Modulations | Press


"Modulations makes a persuasive case that today's music of the future is more than just a fad."-- Vibe

"Modulations is an invaluable primer that begins to make sense of a rapidly changing sonic world that in many people's minds is only a grating, intimidating jumble of unwelcome noise." -- New York Times

"[Lee's] expertly conceived and executed film is sure to be a staple in the collection of the electronic music movement's growing legion of worshipers." -- Sundance Film Festival

" A technophile's wet dream..." -- Details

Ethan Brown

The Hype: " Modulations celebrates, replicates, and illuminates the nomadic drift of the posthuman techno sound." Is DJ Spooky moonlighting as their publicist?

The Truth: A technophile's wet dream, Modulations delves deep into the genre's history, though the film's nonlinear, cutup narrative style may baffle the uninitiated.

NEW YORKER | 09/07/98
James M. Keller

Iara Lee's compelling documentary chronicles how sound technology has eclipsed traditional modes of performance in much recent pop music. Without passing aesthetic judgments, Lee focuses on how the manipulation of sound has allowed DJs and sound mixers to fill the spot once reserved for composers, sometimes with impressive creativity."Electronic music is the hot-rodding of the nineties," declares synthesizer pioneer Robert Moog, and the film's hyperactive editing, by Paula Heredia, underscores the visceral thrill his comment implies. To anyone who's been engrossed in the pop scene for the past three decades, this should prove a nostalgic, and often enlightening, hip-hop down memory lane. But music lovers not drawn to youth culture should check it out, too: in a mere seventy-five minutes they'll get a beautifully crafted precis of sonic experimentation and will sustain no hearing loss in the process.

NEW YORK TIMES | 09/04/98
Stephen Holden
'Modulations': The Sounds of Music: Whoosh, Buzz, Click . . .

Early in "Modulations," a sprawling, informative documentary survey of electronic music, one of dozens of talking heads compares its invention to the splitting of the atom. The cutting up and reassembling of sound, he suggests, is the sonic equivalent of rearranging matter. Another pundit goes further by declaring that all sound modified by an electronic device, be it a microphone, a radio or a phonograph, is in fact electronic music.

Such intriguing concepts, many of them offered by nightclub disk jockeys, remixers and turntable virtuosos, fly around "Modulations," which was directed by Iara Lee, the Brazilian filmmaker responsible for "Synthetic Pleasures," a much talked about study of artificial landscapes. The movie opens today at the Quad Cinema.

The portrait of electronic music presented by "Modulations" focuses more on its pop manifestations than on its "classical" side, although the composers Karlheinz Stockhausen (who observes that there is "no absolute silence in the world") and John Cage are heard from. As the movie winds its circuitous way through a jungle of beats, clicks, buzzes, whooshes and scratches, it offers an informal but densely packed technological history of electronic sounds and styles.

The techniques of cutting and pasting sounds that are now done digitally predate the digital age. The producer Teo Macero, who worked extensively with Miles Davis, remembers assembling and editing sounds in the studio by laboriously snipping and reattaching fragmentsof audio tape.

Robert Moog, who invented one of the most popular synthesizers, discusses the dual uses of the instrument as an imitator of acoustic instruments and as a generator of brand-new sounds. He says he never intended the synthesizers to be used as an orchestral substitute.

Due respect is paid to Giorgio Moroder, the disco producer whose groundbreaking hit for Donna Summer, "I Feel Love," was almost entirely electronic, except for the voice and a bass drum. The German group Kraftwerk is also frequently mentioned as having paved the way for electronic dance music with its hugely influential 1977 album "Trans-Europe Express." The evolution of more recent electronically oriented dance styles, like "house" and its derivatives, is remembered by the producers and disk jockeys in Chicago, Detroit and London who invented and promoted them. We learn, among other things, how the sound known as "acid house" evolved from a piece of outdated equipment that produced a particular sound effect, a spiraling buzz, that came to define the style.

