On a brisk Thursday night in North Atwater Park in Los Angeles, 50 people sit huddled in the corner of the park’s lawn. Nestled among snarling pine trees, the crowd has managed to find the least “Los Angeles” part of the city as they wait patiently for the upcoming display of next level sound art.
This is Modular On The Spot (MOTS), an event series created by Los Angeles-based musicians Bana Haffar and Eric Cheslak (aka Rodent516). Unconventional and enticingly niche, it was created with the intent to develop a free and inclusive platform, offering a spotlight for modular synth enthusiasts to share their compositions with the public.
Saudi Arabia native and classically trained musician Bana Haffar met her co-founder after moving to Los Angeles to pursue a music career. Eric, a professional skate photographer, had a strong knack for all things synth related. It was only due time that the two moved in together and started brainstorming, eventually becoming the musically savvy and admired fixtures of LA’s bohemien electronic music scene that they are today.
The inception of Modular On The Spot dates back to one fateful desert night epiphany (as many of the best creative moments do). “On a camping trip in Arizona, Eric happened to have his generator for his camera flashes, as well as his modular rig. We set up the gear one night and jammed out,” Haffar explains. “After we did that a couple times on different camping trips, we realized this would be a good thing to do in the city – just to have a free event, outdoors.”
Two and a half years since then, Modular on the Spot has spread from Los Angeles to cities across the US such as Portland, Seattle, Atlanta, San Francisco, Durham and Chicago.
The performance concept adheres to three strict rules: always outside, always free and artists are required to use only modular synths during their performance. So long as adopters follow Modular On The Spot’s rules, anyone is welcome to organize their own version and adopt the event’s name. “Modular On The Spot is not a brand, it’s a verb,” Bana clarifies.
The verb itself isn’t limited to parks, either. “Any accessible outdoor environment is suitable” says Cheslak. “People have had them in parks, abandoned lots, seasides, graveyards, alleys and lush forests”. The phenomenon is spreading, and spreading quickly - even in their own local community. Cheslak and Haffar make it a tradition to ask their crowd if anyone is attending for the first time each performance. At least 10 people raise their hands every time.
In North Atwater Park, Illuminated by an array of flashlights and lamps, four artists make sure to carefully untangle colorful wires and prepare their patches ahead of a performance for a crew of onlooking sound enthusiasts. Colin Russell is one of the artists, a Berklee College of Music graduate who works as the Director of Technical support for the modular synthesizer manufacturer Qu-Bit, and has watched the community around Modular On The Spot grow. “It’s exploded in the last five years,” he observes. “We don’t only love the instrument, we love the community. We’re all a bunch of weirdos who would rather listen to each other make noise than listen to what’s on the radio.”
The music climbs in contrast to the looming buzz of a nearby highway and wanes, giving way to the occasional whir of a passing helicopter. A park ranger creeps by curiously, keeping a watchful eye on the gathering, reminding us of the abruptness of Modular On The Spot’s very concept. Throwing a show in a public space without a permit – especially in the middle of a bustling city – always presents the risk of being shut down. But that’s part of the excitement.
The atmosphere blends with each composition in an affective manner that you can’t predict. The electronic ramblings of modular performance in an open arena that is nestled between both organic and metropolitan surrounds adds a nice tint of magic. The symbiosis between the outdoors and this musical medium, compared to that of a darkened indoor venue, can confidently encourage more spontaneous and mystifying action from these artists. “Sometimes things are just better when experienced in nature,” as Haffar says.
Though the tangle of a modular setup might be an initially jarring sight in the middle of a park, somehow it all comes full circle. “The slightest turn of a knob can change everything,” performer Peter Adam says. “The real joy comes when you give up control - to some extent - and simply let the instruments ‘do their thing’. They are almost like living organisms!”
While much of dance music thrives on dancefloor connections in raucous environments, the experimental and seemingly esoteric nature of raw modular synth performance can be a tough nut to crack. But despite the arcane nature of the equipment and its disorienting sound, the free and welcoming ethos of Modular On The Spot engages curious producers, art aficionados and music buffs alike to explore the wondrous world of modular synthesis.
Cameron Holbrook is Mixmag's LA Editorial Intern, follow him on Twitter