modular makers from all over the UK and beyond and an actual real life Yamaha DX1. Every hour throughout the afternoon the hubbub of chat and synth blurts fell away as a performer would take to the stage for 10-minute performance. This blend of high energy synth expo and reflective moments of spontaneous music making is what makes Synth East such a refreshing and enjoyable experience. By focussing minds on the creative outcome of all the tech on display, the day inspires a holistic sense of purpose.

Tristan Burfield Photo: Andi Sapey

Hardwired (aka Barry Brosnihan) and Tristan Burfield took to the stage to perform, while “patch-off” jams, with names taken from a hat to form impromptu modular combos involving Robin Vincent, Jason Jervis, Gaz Williams, Nina Richards, Mylar Melodies (Alex Theakston) and Steve Davis getting jiggy with the cables.

The Influencers, L-R: Mylar Melodies (Alex Theakston), Robin Vincent, Gaz Williams Photo: Andi Sapey

With the same sense of calm and ease that made the day such a pleasurable escape, at 5pm the Expo wound down and the main hall transformed from bustling Synth Expo into the venue for the night’s gig. Molten Modular’s Robin Vincent segued from his fine daytime MCing duties into support act with Gaz Williams and Alex Theakston, aka Mylar Melodies, for a live improvised modular set under the banner of The Influencers (a name bestowed by Steve Davis who introduced them). It’s testament to the Synth East audience’s enthusiasm for live music that the place was packed for them despite the early evening second-support slot usually notable for tumbleweeds blowing by as the sound technicians enjoy a quiet chat.

Ultramarine Photo: Andi Sapey

Next up Ultramarine’s gentle and restrained electronic soundscapes, with wisps of the pastoral techno that made their name in the 1990s, were a delight. Echoes of familiar woody bass lines recalled the likes ‘United Kingdoms’, their 1993 album with Robert Wyatt. Their sound is now rooted in location and field recordings, which combined with the lush black and white films of Essex marshlands behind them for an electronic evocation of English nature.

Blancmange Photo: Andi Sapey

And finally, Blancmange’s headline turn. With Finlay Shakespeare at the controls, the set was a killer combo of new cuts and classic hits, the latter invigorated and rendered fresh by Finlay’s sharp contemporary electronics, the former a no less impressive showcase for Neil Arthur’s lyrical inventiveness and electropop hooks. The likes of ‘Reduced Voltage’ are every bit as packed with nervous energy as the epic ‘Feel Me’. The slew of new Blancmange albums since the band’s 2011 re-appearance (there’s been at least one a year) has been one of synth pop’s great ongoing events, giving us the likes of ‘Last Night (I Dreamed A I Had A Job)’ from 2016’s ‘Commuter 23’ album which concerns itself with a cardboard box themed nightmare with the couplet “Brown typical cardboard / Sandwich corrugated too”. Can’t argue with that. The echoes of the crowd lustily singing along to the ear worm riff of ‘Living On The Ceiling’ tonight will reverberate long in the memory. 

Day Three: Synth Building Workshop With Befaco and Thonk.

And to end, a delightful day spent soldering circuit boards with Barcelona’s Befaco and Thonk taking charge in the Electronic Sound studio space. There were many biscuits and Pringles consumed and even some gentle modular tootling took place as 10 participants built their DIY synth kits. The floor was strewn with capacitor legs and the air perfumed with hot flux. It was a very relaxing and pleasant end to a successful weekend. Roll on Synth East 2025.

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