Others talk about the intimate relationship between drugs and electronics in nightclub dance music, and the systematic disorientation that various combinations of drugs and sounds can induce. One observer says that an ominous, despairing, subgenre of dance music was developed to express the negative feelings experienced by a group of clubgoers who were long-term abusers of the drug Ecstasy.

And what is the optimum pulse for keeping the patrons of a dance club on their feet all night long? "Modulations" tells us it is 133 beats a minute. Anything faster tends to exhaust people.

As informative as it is, "Modulations" isn't terribly well organized. And when it tries to find trippy visual equivalents for the weird sounds and beats, it comes up short. Still, despite its shortcomings, "Modulations" is an invaluable primer that begins to make sense of a rapidly changing sonic world that in many people's minds is only a grating, intimidating jumble of unwelcome noise.


With Modulations, her second film in three years in competition at Sundance, Iara Lee is quickly becoming the authoritative cinematic voice for a subculture whose nucleus is electronic music. Created by computer artists who manipulate sampled sounds with synthesizers, and performed on turntables at after hours "raves" and parties by disk jockeys, electronic music is as much a state of being as it is entertainment. Modulations intersperses artful imagery with talking-head interviews and party and club footage to examine the historical development of electronic music and explore the philosophy of its young audience. The film, like the music, is multilayered in ways that go much deeper than what can be casually observed. Lee captures the sort of visceral images only available to an insider. Originally conceived as underground gathering places, an increasing number of raves are now organized by commercially driven entrepreneurs. Lee traces the tribal roots of such styles as "house," "acid," "ambient," "Detroit," and "German drum and bass." Further, she examines the influence of artists like Kraftwerk and Afrika Bambaataa on the music, and assesses the impact of John Cage, whose early work, with its use of mechanical and background noise, seeded the creation of today's electronic music. Using interviews with the scene's most respected and influential players and clips from performances in the key hubs of the United States, Germany, Japan and Great Britain, Lee conveys the expansive reach of this constantly morphing art form. Her expertly conceived and executed film is sure to be a staple in the collection of the electronic music movement's growing legion of worshippers.
-Trevor Groth

Thoroughly Modulated Iara Lee
`Synthetic Pleasures' filmmaker returns with new documentary
Laura Evenson, Chronicle Staff Writer

Independent filmmaker Iara Lee could be a poster girl for the jet-setting party crowd she chronicles in her new film, "Modulations.''
She has just flown into San Francisco from New York, plans to jet out to Seattle in a few hours for cellular phone mogul John McCaw's engagement party, and the next day retreat to Montana with her husband, George Gund, chairman of the San Francisco Film Society and part owner of the San Jose Sharks. Lee's weekend travels look like a short sprint compared to last year's marathon, when she zigzagged through 30 countries to gather material for "Modulations.''

"I'm so busy that when I'm in the taxi on the way to the airport I often have to open the ticket to see where I'm going next,'' says Lee, 32.

She doesn't mind the hustle. "With work and pleasure there is no distinction for me,'' says the filmmaker, whose oversize orange-tinted glasses and pulled-back black hair make her look a bit like a young Yoko Ono.

Last year, Lee launched a record label that has since turned out 13 albums, primarily of the avant-garde electronic music featured in "Modulations'' and her first documentary, "Synthetic Pleasures.'' She's also creating photography books based on her films.

"Modulations,'' which opens Friday, is a crash course on the evolution of music made by machine. Encompassing disco, house, techno, hip-hop, ambient, and drum 'n' bass, it puts music in context as both a reflection and a shaper of culture.

