Photo: Paweł Brudło (An On Bast)
In the past decade, modular synthesizers made a surprising comeback on dancefloors everywhere. Looking back, it does make sense – against the backdrop of the glossy preset aesthetics that could be heard in both EDM bangers and underground-adjacent house music, modulars not only sounded more gritty, but also offered a more tactile, literally hands-on experience for producers. Turning knobs instead of pushing around coloured blocks on a laptop screen also, as many soon found out, looked a lot better on stage. Sometimes however it only did that – look good. As An On Bast, the Polish composer Anna Suda has been exploring the myriad possibilities of modular systems across an equally high numbers of genres. Her releases on many different labels, including her own Ghost Kitchen, range from dancefloor-ready house tunes to introspective ambient excursions. What they all share however is a sense of curiosity what those little machines that Suda has collected so many of can still offer beyond that. On her last album Coherent Excitations for the Cologne-based Modularfield imprint, she challenged herself by taking a live performance at the modular community’s annual gathering point Europe – Berlin’s Superbooth – as a starting point. Her contribution to the Groove podcast now was recorded at the first stop of the Coherent Excitations tour at another Berlin institution, the Watergate club. Over a little less than an hour, Suda proves again that her musical vision is inseperable from the modular synthesizers she uses, transforming the material on the fly, adjusting it for a fully packed room in the early morning hours.
As a kid, you played the piano but nowadays your instrument of choice is a modular synthesizer. How were you introduced to modular synthesis and what drew you to it?
I played the piano just because we had one in our family house and my Grandmother was playing it regularly, so I got a natural interest and was exploring the instrument on my own almost everyday. Next was the guitar and drums, electronic music instruments came later. It is funny but I can’t recall the first spark about modular synthesisers. I just remember myself watching demo videos of many, many modules some years ago. I remember my delight over the sounds I was hearing and I guess that drew me to it. Shortly thereafter, I got my first modules and that is how I added modular synthesisers to my studio instruments and a little bit later to my live set up.
You also give workshops on the subject. Which aspects are most important to you when you prepare for these workshops, and what are the essential tips you’d give to newcomers who don’t know where to start in the very broad field of modular synthesis?
I follow the path of self-discovery and experiments. I like to encourage people who come to my workshops to look for their own voice and not to copy others but instead to discover instruments on their own, sometimes against the main rules and uses. This is fun and touching the unknown territories is an adventure that in my opinion gives real pleasure in the world of sounds. Limitless possibilities now with technology are great for being infinitely creative. Technically, during the workshops on modulars or on Ableton, I explain the basics, which is a good starting point for that.
As a producer, you have been quite prolific ever since releasing your debut in 2006: apart from a slew of EPs, you have put out seven solo albums and a few collaborative LPs while playing live extensively. What role do these releases play in your work – are they documents of their specific time or do you approach them conceptually?
Yes, I would rather say the releases are documenting myself in a certain period of time, with a dose of concept of course every time. Especially albums always follow a certain idea, all tracks share the same story or offer the same experience in a different way. Playing live is very important to me, I love to share the energy with the audience no matter if it is an ambient set, an IDM concert or a club party. Playing live is always magical. For me, having some quiet time in my studio and performing live go together perfectly. I am happy to express myself with sounds and to connect with others this way. I am glad people experience something through my music.
Your latest record, Coherent Excitations, is based on a live performance you played at 2018’s Superbooth. How did it evolve into an album from there?
I performed at Superbooth a few times and was aware of what a unique experience that is, so each time I prepared something special for the occasion. This material was coming together mostly in the beautiful surroundings of Fuerteventura shortly after I got back from performing and recording the whole set in Berlin. Later I started to produce tracks using little pieces made for the concert. Modularfield was expecting an album from me already, so I presented it when I was done some months later, showing them by the way that I worked on the elements from concert preparations. They surprised me with the idea of releasing a live concept album rather than tracks made in the studio. At the same time I knew they were right about maintaining the live energy – plus all my albums released before were studio albums. Performing live plays a big role in my life as a musician, so it felt like the best idea at the moment.
