Phoenix Synthesizer Festival: A Place for Electronic Musicians to Show and Tell

Plug and play: This is the kind of thing you can expect to see and hear at the 2019 Phoenix Synthesizer Festival
Plug and play: This is the kind of thing you can expect to see and hear at the 2019 Phoenix Synthesizer Festival
Christopher Scinto
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When it comes to interacting with art in a gallery, we’re often bound by the immutable laws of strip club etiquette: “Look, don’t touch.” Even when we’re in the presence of a piece of installation art that invites the user to monkey with it, that “don’t touch” imperative is hard to shake.

Which is probably why so many people walked past the PLAY installation stationed near the entrance at Paradise Valley Community College’s 2016 Experimental Arts Festival. Composed of a theremin and a chained series of guitar effects pedals that could alter the instrument’s sounds, it was made for people to play.

I’ve got no qualms with messing with installation art, so I spent a good chunk of that festival manically swatting the air over the PLAY theremin, delighting in all the goofy UFO sounds and sci-fi warbling it produced. It was on that day I grasped the hands-on appeal of electronic music: While it requires skill and compositional savvy to make a good tune, most synths and electronic instruments can still produce fun and interesting noises for musically inept boobs like yours truly. Give a random yahoo a stylophone and they may stumble onto a neat tone; give the same yahoo a violin and you’re probably gonna get a lot of nails-on-chalkboard noises.

PVCC has been a supporter of experimental and electronic music in the Valley for years. The community college has hosted concerts by new music ensembles like Crossing 32nd St. and pincushioned, staged performances of pieces by seminal avant-garde composers like Iannis Xenakis, and even brought on visiting ASU musicians to bang out a three-piece piano composition while hunched over brightly colored toy pianos. While they haven’t done an Experimental Arts festival in a couple of years, they’re still creating a space for appreciating electronic music and getting hands-on with their Phoenix Synthesizer Festival.

A collaboration between PVCC’s Commercial Music Program and the Phoenix Synthesizer Group, the all-day festival is part show-and-tell trade show and part concert. The festival is an outgrowth of the work that the Phoenix Synthesizer Group, which maintains an active Facebook presence, has been doing in the Valley.

Ed Kennedy is one of the organizers behind the Synthesizer Group. “It was on Meetup for a while. We used to have a few meetings a year,” Kennedy says. “They have a trade show sort of feel, kind of show-and-tell. Everyone would bring out their weird synthesizers and set ’em up so enthusiasts could walk around and talk to people about their instruments and share their own.”

Tony Obr's modular synth rig. Obr teaches electronic music at PVCC and is heavily involved with Phoenix Synthesizer Festival.EXPAND
Tony Obr's modular synth rig. Obr teaches electronic music at PVCC and is heavily involved with Phoenix Synthesizer Festival.
Lynn Trimble

The Synthesizer Group began incorporating live performances at their events as they grew in size, thanks in part to generous sponsorships from local businesses like Audio Damage (whose co-owner, Chris Randall, is an OG electronic musician who was on the Wax Trax! label back in the day). The meetings grew to the point that the Synthesizer Group began seeking out larger venues to hold their show-and-tells.

“We did one of our meets at Unexpected Gallery back in 2017 and then in 2018 we did one at PVCC,” Kennedy says. Part of what makes the Synthesizer Group meetings so dynamic is the wide range of backgrounds and instruments that come together and intermingle.

“You’ve got people who’ll show up with their $50 Casios, and then you’ll also get people with these enormous, $50,000 synthesizers that they’ve spent years creating,” Kennedy says. “So it’s a really nice mixture of people who are brand new to making electronic music and people who’ve been doing it for four decades.”

The group’s festival at PVCC last year ended up exceeding everyone’s expectations. “Shortly after we did it, my director at PVCC said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it again,’” Tony Obr says. The electronic musician who records under the handle Tsone is also a faculty member at PVCC and has been an active participant in the Valley’s electronic and avant-garde communities.

“I teach all the electronic music classes, along with sound design — sound design for film and video games,” Obr says of his role at the community college. “I also direct an experimental electronic music ensemble.”

Obr’s involvement in the Synthesizer Festival makes perfect sense, considering the hands-on nature of some of his classes. “Students will end up kind of building instruments, or modify and augment things they’re already working on. One year they built a bunch of low-powered synthesizers: just really cheap, battery powered synths from scratch. They built the circuits from scratch.”

This year’s festival will feature a similar mix of show-and-tell and live performances, but they’re also adding a few new wrinkles. “This year we’re going to be doing workshops, so during the day we’re doing to have workshops going on in a room adjacent to where the festival is happening,” Obr says. The festival will also be screening Patch CV — The Modular Synthesis Revolution, a documentary focusing on the rapidly growing Modular Synthesis movement.

When asked why PVCC has played such an active role in the electronic and new music scenes in the Valley, Obr credits it to the faculty’s extracurricular involvement in those worlds.

“It’s this sort of perfect confluence of weirdo musicians that teach there,” Obr says. “Everyone there is just kind of on board with this sort of experimental music. Even our director, Christopher Scinto: He’s very supportive of letting us get weird there.”

Phoenix Synthesizer Festival. 2 to 10 p.m. Saturday, February 9, at Paradise Valley Community College, 18401 North 32nd Street; facebook.com/pvccfinearts. Admission is free.

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