On the stage, Amalgamated Wonders of the World, aka Brian Doyle, pokes and prods at what looks like a switchboard.
Noise fills the room. A grumble rises like a car starting, expanding until it becomes as big as an airplane taking off in a high pitched whirr, and slowly, a hesitant beat kicks in.
Doyle’s fingers pinch colourful cables and twitch tiny knobs to adjust the sound. Occasionally, he lifts the microphone to his mouth. His voice comes out autotuned and wavy.
The crowd in front of him in The Complex on Arran Street East on a recent Saturday afternoon mostly wear backpacks and beanies, and mill around listening to the clamour, murmur to each other, or consider the fluorescent art on the walls.
Since 2019, Dublin Modular has put on live performances like this of electronic and modular music, coupled with visual art displays.
The events started as a way to gather people who were making these kinds of music in their attics and bedrooms, says Tadhg Kinsella, an artist and sound designer who founded Dublin Modular.
They’ve run about ten events so far as part of a mission to create a community between visual artists and electronic musicians.
They’ve won the council’s Incubation Space Award for next year, and want to keep the community growing by hosting workshops to encourage more modular musicians, says Kinsella.
“I’m not gonna be here forever, but I would love for a collective like Dublin Modular to be here forever,” says Kinsella. “An accessible, supportive and safe space. That’s really the main objective.”
Modular music is a way of making electronic music using a modular synth, which, using cables and different electronic instruments, creates a composition built from blocks of different sounds, says Kinsella.
You usually have a good idea about what may happen but actually any sound could come out, he says. “What’s magical is just something totally new that you wouldn’t expect happens.”
On a couch outside the venue after his performance, Doyle zips open his carrier case.
Inside are coils of thick rainbow cables on top of another web of knotted wires, and under those is a white square modular synth, the SOMA Pulsar 23. It looks like a switchboard.
“It’s a beautiful tangled mess,” he says fondly, tucking the cables behind the case and running his fingers over the switches, ports and knobs. If it were plugged in, it would be making noises, he says.
“You turn it on and it goes grrrrrrr”. He makes a long, groaning noise from his throat.
“And then it’s down to you to make it go tsk tsk, purr purrr.” He beat-boxes, adding hi-hat “tsks” and tapping his foot.
Each group of knobs controls a different sound: bass, percussion, high-end frequencies. “It’s supposed to be a drum machine,” says Doyle. “But it’s capable of all sorts of weird noises. It’s a wild beast.”
Wiring the ports together, called “patching”, mixes sounds in different combinations, he says. “And then, from there, you can sculpt the sound with the knobs.”
It’s a tactile way of making music, he says. “You can really move it with the music, you connect it exactly when you want. It’s a nice way of playing.”
Doyle used to make music digitally, but then started buying hardware that would make the same sounds as his computer – like delay or echo effects. “I bought those physical things to use them rather than staring at a computer screen.”
Doyle says he’s still getting his head around it. “I nailed it one day,” he says. “I spent an hour making the most beautiful sounds. If I dreamt them, I was able to do them.”
The next day he tried to repeat it and failed. “It just sounded completely different. It’s its own thing.”
Doyle reflects on the set he’s just performed. He’d meant to make it groovy, he says, and foot-tappy. Not one that sounded like jet engines. But, says Doyle, it can’t be planned.
“Once I turn the stuff on, I just get lost in it. I could keep going and going. I don’t know what anyone else gets out of it. Like, it’s just so self-indulgent,” he says. “You just end up pleasing yourself.”
When Visual Art Meets Music
Through the glass doors and a couple of doorways is a gallery room, with exposed brick walls and rafters above.
The first painting is a mid-size rectangular canvas of navy vertical stripes and red paint splotches, by Kinsella, the Dublin Modular founder.
Hidden in the dark granular blues and blurry lines of the painting are QR codes, which funnel those who use them to the music that he made while painting.
“I kind of saw that from a low-level almost gritty-sounding synth,” he says. “I kind of want to show people what I experience in my head.”
Listening to live music while looking at art changes the gallery experience, he says.
The music settles your brain, says Kinsella. “And it allows you to experience the art in a different way and sometimes it’s quite hypnotic.”
Towards the back of the gallery, artist Mae Nicolaou’s artwork leant against the wall: a topsy-turvy ladder that would be impossible to climb.
The live modular music playing in the gallery sounds wobbly like the ladder, says Kinsella. “It complements the sounds.”
Nicolaou says that normally, in galleries, looking at other people’s art, she’s thinking about what techniques the maker of the artwork used, but Saturday’s event was different.
“When the music was on, I kind of didn’t realize that I was standing there, like, not thinking about anything for a while,” she says. “It was quite meditative.”
“With the music, it kind of made me want to dance a little bit, which is quite fun,” she says.
At the top of the room near the stage, a new performer gets up and pulls out some vinyl decks. The modular music shifts to dance music, and listening from the stairwell outside, Síofra Carlin tunes into the beat, bobbing her head.
“We just had a time to reflect, and a time to kind of stand still with the live sets. It’s kinda cool then now to get people on their feet and dance again,” she says.
It’s hard to find a dance groove in the sometimes harsh, gritty noise of modular music, she says. But “I sometimes feel like there’s a deeper meaning to it than just what you hear”.
A Chilled-out Community
Dublin Modular events are different to the regular club scene, says Carlin later, sitting on a stairwell outside the The Complex’s main performance and gallery area.
They’re calmer but still enjoyable and more fulfilling in a way, she says. “Sometimes it’s nicer to offer things like this, rather than, you know, going out on a rager.”
Kinsella, the Dublin Modular founder, says there was an open call online for performers on Saturday afternoon. One young musician showed up with his synthesiser, but he’d never performed before.
“I thought he was really, really good,” he says. “With electronics, it’s so easy to just stay in your room for a long time.”
Few places in Dublin are open to new performers of electronic music, he says. It can be an intimidating scene, he says, especially when you might have to perform in the early hours of the morning.
“So we’re trying to just kind of have a middle ground where actually everybody can come together, the four o’clock in the morning guys and girls, and everybody from the art scene, and then we have this injection of new blood and new experimenting,” he says. “We just want to bring everyone together.”
An open environment, where it’s a safe and supportive area to perform in, is how community grows, he says. “That’s what I do Dublin Modular for. It’s, for me, so beautiful to see.”