Modulations: In the 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


Darren D’Addario

Iara Lee continues her examination of the “unreal” that began with her first documentary in 1995 “Synthetic Pleasures.” That film looked at the influence of technology and chemistry–from virtual reality to plastic surgery–on culture around the world in the years leading up to the millennium. In her new feature, “Modulations,” the filmmaker narrows her focus to one such artificially enhanced topic: electronic music.

Jumping continually from past to present, Lee provides a jagged timeline of the history of electronic music, which she traces back to 1913, the year that Luigi Russolo published his treatise about the use of industrial sounds, “The Art of Noises.” The film also nods at the use of electronics in music by legendary innovators Leon Theremin, John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Miles Davis. But Lee’s primary focus is on the present state of electronica. And the present here means anything that occurred after 1977 when producer Giorgio Moroder created a seamless flow of electric sound for Donna Summer’s disco smash “I Feel Love.” Using dozens of interviews with artists involved in different forms of techno music–hip hop, house, disco, ambient, gabba house, dub, jungle, acid house–the filmmaker attempts to explain the allure and essence of electronica. Visually, she alternates concert footage and studio demonstrations with surreal images from nature (cows in pasture) and industry (jackhammers breaking cement).

From Frankie Bones to Moby to Derrick Carter, the producers and artists Lee interviews display an impressive, almost cultish knowledge about the subculture of electronica. Detroit techno pioneers speak eloquently about the contributions of Stockhausen, the German grandfather of electronic music. Footage of Afrika Bambaataa shows how he deftly sampled Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Europe Express” to create his 1982 opus, “Planet Rock.” From raves in Brooklyn to electronica festivals in East Berlin, artists are shown sampling, scratching, and calibrating at a febrile pace.

One interesting aspect of the techno culture that Lee ignores in “Modulations” is that although this music traverses racial, class, and national boundaries, it hasn’t quite made it across gender lines. There are few female electronica artists and not one is interviewed for this documentary (unless you count the platinum blonde Genesis P. Orridge, the androgynous founder of the industrial band, Throbbing Gristle, who looks like a middle-aged Benny Hill in drag). Dozens of male musicians talk about playing with their electronic toys to the point where it begins to feel like a Star Trek convention. In fact, the continual stream of guys saying similar things about electronica makes this relatively brief film seem quite a bit longer than it is.

Despite Mr. Orridge’s assertions, electronic music probably is not the most important innovation of the 20th century. But as Beat poetry informed the mainstream, the pulsing dissonance of techno will no doubt continue to influence all kinds of music. Iara Lee’s middling, frenetic documentary will never be confused with an authoritative statement about electronic music, but it’s not a bad starting point either.



iara lee, one of the owners of caipirinha productions and the independent filmmaker who made 1995’s synthetic pleasures, has returned with modulations , a documentary about the evolution of electronic music, the 75 minute film features interviews and live performances by a who’s who of electronic music, including alec empire, autechre, bill laswell, carl cox, coldcut, derrick carter, derrick may, d.j. spooky, frankie bones, future sound of london, can’s holger czukay and irmin schmidt, invisbl skratch piklz, kid koala, ltj bukem, moby, robert moog, orbital, roni size, scanner, talvin singh, and many more. modulations premiered at this year’s sundance film festival and has also been screened at other international festivals. the national theatrical release will come in early september; videos will be available soon after. the sire-distributed caipirinha music is also working on plans to produce a soundtrack for the film, and a book may be published as well. as many as three editions of the soundtrack may be released, with one “main” soundtrack augmented with a disc devoted to early electronic music pioneers and another devoted to up-and-coming electronic musicians.

Jess Kaliss

In one of the defenses-qua-explanations of electronic music offered up in the new documentary, “Modulations,” director Iara Lee depicts kids messing around in a colorful playroom full of gadgets. It’s pointed out that kids confronting a musical instrument won’t be content with trying to play it the “right” way, but will instead “see what the entire thing does.”

There are perhaps more implications here than Ms. Lee, who’s obviously entranced with her subject, intended. Many of the makers of electronic music whom she interviews and depicts in action are young adults who seem to have succeeded in making some kind of money by helping to perpetuate a child-like emotional state which celebrates chaos and avoids the refinement and maturation of musical taste.

That’s reflective of my own middle-aged, melody-loving prejudices, of course. For most of my peers and many of you readers, your impressions of electronic music may have come from having accidentally wandered into a loud, throbbing, dark “rave” scene at some downtown club, or maybe just into your teenage offsprings, bedrooms when they had their sound systems jacked up so high that they didn’t know you were there. For some of {ital} their {untial} peers, shown in Lee’s film exercising equally dance movements as unrefined as the music, at concerts and dancehalls, a childishly chaotic but sensorially demanding sound and scene may be just what they’re looking for. And everybody, even critics who’ve outgrown childish righteousness, knows that you can’t really get anywhere arguing about taste.

The artistically encouraging part of the child comparison is the curiosity of electronic musicians to examine “what the entire thing does,” through experimentation with the acostic possibilities of synthesizers, the “sampling” of sounds “found” on the street and around the house, and the machine processing of machine-generated noise. This process is depicted in “Modulations” with a scope I haven’t seen elsewhere, although without enough linear development or clarity of exposition to really serve as a good educational film about the electronic art form.

There are a few gestures towards education, including black-and-white historical clips of early electronic instrumentation such as the theremin and interviews, mostly too brief and fragmented, with such pioneers from the ’30s through the ’60s as John Cage, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Robert Moog. But Lee is mostly concerned with what happened after producer Giorgio Moroder introduced disco and singer Donna Summer to primitive synthesizers in the ’70s. The director manages to cover a menagerie of genres, or subgenres, which followed Moroder’s euro-disco, including techno, house, and jungle, and offers a few interesting insights into this recent evolution, including the affinity of an Afro-American hip-hop dj from the Bronx for the highly cerebral Germanic sound created by the group Kraftwerk.

Lee also shows us an impressively international variety of venues where these musics are showcased and further articulated, in locations from Detroit to New York to London to Tokyo. The pace, sometimes enhanced by fast-motion and other special effects, is invigorating but generally non-linear and disruptive, which may match the intent of the music but leaves more of an impression about the subject than any kind of concrete knowledge.

Similarly, Lee touches upon deeper social implications, including the music’s mimicking of the alienated rush of contemporary urban life and of the physiological experience of drugs such as ecstacy, but she hardly gets deep enough herself to offer more than a sort of shrugged excuse.

Missing from Lee’s treatment are some fascinating electronic projects not suitable for the dancehall, including the soundscapes of Steve Reich. Nevertheless, “Modulations” is an important if not completely solid primer for anyone curious about where, for better or worse, some music may be headed in the new millenium. Look next month for the representative soundtrack album from “Modulations,” due out on Lee’s Caipirinha Music label (

Jim Harley

Iara Lee: Modulations
Reviewed by Kim Cascone
Pacifica, California, USA

“In music, the instrument often predates the expression it authorizes.” (Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music)

Modulations is independent filmmaker Iara Lee’s second feature-length documentary exploring the outer boundaries of pre-millennium culture. In her first film, Synthetic Pleasures, she focused on exploring artificial environments and how our culture has been impacted by technologica philosophy in the 1990s. In Modulations, Ms. Lee turns her lens to exploring the synthetic landscape of electronic dance music. By interviewing dozens of artists and DJs involved in various cities/scenes around the world, she traces the roots of techno from its birth in Detroit to its global mutational outbreaks.

