Artwork by Nina Buchanan
Nina Buchanan takes her signature 1-synth, 1-drum-machine musical approach to new, Black Mirror-esque places for latest LP Restless Abandon; delivering a melancholic yet hopeful collection of electronic compositions that form a tug of war between obverse emotions.
The synthesis explorer, producer and composer premiered her impressive new LP, Restless Abandon, yesterday, Monday November 25th, via Heavy Machinery Records. A contribution to Naarm’s Flash Forward arts program, the improv-borne release is laden with pensive oscillating synths and broken drums, a trademark of the hardware techno artist. Across nine compositions, Buchanan dives deeper into her synthesis exploration to investigate the antithesis of feelings we have been flooded with, both collectively and personally, in the face of a pandemic-ridden era rife with technological possibilities and dilemmas under 21st century capitalism.
The rise and fall of vibrant synths carve out ruminative melodies that drive forward to the swift, sundry pace of a capricious kick drum. A sense of unity and discord manifests between the flickering between these cascading synth lines and reflective ambient recesses. Buchanan’s utilisation of a minimal and experimental approach to production provoked unpredictable progressions that echo IDM and generative synthesiser music. These songs connect me to a familiar feeling of angst about the future: the question whether we are headed towards a technological utopia or dystopia; a matter Nina delves into throughout the release and deftly puts into words in our conversation below.
Nina provokes questions in listeners - how do we balance helplessness and hope, desire and exhaustion, compassion and rage? Restless Abandon provides no easy resolutions, instead creating a space for listeners to hold conflicting things in balance, even if just for a moment. - Press Release by Anuraag Bhatia
I had the pleasure of sitting down with the artist (via the covid-warranted internet waves of course) for an in-depth chat about the creative process for Restless Abandon alongside some minor musings about what lies in our future with technology.
Listen to Restless Abandon for yourself below, the vinyl also available for purchase via Bandcamp.
Hi Nina, thanks so much for meeting with me. First of all, I just wanted to compliment you on your stellar release, I love it. It felt awesome to get an early listen to it all. I love how broad the album is, spanning club-ready to home-listening tracks.
Thank you so much!
Photograph: Christopher Sutherland
The press release describes Restless Abandon as ‘creating a space for listeners to hold conflicting things in balance such as helplessness and hope, desire and exhaustion, compassion and rage, even if just for a moment.’ This is so beautiful and personally really resonates with me a lot, especially during the tumultuous time that is right now. What does Restless Abandon mean to you?
Restless Abandon is something I came up with that was trying to describe the feeling I think a lot of us had. It was sort of about the year we’d had with lockdowns and everything but beyond that, about living in late capitalism - living in this time of such extreme complexity and trying to deal with so many different things at once. I think that's very much a very personal thing that people experience in a very internal way, but also absolutely this collective thing that we're all experiencing. I think that was a lot of what was coming through with writing this music - this tension and this total overflow of feelings and energy, this feeling of too much of things. Also, at the same time, a kind of anxiety and restraint. So that’s what it means to me. I was also thinking of it as an approach to making music. Which is this mixture of total freeform improvisation and then this process of trying to refine it and make sense of it.
Last time I saw you, you were facilitating a Sound School hardware workshop in 2019, could you tell me a bit about how your relationship to making music has changed since then? How did that inform Restless Abandon?
It's actually been really interesting, because probably around that time and before COVID, more than anything I was performing. It was the main thing I was doing and I was often writing music to play live, so that was usually the focus.
I have a very simple approach to writing where a lot of my tracks will be based on one or two quite simple melodies. My live setup was one synth, one drum machine and an echo pedal. I guess working with very limited resources has been my main approach. Initially that was because that's literally all I had to work with and that was how I'd learnt to write music, working with these really restricted things. Very much based on setting up a few simple things that could then be improvised live. Previous releases as well were often just stereo recordings of improvised jams.
And then because of doing composing work, I was getting more and more into more complex production with Ableton. I had wanted to integrate the two more. With live shows being cancelled, it was definitely a chance to work more on the production side. Really just making things that were recordings rather than something that was built to perform live. It still has a very similar process, in that I pretty much always start with improvising on a synth. It's usually kind of a melodic or a textural kind of place where I begin. Usually I don't really have a starting point, it's often very much like starting somewhere and then this very involved process of recording and then listening back and then picking parts out of that, that I think are kind of interesting. And then often choosing the bits that I didn't expect to happen, like that unexpected stuff that happens when you're using analogue synths. Then I sort of was bringing stuff more into Ableton and trying to do more with arrangement, adding other parts and rather than using a drum machine, mostly writing all the beats in Ableton. But still a pretty experimental process in terms of sometimes generating the rhythms from synth patterns.
