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Developing Microvirtuosity

Ten years ago, involved in running an electronic music jam night in Melbourne on behalf of Australian electronic music collective Clan Analogue, I noticed people turning up with the new pocket-sized Korg Monotron synth, along with the usual laptops and workstations. Fast forward a few years, and it seemed like small, cheap, and portable gear was the in thing for cutting-edge musos.

I gigged regularly throughout the 90s with a large collection of hardware synthesizers and rack-mounted gear, needing a van to transport it to venues and a good chunk of time to set it all up, not to mention the studio space required at home. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding life squeezes out both time and space for music once kids and mortgages come along. Suddenly those pocked-sized synths were looking like good practical options.

I had some experience with mobile music-making in the early 2000s with Random Acts of Elevator Music, a kind of Situationist-inspired guerrilla art project where we wandered around the Melbourne CBD ambushing office workers in lifts with live ambient music. At that stage, I was using a Casio CZ101 and delay pedals, smuggled into buildings in briefcases while we disguised ourselves in business attire. My long-time collaborator Matt Adair built a Reaktor system into a briefcase and our whole setup was powered by SLA batteries.

Those days seemed like the Wild West for mobile music. Throughout the 2010s, portable battery-powered gear started to pop up everywhere I looked. Two of my comrades provided particular inspiration. In 2014 I saw a live set by Martin Koszolko, playing as KOshowKO, his setup consisting of two iPads running a combination of apps. In 2017 Kable Fransen, performing as Kable54, released Volca Galaxies, an album completely created using Korg Volca synths.

Miller Puckette, the author of Max and Pure Data, discussed electronic music virtuosity in an interview, saying “Any really successful music instrument has to be something that you can develop virtuosity on… I guess someone could become a virtuoso iPad performer... but we would have to figure out what virtuosity would mean in that context. Someone would have to work for twenty years to become that virtuoso and to invent what that meant. And by that time the iPad might no longer exist”

With these ideas and musical examples swirling around, the concept of “microvirtuosity” came to me. Both KOshowKO and Kable54 showed the potential for these small setups to be extremely versatile, allowing for improvisation and exploration of new directions in music. Both artists were developing a level of proficiency with their particular “micro-instruments” to a degree I hadn’t noticed in other Melbourne electronic music performers. Although we may not equate skill on an iPad with that of, say, a concert pianist with their instrument, isn’t this a form of virtuosity on a micro-level?

I realized that this virtuosity may not be readily apparent to many. If a piano teacher from my youth had stumbled into a bar and seen a performer using a bunch of Volca synths, they may not recognize it as a live performance at all, let alone a virtuosic performance. But if the reverse happened, and a posse from my local electronic music scene stumbled into the Melbourne Concert Hall to see a performance from the classical music repertoire, we would likely recognize the performer’s virtuosity even if we weren’t great classical music appreciators. Microvirtuosity is therefore different from virtuosity in that it is particularly contextual to subculture.

Not only is microvirtuosity located in the subculture, but it is also unique to the performer. Unlike the pianist example, there was probably only one performer in Australia using that particular combination of Volca synths anyway. Furthermore, microvirtuosity is developed over relatively limited time frames. Unlike Puckette’s noted 20-year time frame, after a couple of years of excelling with Volcas Kable sold up this batch of gear and moved on to something else.

At the start of 2022, I decided the time had come to develop my own form of microvirtuosity. I had accrued a somewhat random collection of micro-instruments over the years, many bought as presents for my kids as they seemed the kind of toys that would interest them in electronic music. I reclaimed the two Monotrons, Korg Little Bits, Casio Trackformer, and Pocket Operator Speak I had gifted them, adding them to my Volca Modular and Gakken SX-150, and started practicing.

I set myself some rules at this point. Although I have full respect for the modding scene, I want to play these instruments just as they came from the shop. Often micro-instruments are dismissed as toys until modded, whereby they become proper instruments. I wanted to explore and (hopefully) extend their capabilities through my skill as a performer, not an electronics engineer. I also resisted the temptation to get a looper for the setup. Although this would provide a practical avenue for building up musical ideas in performance, making things easier for a laptop-free set, I want to perform by the seat of my pants and use these instruments in a physical way. Like, you know, proper virtuosos. I also resisted any inclination to buy any more gear. This random collection would be my setup.

I considered how to build up my microvirtuosic skills. Many years ago, I played scales and arpeggios to develop my pianism. Becoming a virtuoso is about developing an edge over other musicians. What could I do that they wouldn’t have thought of? So, I signed up for Melodics to develop my finger-drumming skills on the Casio Trackformer. I found an old book of Kodály melodic and harmonic exercises, practicing these on the original Monotron (no chromatic step setting, only pure sliding tones) and the Gakken SX-150. I’ve heard many people make great sounds with these instruments, but very few are able to master the intonation of a ribbon controller.

And how could I transcend a collection of gear demo compositions, as you might see in YouTube tutorials? Virtuosity implies developing personal expression. I needed a unifying compositional idea. Inspired by a recent Brian Cox doco and a suggestion from one of my mentors, I decided to create a musical interpretation of the entire history of the Universe, the idea is to use the humblest mass-produced micro-instruments to express the most large-scale concept possible.

This whole enterprise could end in inglorious failure. Maybe I won’t become much of a virtuoso after all, but that’s OK. The journey is the thing - finding out what is involved in developing microvirtuosity.

My first microvirtuosity performance takes place on Saturday 15th of October, at Bar 303 in Melbourne, playing as Reductionist for the 30th-anniversary celebrations for Clan Analogue in the Melbourne Fringe Festival. The event will also include an open-entry electronic music jam session. Head along with some gear if you’re in town! Then I perform a follow-up set at Red Betty in Brunswick on Saturday 29th of October for Live Electronic Musicians of Melbourne.

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