Electronic dance music has enjoyed an explosive growth in the past decade, with more and more of its fabric now being woven into commercial media in the USA. Examples abound: from the Madonna album produced by William Orbit to the new Volkswagen Beetle television commercials underscored by lush beat-driven electronica to the relative superstardom of bands like Prodigy, Orbital and Future Sound of London. Even bands like U2 and R.E.M. are embracing studio techniques to lend a more contemporary sound to their recent releases.By giving her subject abundant space, Lee brilliantly weaves an amorphous narrative, letting the subject matter reveal itself through the patient process of drawing out and examination true to the documentary format. One flaw in using this approach with such a specialized subject matter, however, is that there is little relevant information given with which newcomers can orient themselves. Even though a historical framework is put into place early on by invoking the usual list of electronic music‚s founding fathers˜John Cage, Luigi Russolo and the Italian Futurists, Varèse, etc.˜some important figures in contemporary electronic music are absent: Peter Namlook, Wendy Carlos, Aphex Twin, Yellow Magic Orchestra, The Residents, Tangerine Dream, George Clinton and Brian Eno. These figures could have helped to provide a more intuitive chart when trying to navigate the various sub-genres of techno mentioned in the film. Additionally conspicuous is the lack of any female DJs or artists working in electronic music. Lee could have shed some light on the issue of female DJs/artists trying to break into the world of techno by Featuring interviews with Riz Maslen, Susanne Brokesch, Miss Djax, Alaura (ex-Psychic TV), Moonbeam from DubTribe, and Bjork.If you have an interest in watching a documentary-styled tone poem on the history of electronic dance music and already have some exposure to the subject, Modulations provides an interesting insight into a genre that continues to defy most mainstream media’s attempts to classify and define it. The uninitiated, though, will leave more confused than when they arrived. Word has it that a book version of the film is in the making, and may be a good companion piece to Modulations for those who want to better explore the abundant territory of electronic dance music.

Sarah Hay

“Disposable culture is so universal, a world wide manifestation of the 90’s that you can’t avoid analyzing it and seeing it as a big cultural impact on youth culture” — Iara Lee

Out of nowhere here it is, a quizzical, fast moving and revealing documentary that tells the story of electronic music. With footage from around the globe and contributions from hundreds of pioneering minds, Modulations successfully negotiates a deep plunge into recording history, while casting a wry anthropological eye over the geek in its coolest manifestations. “It’s a complex culture, almost impossible to document through the sheer volume of material,” remarks female director, Iara Lee, who tirelessly sifted through our consuming sonic identities and collated interviews and images of predecessors John Cage and Stockhausen, psychedelic thinker Genesis P-Orrige, escapists Derrick May and Juan Atkins, DJs, bedroom musicians and frontier men Giorgio Moroder, FSOL and Coldcut. In fact there isn’t really anyone who has helped shape our journey that has been forgotten, though the lack of female artists did not pass unnoticed. “We spoke to hundreds of people,” reasons Lee, “but the film isn’t a who’s who in music but based on those who brought the film forward.”

Filmed throughout ’97 and completed days before its premier at the Sundance film festival, the result is a thorough, rough edged yet wholly endearing account. “Modulations came about through my first feature, Synthetic Pleasures “explains Lee, a Brazilian with Korean descent now residing in New York. “It looked at how we use technology to control environments, the body and mind. Naturally we got into electronic music, so we decided to delve deeper into the subject.”

Funded privately, the small budget called for resourceful decisions but the results are insightful. LTJ Bukem grins shyly at the novelty of his situation for he’s talking to an unknown who poses his questions via email. “In between each take,” remembers Lee, “he kept asking who is this person who wants to know this information”. Later, one half of Autechre talks about a love for science fiction while picking his nose and Q-bert goofs about like a kid skiving school. Then there are the unforgettable sequences such as, members of Can interrupting and correcting each other on Stockhausen and DJ Sneak with Derrick Carter nodding in unison as the track on the deck slowly builds to climax. “We never used expensive equipment or experienced cinematographers, people find that intimidating. We’re a bunch of experimentalists going through a whole process together.” On the uneven qualities of the film, “over exposure, camera roll out and combining different kinds of formats that vary colors and saturations are negative points but I took them as texture. When you’re consistent, it becomes the style of the film. In a commercial sense, these things are taken out because they’re seen as bad footage, but I see this whole thing as a celebration of hybrids.” A fine emulation of the techno spirit.

Modulations will be followed by a book composed of essays written by the music journalists captured on film, clothes and a CD released through Lee’s record label that licenses music from her films. Cashing in? ” If you think you can’t match creativity with business sense, ” says Lee, 32, “you’ll be a starving artist forever.” True enough.

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.

Trevor Groth

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.

FILMTHREAT | 6/22/98

We were thinking about how hard it is to actually describe the whole techno/rave culture to somebody who has never taken part in, or even heard of it. It is intruiguing, and now that it has become such a large, worldwide subculture, should be studied. What are the aspects and concepts that drive the culture? Why does music play the central role, and why are there so many types of techno music? Like anything else you see on cable, it is a part of mankind and someone should do a recorded documentary on it, right?

Well, director Ira Lee has done just that. And a fine job at that. Modulations captures interviews with almost all the key players that have helped shape the sounds of techno music and its culture. DJs, artists, promoters, and even the ravers themselves provide input as to how, why, and where techno came from, why it formed, how it is treated, and the future of the music.

High points of the film include the philosophies behind ambient music, with interviews including John Cage, Can, Scanner, Terre Themlitz, Bill Laswell, Autechure, Future Sound of London, and a look back at Stockhausen during the 30’s and 40’s with his experimentations in sound. The disco-to-house movement is explored with some help from New York’s Frankie Knuckles and other Chicago DJs. Drum and Bass is given a big spotlight, showing the fusion of all genres of techno into a smattering of beats, finally blowing up into the severe German-based forms of techno including hardcore drum and bass and ultimately the 200+ poundings of gabber. The film covers its ground well and is touring throughout Film Festivals around the U.S., so be on the lookout for it. Ira Lee has also produced a previous film entitled Synthetic Pleasures, another techno documentary with an impressive soundtrack to boot.

Tony Ramos

MODULATIONS- The First Full-Length Film About Electronic Music Culture

In one 90-minute film, Modulations attempts to cover the culture of all music where electronic equipment is involved in its production. As you might suspect, this means just about everything created during the past twenty years: Techno, house, jungle, hip-hop, they’re all here.

More about the culture than the music, Modulation is a heady, cinematic ride over the surface of a vast ocean of information. Its attention doesn’t linger on any subject for more than a few seconds. We fast-forward through Derrick May’s club mixing, stop long enough for a producer to run down the technical specs of some effects processors, then skip to an English columnist’s philosophy about how the music “drills into your cerebral cortex.” Modulations moves like this, non-stop, for 90-plus minutes.

Many scenes are telling: Tom Jenkinson, aka Squarepusher, sits in a rumpled heap on a mattress on the floor. He digs up a cheap toy synthesizer and reveals that he produces much of his music on it, sometimes at that same mattress. Others are spontaneous and funny: a member of Autechre picks his nose, apparently searching for the answer to a question; Panacea, after hearing his thrashing techno played in a huge club, says, horrified, “Oh my God, what have I done?”