Like "Synthetic Pleasures,'' which looked at artificial environments, "Modulations'' is an often-jarring collage of interviews, visuals and shots of live performances. She edited 300 hours of video and film footage to make the 74- minute film. "Music is our social mirror. It reflects and refracts what's going on in the culture,'' says DJ Spooky, a New York avant- garde composer who appears in the film. "The great thing about the way Iara rapidly moves through images is that it parallels the sense of surfing, whether online or on TV.'' Lee agrees that the splintering of electronic music into so many genres and subgenres says more about cultures around the globe in recent decades than about the music itself. "It's like when people in the film talk about the atom splitting as an analogy for the fracturing of culture worldwide,'' she adds.

Her 61-year-old husband, who sometimes has helped fund her films, was by her side when Lee traveled for research. "George went to almost all the raves, and so people started calling him 'George the Raver,''' Lee says teasingly of Gund, who's within earshot at their Pacific Heights home. "At first, going to these raves was like constantly getting beaten over the head with a rubber hammer,'' says Gund, who prefers Mozart. "But as I learned so much about this music, it became quite a trip, quite an education.'' Lee concedes that her husband initially was prejudiced about this kind of music. "I think that prejudice made me want to show and explain this music to people not familiar with it. The result is a movie that opens people's minds to this music.''

Lee's origins have prepared her for her jet-setting life. Born in Ponta Grossa, Brazil, to Korean parents, she was raised in Sao Paulo. She traces her artistic temperament to her father, a club and restaurant owner, and her no-nonsense style to her businesswoman mother.
"I remember when my father used to bring Donna Summer records home,'' Lee says. With a nod to the disco diva she croons a phrase from Giorgio Moroder's "I Feel Love.'' "I love to love you ba-a-aby,'' then laughs. "But my mother is a very tough businesswoman, very disciplined, very Asian.'' Her strong work ethic was developed in Catholic schools. "George is always teasing me about the fact that I guilt-trip myself every day,'' she says. "But I feel that since we have access to funds, I should work even harder. I don't think you should use wealth to hang out at the beach and do nothing. I feel a responsibility, a burden, actually.''

Lee, who started working for the Sao Paulo independent film festival at age 18, first bumped into Gund at a film festival in Munich, Germany. "When we decided to get together in 1989, George was saying, 'I thought you were going to put me in jail, because you looked so young you looked like . . .,' '' she pauses. "How do you say it? Bail for jail? . . . No, no, jailbait! That's it!''

During the couple's courtship she moved to New York and studied philosophy and film at New York University. While Gund travels the world attending film festivals and hockey games, Lee spends most of her time working in New York. Close by are her sisters, Jussara, a designer, and Jupira, a restaurateur. Despite access to Gund's sizable resources, Lee hasn't hired the film world's top talent. "Especially when I did 'Synthetic Pleasures' I didn't want to hire the best in the industry because I knew that I was entry level, and therefore I thought I should work with entry-level people. Sure, you can spend money to make things happen, but that is just a fraction of what's needed to make a successful film.''

Her New York studio serves as the epicenter of the couple's production company, Caipirinha Productions, and the budding electronic music label Caipirinha, both named after the Brazil's national drink, a potent rum cocktail. "Caipirinha: reinventing culture, music, film, books, cocktails and architecture,'' Lee says with a laugh. While some might view her multiple endeavors as dilettantism, Lee sees them as her strength. "I bring a fresh perspective to each of these projects,'' she says. "And you have to challenge yourself constantly. When things become a little too comfortable, it's time to move on.''

Lee's next project will be a narrative film based on a century-old Brazilian novel by Machado de Assis called "Dom Casmurro.''

"That's Portuguese for `Mr. Taciturn,''' says Lee, who speaks Portuguese and French as well as English. "But I also thought it was an internationally appealing subject because it is an 'Othello'-like tale.''

A playful push and pull between Gund and Lee is evident in the way they talk about the film. Lee, who wants to update the classic, would like to shoot it in the cold, modern city of Brasilia. But Gund would prefer the older, more colorful town of Paraty. He hesitates to say who the couple have in mind to act in the movie, while she cautiously offers suggestions. "Obviously, it's just a desire at this point -- the screenplay isn't even written -- but it would work to have Matt Dillon and Matthew Modine,'' she says.

