Synth explorer PulseWidthMod makes a record about the uprising
By By Brandon Soderberg
Baltimore City Paper|
Sep 30, 2015 at 3:00 AM
Two days before Freddie Gray's death, Maeghan Donovan, who records sprawling synthesizer excursions as PulseWidthMod, began her album about the Baltimore Uprising—she just didn't know it yet.
At a pre-party for the dance event Vague Output on April 17, Donovan wove a sample from the trailer to the upcoming "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" movie—an ominous voice declaring, "There's been an awakening, have you felt it?"—around a bed of pulsing percussion, moaning electronic drones, and damaged bleeps and bloops, crafting an instrumental that would later on capture the mood and tenor of Baltimore in late April.
Something was already in the air before Gray's death following the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and her Vague Output performance was a way to abstractly characterize the rumblings of a second civil rights movement.
"I had been feeling it for years," Donovan, a retro-futurist composer who totally looks and acts the part—rocking a stellar side shave and constantly vaping during our conversation, she recalls some hacker anti-hero from a lost cyberpunk classic—told City Paper over the summer at a Remington coffee shop. "['An Awakening'] captures all the feelings I'd been having." Donovan adds that she "has trouble finding the right words" to articulate her feelings about race in this country right now but through these sprawling tracks she could make a statement.
Donovan recorded a version of the live composition 'An Awakening' in her home studio and posted it to SoundCloud, where it spread around the city along with other local uprising tracks such as Dboi Da Dome's 'Fuck 12' and Old Lines' 'Midnight In Baltimore.' After that, Donovan began crafting "#fearwillkeepthelocalsystemsinline" (which, full disclosure, uses a photo by Photo Editor J.M. Giordano for its cover art), an eight-track, improvised electronic album full of unease, anger, nervous excitement, and hope as it pertains to the uprising. It was released for free in June.
Like 'An Awakening,' the tracks that make up the rest of the album are also culled from ideas explored during that April 17 set. She took improvisations from that evening, "polished them up," and mixed in samples from the news and other loaded audio clips: 'Broken Record Shot By Cupid's Arrow' uses the infamous "I'm mad as hell" speech from "Network"; 'Governments Are Afraid' samples fringe journalist Graham Hancock ("This is what the governments are afraid of: they are afraid of a citizenry that is fully conscious, they actually want us to be unconscious"); 'We Are Home' samples Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake talking about the National Guard and announcing the curfew, Tawanda Jones telling police they murdered her brother Tyrone West (who died in police custody in 2013), and news reports quoting Michael Wood's whistle-blowing tweets from May about police brutality.
In front of a crowd or in her home studio, Donovan records her tracks live, usually in one take. It's closer to how a jazz musician might perform or record than a brainy electronic producer, though it's a fitting way to sonically explore the uprising. Composing in real time is an apt metaphor for political unrest and indeed, the uprising itself, which often felt out of control, open to chance, and on the verge of chaos. Donovan's work, then, is like the musical equivalent of a protest sprinting downtown ahead of the police, figuring itself as it goes along, dodging cars, growing in numbers.
"#fearwillkeepthelocalsystemsinline" also enters a long tradition of electronic music as protest music. Although Donovan grew up on the synth pop of Depeche Mode and New Order and heady dance groups such as Orbital and Nine Inch Nails, on "#fearwillkeepthelocalsystemsinline" she's tapping into the revolutionary robot music of Detroit techno, in which conceptual knob-twiddlers such as Drexciya and Underground Resistance made harsh but dance-floor-friendly tracks that also functioned as sonic catalysts for change.
The album details "the narrative of what went down here," Donovan says, but the samples also give the record an autobiographical edge. Donovan, who lives in the county, witnessed much of the unrest from home, on social media. It is a way of acknowledging her distance and coming to terms with it.
"I sat on my couch watching the news feed, paralyzed," she recalls. "But this album isn't about me, it's about Baltimore and the beautiful people that are being dictated, oppressed, and terrorized. The police and government terrorize the residents. So yeah, it's not about me. It's for them."