The rapid-fire subject-hopping produces a sensory-overload, eye-candy feeling that’s similar to being at a rave; however, I found myself wishing for more structure. The producers could take some tips from Public Television’s excellent “Rock And Roll” documentary series, which does a great job of leading viewers through the inter-related events that produced popular music.

There are plenty of people in Modulations analyzing the music and its effects on society. Unfortunately, they are presented with the assumption that you are, of course, already familiar with it all. I expected the music itself to be a focal point, but it’s kept in the background. Only occassionally do you find out what you’re hearing, who made it, or why it’s important.

Modulations is also notable for what it leaves out: Very little time is spent examining who goes to these all-night parties, or on disco DJs and their introduction of mixing as we know it today. African-American producers are few and far between; ironic, considering that they were the originators of techno, house, and hip-hop. Jungle music, famous for springing from the Rastafarian neighborhoods of London, is represented almost exclusively by white males. Where are the members of Reinforced?

But Modulations isn’t really about the facts and figures. It’s trying to convey the atmosphere of the electronic music scene from the inside, and it does this with a good deal of success. The coverage is uneven, and doesn’t tie into the rest of music history as much as it could. But it does take a serious, somewhat objective look at the real, day-to-day people and events that create this next-generation music.

Modulations is an exhilirating, sometimes bewildering trip across the vast breadth, and even some of the historical depth, of modern electronic music culture. It doesn’t demand that you be well-informed, or even give you much help getting there, but it does provide an enjoyable 90-minute visit.

Matt Cheplic

Iara Lee’s documentary, “Modulations”, covers a lot of ground. It tracks the evolution of electronic music over several decades, features nearly 80 artists, takes place in 20 cities – including Los Angeles, London, Berlin, and Tokyo – and is the lean remainder of 300 hours of footage captured by the small globetrotting crew.

Just as the musical subject is a fusion of various styles, the film is a mixture of formats. Lee shot club footage of artists in action on 16mm with a Bolex and supplemented with Super 8. Interviews went down on Panasonic’s DVCPRO.

Avid editor Paula Heredia manipulated speed and color at Lee’s behest for some funky, undocumentary-like sequences. “I experimented a lot,” Lee says. “Sometimes, it’s tough to distinguish between experiments and accidents.”

The film debuted as a 35mm blowup at Sundance. It has since played at a few dozen more festivals including the Berlin International Film Festival, New York’s Gen Art Film Festival, and the Boston Women’s Film Festival.

“Modulations” lived up to its subtitle – “Cinema for the Ear” – with a luxurious sound mix. It is the first film completely mixed with TMH’s Microtheater monitoring system, which THX standard creator Tomlinson Holman designed. The system allows for surround sound in small rooms.

“That system actually came from James Cameron’s living room. He had that for ‘Titanic’, but for him it was like a toy,” Lee laughs.

Mark Jan Wlodarkiewicz, who has features including “Wag The Dog” to his credit, mixed the sound for “Modulations” with Digidesign’s Pro Tools.

“This film was made with the help of a lot of angels,” says Lee, alluding to friends who worked at reduced rate, including Flame artist Damion Clayton, who animated some sophisticated, design-heavy interstitials for the film.

Seccion Minipimez

CINE PARA LAS OREJAS Documental que captura la evolucion de la musica electronica. Desde el manifiesto “the art of noises”, escrito en 1913 por Luigi Russolo, hasta nuestros dias. Reivindica la electronica como una de las manifestacions mas importantes del siglo 20. Todo el fim es un collage de entrevistas, performances, visuales y ensayos. Entre algunos de los eventos esta Sonar, Love Parade, Lollapalooza, etc. Material perfecto para programas y canales de Television con cierta sensibilidad informativa.

IARA LEE ( la autora) Brasileña de nacimiento. En 1989 se marcha a N.Y. a estudiar cine. Es autora de otro film de culto, “Synthetic Pleasures”. Ahora esta preparando la adaptacion de una novela del siglo 19, “dom casmurro”.

CAIPIRINHA ( la productora) Compañia americana independiente de arte y cultura (musica, cine, moda y tecnologia). Su filosofia es promover nuevos talentos y fomentar la colaboracion internacional.

ENTREVISTAS Alec Empire, Arthur Baker, Autechre, Carl Cox, Carl Craig, Coldcut, Danny Tenaglia, Darren Emerson, Derrick Carter, Derrick M;ay, Future Sound of London, G. Moroder, Joey Beltram, Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, LTJ Bukem, Marshall Jefferson, Moby, Orbital, Photek, Prodigy, Roni Size, Scanner, Squarepusher, Westbam.

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.

Cary Darling

New projects step into the world of techno

CULTURE: The documentary ‘Modulations’ and book ‘Generation Ecstasy’ explore the growth of electronic dance music.

One way to tell when a subculture is bubbling to the surface of the mainstream is when movies and books on the subject start flooding the market. It happened with rock in the ’60s and ’70s and rap/hip-hop in the ’80s, and it may be starting to happen with the techno/dance music world in the ’90s.

While it’s way too early to call it an inundation, two relatively high-profile projects are hitting the streets. One is “Modulations,” a feature-length documentary (opening Friday at Edwards University 6 in Irvine and the Nuart in Los Angeles) tracing the history of electronic music from its first appearances on the fringes of classical music to its current explosion on the dance floor. The other is a book from Little Brown Publishers, “Generation Ecstasy,” by English journalist Simon Reynolds, a studious, 453-page examination of the music, style, politics and — on the down side — the drugs of the techno-drenched rave culture. In a bit of synchronicity, Reynolds appears in “Modulations.”

“I told Simon, ‘My film is the film version of your book and vice versa,’ ” said “Modulations” director Iara Lee by phone from her office in New York City. “It’s kind of cool that we’re paralleling each other. I think that one complements the other.”

Reynolds concedes this may just be the tip of a techno iceberg. “People are doing screenplays. There are quite a few films in progress in England,” he said in a separate interview. “I know there are academic books in progress. There’s ‘rave fiction’ from people trying to come to terms with it and write narratives about it.”


For the average American pop fan, this may seem like a lot of brouhaha over what some consider a trendy, passing phase. While dance music in all of its forms is popular in the United States, rock and hip-hop have far more cultural reach. That’s not true overseas, where dance music and rave culture are much more prominent and mainstream; Berlin’s Love Parade annual outdoor rave attracts a million people. Techno/dance tracks regularly reach the Top 10 in Europe. With those kinds of numbers, it’s no surprise that movies and books are boarding the bandwagon.

Of the two projects reaching the United States right now, “Modulations” is the more accessible, skimming over musical history to present a solid introduction to the styles of electronic music — Detroit techno, house, jungle — that have weaned a large proportion of young people from guitar-dominated rock ‘n’ roll. It features appearances by such performers as Afrika Babaataa, Autechre and Future Sound of London, among many others.

For filmmaker Lee, a Brazilian immigrant whose previous film, the documentary “Synthetic Pleasures,” concerned artificial environments, exploring this world as a way to tap into an often maligned or ignored youth subculture. “I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about how to approach the subject. I knew I wanted this to be an exploration,” she said. “It’s not only for those who aren’t exposed to this culture but to those who are deeply involved. I’m happy that it pleases the young ravers and the high-brow scholars of electronic music.

“I’m very interested in the ’90s and technology’s impact on society,” she continued. “It has been my obsession for the last few years. My first film was about artificial environments, and music can’t escape the technological impact either, and the impact on youth culture is big.”