Going into composing the album, was there anything you wanted to achieve? Or was it more of an experimental, organic process?
Pretty much that, yeah. I find it pretty hard to make something; to plan. Even if I do [plan], it usually doesn't end up that way. When I'm working on composition projects, there is definitely a very specific thing that needs to happen, because you're trying to create a specific mood or something for someone else's work. Sometimes I do want to make something about something in that more specific way. But this project was more of an organic process, a sort of free for all. When I started, I really had no idea what I was gonna make. I actually made it in quite a short amount of time, for me. I guess over about three months, but a lot of it really came together in one month.
I spent probably two months on just random ideas. Then, because I had a deadline for this release, it was very much like, ‘okay, got to get it done’. Over the next month, I was getting up really early trying to get it done. I didn't know how many tracks it was going to be either. It was a very generative time. I think about four of the tracks actually are all from one synth line. So, with a lot of the tracks, I’d experiment a lot with different variations on them and then that would lead to another track.
What hardware and software did you use for this album?
I use one synth predominantly, which is the Arturia MiniBrute, that's got a little inbuilt sequencer in it. I actually won it in a competition about seven years ago and it's been my main synth since then. It's pretty limited, it's just a monophonic synth where you can only play one note at a time, but I've gotten to know it really well from playing live with it a lot. I did really want to develop what I could do with it. So, I was incorporating it with Ableton Live quite a lot. A lot of it is just stuff sampled from the analog synth, but then I've got a couple of soft synths in there as well. All the drums are from Battery, the Native Instruments drum machine.
The press release states that Restless Abandon is inspired by ‘the transformative potential of technology, and how that interacts with the core parts of the human condition.’ Can you tell me more about your interest in this? Where do you see technology taking us in the future?
Just some small questions. [laughs] Obviously, we're very attached to our technologies now. I'm very influenced by a lot of ideas from sci-fi writing, which is very much about looking into the future and speculative. Well, I think we're very much past that utopian phase of what technology offers us. We know there's no turning back. There’s this constant question of what to trust and what not to trust. This attention economy of social media. And these anxieties about technology and that utopian idea about technology play out a lot in electronic music. Particularly with the resurgence of analog gear; that sort of fetishism of analog equipment.
I suppose that idea comes from the research I'm doing at the moment and my course. I actually finished the album just when I was starting the course so they bled into each other a bit. My Master’s thesis is about this idea of collaborating with machines in electronic music and looking at the mythology around that and how that can actually be applied with Ableton. It’s something that get talks about a lot with analog gear, like instruments being alive. So I wanted to look at how that could be applied to digital production as well. I'm interested in how we can still be human with technology and use it in a way that is progressive or productive.
Nowadays, AI is playing this much bigger role in music and all aspects of life really. AI is actually really affecting the way we make music. Holly Herndon and DeForrest Brown Jr. both speak quite a lot about platform politics and the role that platforms like Spotify play, like the monopoly they have on the way our music is consumed now, and also the role that that's playing in how people make music. People are actually writing music now so that they can be featured on a Spotify playlist. So, I'm pretty interested in all these ideas of hyper-consumerism affecting the way music is being made and listened to.
That sounds so interesting and is definitely a ubiquitous topic today. How long have you been studying music and what has your experience been like?
I went to art school a really long time ago and did video and film. Then I did an honours degree in music so I don’t actually have a whole undergrad in music. I don’t really do any video stuff anymore, that was ages ago. It’s kind of funny like I did music and piano in school but since then I haven’t had much formal music training. Only bits here and there, like I did a TAFE audio production and live sound course in Sydney in I think it was 2014. I thought I wanted to be a sound engineer but then I was like ‘I hate working nights.’ Having all that experience though was really helpful.
It was a strange experience like a lot of the course was pretty brutally sexist. I was the only non-male, staff and student. I think even in the past 5 years so much has changed. It’s actually incredible, although there’s still a long way to go. I think I did that course in 2014.
So you’re originally from Sydney then? In your experience, how do the Sydney and Naarm [Melbourne] music scenes compare?
Yeah, I grew up in Sydney. I moved here 2015 because of my partner and I felt like a change - it seemed like I could keep doing music stuff here. There’s just more here. In Sydney, there’s an amazing, very underground, DIY community. Then there’s this big gap and more commercial stuff. Whereas Melbourne just has everything. I came up in the DIY community in Sydney which was really formative for me. Sometimes I still really miss it because you get this really great thing happening where you get any kind of genre on a line-up and everyone is friends. Whereas here it’s more segmented. I guess that’s just a result of there being so much to offer.
