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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Outsound New Music Summit: Lx Rudis and the Serge Surge

Posted By on Tue, Jul 21, 2015 at 8:00 AM

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  • Dmitri Sfcoa

For 13 years, the Outsound New Music Summit has brought together musical pioneers to share sounds from the outermost reaches of human artistic possibility. This year, they've got something for everyone, from gear heads to Druids looking to celebrate nature's bounty, to anyone else who wants to hear what sound can be. Recently, SF Weekly talked with performers at two events that reveal the width of Outsound's oscillations — The Serge Modular Synthesizer and Quiet Noise (the art of sculpting sound from metal, wood, and earth).

In part one of a special double blog post on this excellent performance series, Lx Rudis talks with SF Weekly about the Serge Synthesizer, video game Goldbergian geometries, and Todd Rundgren in action.

Lx Rudis is a cyberarts pioneer, composer of video game sounds, visual artist, and musician who has been working in the field and collaborating with the likes of Tuxedomoon, The Units, and Negativland since the 1980s. Kicked out of college and told that electronic music was a farce, Rudis came to the Bay Area at just the right time to get involved with the nascent video game and cyberarts scene.

"The chips that made sound [back then] were terrible to work with, but they did enable me to pay rent." Rudis says. It's what got him into animation, programming, and game design, "all of which helped me to look at my own creativity in a less-limited way."

A charter member of the San Francisco Virtual Reality Group, Rudis may be one of the first people in the world to have been punched in the chest-plate by an imaginary robot boxer. Rudis' early honors also include seeing Todd Rundgren spill beer on his wife while chatting her up at the first Digital Be-In, where Rudis and his comrades set up a proto-network-gaming station that allowed eight players to engage in simultaneous play, a big deal in the '80s.

Rudis also began making electronic music for rent-paying (and fun) projects like Atari/Tengen "Klax" and for fun's sake (or art's sake) alone. Rudis described some of the overlap between these two realms and shared some thoughts on the Serge Synthesizer.

For the video game music, Rudis created his own Rube Goldberg contraptions, "invisible geometries that altered playback of my sound effects and triggered music cues depending on how the user played the game."

When he performs on Serge, "people see me deliberately start with absolutely nothing, but work furiously to create something from scratch. Typically, that something is the result of four or five little subsystems I patch together in real time. [Audiences] see me assemble an audio puzzle for them out of little bits, and they get to see how those bits conspire to provide something which seems to have a mind of its own ... perhaps a bit of malevolent Brechtian Epic Theatre when the aesthetic eventually collapses under its own weight!"

Since its creation in the 1970s, the Serge Synthesizer has never completely disappeared, and it has been the subject of renewed interest lately. Rudis explained that the Serge's design philosophy is minimal and elegant, and that it's history is tied up with the evolution of the computers we all use today.

"The panel graphics on the original instruments were designed by Rich Gold, who went on to create one of the earliest computer window environments for Xerox/Parc, and whose user interface work directly informed both Apple and Microsoft's graphical user interface. Second-generation Serge machines were built in a communal fashion at CalArts, which led to a more organic sort of business model for the instrument than Moog or Buchla, which wound up sold to Norlin and CBS respectively. Serge stayed independent and sold both complete instruments and kits. It's a persistent brand, with a lot of history, much of it a bit obscure — for example, many of the synthesizer parts in Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life are not ARP 2600, as was originally claimed, but rather are Serge modules in a custom instrument called T.O.N.T.O."

Australian builder Ken Stone contributed to the resurgence of the Serge by resurrecting many of the original '70s-era designs. San Francisco-based COA Modular Synthesizers works directly with Ken Stone and original designer Serge Tcherepnin to build Serge panels heavily influenced by the original designs. If you get inspired by Rudis' audio puzzle at the Outsound Summit, you'll have a lot of local resources.

And speaking of local resources, Rudis' synthpunk roots will be on display this fall, when he teams up with long time collaborator Winston Tong of Tuxedomoon and others as part of a weeklong "punk rock reunion." Rudis' list of collaborators also includes Los Microwaves, Red Asphalt, Witnesses, and Kurt Harland of Information Society. If all that isn't enough, he teaches, along with Harland, at Robotspeak and has a day gig doing video synthesis and digital film restoration. Come on down to the Outsound New Music Summit and learn a few things about the Serge resurgence before he has a system overload already! Sheesh!

The Outsound New Music Summit, July 26 - Aug. 1, 8:15 p.m., at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp.

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