Though she had some knowledge of the subject — her dad ran a disco in Sao Paulo and often brought home records by Donna Summer and groundbreaking German techno act Kraftwerk — she wasn’t quite aware of how big a universe she was peering into.

“I was naive about what it would be. I’m kind of happy I was naive. If I would have known, I would not have done this movie.

“When I decided to make this movie, I thought I was going to start with Kraftwerk, but I got involved and realized it goes back forever, to the Futurists and John Cage (in the early part of this century). It’s interesting how classical music has influenced the kids. It’s going full circle. The beauty of the project is the counterpoint between the early pioneers with the young kids and how everything interacts with each other.”

Lee got her start in 1991 with the short film “Prufrock,” completed while she was a student at New York University. She did a couple of more shorts before tackling “Synthetic Pleasures,” a film inspired by a huge indoor beach in Japan. Her next film, “Dom Casmurro,” is fiction, based on a 19th-century Brazilian novel by Machado de Assis.

“The only way to get closer to my country is to develop a project on my country,” she explained. “I feel like I’m the publicist for this writer; he’s one of (Brazil’s) important writers. All the writers who wrote in Spanish got their props (respect) but Portuguese is a language that doesn’t have the international penetration.”

Two pivotal figures in electronic music, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno, don’t appear in “Modulations,” though it wasn’t for Lee’s lack of trying. “Eno had some family thing going on. He was trying to be reclusive at that particular time. With Kraftwerk, their campaign is to be inaccessible. They figure, ‘If we are inaccessible and mysterious, people will want us more.’ “

Distribution of the film is unique. In addition to opening in such major American markets as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles on Friday, it is being shown in clubs, and a “loop version” of the film — featuring many of the visuals and not the music — is also being used as part of the background visual mix in clubs. The movie was used as an “opening act” for a Danish Kraftwerk performance.

But whether any of this will help electronic dance music move further into the mainstream remains to be seen. Americans have not embraced the form as lovingly as their European counterparts, where it’s considered part of the status quo.

Lee says Americans have a more innate inclination for rock ‘n’ roll, and even she can recall going to a show by the techno-ambient group The Orb a few years ago and standing around, waiting for a more traditional rock presentation.

“My friends took me to this gig and I asked them what time it was going to start. They told me it had been going on for an hour,” she recalled with a laugh, underscoring the blurred line between audience and performer at techno shows, in which the performer is often nearly invisible. “It’s about the music. It’s not about staring at the DJ and staring at the musicians. It’s a very different culture.”


Reynolds’ book, “Generation Ecstasy,” delves deep into this different culture, examining how it evolved from both the fringes of American black pop culture (Chicago house, Detroit techno) and of classical/European art culture (the Futurists, John Cage, musique concrete). But those fringes have come together in what has become a major artistic movement and an industry.

“I was astounded by what a huge thing it was,” said Reynolds, a senior editor at Spin magazine, of when he got the idea of doing a book in the early ’90s. “The thing I was trying to do with the book was, in addition to talking about the dark side of the culture, to celebrate the music and all these amazing records that came out. Even stuff that was transient and disposable is worth remembering in some way. The first thing is the music, and the other stuff is what affects the music.”

Yet, as the title indicates, Reynolds doesn’t shy away from the drug culture that grew up around the rave scene. Without being alarmist or anti-techno, he pinpoints how, in the movement’s early days in the ’80s, there was a bouyant, “summer-of-love” optimism, sparked in part by the proliferation of Ecstasy, or MDMA (methylene dioxymethamphetamine), a synthesized drug that was put in the U.S. government’s “most dangerous” category in 1988.

However, the “benefits” of Ecstasy —a reported feel-good, peace-and-love vibe — would disappear when fans began taking multiple doses or mixing it with other drugs such as nitrous oxide, crystal methamphetamine, GHB, heroin, ketamine or LSD. Just as the original summer-of-love Woodstock nation devolved into the rage and bad trips of Altamont, the rave generation in the early ’90s was finding itself coming down hard.

The music changed, becoming darker and faster, sparking nostalgia among old-line ravers for the “good old days,” as reprinted from a flier in Reynolds’ book. “What’s truly poignant about this leaflet is that the golden age being lamented had occurred only nine months earlier — an indication of just how swiftly Ecstasy burnout and poly-drug mind rot can set in,” Reynolds writes.

“You get people in the scene who like to make out that drugs don’t have a thing to do with it. They want to argue for it as an art form that isn’t tied up to the drug culture. Then you get those who are evangelists for Ecstasy the way Tim Leary was for LSD. When I got involved, it was at the tail-end or peak of the happy phase but it seemed very swiftly it changed,” he said. “I began to search why this happened and a lot of it had to do with drugs being adulterated and the mixing and matching.”

Ironically, Reynolds likes a lot of the music that came out of this tortured time, including jungle and gabba, as opposed to the more laid-back and uplifting ambient-techno and happy hardcore pursued by those who didn’t want to go down that dark path. “People complained that it was techno heavy metal. I like that rock aggression with the techno, and the funk coming through from hip-hop. It’s a fantastic composite.”

As for where electronic music goes from here, Reynolds isn’t sure. While black and white audiences in Europe have embraced various factions, here in the States rock and rap still are dominant. But even in Europe, the style is finding itself at a crossroads. “It’s like all the extremes have been reached,” he said. “It’s hard to conceive where it can go next. That’s probably a sign that something really strange will happen.”

Dave Kendall


Books, Shelves of them, and cats. ” You’re not allergic, are you? ” asks Iara Lee. Real cats, not virtual felines or 3D animations or hallucinatory holograms. Iara Lee, the director of SYNTHETIC PLEASURES, the documentary exploration of man’s mutation into machine, has real books and real cats.

She’s got a real penthouse duplex apartment, too, and it’s not in BioDome, it’s in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Home base for one or two little projects that Iara has cooking right now.

“My operation is art, culture, technology, music, fashion, film- I have six Cds I’m releasing this year, ” she says breathless. ” With fashion , my sister and I imported fabrics from Switzerland for jackets, we did a big fashion show during Fashion Week, all with synthetic material. I’ve got so many projects going on. “

Her big project is a new movie called MODULATIONS- not just a history of electronica, but a film ” about that ecstatic freefall into the unknown in the era of the proliferation of digital technology; an age in which the boundaries between human and machine are becoming increasingly blurred. “

Applying the ethos of SYNTHETIC PLEASURES, then, to electronic music.

“It’s a natural progression, because a lot of musicians are synthetic musicians. I’m interested in doing a documentary on electronic music, but more within the culture as a whole, how it affects culture and music. “

Thirty-one-year-old Iara Lee was born and raised by Korean parents in Brazil. ” I’ve been in the film environment since I was 17. I used to run a film festival, Sao Paolo International Film Festival. I did that for five years and then I got bored, and decided to go behind the camera. I made three short films, and SYNTETHIC PLEASURES was my first full length. This will be my second. “

With the help of writer Peter Shapiro, Lee traces electronica back to the 1940s project Musique Concrete, describing a genealogy that runs through Stockhausen and Can to Kraftwerk, then hops over the Atlantic to Sun Ra, Parliament- Funkadelic, Chicago house and Detroit techno, and back over, this time to England, for the birth of trance, ambient, jungle, and drum’n’bass.

“It’s hard, because I thought, I’m gonna do this movie from Kraftwerk on. ‘ But the distinction is kinda blurry: what is electronic music? You start digging and you’re like, ” Oh gosh! When did it start? It was many, many years ago, it’s a logistic nightmare! “.