As they banter and stroke each others' hands, their affection for each other is obvious. While their 29-year age difference has occasionally raised eyebrows, Lee says she has learned to dismiss it. "You know, I like to use T.S. Eliot's quote, 'Only through time time is conquered,'' she says, reciting a line from "Four Quartets.'' "You can't accelerate perception or judgment. But as with my films, I believe there's something to be said about commitment, persistence and devotion. None of this is a flash in the pan.''

Iara Lee's music documentary opens Friday at the Lumiere Theatre in San Francisco and plays Friday and Saturday only at the UC Theatre in Berkeley.

Keying Into Cutting Edge Music World

Iara Lee is a documentarian who wants you to contemplate, not think. She prefers visual impressions over cold facts. She is a sensory filmmaker as opposed to a rational one.

Her first film, "Synthetic Pleasures," was a meditation on nothing less than the effect of computer technology on our most personal emotional gratifications, from sex to taking a vacation, and how it will change humanity as we know it.

"Modulations," which, like the first film, is produced by San Jose Sharks owner George Gund, is considerably narrower in scope. It settles for detailing the underground world of electronic music, the cutting-edge keyboard composers who keep those all-night raves going. Like "Synthetic Pleasures," it has a smooth, free-wheeling pace punctuated with candid interviews of odd, likable subjects.

Although a brief history of the genre is given, including the works of pioneering artists like John Cage in the 1930s, "Modulations" is forward -thinking and tries to get a handle on the ever-changing, envelope-pushing art form. Lee is more interested in where things are going than where they've been, so the pulse- pounding synthetic beats throbbing in rave clubs from Tokyo to Detroit serve as a sort of playful mind-candy.

And where else would one get serious interviews from the likes of Scanner or Alvin Toffler?

"Modulations" never bores and is consistently interesting, especially in the passages detailing Techno's rise from '70s disco and the latter stretch predicting future trends. Perhaps a bit more meatiness, a broader perspective on the social and cultural impact of this music, or being a little more specific on the historical timeline, is called for here, but nevertheless it's a worthwhile documentary, and it's actually a good time.
G. Allen Johnson

Electronica, A Movie

"My biggest struggle as a cultural agent is to get people to break the toy, " says Iara Lee, who would more commonly be described as a director, and whose new documentary on electronica, Modulations, is hardly as cryptic as that pronouncement. Actually, Lee's movie, which splices vibrant footage of clubbers with thoughtful commentary from an exhaustive list of key players, manages to be the polar opposite of its subject: It's a linear, cohesive, and relatively sober overview of the scene. "I knew a movie like this would appeal to the underground culture," says Lee, "but I didn't just want to entertain the kids. I wanted to educate. "To that end, she called on electronica heavyweights Mixmaster Morris, Roni Size, Giorgio Moroder, Bill Laswell, Moby, and, of course, DJ Spooky to provide an oral history of the "electro-acoustic-ambient community" and to theorize as only futurists (like Throbbing Gristle's Genesis P-Orridge, who traces electronica's origins to the splitting of the atom) can. Though, at times, Lee takes her subject too seriously, Modulations effectively serves as both a primer for the uninitiated and a comprehensive history for the obsessive- and wisely strives for nothing greater. Because, as Alec Empire sagely says, "At the end of the day, it's all about a stupid party."
Maureen Callahan

VARIETY | FEB 2-8, 1998
Dennis Harvey
Brazilian -born U.S. documaker Iara Lee's previous "Synthetic Pleasures" took viewers on an E-ticket virtual-reality travelogue through various New Technology wonders. Kinetically dazzling, it also seemed somewhat catch-all, exhausting and MTV-ish. Her follow-up, "Modulations," narrows the focus to concentrate on current musical craze electronica's major players and history. Though still a bit of an overload, its often-exciting match of style and suject should perform well with youthful urban and college auds worldwide.

