Last summer (July 2021), Katie Stelmanis, who performs as Austra, invited me to give a modular synth lesson as part of a mentorship program for Venus Fest, a Toronto-based music festival and concert series for women. At the time, Katie was renting a small music studio on Queen St West, and I brought a small modular synth case and met with both Katie and Shanika Maria (shn shn). I spent the first hour introducing and demonstrating modular synth basics, and then encouraged Katie and Shanika to explore and engage with the modular system on their own. We also discussed our shared experiences, as queer women and as women of colour, of not knowing where to find or how to access safe, affinity spaces to learn about synthesis and electronic music production. We all agreed that despite the increasing number of music festivals, conferences, and community events for women musicians (such as Venus Fest), there is still a lack of diversity among the most visible and prominent practitioners of electronic music, and particularly of modular synthesis. After 3 hours of learning and exploring, we discussed whether there was a way for more opportunities to meet like this, and to possibly invite more women of colour and queer/trans/gender-non-conforming artists to join the space. I mentioned my informal lesson with Katie and Shanika to Dr. Jason Nolan, and he suggested that I host future meetups at the ReLab, since through our modular synth research for educational environments, the lab has acquired a fair amount of modular synths for learning and community outreach. It has also been one of the lab’s mandates to offer its resources under the principles of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Since then, I have hosted two informal modular meet-ups at the ReLab (Oct & Nov 2021), with a third one planned for April. Participants have included prominent Toronto-based artists including Korea Town Acid (Jessica Cho), Cindy Li (DJ Ciel), WeTurnToRed (Shamanta Chandran), Efemmera (Sofia Luu), members of the Polaris Prize-nominated, all-women Philipino Kulintang ensemble Pantayo, and Montreal-based artist Tess Roby. Both of the sessions lasted about four hours, with a focus on letting the participants freely experiment and play with various modular systems as total beginners, to ask questions, and to network with one another. Even though most participants already make music and engage with music technologies, the modular synthesizer is still a new medium for them, and many of them have expressed the difficulty in finding what they felt was a safe, non-judgemental space to learn in.
For the upcoming meet-up in April, I decided to invite additional mentors into the space: Lex Metcalfe and Cayce Fischer, two Toronto-based modular artists. After leading the past few sessions, I felt that the participants can benefit from additional voices and approaches and teaching styles. Modular synthesis is a particularly flexible and subjective kind of instrument, and it has always been a goal of mine to bring in additional instructors and mentors, and to create more networking and engagement opportunities among women and queer/trans/gender-diverse artists.
About the blogger:
Heidi Chan is currently Lab Technician and Graduate Researcher at ReLab. She has been exploring the modular synthesizer for the past 7 years, and is committed to giving back to the electronic music and synthesis community through facilitating workshops and creating safe and accessible spaces for marginalized communities. Heidi also plays bamboo flutes (shinobue, dongxiao), and creates sound design and music for live theatre.
shn shn: https://www.shn-shn.com/
Korea Town Acid: https://open.spotify.com/artist/5e0hjqvvs8KMGx3tE8h7Tf
Tess Roby: https://tessroby.com/