Lee has already amassed over 60 hours of interviews with everyone from Marshall Jefferson and Ryuichi Sakamoto to Carl Cox and Moby. One element that Lee sees running though the history of electronica is the technique of cut-and-paste that she uses to make her own films.

“Pierre Henry, he’s one of the godfathers of Musique Concrete, he’s the one that started the whole idea of cut-and-paste. He would splice tape instead of using the computer. And cut-and-paste is the part of my style too…. using a lot of images that are not connected on a rational level, so hopefully the film will be very unpredictable. I was thinking of intercutting interviews- two talking heads, and in the middle there will be an appliance, and the sound of that appliance intercutting the talking head. I’ll have landscapes or things that will relate to music, but always in a contradictory way, not so linear. I like to play with non-linearity the way that musicians play with non-linearity.

“That’s the thing with drum’n’bass, the music they create, it’s so complex when it comes to programming that no human being would be able to produce that in a natural way. The Ninja Tune people, they want to explore the idea of automatic creativity robots, which make combinations of sounds that human beings will not be able to do. And then the musicians would sift through all the different combinations the computer makes, and analyze it and edit things in and out. So this is automatic creativity music. “

Lee believes the development of electronica has caused a ” shift in the power structure” of music.

“I interviewed Sakamoto from Yellow Magic Orchestra, and he said, in the past it would take seven years for someone to learn how to play a note on the Shakuhachi flute, this very difficult instrument from Japan. And now, with computers, you don’t need that time. Traditional musicians may even look stupid, because they took all these years to get where they are, and then these kids empowered with the technology just advance so fast. My interest is with these bedroom musicians, these kids, 18 years old, 19 years old. The way they do music, the way they do programming, blows people’s minds.

“Then again, it’s a different set of rules and regulations. It’s still a lot of work. It’s the same thing with technology: you’re supposed to have more free time, but I see myself working even harder. People say, ” You’re a filmmaker, you’re got to have a point of view. Is technology good or bad? and I don’t have a straight answer. It’s really a gray area; it empowers me, it frees me, but at the same time it enslaves me, y’know? At the end of the day, I gotta force myself to take a walk, ‘ cause the computer and the technology are absorbing my attention and my life. “

It’s the bigger picture portrayed by SYNTHETIC PLEASURES, the question of how technology impacts the quality of human life, that will be the focus of MODULATIONS.

“Is it good or bad? In the end it’s both, in an extremist way. It’s a big issue people are trying to figure out: is this for our benefit or not? Because it becomes a handicap; your start having these virtual relationships. Technology enables us to have a sanitized experience in all ways- people having virtual sex or virtual friendship. People feel comfortable with this protection, they don’t wanna go out there and deal with the nitty-gritty anymore.

“MODULATIONS is not like a cheerleader, saying that electronic music is great, and everything else is terrible. It’s about how the technology behind it affects society in general, and in this particular case the music world.”

Brushing a cat off her lap, Iara gets up to print out a list of upcoming interviews. ” It’s not about the trend, it’s about the real musicians. I get the quality first, like Squarepusher, Talvin Singh, Seefeel, and then I get the established guys, like Prodigy, Chemical Brothers, Orb. They like to be attached with the cutting edge, so now I have a lot of clout to go to them. “

And when will MODULATIONS be finished?

” I’ll be shooting and editing until the end of the year, and hopefully it will be ready for Sundance ’98. But SYNTHETIC PLEASURES took me three years and a half, for one film! So at this point I have no illusions.”

REDBUTTON | 06/05/98

Late last month, the San Francisco International Film festival was in full swing. I had been fortunate enough to have a friend land me a coveted ticket to a film titled ‘Modulations.’ It is an insightful documentary that traces the evolution of electronic music as one of the most profound artistic developments of the 20th century. Film reviews are not my forte. And I was prepared to blow off the film, preferring to spend the rest of the evening tucked away in the studio, drawn to my samplers. I had envisioned another amateur attempt to delve into a world far deeper than the average fan or DJ can fathom. To my suprise and delight I found Modulations inspirational and informative.

Few people have the background to appreciate all the complexity and nuance of hi-tech music or how much effort and passion the composer must invest in the work. Iara Lee knows. Her research led her into a slew of night clubs and warehouses around the globe where this fast tempo phenomenon has taken root. The list of artists she interviewed runs on and on: The Prodigy, Orbital, Holger Czukay, Meat Beat Manifesto, Bill Laswell, Photek, Brian Eno and many many more electronic pioneers had a role in the evolution of synthetic music. Similiar to other historic figure lists, unfortunately there are no female representatives. Lee also efficiently covers the complex world of hi-tech musical equipment and devices. She displays a clear understanding about the relationship between the artist, the machine and the music.

The film itself is composed rather than edited. The sound mix and blend of techno music and ambient textures blends seemlessly over fragmented and fractal-like collages. She adopts the fundamental aesthetic of machine ‘impurity’ and ‘imperfection’ as an organic quality. The result is a wonderfully textured sensory experience; an artistic expression born in the digital domain. Out of financial necessity and creative execution Lee uses several different mediums: digital and regular video, hi-8mm,16mm, and 35mm. She took all that the had learned and broke rules to put together a masterful visual representation of the aesthetic of techno music and it’s composers.

More importantly though is the message the film delivers — that the possibilities for sound are limitless. The evolutionary line starts in 1913, the year Italian Composer Luigi Russolo wrote a piece titled “The Art of Noise.” The piece was arranged with noises, (industrial and natural sounds blended together) to create a literal symphony of sound. During that time Russolo reflected, ” we must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise sounds.”

Lee and the arists she interviewed all work and live by Russolo’s philosophy. Today we have the capability to create sounds which are new to the human ear. The tools are limitless, extremely powerful and just think, this is the beginning of the cusp of a new era. From Kraftwerk in Berlin to the Future Sound of London to the gritty streets of Detroit where producer Derrick May spun early forms of what we all know as dance music, these artists shared a common vision and determination to explore their sounds through experimentation.

It is vital to understand the orgins and evolution of a movement to have a deeper appreciation for it.. This film is the first attempt I’ve seen that examines where synthetic music has come from. Lee has opened up new horizons for film making and acknowledges a movement that will, and has, revolutionized the way composers will forever work and think.

Aidin Vaziri

Electronic music has always been a medium of radical experimentation and pioneering. Since the days of minimalist composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich through to the Hip-Hop avant-garde of the present, the use of synthetic instrumentation has spawned countless genres of music. During the forty-odd years that comprise the history of electronic music, several figures have emerged as influential forerunners of particular sounds or styles. In her new film Modulations, filmmaker Iara Lee takes the viewer on a journey through that rich history, discovering along the way the origins, cultural impact, and evolution of this modern artform. To complete this “journey,” she herself traveled the world conducting nearly 300 interviews with everyone from Afrika Bambaataa and Ryuichi Sakamoto to DJ Shadow and the Prodigy.

Lee, thirty-one, achieved notoriety for her 1996 film debut Synthetic Pleasures, a hyper-kinetic documentary about the blurring lines between things artificial and natural. Modulations is familiar territory for the filmmaker given that much of the focus of electronic music over the decades has been the interface between creativity and technology. Lee is specially suited to such an endeavor with a style of filmmaking that closely resembles the aesthetic qualities often associated with electronic music. Her conscious use of technology to solve production issues, as well as her acceptance of “glitches” and other “mistakes,” give her a philosophical commonalty with her subjects.

