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Thomas Ankersmit’s love for the Serge synthesiser

Working almost exclusively with the instrument for over fifteen years, Ankersmit has attained a scholarly and near-alchemical knowledge of the iconic modular Serge synthesiser. Before his Rewire 2023 performance and his synthesis workshop in the context programme, he shares his love for the iconic instrument. “I don’t think I “gained mastery over it” yet, but maybe that’s part of the appeal.”

With the upcoming 50th anniversary in 2023 of the Serge synthesiser, developed by Russian American composer and electronic instrument builder Serge Tcherepnin, the work of Berlin-based sound artist Thomas Ankersmit is revelatory. He’s been so intimately familiar with the instrument and has fully incorporated it in his studio work and live performances. During Rewire 2023, he performs with only his Serge, deploying the instrument for the composition of imaginary spaces through sound, or perhaps to create what Ankersmit calls “a cinema for the ears”. Ankersmit is also slated to give a workshop about the Serge Synthesiser, giving participants a look under the hood of this powerful musical device. 

How would you describe the Serge synthesiser, in terms of its sonic, textural and haptic characteristics? 

The Serge is an analog modular synthesizer originally developed in the 1970s, around the same time as the Moog, ARP and Buchla synths for example. It’s still made according to Serge Tcherepnin’s original designs today, with some small updates. The design is very open and geared towards sound-experimentation, I think. It’s also very precise and clean-sounding for an analog synth. It’s very welcoming to non-standard sound design — including very raw, complex, noisy stuff — but it can also produce very delicate sounds. And of course, like all analog instruments, you can build up a kind of muscle memory with it — going by your ears and the feeling of your hands on the controls, without having to look at a screen.

What aspects of the Serge synthesiser initially attracted you to picking it up, studying it and gaining mastery over it? 

It was US composer and installation artist Maryanne Amacher (1938-2009) who initially suggested I check out the Serge, sometime in the early 2000s. She knew I was interested in analog synthesis and she had a close relationship to the Tcherepnin family, even before Serge developed his synthesizer. The first time I really spent with the instrument was as a “visiting artist” at CalArts during a few weeks in 2005. I was immediately attracted to its detailed, direct sound and the openness of the design — and just how much sound-mangling power you could fit into a small box, which is important to touring musicians of course. It was this sense that doing something uncommon (like using the EQ module as a feedback synthesizer with various other modules in its signal path, creating kind of insect-like buzzes, each a little different from each other) was just as much on offer as doing something traditional (like sending an oscillator into a filter and controlling it with an LFO). I don’t think I “gained mastery over it” yet, but maybe that’s part of the appeal.

How long did you work with the Serge before you started to feel comfortable performing with it?
A few years. In the early days I was combining the Serge with computer and saxophone, so I had different tools to dig around with. In recent years it’s been just the Serge (often combined with pre-recorded Serge sounds when I play live, to create more layers).

What are some of the possibilities that excite you when working with this synthesiser and how do those possibilities relate to the limitations or shortcomings of the Serge that you need to work around with? 

On the Serge, more than on almost any other synthesizer, everything can be connected to everything. The “banana” cables that it uses can be stacked on top of each other, so that each input and output can be connected to multiple other modules. So you can create a complex web of connections; it’s kind of non-linear. I’m always looking for these kind of ways to mess with the signal. Adding glitches, little touches of feedback or randomness, stuff like that. I kind of fetishise the sense of depth and detail that one finds in natural sound (say, the crackling of a fire or of walking over twigs). But of course it’s both a purely electronic instrument and an analog one. You can’t write new code for it — it’s a finite device. The other thing is that — unlike with today’s Eurorack modulars — there aren’t any new modules to buy. So you’re stuck having to find ways to use what you have. It took me years to find uses for the delay module for example, because I’m not into echo effects, but now I use it all the time. 

I guess that’s the cool thing about it, and probably something that many people who focus on one instrument feel; this sense of a long-term exploration, where it’s actually quite satisfying to realise you won’t exhaust its possibilities during your lifetime.

Thomas Ankersmit will host the Sounding with the Serge Modular workshop on Friday 7 April. Tickets for the workshop are available through the following link.