What can this boom in electronic music be traced to? The huge numbers of interviewees here have many opinions. Among precursors discussed (and seen in archival footage) are avant-garde composers John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen; Robert Moog, of the Moog Synthesizer; 70's German art-rock bands like Kraftwerk and Can; Eurodisco innovator Giorgio Moroder; industrial- noise units such as Britain's Throbbing Gristle; the early hip-hop disc jockeys who manipulated vinyl on their turntables to create "scratch" music; and on and on.

This tangled back-story - which notably emphasizes white experimentalists over the roles played by R&B and other essentially black musical forms - is intercut with glimpses of the diverse club sub-genres that have emerged since the early '80s. Among better-known talents on display here are Prodigy, Moby, Money Mark, Future Sound of London and the Invisibl Skratch Piklz.

After seeing "Modulations," you probably still won't have a clear sense of the often minute distinctions between house, trip-hop, acid house, techno, ambient, drum-and-bass and myriad other dance-track styles. (Perhaps no one does.) But Lee captures their energy and diversity with persuasive enthusiasm.

Surprisingly, pic is much less dependent on digital-animation stimuli (which dominates many of these new artists' videos and multimedia live shows) than was "Synthetic Pleasures." It's nearly as free-form, but the less-sprawling subject holds the attention pretty well.

Talking-head sound bites, concert footage and often-campy old film and vid snippets are juglgled to keep the synapses firing. Though we don't get very close to electronica's audience - a little more in that department would have been welcome - the music's appeal inevitably comes most alive whenever people are filmed shanking their groove thang, often at massive "rave" parties.

While musicians spotlighted are mostly British, American ad German, this is a true jet-set production, filmed everywhere from Asbury Park, N.J., to Mount Fuji. Imaginative tech package - editor Paula Heredia surely deserves a medal for shaping what must have been an impossible amount of footage - was shot in numerous formats. But final 35mm result looks more like a transfer from video than anything else.


Electronica is king in 'modulations', an edgy documentary by film director Iara Lee. To chronicle what she considers to be today's most interesting music, Lee dives ear and eye first into the futuristic electronica scene, hitting raves from Detroit to Japan. Dizzyingly crammed with fluid, hypnagogic images and sounds, it gives a breathless history of this music sub-verse, skipping from ambient to jungle to drum 'n' bass to trip hop. Besides a nonstop soundtrack, modulations features rapid-fire interviews with the likes of John Cage, the godfather of nontraditional art music, British drum'in' bass, luminary Photek, New York City's DJ Spooky, and Moby, the best-selling member of the ravers' set. Picking up where lee's previous technophile opus synthetic pleasures left off, modulations makes a persuasive case that today's music of the future is more than just a fad.

Music For Masses: Modulations - A strand release at the quad.
Dennis Lim

Iara Lee's ambitious new film Modulations is both historically savvy and self- consciously forward looking-as a documentary on electronic music should be. The movie setsout to provide a context (chronological, philosophical, geographical) for the interactions of technology and popular music and is smart enough to arrive at the conclusion that, when it comes to sonic science, the bottom line is, Fuck context.

Darting from one farflung corner of the electronica diaspora to another, Modulations is, within its amped-up, time-traveling structure, a reasonably cohesive piece of filmmaking. Paring down hundreds of interviews, incorporating footage of raves (from Brooklyn to Mount Fuji), intercutting sped-up landscapes and trippy CGIs, Lee and her editor, Paula Heredia, strive for a kalcidoscopic style somewhere between free-associative and intuitive. It's almost a too obvious conceit-the movie mirrors the cut-'n-'mix quality of the music-and some of Lee's organizatinal choices are questionable (the final 15 minutes or so, dealing with magnetic tape splicing and turntablism, seem like an out-of-place afterthought), but the overall effect is actually quite engaging. It helps that the director, whose previous film was the 1996 futurist-trend doc Synthetic Pleasures, is as adept as she is at meshing and manipulating sound and image.