Modulations, which premieres at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is only one of several projects she and her new production company Caipirinha have been hard at work on. The week before Christmas, writer Aidin Vaziri sat down with Lee when she was in the Bay Area to do the final sound mix for her film.

AV: Where did you find the inspiration for Modulations?

IL: “I’d always thought I didn’t want to make a documentary because it would be too hard, but this film (became) an extension of what I started with Synthetic Pleasures, in which we were studying aspects of controlled environments, bodies, and minds. I had interacted with a lot of musicians who were using technology to make music, so (Modulations) was a way of giving the subject… more focus.”

What were the main topics you wanted to address?

“I wanted to ask— how does technology impact music-making and the concepts of music-making? Is electronic music something that started with raves? No, it goes back to the futurists—Stockhausen, John Cage, and so forth. My idea was to (explain) how the pioneers and the intellectuals of electronic music influenced rave and techno music. My main interest is always the philosophical aspect of this cultural shift. Technology empowers us. You have this very sophisticated sound that is not created in a big studio but in someone’s bedroom. That was very interesting to me.”

Did you realize there was such an extensive history behind electronic music?

“Kraftwerk, for me, is the way of pin-pointing when pop starts with electronic music. People think Brian Eno is the father of ambient, but actually it was John Cage. One of the people in my film, DXT, who did the scratching on Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit,’ said Stockhausen was the precursor to hip-hop. It’s interesting to me how (everything is) totally interrelated. The film is a lot about collage, about how we did it all, and now we’re basically regurgitating and resampling and recontextualizing everything. There are no new elements, but the way things are combined and put together creates these different results.”

Was it difficult to take this vast subject and make it cohesive?

“This film, in a way, demands a lot from the audience. I didn’t organize it in a chronological way. Since the subject matter is so wide, I can’t go too deep… The film is more like a journey; it’s not an education. I expect people to watch the film and then do a little bit of homework. There is nothing casual in the film; everything is very well thought out. When you first see it, you may miss a lot of things. It’s more like an appetizer. That’s why I think it would be nice to make a book—to go deeper into the subject. (The film) is a journey, going through disco, house, jungle, Detroit techno and getting into how this music was created out of the ‘misuse’ of the synthesizer and…went on to influence the whole world’s youth culture.”

Did you go into the artist interviews with a loose story board?

“I had a book of questions. There were certain topics I’d wanted to discuss, like—what is this culture made of? What is this music made of? How did this music start? It started with kids who had no access to big or expensive equipment. They took these synthesizers that ‘failed,’ according to the original desire of sounding like an acoustic instrument, and used them for what they actually were. These little boxes actually launched this new genre of music and a big revolution of youth culture. The film is really about the impact of the technology in music-making, about how music impacts culture at large and how culture affects music.”

How selective were you about the artists you chose to cover?

“When you are editing, there are so many elements to consider. It’s not only about the good musicians, but also about the way they articulate within the context of the storytelling… The narrative is told by the musicians, but we’re not trying to portray musicians (so much as) trying to reconstruct how things started and where they’ve gone. It’s not really about the best of the best or the who’s who. I feel bad that I can’t use all the interviews, but maybe there will be a second part to this film…”

What lessons did you learn from making Synthetic Pleasures?

“You try to cut corners, but you can’t cut too many because, if your standards are high, you’re just going to keep re-doing everything. This time I used more professional people. I indulged myself in a higher tech way of (filmmaking). Synthetic Pleasures was edited on Steamback, a very low-tech way of doing things. This time we edited everything on the Avid and used computers from start to finish to log everything, digitize, (and) edit; in the end, the whole process is going to be in the digital domain, which does help because of the cumbersome activity of logging all the footage. We needed the computers just to figure out where things were. You do learn, because the process was much more efficient and fast. The first (film) took three-and-a-half years; this one took just one year.”

How big was the crew on Modulations?

“The crew is small. I always have a camera and a sound person—and sometimes an assistant. We have to hop around all over the world. We covered the Berlin Love Parade, went to Sonar in Barcelona, did the Essential Music Festival in England, and visited tons of clubs in New York, Toronto and around the United States. It’s crazy, but I think it’s much more efficient with small crew because the communication is faster. It was a logistical nightmare to go to all of these countries with customs and all our equipment. I did a lot of virtual filmmaking too. I would hire a cameraman in another country and e-mail all my questions. He would get my questions and conduct the interview without my presence, which I had to do to cut costs. Sometimes I had three shoots in one night—one shoot in Montreal, one in Paris, one in England. (As) I couldn’t be in three countries at the same time, this ‘virtual filmmaking’ became the best solution.”

Was the shift in camera styles a matter of style or convenience?

“Most of the film—interviews, for example—was actually shot with digital equipment. My interviews were very lengthy. We could not afford to interview 300 musicians for two hours each with film. The film footage was mainly shot with a Bolex camera, because it’s the least intrusive. We did a lot of experiments with that. When we were in Japan, we had this big crowd dancing, but we didn’t have a high vantage point to shoot from. So my cameraman would repeatedly throw the Bolex into the air to get the footage. When we were shooting the skateboarding kids, my cameraman would chase them on skateboards. The whole style was very experimental. I wanted to incorporate a lot of the glitches like camera roll outs, flares, and jump cuts. All these elements that are considered impurities I wanted to integrate into the style of editing. I think it’s a little bit of what happens with music. We don’t look for clean sounds any more. We use digital technology, but we like the dirt. Some musicians even specialize in making music with glitches. I like the idea of using zeros and ones of digital with the impurities of low resolution.”

How much archival footage did you use?

“This time I filmed a lot of the material. Synthetic Pleasures used a lot of pre-existing material and computer animation by third parties. I would say only 20 percent of Modulations was other people’s material.”

Was it difficult to get all the clearances for the interviews and the music?

“I could become a lawyer now. There’s so much hassle. You would think that because this music is not mainstream it would be easy to deal with. But sometimes it’s more complicated. These underground labels don’t have offices or people sorting out these requests; the record label is often their bedroom. It makes it more difficult. On the other hand, a lot of these small labels are part of a conglomerate like Polygram or Warner Special Products. It becomes very cumbersome to deal with. I’d want to use ten seconds of a track, and they’re trying to charge me $50,000. Ridiculous! It’s kind of sad, because when you’re making a documentary you want support; it’s a document, not a Hollywood picture. But it’s hard to convince people. There was some footage in our film that we had to lose at the last minute because of some problem with permissions. The fact that we got invited to festivals so fast, even before the film was totally locked, gave us very little time to do the clearances. I didn’t want to lock with footage that I would later have to take out and re-cut. Hopefully, after mutilating the film, it’s still going to be good.”

You market your independent films broadly, using soundtracks, books, and clothing. Is that unusual?

“Ultimately, a book is going to complement the movie you’ve created. Most of the films I make have so many tracks that I could put out a soundtrack series. We like to create all the paraphernalia. After I did my first film, we launched a record label; we released six CDs that are doing really well. In 1998, I plan to double that. It’s all integrated, because the research I do for the movie can be used for A&R at the record label, just as the contacts we make at the label can be used for the film. I see art as totally multimedia…not just one isolated thing.”

How do you have enough time to devote to all these projects?

“I sleep very little. Sometimes I wonder if I’m going to drive myself this crazy forever. It’s much more difficult to be simple. It’s easy to get yourself complicated, but to go back to simplicity is very hard. In the end, life is so short that you always have to think about leaving some sort of cultural legacy. There is nothing else you can do. There is a lot of suffering required, but you can only do it for so long without some form of support.”

