by Michael Purdie

Tyler Charles makes adjustments during a demo at the Sonic Frontiers music festival.
Photo Credit: Michael Purdie

As a warm spring breeze blew through a large open door on April 23, a festive crowd in the main gallery of the Brentwood Arts Exchange exchanged greetings and toasted each other with drinks from Hyattsville’s popular Maryland Meadworks. Electronic music filtered through the space, enticing the crowd into a gallery filled with artwork and rows of seats. 

As the crowd settled in, the lights dimmed and a myriad of colorful beams showered down on Heather Stebbins, the first of three featured performers at the Sonic Frontiers music festival, which also included a modular synth workshop and drop-in demos. The festival was organized by the DC Modular Collective and hosted by the Brentwood Arts Exchange, on Rhode Island Avenue in Brentwood.

“I would definitely consider this a success,” said Barry Schmetter, whose performance name is Resonant Space. “We welcome all artists to network with us, and it’s nice to see this community just hanging out and collaborating.” Schmetter co-founded the DC Modular Collective with Aaron Mertes in 2017.

The DC Modular Collective is a community of individuals exploring  modular synthesizers and connecting with fellow synth enthusiasts. “There really wasn’t a group that specifically was trying to get people together for modular synthesis to network,” Schmetter said, pointing to why he and Mertes established the collective. 

Artists use modular synthesizers to make electronic music by patching together unique modules of sound in a sequence. The resulting tones can range from melodic to chaotic. “A module is breaking a synthesizer into pieces,” Schmetter explained. “You can compare it to a car: A module is like a piece of a car, like the brakes or the engine; it’s just a component. The beauty of modular synthesis is that you can create your own instrument.”

The feature performances of the night were by Stebbins, by a musician known as Atograph and by an artist who calls herself Tangent Universes, who was performing for a live audience for the first time. Resonant Space — Schmetter — controlled video displays on a large screen for each performer. 

Stebbins, who has a background in music composition, is a full-time professor of music and technology at George Washington University. She started exploring modular synth during the pandemic and is versed in the technical side of synth — the computer hardware and software that are integral to the art. “I kind of fell down the rabbit hole and really loved the way [working with synthesis hardware] bridged my interests in music technology and composition, but the more performative aspect,” she said, “It really allows me to play the kind of music I want to write for others.” Stebbins is teaching her first modular synth class this semester.

Between performances, the crowd gathered in the main gallery, where the arts exchange’s current exhibit, “Treehouse,” is installed. The piece, which combines natural and artificial elements, invites visitors into a beautiful space to explore ways we can connect to nature and each other. Spontaneous performances and demos popped up at booths around the room; Maryland Meadworks and the collective each had an information booth in the gallery, as well. 

“[Modular synths] really bridged my creativity of music with math and science,” said Ryan Dunn, one of the drop-in performers. “There’s a thriving modular community in D.C., for sure, and it’s nice, especially coming out of COVID[-19], to have a sense of community.”

Patrick O’Brien, an expert synth artist, offered a workshop on a technique called  generative patching, which basically sets a module to independently play a sequence of sounds for an extended period of time. 

O’Brien watched a single YouTube video on modular synths about eight years ago and was immediately hooked. He went on to organize Modular on the Mall, a monthly concert series that takes place at the D.C. War Memorial on the National Mall. “Providing a space for people to play, that’s my contribution to the community,” he said. The next Modular on the Mall event will be at noon on June 5.

The DC Modular Collective plans to host annual Sonic Frontiers music festivals each spring and fall. For more information about the collective, go to @dc_modular_collective on Instagram.