Lee greatest feat here, though, is the mass of interviews she's accumulated; a representative sample of electronica's boys' club, from legendary old-times like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Henry to Detroit's iconic Belleville Three (Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Kevin Saunderson) to contemporary practitioners like LTJ Bukem, Squarepusher, and the Prohun's hyper description of 200-plus bpm "gabba" as music that "drills through our cortex," allowing for a "synaptic rearrangement."

Lee's film should be of some use to those looking to tell Chicago house from Detroit techno-or, for that matter, a TB-303 from a TR-909. But it'd be a little unfair to call Modulations a mere primer; even if the film is, in an Electronica for Dummies way, sufficiently wary of its expansive subject to confine the discourse to catchy and vaguely familiar sound bites, it's also inquisitive enough to pan out of a glimpse of the big picture wherever possible.

Rob Young
Film Maker IARA LEE Tells Rob Young About The Peaks And Pitfalls Of Shooting Modulations.

Modulations is the first global documentary of electronic music. Why you, and why now?
I got to interact with musicians when I was making {the 1992 documentary} Synthetic Pleasures . I was shocked to see that all these incredible musicians were like orphans, because most labels drop the most interesting ones. That's why I also launched the {Caipirinha} record label, because I felt that these talented people had no home.
Synthetic Pleasures implicitly critiques the replacement of the 'real' in everyday life. Modulations is more of a fan film, isn't it?

I think it's a very exciting time for the hybridization of culture, and I think that's what I'm celebrating: how machines and humans can interact. It's not so much about saying rock is dead, and electronic music is replacing it, but it's about how people are mixing things together now.

You may not be performing rock's last rites, but aren't you trying to persuade your American audience that Electronica is here to stay?
Yeah, this film is not just for the converted. I don't want to make it so watered down that the people who are part of the culture will not appreciate it, but at the same time it's not about the technicalities, it's about the cultural depth of this music. It's more about how the musicians perceive the evolution of this electronic music culture- they are more like narrators than self-promoters.

Were there many people you wanted to interview but couldn't?
A lot of them I got, but they didn't make it to the final cut. But in the end if they were not there physically, their minds were represented in the film. But that's not the issue there's always a hero missing! People ask: Where is Erik Satie?

You interviewed electronic pioneers such as Pierre Henry and Teo Macero. Do they care about their own legacy in the younger generation's music?
There is a big comeback of the old pioneers- they created something that's been so manipulated, processed and recombined, but they can't see how the thing got so twisted around. A lot of times, I guess they just lose track. Even Giorgio Moroder said, 'I hope you're not going to ask me about what's going on nowadays because I'm a little bit out of touch'!

What were the biggest peaks and troughs in shooting the movie?
For some reason Japan is always a surreal place for me. When we filmed the Rainbow 2000 festival, we found Mt Fuji in typhoon and fog. The stage was wrapped up in plastic, nobody could see Photek, Hosono or Mixmaster Morris. Our cameras were getting wet, and my cameraman was throwing the camera up in the air to get the high angles. But the kids were dancing all day and all nights and it didn't matter that you couldn't see the musicians or DJs, it was about the music. Every encounter with a musician was a big story! Genesis P.Orridge was an incredible philosophical highlight, and Stockhausen was the biggest nightmare.

Would you want to make another film about music, or has Modulations completely wiped you out?
For me music and sound is as important as dialogue, or the visuals. I'm now shooting a piece on contemporary architecture and music, and I'm going to Japan, Denmark and Spain. It's about how music and architecture can intermingle and create an energetic combination. I haven't even shot the film, and I'm already listening to Thomas Koner and thinking about how things could fall into place.
Modulations receives its UK premiere at the Edinburgh festival this month, and screens in London at Interference in London on 26 August, 1998.