Have you designed a clothing line for Modulations?

“I did with Synthetic Pleasures, but I haven’t yet for the new film. My sister and I are planning to do something high-tech and related to this music. It’s still not finished. At this point, I’m more into pushing the book project and the soundtrack. But we will do something later.”

Is this a trend other independent filmmakers will pick up on?

“I’m wondering how many filmmakers would be willing to give up their lives to devote their time to this. One has to be willing to run these activities without the support of any big companies. The idea is there, but who wants to do it? It (takes) a lot of organization, a lot of money, and the coordination of different talent. Every medium requires a whole new technicality, and each is its own legal nightmare. If there are filmmakers willing to learn all these aspects, then I can say that I started a trend.”

Will you ever take on a project of such proportions again?

“No. The next adventure will be a fiction film. I’m looking for a screenwriter. I was also thinking of producing other people’s films, using the expertise I got working on these films. I want to work with young, talented filmmakers who want to do their first films.”

How do you plan on distributing Modulations?

“I want to have a small theatrical release. People tell me I’m crazy because nobody wants to go to theaters to see documentaries. But I’m stubborn. With Synthetic Pleasures, I ended up doing the distribution myself. We sent it to 70 cities in the United States and got very good reviews. I’d like to do the same with this one. It’s a lot of work because in America electronic music is just starting to happen. It’s still really underground. I’m trying to team up with some good promoters and have parties with screenings of Modulations. The very first screening will be at Sundance, so we will see. I had some offers for Synthetic Pleasures, but they were so small I felt like the distributors had less power than me. If I get a more high profile offer (for Modulations), I will give them the film. But if it’s something small, I’d rather do it myself. After going all out to make a film, why not make the extra effort to get it shown? Otherwise, there’s no point in working so hard.”


Open Your Eyes and Ears To These Music-Themed Movies ”Modulations” — Exploring the diverse roots of today’s electronica means navigating a circuitous route from Germany’s Kraftwerk to the South Bronx’s Afrika Bambaataa. It also means catching up with practitioners such as DJ Spooky and Roni Size, who probably weren’t even known when filming for this movie started. Director Iara Lee has put together a cogent picture of the streams of experimental music that flowed together to create the new sound of electronic music — from Robert Moog to Prodigy, from hip-hop pioneer Arthur Baker to dance-music maestro Moby — all splashed together on a bright, throbbing canvas of sound and film, a vivid pastiche that reflects the rugged vitality of the music.


With One Job On Ice, Gund Rejoins Festival

Just hours after the San Jose Sharks were eliminated from the National Hockey League playoffs, team owner George Gund III was squeezing oranges in the kitchen of his Cow Hollow home. He kept going until there was enough juice for everyone at the brunch he and his wife, Iara Lee, threw Sunday to celebrate the Bay Area premiere of “Modulations” — her documentary about machine-made music — at the San Francisco International Film Festival.

It’s not as if Gund, scion of a family whose worth Forbes magazine has put at $ 2.1 billion, can’t afford help. “Nobody can do it the way I do,” he explained.

Gund, 60, also has a knack for mixing seemingly divergent interests such as hockey and international cinema. The only good thing about the Sharks’ loss is that Gund, chairman of the film festival’s board of directors, will be able to attend the last days of the festival.

While guests helped themselves to scrambled eggs and fruit on the terrace, Lee talked about how she first met Gund at the Munich film festival in 1988. Her job as a programmer for the Sao Paulo festival took her to film festivals around the world. “Every one I was at, George was there. He’s a film festival junkie,” she said, laughing.

When they married five years ago, “I’m sure people raised their eyebrows because of our age difference,” said Lee, who at 32 is 28 years younger than her husband. But they appear happy, bonded in part by their love of film, which has now expanded to making films together.

With “Modulations” and her first documentary, “Synthetic Pleasures” (about how technology has made artificial realities possible), Lee has become a chronicler of “the lifestyles of the hip and happening,” as one film critic put it. But she doubts that she would be a filmmaker if it weren’t for her husband.

Not only has he helped finance both films, on which he is listed as producer, “but he’s also been a tremendous psychological support,” Lee said. “Sometimes I get discouraged. It’s hard to get acceptance for the kind of films I make. But for George, difficulties just make him stronger. It’s not about immediate acceptance. He’s always looking to the future.”

“Modulations” shows at 4:15 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Kabuki.


Marc Weidenbaum

Director Iara Lee has made something of a career of focusing on the role of technology in our lives. Her 1996 documentary, “Synthetic Pleasures,” surveyed a who’s who of contemporary futurists and other professional geeks, from virtual reality innovator Jaron Lanierto Mondo 2000 founder R.U. Sirius to web community guru Howard Rheingold. It also had one of the best soundtracks in recent memory–certainly for a documentary–collecting electronica by Terre Thaemlitz, Single Cell Orchestra, Pete Namlook, Deren Verhagen, and others. The “Synthetic Pleasures” companion CD became the flagship of Lee’s record label, Caipirinha Music. No surprise, then, that Lee’s follow-up film, “Modulations,” is all about electronica. It’s a veritable audio-visual kaleidoscope, featuring interviews, recordings, and live performances from some of the genre’s most innovative current musicians (Alec Empire, Oval, Scanner), and some of its most important founders (Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Henry, Holger Czukay). What results isn’t simply a montage of the history of one genre, but an extended meditation on the role of computers and other machines in the creative process.

Lee: When I started off, I wondered: am I doing a film about music or a film as an excuse to talk about culture at large. In the end it’s not about the technicalities of making electronic music; it’s about philosophical questions. This is what happened to the first film, “Synthetic Pleasures”–it’s not about face value, and it’s not about the latest Macintosh, the latest technology. It’s what we do with all this power we gain–the technology and how it reflects society at large. It’s more internal, not just about the latest trends, like jungle; I can go back to Stockhausen, Pierre Henry, musique concrete. I’m very proud that we included the pioneers. It’s fascinating to see how they impacted the kids.

CitySearch7: How knowledgeable did you find the various contemporary musicians about their forefathers? Lee: Very influenced but in a very nonconscious way. Some are very articulate; some do it in a very instinctive way but it’s still highly intellectual.There were a lot of different personalities, but I think the electronic musicians tend to be more introspective and more intellectually stimulating than pop or rock musicians.

CitySearch7: Was anyone particularly well spoken?

Lee: These people from Ninja Tune [the independent British electronic label] are definitely very interesting. Matt Black [one of the label heads] was a highlight. He brought exactly the philosophical issues–that this is the culture of hybrid, it’s not enough to just have the machine, it’s not enough to be 100 percent human, but it’s the combination of analog and digital and how you play with sound and, in particular, with visuals. You know, how do you really push the chemistry and the synergy of the human and the machine? And David Toop [author of “Ocean of Sound,” a 1995 book about ambient music], on the other hand, is like, “Yeah, but it’s so much that we give up our humanism and let the machines take over.” It’s an interesting discussion. I think it’s…I like that I give you Prodigy and then Future Sound of London. One, Future Sound of London, did its interview over the ISDN line. Liam from Prodigy was; “This is about the flesh, the body, and the stage presence, and here I am; I’m not interested in hiding behind the computers.”

CitySearch7: Did you interview Achim Szepanski, who runs Mille Plateaux Records in Germany?

He’s very well spoken on the subject.

