Concept, Appearance, Theory & Craziness - Meng Qi Interview
While analog and modular synths have been all the rage in recent times. There are other currents developing off the radar that are something completely different. One of them is Baltimore Maryland's Ciat-Lonbarde (CL) instruments. Conceived almost exclusively by Peter Blasser, he has created another universe in sound that can only be described as circuit bending meets modular, meets west coast, meets touch control.
With most of these ideas being open source. This realm of touchy-feely randomness has unleashed many new ideas that are being developed further by people such as Meng Qi. A CL player myself, it was in the Ciat-Lonbarde Addicts Facebook group that I first encountered Meng's work. Not content with the plethora of offerings already available. Meng has been instrumental in the DIY side of things. Producing small runs of PC boards for CL projects as well as creating new instruments of his own that use and, or supplement existing CL circuit designs.
What's quite interesting is I discovered that Meng was not just a DIY designer, he is an electronic musician, composer, visual artist and teacher working in Beijing, China. The things he builds are quite literally a reflection of his work as a contemporary Chinese artist. He's been able to leverage China's booming economy and leadership in manufacturing to create colorful, highly interactive synthesizers, controllers, and modules that are a hybrid of digital art and sound design.
I couldn't help getting to know more about his work and discovered a wide range of ideas. From small palm sized circuit based synthesizers to CV controllers as well interesting applications for Euroack modules and a wild percussion device you play with knobs and touch gestures. I reached out to Menq recently to ask him about his work and share some more on his background and work with instrument design, performing and electronic music in China.
Tell us about yourself and how you got involved with Electronic Music and building instruments?
I am Meng Qi and I started making electronic music around 2000 with computer, DAW and softsynths. I started building instruments around 2007 by soldering circuits from experimentalistsanonymous.com
What was your first experience with Electronic Music? Who or what music opened the door for you to this concept?
I remember the first EM album i listened to was "The Fat Of The Land" by Prodigy.
Did you have access to a lot of the Western music? What Electronic Music was available in in China?
Mainly through cracked tapes and CDs at that time. All sorts, they were imported as plastic trash for recycle so i guess it’s not based on music genre.
Can you tell us about the Electronic Music scene in China? Is the focus in Beijing, or can we find different things in different regions?
Still there is a bigger scene in big cities than other places I guess.
Why did you start building your own instruments and when?
There is an exclusive and prolonged relationship between traditional musicians and their "main instrument". Nothing comes close to expression at a virtuoso level. A result of a life time devotion and companionship. Finding this piece of instrument for myself, is my ultimate goal. Around 2007 I started building instruments.
How did you find out about Ciat-Lonbarde, and what was it about these devices that made you interested?
From the internet. At that time my enthusiasm got me browsing synth information non stop so I know every synth from every maker. Now my taste has narrowed down to very few aspects I care, changing from a horizontal / board to a vertical / deep search. Singularity is a nice word to describe my aesthetics. It's the concept, appearance, theory and craziness that drew me to CL designs.They were so new that no rules or methods of playing were set. Like a virgin land for musical expressions.
What do Peter Blasser's Ciat-Lonbarde devices offer that others do not?
Innovations. BTW there are also several other innovative designers. BTW it shares the same importance to offer and not to. His instruments are so loyal to his own theory, which offer absolute zero solutions. Not that I think it’s the best way to design instruments, but his spirit is the ultimate encouragement for all designers trying to be innovative.
When did you decide to use the Ciat-Lonbarde circuits for your own projects, what was the first one and how did people like it?
Never a decision, I just started playing with them. Gradually, I understand them better, then build new things to improve old ideas and experiment with new ideas. I forget. It may be rollz-5? It's lovely.
You have some very creative ideas for electronic instruments. How do you decide what you will make and design it for sale?
Thank you very much. My one-off units are seldom built to sell, I built them for myself to experiment with ideas, sold when I'm bored.
I see a lot of your designs are made in small quantities, sometimes just one. How do you choose if a project will be made for one or many people?
It's easy. If I use it, love it and/or it sells well I may build more.
What are some ideas that you have added to the Ciat-Lonbarde circuits that they didn't do before?
My works are all about interface.
When do you decide to make something as a desktop box and when do you design something a Eurorack module?
Modules offer functions. Standalone units also suggest workflows with dedicated interface and pre-wired routes. (with the exception that some modules are in fact standalone units packed in modular format) with modular I build tools, with standalone I build instruments.
What is the benefit of a desktop synth design compared with modular systems, and what are some problems?
There is no problems in the formats, and I accept all diversity of workflows from every musician. There is no right or wrong here and it's great. The problem is that most current standalone designs are bound with piano style keyboards, traditional signal chains, etc, effectively obeying standard workflows and current trend to be safe. They can sound great and useful, but they are boring. Think Buchla issued model 112 and 113 offering a non-traditional control layouts in the 1960's.
The Karp module with Chinese tuning for the string models is a great idea. What was your idea behind this, are there plans to incorporate more Asian music ideas?
That Chinese tuning was pretty easy to do, as I did it within 12TE, while the *real* traditional Chinese scale may be based on just intonation. I am not an expert of traditional Chinese music, but it's certainly part of me bound in my blood.
The Tetrax drum is a great idea. What are some of the new instrument ideas you would like to create in the future?
Thank you. It's based on my "gestural patching" idea, It's about adapting patching process of modular synth to playing interfaces. Thus players approach a technical method of signal routing with movements of body, grow muscle memory through practices, like with acoustic instruments.
Most of your designs appear to be be made for touching and live performance. What are the challenges for these instruments compared to ones made for programming in the studio?
Both ways of thinking would face challenges. I don't dare to say much about the programmed type because i haven't done much in this regard. Currently my favorite tool for it is teletype.
You are also a performing artist, what is the music like where you play and what kind of ideas do you want to share as a live artist?
Fruityspace / Meridian Space / DDC are some of the experimental music friendly venues in Beijing. It's been some time that my performances were more like demoing my instruments, as i didn't spent enough time to practice or compose on them. More time will be spent in music making.
Do you design and test your instruments in your shows and what things do you want to make for performance next?
Yes, ideas naturally come when I play them in a live situation. It's precious, because in a live situation you continue with whatever you just played or reactions from instrument, subconscious works a lot. It’s a similar situation with a tape machine, on which you can't undo anything. Believe me, a change in workflow like this, would change how your music sounds like.
Does making your own music influence your instrument designs?
Most definitely, I use solely my own feel and/or needs as the ruler for my works.
How would describe the kind of music you make and what are some of the things you want to do with music or sound on your albums?
Each musician has an angle to understand its works. For me it's depth of control, from total control, simple and direct, to full machine decision with me in the role of a listener, picking up graceful moments along its natural growth. From virtuosity on a single instrument, to coded generative events. I want them all. I love things that happen in absolute real time. As a partial engineer I gained some technical freedom for my music making process.
What is the future of DIY music instruments, do we have too many companies or is what you and others are doing just the beginning?
Future is wonderful. Synth market is having a good time now. I am happy to stay low and tiny, working out weird ideas, fulfilling my own needs and having fun playing. I know some behind the scene news from several great designers and I know they would fulfill my dreams this year.
We want to thank Meng for taking time to answer out questions. You can find more information about Meng Qi's work and follow his current projects at the following links: