Episode 3 of Black Mountain College Radio, our podcast dedicated to all things Black Mountain College and Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, centers on Make Noise and BMC alum Frank Hursh! In this podcast, hear:
- An interview with the creators of Make Noise, an Asheville-based modular synthesizer company.
- A feature on BMC alum and painter Frank Hursh. The exhibition Frank Hursh: Marking Place + Space is on display from June 2 – September 2, 2017 at 69 Broadway.
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Episode 3 Transcript
by Carmelo Pampillonio
Hey, thanks for tuning into Black Mountain College Radio, I’m Carmelo Pampillonio.
Our 3rd episode has two segments, the first being an interview with Tony Rolando and Kelly Kelbel, the founders of Make Noise, a modular synthesizer company based in Asheville, NC.
The Make Noise crew will be giving a talk and performance at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center on Friday, July 21st at 7pm. They’ll discuss their aesthetic credo and their newest module: the Morphagene, a next generation tape and mircosound music module. The event is free and open to the public.
Music for this episode is provided by Tony Ronaldo and Walker Farrell from Make Noise.
The second segment explores the life and works of Frank Hursh, a painter who studied at Black Mountain College and continues to paint to this day. The exhibition “Frank Hursh: Marking Space + Place,” curated by Brian Butler, is free and open to the public now at Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center.
So we’ll now go to the interview with Tony and Kelly, which took place in Tony’s office overlooking scenic West Asheville.
Interview: Tony Rolando + Kelly Kelbel from Make Noise
CP: Thank you Tony and Kelly for joining us, live from Make Noise. I wanted to start with a more general question I’ve been curious about:
Make Noise has been making modular synthesizers catering to experimental musicians and sound artists for almost a decade – can you talk about the organization’s philosophy behind experimentation and process?
TR: Yeah sure, so the whole philosophy of the instrument developed over a long period of time. It’s not something where we woke up one day and decided we were gonna start this company that made this instrument that did this thing. Initially we weren’t even thinking of making a complete Make Noise instrument – we were just interested in supplying additional modules to the Doepfer system, which is what most companies were doing at that time. There weren’t many companies making modules at that time. And Doepfer already had a full line so we figured we’d fill in those gaps where we could find them. And it wasn’t until about 3 or 4 years in that we could see maybe creating an instrument that could be purely a Make Noise instrument. And I think the philosophy has always been a few things: one, sort of abstracting the user from their more traditional processes, for example, reading things on faceplates or looking at screens in an effort to understand the process that they’re trying to perform. And also trying to provide a complete experience, something that feels inspirational. And that’s I think to some degree why there’s a lot of artists that are very attracted to what we do and there’s a lot of artists that are very unattracted to what we do. Almost to a point of hating it. I think it’s because maybe we have a very specific aesthetic that appeals to some and doesn’t to others.
But yeah I guess mostly just abstracting things to a point that it encourages experimentation, or perhaps…happy accidents. And in addition to that, the idea of rather than the human controlling the machine, the human collaborating with the machine is also another important thing. Especially with our instruments, but in my opinion with any electronic musical instrument it should be a goal.
I think especially throughout the 80’s with MIDI there became this sort of aesthetic of ‘machines as purely as tools,’ where the artist has the idea for the music and the song and the different parts, and it became this very structured look at electronic music, this very structured approach. Right down to where if you open an old — in a lot of older MIDI sequencer softwares there will literally be templates that are very pop- or rock-oriented, with you know, your bass drum, and your snare drum, your lead guitar track, and your rhythm track. And all these things, it’s very generic. In my opinion off-putting, especially if you’re looking to create something new and something that people haven’t already heard many times.
KK: I think it’s also about inviting folks to think about music with a very open mind, and not come in with a predetermined idea about what music is, or how music is made.
TR: Yeah, exactly. From the beginning we looked to artists that were not, maybe in the ‘popular’ domain. So for example, with the first series of records that we did, the Shared System Series, at that point I don’t think the greater population of music listeners know who Keith Fullerton Whitman was. I’m sure a lot of our customers did, but I don’t think it was something that was on the tips of everyone’s tongues. [It’s] just this idea that music doesn’t have to be some particular thing; being open to everything that people send into us — I mean we get so much music. And I think a lot of people would say “that’s not music, that’s just bleeps and bloops,” but I think after awhile of trying to appreciate all these different types of music you really can start to see what makes a good record of bleeps and bloops versus a not-good record of bleeps and bloops.
[excerpt from Walker Farrell’s Ballooniverse]
CP: So on that note, your website speaks of “pushing boundaries” and “discovering unfound sounds,” can you expound on why this is important to you personally?
KK: [Looking at Tony] You wrote that… [All laugh] I think it’s kind of what we’ve already been talking about.