I saw you played in the MESS Synth Orchestra in March. How did you find that experience? How did playing in an orchestra compared to playing individually feel for you? What's the experience like?
It was pretty wild. Mostly because hearing that number of synthesizers on one stage was insane. I think there was about 40 different pieces of equipment, mostly incredibly older pieces of gear that you hardly ever get to hear and then also hearing it on the sound system at Sydney Myer Music Bowl was amazing.
It was Matt Watson, a musician, who wrote this graphic score, which was really beautiful. It had this structure with sections. Some parts did have specific notes to play but then other sections were quite a bit more playful and improvised as well. That was mostly for the modular section which I was in. I was playing the EMS VCS 3, which looks like something from a spaceship. I think it was made in 1969. Rather than the single wires we have with modular gear, this has this pin matrix you connect with, kind of like battleships (the game). So that's how you're making the connections. It was me and Jannah Quill playing those as a unit which was really fun. Everyone who was in the orchestra were all incredible musicians of their own and really awesome people. So it was really fun to actually just go through all the rehearsals and have that time with people after being isolated for such a long time.
When it was over we were really like, ‘ohhh… I miss everyone’. It felt like this big family [laughs]. We were rehearsing for maybe six weeks. We'd meet like once a week for about a month and then we had about a week of very intensive rehearsals. That's quite a lot compared to a lot of gigs where you just maybe practice once. I'm pretty sure it was recorded. So maybe that will surface at some point.
I’m curious, what inspired you to get involved with Sound School?
They reached out very early when it was just starting out as a collective with no funding or anything. I did one of the first ones, a techno workshop, run out of Hot Shots in Footscray. As they got bigger, they just kept asking me to do different workshops including a hardware synth one.
It was fun, I really love doing workshops and skill-share stuff. I think that’s what's so great about electronic music. I mean, obviously you do need to have access to some gear but if you can borrow stuff or get cracks off the internet (which we all can), I think it is really accessible. Although, there is still so much gatekeeping around that so I'm very into different approaches that make it really accessible for anyone to try. Growing up, I learned piano but it was never considered that I could actually pursue music because I thought you had to be like very, very good in a traditional way. The bands I was seeing were all mostly men. It didn't seem accessible at all.
Back to the album, I found your track titles really interesting. Could you tell me more about how you chose them?
In terms of track titles, some of them are a reference to something. Like, Carrier Bag, the second track, is a reference to an essay by Ursula K. Le Guin which been quite influential for me. The essay’s called The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. It’s about this idea that comes from this anthropologist who theorized that the first technology or tool was more likely to be a carrier bag to put things in, rather than a spear. Le Guin talks about that as this challenge to a dominant hierarchical structure of how we think about history and our relationship to other people. So, the carrier bag idea is very much like centring the relationships between everything and placing value on all the little things. She talks about how history is like this bag which a mom walks around with carrying her baby and picking up oats, weeds, herbs and all these things. Then she goes home and turns it into a meal. I think that anthropologists called Elizabeth Fisher.
But applied to music, I'm interested in that other way of thinking about technology, again, as this kind of thing that we relate to, in a more dynamic way, rather than something we control, which I think is just reality. And also, definitely in terms of music, making this idea of the instruments we use giving stuff back to us.
Well that’s a really long-winded answer to that one track. And some of them are just much more trying to explain or describe a feeling that the track gives. So like, Skiddiks doesn't mean anything. It was just a word that was used to describe how it sounded to me. [laughs] So it’s kind of a mix.
So, what's next for you? Have you been working on any other projects during this lockdown period?
I've actually got a couple of other releases that I am trying to get finished. They don't have plans yet. I've got a couple of different things, like more ambient stuff that I want to try and get out by the end of the year. I've got a project I'm working on for Runway Journal. It’s an experimental, online browser work that plays a lot with time and time stretching of music.
I'm actually doing a residency at MESS as well. I'm working there now as a studio supervisor, helping people out while they come in for sessions. So [when lockdown restrictions lift] I'll get to finish the residency and then there's some shows coming up later in the year and things like that as well.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me, it’s been a pleasure hearing about the process and thoughts behind Restless Abandon.
Restless Abandon is available to listen and to purchase on vinyl or digital via Bandcamp.
Words and Interview by Caitlin Bond