There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers I Dream of Wires, which is streaming over at Netflix.
My girlfriend, having overheard all of Robert Fantinatto’s modular synth documentary I Dream of Wires from the kitchen of our small apartment, commented that this was the Watch The Tunes entry that “sounded the most like a documentary” and I can’t help but agree 100%. Sporting narration that felt remarkably warm and comforting given the comparative unflashiness of the musical instruments being discussed, this is a film that you could easily see being shown to a community college technology class on a rainy day by a lazy professor, which is somehow fitting given the oddball pocket-protector-clad seeds of modern synths.
I approached this film with next to zero knowledge of the inner workings of synths, and expected it to either be a jargon-dense next level trek down the nerdiest rabbit hole in music, or that it would be a fluffily superficial run down of oddly named musicians who rely on bleeps and bloops for their livelihood, but the end result was something that fell right smack dab between those two ends of the spectrum. Much like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, which pointedly included only a single equation in its pages (E = mc 2), I can thankfully only think of a few fleeting moments where I Dream of Wires flashes otherwise incomprehensible schematic maps, relying instead on lots of interviews with original inventors and musicians to frame the arc of its uniquely absorbing narrative.
The film does an excellent job of highlighting the roots of electronic music, which unexpectedly includes a fair amount of East Coast vs. West Coast beefing between synth pioneers Robert Moog (Columbia University) and Don Buchla (Berkeley), whose differences of opinion on form and function define much of I Dream Of Wires’ first half. There’s an early divide amongst electronic music pioneers, with some wanting to stretch music to its furthest conceptual points (Morton Subotnick's Silver Apples of the Moon), and others attempting to bend the music to more populist ends which were poo-poo’d by purists (Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach). It’s easy to write off all this as a pissing match between people privileged enough to be able to afford these massively expensive (and expansive!) machines, but this was the infancy of the medium where the smallest shifts in perception could have much larger implications down the line. I’ve seen some comments out there taking issue with how the film treats Wendy Carlos, but Fantinatto makes a compelling (if a shade pretentious) implication that the electronic music was hamstrung by the massive success of those mildly corny Bach albums.
The back half of the film follows the slow slide of synthesizers, through the rise of punk in the seventies and the arrival of cheap knock offs whose low price was matched only by the limited capabilities, and their eventual phoenix-like rebirth from the ashes. In fact, if it wasn’t for the Chicago and Detroit’s Acid House music scenes making waves across the midwest in the 80s, modular synths might’ve remained relegated to the filthy rich and music academia. The film brings everything up to the present day, where cost-cutting technological advancements and a loose sharing economy of intellectual properties have allowed knob-twiddlers and wire-jockeys to find their own nerdy niche. They might never break into the mainstream in a big way, but they’re clearly here to stay.
At just over an hour and a half, I Dream of Wires does an excellent job of diffusing any intimidation you might feel going in and succinctly capturing the history, internal conflicts, and current directions of this sub-sub-genre of sounds, and most miraculously never getting too bogged down in the hard science behind those wood and steel panels.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.
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