In what has come to seem somewhat of an exception in these days of home studios and Soundcloud works-in-progress, Dutch musician Thomas Ankersmit spent the first ten years of his career working almost exclusively in a live context. This fact is made all the more remarkable by the relative unwieldiness of his instrument of choice, the Serge analogue modular synthesizer; his decision to focus heavily on a single instrument, as musicians in other genres might commit to the violin or the bass guitar, also seems somewhat at odds with the established conventions of electronic music. Then again, Ankersmit is no typical synth-wielder, a fact underscored by his grounding in the saxophone. Though his beloved Serge may well remain silent without power sockets, once plugged in it is more likely to be heard tumbling through a composition by the likes of Phil Niblock than to be pumping out four-to-the-floor beats or cosmic ambient washes. Thinking of it as an organ with voltage regulation might get you closer than any associations normally conjured by the term ‘electronic’.
Until recently, Ankersmit’s solo Serge discography (Sergeography?) was limited to a single full-length live recording, but now UK label Touch has released a ‘studio’ album made on the original Serge synthesizers at CalArts. The single extended piece, entitled “Figueroa Terrace”, reveals the timbral versatility of the Serge, while audibly remaining the product of a single instrument. This is no mere tech demo, however: as one would expect from an artist whose deep engagement with the Serge dates back to 2006, Ankersmit has long moved on from merely showing off what the synthesizer can do and into the realm of fully developed and integrated composition. The piece moves from driving bleeps and clinks to almost-silent escaping air and back again, beating a measured but purposeful path towards an emphatic ending. While the timbral colours of the work definitely fall within the ‘analogue synth’ part of the spectrum, to my ears the CalArts gear sounds cleaner, drier, and less obviously ‘retro’ than most vintage equipment I’ve heard, and all the more pleasing for it.
The traditional analogue ‘quirks’ remain available for exploitation, however: at one point Ankersmit drives a rapid-fire pattern just a little bit faster than the vintage circuitry was designed to go, causing a range of timing and phase artefacts to emerge (or maybe some of this breakdown was in my ears rather than in the hardware?). For the most part, though, “Figueroa Terrace” remains quietly focused. I could imagine removing the sine waves from CalArts professor Michael Pisaro’s “Transparent City” recordings and playing the quieter moments of “Figueroa Terrace” over them instead, with little or no loss of serenity or poise — a flight of fancy that speaks much of the latter piece’s clarity and carefully consideration and integration of details. It’s not until the acceleration towards a final cacophonic conclusion that the work’s connection with a modern avant-garde tradition of electronic music finds its full deep-throated voice.