While Coherent Excitations has been released through Modularfield, in the past, you have self-published your music through your own Ghost Kitchen label. However, the imprint seems to be inactive since 2017. Have you given up on releasing your music yourself and if so, why?
There was 2018’s Stay Super EP and at the beginning of 2020, my live performance from Unsound Festival 2011 was released. So no worries, Ghost Kitchen is alive! On the other hand, I have been releasing on other labels, too. Besides Modularfield, my tracks were lately released by Detroit Underground, Pets Recordings, Constant Circles, Piston, Ran Music, Shimmering Moods, Univack – all different labels from various genres. I was also busy with other projects, collaborations, making music for contemporary dance performances and films, was working on remixes or producing for other artists.
You have a passion for classical music and have re-interpreted the music of composers such as Igor Stavinsky or Krzysztof Penderecki. Just recently, you contributed a remix to a compilation that paid homage to the Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko. What role does classical music play in your life as a music fan and musician?
As I have mentioned before, I played the works of great composers on the piano as a child. For many years I also sang in an academic choir. I kind of had constant contact with classical music, but not through a classical education. It was more connected to subjective sensitivity and for sure it shaped my thinking and feeling about composing and producing music in a certain way. I am a law and philosophy graduate, there are definitely traces of that in my music. I always eagerly work on reinterpretations of classical works because it is such a unique experience to jump into a composer’s head, to feel what they felt, how they expressed that and how I want to say what I feel about it with music. It is more likely a dialogue through times, notes and sounds. A beautiful journey. As a fan, I don’t listen to too much music nowadays but if I do, it is mostly classical music.
Apart from that, you also do sound design for film or write music for performances or theatre, having recently contributed to the documentary Fashion In The Dark II and the dance piece Fearless by Gosia Mielech. How does this work differ from your approach when you’re in the studio working on An On Bast material?
I produce music and sound design for various projects. It differs very much as my music must fulfil the whole piece, amplify its meaning but not change it or take over. No matter if it is a whole theatre performance or a short movie, for me it is another kind of responsibility – knowing that music is only one of the layers that complement the story. It is also about understanding the main vision which usually is not mine and to express it the best I can with my sounds. It requires me to be open towards others people’s feelings and suggestions. I like to work like that as well, but it differs a lot from my solo work with An On Bast where the vision is completely mine and I follow it freely without looking at nothing and nobody.
Your contribution for our Groove podcast is a live set recorded at Berlin’s Watergate this January. How did the night go and what made you think that this particular recording was worth sharing afterwards?
Playing at Watergate is always a great pleasure. That was my first gig during the tour for my new album and it was very nice start performing my new material in front of a Berlin crowd with full floor and amazing feedback. I think that’s the perfect combination of good vibrations and I hope you will feel it, too. Great night!
Last but not least: Where can we see you live in the near future and what are your plans as a producer?
I continue my Coherent Excitations album tour in next months, mostly in clubs. I am happy that I have also ambient and experimental performances on my schedule and a special performance in Berlin just before Superbooth starts. As a producer there are a few releases on its way. Next coming is collab EP with Douglas Greed on the Katerblau label KIOSK I.D. Apart from new solo material, jazz trumpeter Maciej Fortuna and I are working on our next album with and a live ambient album with guitar player Maciej Pruchniewicz is also in the pipeline.
Stream: An On Bast – Groove Podcast 246
01. An On Bast – Bloom
02. An On Bast – Retro Most
03. An On Bast – Vibrations
04. An On Bast – Everyday Sunday
05. An On Bast – Collective
06. An On Bast – Processes
07. An On Bast – Don’t Wake Me Up
08. An On Bast – Internal Momentum
09. An On Bast – untitled
10. An On Bast – Field
11. An On Bast – Unknown Reflections
12. An On Bast – Offing