Synthcity: U-M professor Anıl Çamcı creates a virtual universe with sound


Anıl Camcı

Anıl Çamcı is a builder, but the materials he uses aren't wood and nails. The assistant professor of Performing Arts Technology at the University of Michigan creates worlds from soundwaves, constructing sonic cities with software and synthesizers.

This is Çamcı's first year teaching at U-M, coming from the University of Illinois at Chicago's Electronic Visualization Laboratory and, previous to that, Istanbul Technical University's Center for Advanced Studies in Music. But he's already managed to rework some of his compositions to take full advantage of the Chip Davis Technology Studio, a multimedia lab funded by the U-M grad and Mannheim Steamroller founder.

Located in the Earl V. Moore Building, the studio has a state-of-the-art surround-sound system, which Çamcı will explore with a free concert on Friday, Feb. 9. Dekagon: A Concert of Works by Professor Anil Çamcı will feature compositions from the past 10 years reworked for an immersive audio environment, plus a new piece, "A Now Unknown," which was composed on a Eurorack modular synthesizer over 18 months.

We spoke to Çamcı about his compositional process, the Chip Davis Technology Studio, and ways listeners can get lost in his imaginary landscapes.

Q: You're performing 10 works from the past 10 years but in a new format: live-diffused in multi-channel sound because of the Davis Technology Studio. How did the multi-channel approach and the access to the studio's technology change these works?
A: Composers of electronic/acousmatic music often shoot for a lowest common denominator in terms of sound systems so that their work can be easily integrated into different setups. That is unless the work is commissioned for a particular space, then they can basically treat that space very much like an instrument and structure their work accordingly. In addition to such multi-channel pieces that were originally commissioned for specific venues, some of the works that I am performing next week were composed in stereo with that compatibility mindset. But when you perform through a well-designed multi-channel speaker system in an acoustically treated space, even two channels, when live-diffused, can afford a lot of expressive possibilities with regards to spatial animation. Luckily, the Davis Technology Studio is one such space. It is part of the Brehm Technology Suite, which houses the Performing Arts Technology facilities at the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance. The studio is rigged with highly flexible audiovisual systems, so I was able to fine tune not only the works for the space but also the space for the works.

Q: You're going to perform a new piece, "A Now Unknown," composed on a Eurorack modular synthesizer. What gear do you typically compose with? Also, do you compose in a traditional sense -- notes on paper -- or is it something closer to graphic notation with specifications about the synthesizer settings?
A: I've been working with modular and non-modular hardware synthesizers for many years. But there is also the software paradigm, where you can design your own sound generators in virtually limitless ways. My composition practice heavily relies on this paradigm, in that, almost all of my works have a custom piece of software that underlies them. But the end result is often a combination of sources (e.g., sounds from a hardware synthesizer passed through a digital signal processing system, or digitally synthesized sounds passed through analog effects). What's unique about "A Now Unknown," besides it being my most recent composition, is that it was composed through a series of performances on my Eurorack synthesizer over the course of 18 months. The crops of these performances were mainly kept intact in the final composition. This was a different process than using a synthesizer primarily as a sound source, which you can then put through many processes in non-real time. When thought as a performance tool, the modular synthesizer gives you an extremely complex parameter space with almost no presets. You have numerous patch points and knobs all of which contribute to the sound output. A slight turn of a knob can flip the whole thing upside down. This adds a unique sense of immediacy to the composition process. The micro-structural qualities of the result is quite similar to my work that is composed entirely in software, but establishing a macro structure through a collage of performances certainly gave this work a distinct quality.

Q: Your music is abstract and granular, and it can swing from dense to minimal. What are some of the things you're trying to achieve in your music and what should listeners pay attention to?
A: In my composition practice, I am primarily interested in the act of worldmaking. I often explore where the audience and I are situated in relation to the implied universe of a piece. A piece can start off with the audience members positioned as the actors of a story that is unfolding before them; it can then suddenly put them outside of the story and have them peek in. That is why most of my pieces emerge from not only aural but also visual and kinesthetic narratives. I imagine worlds that encompass elements that, as you described, can be granular or dense, big or small, close or distant, and everything in between. This type of auditory complexity surrounds us in our everyday lives, and we have no trouble parsing dense streams of auditory information. I guess I could say, whether they are perceived as being more abstract or representational, my sounds draw a lot of inspiration from that kind of complexity. I would advise the listeners to let their imaginations run free as the sounds flow through them.

Q: When we spoke last fall, you mentioned you wanted your students to perform more in public. What are some reasons why you think this is important, and is your concert an encouraging nudge for them to strike out on their own and perform?
A: We have an extremely talented group of students with different skills and interests. And luckily, most of our students are adept at reaching out to the public with their work: a lot of them organize and participate in DIY events, and our graduates go on to become professional performers. But modern creativity, especially given how individualized technology has become, can easily turn into a solitary activity where no work is ever complete, and there is always another step toward perfection before a work can be made public. For me, an artwork is complete (or turns out to be incomplete) only when I experience it with, or better yet, through other people. This concert is part exercising this with my new work, and part greeting this community that I have recently become a part of. But as you mentioned, I also hope to encourage our students to put their work out there as much as they can.

Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Anıl Camcı performs "Dekagon: A Concert of Works" on Friday, Feb. 9, at 8 pm in the Earl V. Moore Building, Chip Davis Technology Studio, 1100 Baits Dr., Ann Arbor. The show is free. Visit for more info.