TR: To some degree. I think that there’s just. There’s this thing that happens, and I think especially if you’re in our industry, we have to go to some trade shows and stuff like that to try and find people to sell what we make. And when you’re at these trade shows you’re surrounded by what the world considers to be “music,” which is a very specific thing, actually. Even though the world is huge and there’s so many people in it, what most people consider to be music is a very small cross-section of what’s possible in music. You see this very commonly, and it kind of goes back to my mentioning of the MIDI format in the 80s and early 90s… [that] there’s this very prescribed allotment of how you would use the different areas of the frequency spectrum — you know, bass drum, snare drum, bass guitar, saxophone, so on and so forth, everything is very structured. So I think to some degree that statement is sort of trying to push back a little bit at the industry that we’re in. [When] making musical instruments, you have to be prepared to be put into that environment — the Guitar Centers, the Sam Ash’s, Sweetwaters… These places, they’re fine. They supply musicians with what they need. But when you’re actually in that industry, you’re at the trade show, or you’re at the shop where they might carry what you make, that’s where you really start to see that structure and you just… I don’t know. I think I just have this urge to push back at a little bit. Well we can make musical instruments but we don’t have to subscribe to all that.
CP: So this next question is more for you, Kelly. You mentioned that you host a women’s synth meetup here, can you talk about the activities and purpose of this group?
KK: Yeah, it’s a women’s and non-binary 0-Coast study group. So the 0-Coast is our small stand-alone synth, it’s a desktop synth, but you can patch it into your Eurorack system. And there were a few reasons I started the group, one is I wanted to carve out some focus time to learn our synth. It sometimes can be hard for me to spend time with the instruments because my job and goals are really to grow the company and lead the company, and support our staff. So I figured if I had some carved-out time I’d be more accountable to studying.
But then also it really is about creating access to our instruments for all kinds of folks. So what we do with this group is we loan out synths to folks who… they’re all musicians in town, many of them I’ve met through Girls Rock Asheville, which is a local non-profit that I was on the Board of and volunteered with that has a camp for girls, trans kids, and non-binary kids that does empowerment through music education. So a lot of the folks in the group have been volunteers with Girls Rock, and we meet once a month, and I am not leading the group, it’s very much just a learning environment that everyone contributes to. So we might come in with a question about a certain section of the instrument, like “how does the tempo input work?” or we might come in having watched a video and wanting to recreate that patch and take that patch to a new place. So everyone shares a patch in every meetup, and then with each other’s permission, go ahead and modify each other’s patches and see what happens, and then more questions come from that. And then we write down all of our questions and come back to them and try to answer those questions by creating new patches for the next get-together. The last time we just plugged all of our 0-Coasts into a mixer and had a jam [laughs]. It was fun. Yeah, we call it the 0-Coastra. [all laugh]
TR: Woooahhh, next level.
KK: Yeah, and then we’re also doing some other things with the 0-Coast right now, including a new workshop that we will be offering at Make Noise probably starting early in the Fall, and it’ll be a free workshop for anyone who wants to come out and learn about the 0-Coast. And it’ll also be a great introduction into some very basic modular synth functions and approaches and vocab. But it’s just a way for us to invite people into what we’re doing, and learn about the 0-Coast, and hopefully be inspired to connect with others through what they learn.
CP: Cool. What can we expect from your upcoming talk and performance at BMCM+AC?
KK: Well see that’s a great question for Walker…
TR: Yeah! [all laugh]
At this point in the interview Tony went downstairs to fetch Walker Farrell, a fellow Make Noise employee who’s been responsible for planning much of the details in the upcoming talk and performance.
WF: Well we have — our newest product is the Morphagene, and we’re gonna do a talk about the types of things that you can do with the Morphagene, which include… or actually I guess I’d say that the overview of the Morphagene would be that it uses a recording algorithm to create sounds from sounds that already exist, taking a sound that comes into it, or that you load into it, and using its raw material to create new sounds. And it does it in a couple of ways, one is inspired by tape music of the mid-20th century, musique concrète, tape collage, things like that, and then it also has the capability to do a lot of microsound techniques which were used a lot in computer music in the 80s and beyond.
TR: Yeah I’d say that definitely covers it. I think we’ll probably also discuss a bit [of] the process of development of the Morphagene, because I find that some folks will be interested in how we came to develop a tape and microsound music module for the modular synthesizer. Not just why we did it, but also the actual process of doing it… The long, and painful process. [all laugh]
WF: And then we’ll follow that up with a few short performances using modular synthesizers and focusing on what the Morphagene can do. And Tony and I will both do short performances and we’ll probably have a couple other members of our crew here who will do things and show a number of different kind of approaches to the way to make music and sound with that piece of gear.
CP: Sounds awesome, I’m looking forward to that. That about covers it, is there anything else you wanted to say or add to all that we discussed?
TR: Maybe I should add that… Maybe I should add that there are currently artists that are subverting MIDI. I know about this. I was merely discussing MIDI as a sort of generic structure that seemed to take over electronic music through the 80s and early 90s, but I do know that there are artists that are subverting it, and I appreciate that. We’ll put that out there.
