Reclaiming Public Space: Modular Synth Music Along The L.A. River

I had been hearing about these experimental synthesizer jams on the river for over a year now, but it took me a long time to finally catch a Thursday evening session. So I invited a few friends to check it out, and as we followed the GPS coordinates to the spot—on the east bank of the Los Angeles river—everyone is settling in for the event to begin. Then the cops come through. They casually break up the party, before anything really gets going.

I try again the following month, and this time it goes smoothly and confirms that these Modular On The Spot parties are a happening in the purest Allan Kaprow sense of the word. Several musicians come together each month to improvise on their modular synthesizers somewhere on the L.A. River.

There is no money, no promoter in the classic sense, no bar. No app or energy drink or booze or other corporate underwriter. The location is only revealed a couple days in advance via their Instagram. Anyone is allowed to play. For me, it’s one of a few tiny gestures where the citizens are allowed to use public space for new contexts in a city where space is so highly politicized.

Modular On The Spot was co-founded by partners Eric Cheslak (aka Rodent) and Bana Haffar two years ago, and is an inherently L.A. proposition meeting at the intersection of our good weather, our fertile electronic underground culture, and stoney eastside art hangs.

I met with Haffar at a coffee shop in Lincoln Heights to learn more about how it all came together.

Before you got into the bloops and bleeps, you came from more of a rock-leaning background, right?

I was a bass player, more of a session player. I had to be more of a shapeshifter and go with whatever the artist was. I did that professionally for about 10 years and then got burned out. A lot of touring. Everything from rock to hip hop to pop to Jpop to country to Persian music.

Where are you from originally?

I was born in Saudi Arabia, but I’m not Saudi. I’m Lebanese-Argentine-Palestinian, kind of a mix of everything.

When did you come to L.A.?
I’ve been here about nine years.

Playing bass brought you out here?

Yeah, music brought me to L.A.

And your partner Eric, he’s from…
D.C. He came out here to photograph skaters.

When did you and Eric start the Modular events?
About two years ago. We were on a camping trip, and Eric always travels with a generator to shoot his skateboarding stuff for his flashes and stuff. And he said, “Oh, we should bring our modular synths out here to Arizona and just jam out in the desert.” And I thought, “that’s an awesome idea.” After we did that a couple of times, we realized this would be a good thing to do in the city, just to have a free event outdoors.

Can you explain what modular synthesizers are?
Eric had been into synthesizers for many, many years. I dunno, maybe 20 years? He’s like an old school synth nerd. He knows a lot about keyed synths. Then he got into modular synths like four years ago. I’m a lot newer. I had been playing around with keyed, monophonic synths to step up my bass playing game, but he was the one who got me into modulars and the eurorack.

Basically, what a modular synthesizer is is the same as a regular synth but without the black and white keys. It would be like if you took all the internal components of a synth and put them on the exterior. And you have to physically connect one component to the other to make a sound.

You have to connect your oscillator—which is your primary tone source most of the time—to your amplifier or your filter, depending on how you want to chain it. But you physically have to patch it all together.

That’s what all the wires you see popping out are. The signal just travels through that path that you’ve built?
Yeah, it’s a signal path or chain that’s fully modular. So you’re not stuck in the confines of what typical synthesizers box you into.

It gets boring when you just hear the same stock sounds on record after record.
Yeah, it’s a reaction against the presets. It’s about having more control of the signal path. It’s about not getting stuck in the standard synthesis chain, which is an oscillator into a filter and amp. You can totally mangle the signal chain and plug anything into anything. It might not always sound good, but the fun is really trying to search for unique sounds and unique timbres. And the mod synths offer endless possibilities.

The first MOTS I went to was busted up before it got going.
[laughs] Yeah, that’s part of the risk of doing things without permits.

It’s great that it’s free. That probably frees you from making shitty compromises in the effort to leverage a profit, because this is a side project, right?
This is totally a side thing. We’re both very busy people otherwise. We don’t have any marketing besides posting a flyer on Instagram two days before. We don’t have a lot of time and effort to make this like a really “produced” event, as you probably saw. It’s a group of friends, and it’s cool that other people come. But we’d probably do it if it was just our five friends, you know? The idea is come down and come check out what the performer is doing. Ask questions when they’re done.

I heard there are some other events in other cities.
Other people have taken it upon themselves. Eric really encouraged other people to do this in other cities. Get a generator and some speakers. Someone did one in Chicago, actually several in Chicago. In Seattle, Portland, San Francisco.

The only thing we ask is three things: it’s free. It’s outdoors. And that it’s modular synths only. I have nothing against laptops and drum machines, but this kind of evens the playing field.

"It's a reaction against the presets."

So anybody with their own rack can come play?
Yes, anybody who has a modular synth can come play, even if they started last week.

Are there any favorite performers you particularly enjoyed?
I love seeing the manufacturers perform. Luckily a lot of manufacturers of eurorack modules like Noise Engineering and Qu-Bit and Make Noise. Tony Rolando, the founder of Make Noise, also played. It’s cool to see them perform and use their own gear—modules they engineered themselves plus modules from other manufacturers—and get behind the mind of the designer and see how they’d patch their own systems. And the first-timers, the people who have never performed in their life, are also great to see.

It’s an open-minded crowd.
It’s the most open-minded. They’re outdoors and want to listen to something fresh. There are no preconceived notions of what they want to hear. I love it when people bring kids and dogs. And you’ve got the ambient noise of the city: the freeway and the birds. It works for this type of music which is more experimental and open. It’s also more comfortable as a listener to be sitting down or laying down listening to more ambient music—versus standing in the club listening to a four-hour modular performance. I feel like clubs—unless you’re dancing—it’s not the right context for this medium.

That and clubs are driven to make you drink.
The music becomes a delivery system for alcohol. We really love the setting of the river. It’s dark. The performer’s relaxed. No one can really see them, and it doesn’t matter anyway. People are comfortable and in a receptive state.

Tell me about getting busted.
The Santa Monica Mountains Rangers shut us down. They were there to break up some homeless encampments or something like that. I later found out they had no jurisdiction over the area anyway. They just happened to be there policing the homeless and asked us if we had a permit, blah blah blah.

Lame. Usually the rule with throwing unofficial events is that if you’re not pissing anyone off (i.e. babies and families nearby), then you won’t get into any trouble. And you guys don’t go late.
We end pretty early. And we do it in areas where there are no houses around. It’s an abandoned industrial area that isn’t being used for anything anyway. Northeast L.A. is pretty expansive, and there are a lot of little pockets that aren’t being used. It’s so cool to use the existing infrastructure to present something different.

We have a very clean, in-and-out operation. When the performances are done, people come down and ask questions for like forty-five minutes or so. It’s a mix of a house party vibe and a group study session.

Are you and Eric L.A. lifers at this point?
I don’t know. Being from the Middle East, I’m just used to instability and moving, so I don’t understand the concept of stability because I’ve never experienced it. So looking too far in the future is too crazy of a concept for me. L.A. is a very dynamic city and has become even more dynamic with the development of its micro-scenes. It’s just becoming less affordable, but those things seem to go hand-in-hand.

Modular On The Spot is every third Thursday of the month.