Lori Napoleon had never considered how early phone calls happened.
But years ago, while visiting a lighthouse on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, she saw the town's century-old telephone exchange. The odd arrays of knobs, lights, and buttons evoked the extravagant modular synthesizers of the sixties, which she'd studied at New York University. That connection became the basis of The Exchange, her latest work under the name Antenes.
"There was a back area that had all these old dinosaur synths," she remembers of the class. "Seeing the look of the Buchla synthesizer with the image of the switchboard that I was so attracted to, there was just something that clicked, that made sense to me."
Napoleon decided to convert those old switchboards into working modular synths, which she's bringing to Durham in conjunction with the art gallery The Carrack and Moogfest's Hacking Sound (Systems) series. Forget smartphone apps and laptop producers; in her personal confluence of circuit hacking and the history of electronics, Napoleon revivifies antique hardware, giving new life to obsolete machines.
A telephone exchange and a modular synth do roughly the same thing—they connect disparate sound sources. In fact, the enduring image of both is a thicket of patching cables.
Early-twentieth-century telephone exchanges required an operator to connect a caller with another person by physically moving cables. Each switchboard was a self-contained system, so placing a call outside of one system could require a lot of people and a lot of time.
Modular synthesizers operate on a similar principle: one part of the machine creates signals that are routed through different processing units before being sent to speakers. Many such chains—and, therefore, sounds—can run in parallel. Early modular synths, including those built by pioneers Robert Moog and Don Buchla, were complicated pieces of equipment, requiring multiple technicians to manage the numerous connections.
As Antenes, Napoleon uses her half-dozen switchboard synthesizers to evoke the crackle and hum of telephone wires and the buzzing warmth of synth explorers like Morton Subotnick or Delia Derbyshire, the creator of the original Doctor Who theme music. Her 2015 EP, The Track of a Storm, shows off her musical range: one side features static chopped over minimalist pulses, while the other is built around highly sequenced industrial beats that clatter and clang.
For Napoleon, the construction of these fascinating machines seems as important as their sounds. They are art objects and instruments. She tries to keep as much of the original hardware as possible, repurposing knobs and switches while replacing aging wires and adding new sonic circuitry. For one instrument, she gleefully points to noise generators that can produce sounds that range "from crisp snares and hi-hats to Niagara Falls and blustery stormy winds."
"Opening up an old switchboard always reveals sculpture-like wiring configurations and cryptic codes," she says.
A true tinkerer can turn anything into a synthesizer now. Japanese noise musician Merzbow built one from a fluorescent light ballast, while Wolf Eyes' John Olson uses a belt buckle synth. But Napoleon's approach of historic reconnection—of making a peculiar patch between two unexpected channels—draws attention to the past without being too nostalgic. She's the operator, then, connecting modern sounds with their primitive history.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Hello, Operator"