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September 28, 2023

AIL Open Seminars #001

We’re excited to announce a series of open seminars that will be live-streamed on our YouTube Channel.

For our first seminar, Eliot Bates will be joining us from The Graduate Center (City University of New York) on October 6th. Eliot Bates is an ethnographer who researches the interface between people and sound/music technologies, and they will be speaking on their recent work on modular synthesizers and the cultures surrounding them.

Title: Interfacing Gear Cultures: A Critical Organology of Modular Synthesis
Time: 11am, Friday, October 6th
URL: YouTube Livestream

If you are in London and would like to join in-person please email j.m.shier at

Modular synthesizers, a family of technological objects that when assembled constitute bespoke musical instruments, have existed since the 1950s but gained widespread popularity in the 2000s. Obsolete, expensive, bulky, temperamental, difficult to use, and often struggling to produce a compelling musical sound, it would seem to be a mystery why today there would be any interest in hardware modular synthesizers. A critical organology of these objects aims to situate them as sociocultural actors, and to understand the differential ways that they serve in social formations. One key flashpoint concerns instrumental interfaces, where what begins as an individual problem (the ludic potential imparted by a module’s look coupled with the knob’s haptic response) quickly becomes a social problem (the main glue of message forum and Discord channel discussions). Departing from prior critical organology studies, as I will show, the “music” produced with modular synthesizers is a far less significant factor in producing social effects than their status as gear: as a particular class of fetishized objects that mediate power relations within networks of conspicuous consumption.

Eliot Bates (they/them), Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at The Graduate Center (City University of New York), is an ethnographer who researches the interface between people and sound/music technologies—including their design, materiality, instrumentality, and cultural milieus. An ethnomusicologist by training (Ph.D., UC Berkeley), from 2004-2016 they researched these within Istanbul’s recording studios, instrument-building factories and music industries. Since 2013, their work has geographically broadened to consider European and North American gear cultures. Gear: Cultures of Music and Audio Technologies, co-authored with Samantha Bennett, will come out next year on MIT Press, and Eliot is currently writing a book on post-1995 modular synthesis gear cultures.       In parallel to this textual ethnographic work, Eliot continues to be active in studio-based creative work, whether collaborative recordings featuring the oud, or microtonal makam-based electronic music productions as the artist Makamqore and as half of the duo Manifestoon Platoon. They have contributed, as either performer, composer, or recordist/engineer, to more than 90 albums produced in the US, UK, Turkey and Italy, as well as several TV series and feature films.