CP: Will do.
CP: Alright well Tony, Kelly, Walker, thank you guys so much for taking the time to do this interview
TR: Do you want Roxie to howl for the interview? [holds the mic to their dog Roxie and softly howls]
Roxie: [howls for half a minute in response]
[Fades to a piece of music by Tony Rolando]
Up now at BMCM+AC is an exhibition titled “Frank Hursh: Marking Space + Place,” curated by Brian Butler. Hursh is a Mexico-based painter and illustrator who studied at BMC. He came up to help with installation and to give a gallery talk for the exhibition opening. A tall and amicable man, he left an impression on the entire staff of the museum.
Frank Hursh was born in 1929 in Wichita Falls, Texas. His father was the stage manager at Wichita Falls Municipal Auditorium, and through this he was exposed to a diverse range of music, performing arts, and visual arts. Hursh was also exposed to numerous itinerant art exhibitions brought about by the Work Progress Administration, who sought to endorse the arts as part of a cultural enrichment program during the Great Depression. At an early age Frank was also influenced by Frederick Catherwood’s illustrations of the Mayan ruins, which instilled within him a lifelong interest in Mexican archeology and architecture.
Hursh attended Black Mountain College from 1949 to 1950, where his advisor was the notable mathematician Max Dehn. He recalls the moment he arrived on campus:
Frank Hursh quote 1:
When I got there, I got off the bus and Reiner came over, he was an administrator, and he said, “Frank, we expect you to act as a decent human being and stay out of the girls dorm.” That was the introduction to Black Mountain College.
He took painting classes with Joe Fiore and Pete Jennerjahn, two painters whose resolute artistic commitment strengthened his own conviction to become a painter.
Frank Hursh quote 2:
We had in the community house, a welcoming committee, we had some snacks. Where everybody met each other, the new students and the faculty and the old students and everything. Joe Fiore had put up a collection of his paintings in there and it was extremely exciting to me to see his work. He was extremely innovative with his work and everything. And after everybody left I sat on the floor and stayed and looked at Joe’s paintings. I knew then that I was at a place where I really needed to be.
Frank Hursh quote 3:
Everybody was so extremely interesting in writing, drawing, painting, physics, everything. We always ate together and we always had all the activities together so it was like a community. We all had work too for the maintenance of the university.
While at Black Mountain College, Hursh exhibited drawings in a group show at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York City. Hursh went on to receive a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Texas in 1953. Then in 1956 he received two scholarships to study mural painting in Mexico City. A few years later Hursh launched his own company, Artes Teatrales, where he illustrated children’s books and worked on set design and artwork for live black-and-white TV programming.
Later he joined the company Telepelículas where he did designs for various cartoon series such as “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” Fractured Fairy Tales,” “Peabody’s Improbable History,” and “King Leonardo.”
Hursh returned to the US for 15 years as an art educator, and a technical and medical illustrator, but afterward he permanently returned to Mexico in 1976. There he did something that might perk the ears of those familiar with Black Mountain College: he opened a private art school modeled on BMC in Santiago de Querétaro, and established the Fine Arts Institute and the Mexican Cultural Institute for the Universidad del Valle de México, the largest private university in the Mexico City metropolitan area.
With a history of kindling affinities between the arts and education, Hursh has an aptitude for innovative cross-disciplinary thinking. His works evince sweeping chromatic narratives that transcend the delimiting nature of outlines and borders. He’s also drawn analogy between musical composition and his process of painting.
Frank Hursh quote 4:
You can play a record now, and if you play that same record a year from now and ten years from now, and can find something new, that’s a good piece of music. Painting is the same way. If you can find something in the painting that you like, sometimes, that you haven’t seen before.
So if a painting is not just limited to having a few things here then it doesn’t have much of a reason to be in reality. But if it has some proponent to it then the painting can stand on its own and it doesn’t need any explanation at all, because different people are going to read things different.
He retired in 1988 and continues to create artwork today. His paintings share many qualities with Abstract Expressionism, such as untamed gestural strokes, broad swathes and splashes of color, and a sense of motion and depth, all affirming the artist’s inner intuitive feelings welling up during the creative flow. His works also share the language of Abstractionism, which has a sensibility for the perception of color as form.
Yet his paintings evade immediate classification by having divergent qualities.
There’s an intentionality within his pieces, many of which are abstract Mexican landscapes where horizons remain ambiguous in tract and tone, and where strata of rock are rendered by imbricated strips of warm hues.
Frank Hursh Quote 5:
So I had already started, before I went to Black Mountain, working in that particular area… you know, abstractionism, and non-objective work. But when I went to Black Mountain, that;s when I went wholeheartedly over to completely non-objective work.
Throughout his life Frank Hursh has remained true to his Black Mountain College roots, maintaining a commitment to higher education in life, and and a methodology of experimentation and process in art.