Lee: He was in the hospital for a long time, for being overworked. He runs all these labels–Mille Plateaux, Force Inc., Chrome. And me, I have a few assistants and people running the label, and he was just the one person in his office. I think he had a nervous breakdown. People thought he went away on vacation, but he was home; he wouldn’t answer the phone or come to the door.

CitySearch7: In the movie one of the fellows from FSoL says that he’s not a musician but a collage artist. As a documentary filmmaker whose work consists of snippets of interviews with a number of people, what do you think of his statement?

Lee: I think the question is totally relevant, because it’s about building mosaics. Bill Laswell [the producer and bass player] continued the discussion [in the film], because it’s like we’ve done everything and the only way to get anywhere new is to combine the past and the present, and that experimentation will make something new. That’s exactly what’s happening with electronic music. You mix and match, you cut and you edit, and you change it around; a lot of things are sampled.

CitySearch7: When you were done making the film, did you look at your technology a different way?

Lee: I was not a computer nerd when I started “Synthetic Pleasures.” I would only use Microsoft Word, and I realized I was a victim of my own dilemma. It totally evolved, my interaction with technology. Is that what the question was?

CitySearch7: Well, more specifically, did you have a different relation with your film equipment. Do you feel closer to your machines?

Lee: I have to agree that I do. I have given up on desktop computers. I just have my G3 everywhere. I always have to buy another battery because if I’m on a plane I’m going to be working all the time. You know, we say that machines have no feelings. But they really interact with you like humans. I think humans have a sense of superiority, compared with plants, animals. But I think we coexist. We have this love-hate relationship with machines. It’s something you don’t find so much with girls. This woman wrote this article for the New York Times, “Where Are the Women in Electronic Music?” I make fun of myself–I tell my friends, look at my bag, no makeup, nothing for girls, just beepers and cell phone and computer. I think there’s a new wave of women getting hold of the technology, being creative. It’s a very slow process. The film is so politically incorrect. A lot will say it’s a boy’s club. I did speak with Laurie Anderson and Andrea Parker…but when you’re editing the film you can’t say, oh I have a black guy, now I need a white guy; a boy, now a girl. I’m going to be crucified. As a woman, I would first say it’s not about being politically correct, but about showing today’s situation. But I do believe that women will get a hold of the technology and create art. I never thought I’d start with documentaries. I totally go with the curiosity point of view, surround myself with consultants and people who are experts, and take this big journey. It’s good I start with this fresh perspective, because if I’m learning and I am entertaining myself I can do that with the audience, and the biggest task is how do you capture the attention of the experts and not make this a basic, watered-down, silly version, and how do you also [interest] the people who are not exposed to this culture. When I did the first film, all the Wired editors were so into it and on the other hand people who don’t even have computers are so into it.

CitySearch7: Was “Modulations” a natural progression?

Lee: It’s absolutely a natural progression, and a more focused topic, because “Synthetic Pleasures” was almost a pilot for a series, and people told me now you have to investigate these different subjects in detail. And I was like, no forget it, I won’t do it and all of a sudden “Modulations” started and it was exactly what people wanted me to do: take a subject in detail. So it is a natural progression. On the other hand, I’m going to go to the other extreme. The next film is a narrative film, my first narrative film. It’s going to shoot in Brazil. I’m adapting a 19th-century novel by our greatest writer in he portuguese language, Machado De Assis.

CitySearch7: I thought the poet Fernando Pessoa was the greatest writer in the Portuguese language.

Lee: In Portugal. Machado is from Brazil. The novel is a little bit like Shakespeare’s “Othello,” even more tragic; there’s this sense of mysteryand you can never tell what happened.

CitySearch7: Did the Internet play a role in the production of your movie?

Lee: I think, yeah, a very crucial role–research for example. I am not an expert in electronic music, at least when I first started; now I am halfway there because I have a very extensive library of CDs, but when I first started with this curiosity to get into it the Internet helped to find information on Stockhausen, to be in touch with all the electronic music writers in England.

CitySearch7: Do you find releasing records as rewarding as making films?

Lee: Absolutely, because films are very cumbersome things to do, and CDs–in the year 1998 I am releasing 15 CDs and working with those musicians. Film is such a long, laborious, expensive, cumbersome, logistically crazy medium, and CDs are very intimate, more personal. You find a musician who makes great music, and you get together, talk, create the CD; you can market it, get it to the store two months later. I can have something very long-term with the filmmaking and have recurring pleasure with CD releases.

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

Gregg Rickman, Michael Sragow, Jeff Stark, Gary Morris, Heather Wisner

The follow-up to last year’s cult-hit subculture documentary Synthetic Pleasures, Iara Lee’s Modulations bravely takes on the daunting task of telling the history of electronic music in the 20th century, from John Cage’s noise experiments to Prodigy’s chart-topping techno rock. Much like the music she covers, Modulations is a cut-and-mix job, her camera leapfrogging across the planet — from Mount Fuji to Detroit to Chicago to Berlin — to snag interviews with some of the music’s major players from the past and present: LTJ Bukem, Robert Moog, Can, DJ Spooky, even S.F.’s own local turntable maestros Invisibl Skratch Piklz. Interspersing the interviews with some Koyaanisqatsi-style shots of urban landscapes, the film has an appropriately ambient, pleasant feel to it. However, while Lee’s juggling of history — moving from Kraftwerk’s ’70s to Atari Teenage Riot’s ’90s to John Cage’s ’40s — might be intriguing for viewers familiar with the artists, those looking for a straightforward introduction to the so-called “electronica” world might be left with more questions than answers — and wondering if in the end it’s really anything more than, as Moog puts it, “the hot-rodding of the ’90s.” (Mark Athitakis)


SOMA | 04/29/98


American popular culture has been battling against electronic music for the past 20 years: It’s been viewed as robotic, Teutonic, foreign, cloning, and deviant… the ultimate synthetic sin. But in her new documentary, Modulations ( airing at select events worldwide), 32 year-old Brazilian-born filmmaker Iara Lee celebrates popular music’s evolution into the realm of techno-culture. The New York-based visual artist researched and constructed her own history of electronic music (much exists in hard copy, but in regionalized, genre-fied doses), interviewed its luminary musicians and journalists, and produced a film that is its own work of art.

It was only natural that Lee, the director of Synthetic Pleasures – the 1996 documentary about our experiences with artificial realities-would move on to make a documentary defining the history of electronic music. She made no judgments about technology in Synthetic Pleasures, covering all of its beauty and its ugliness: from an indoor beach complete with man-made waves to a grotesque re constructive surgery. With Modulations, Lee puts a human face on the faceless phenomenon of electronic music, giving it a rich history based both in classical experimentation, ghetto escapism, and timeworn youth rebellion.

The film is a visual mix-tape and Lee is its DJ: cutting and scratching, backspinning and pasting images, her scenes flow with the music, which ranges from composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s high-minded electronic blips to the Invisbl Skratch Piklz’ turntable battle skills. In between we see “musique concrete” founder Pierre Henry, disco disciple Giorgio Moroder, hip-hop entrepreneur Arthur Baker, spaced-out rapper Afrika Bambaataa, Detroit techno torchbearer Derrick May, techno gurus Future Sound of London (via ISDN), and drum-and-bass DJ LTJ Bukem. All the while British music journalist Kodwo Eshun and Simon Reynolds act as translators, taking us through the different eras, movements, and genres.

She also takes us around the world for a taste of the different parties where this music is played. We go from Berlin’s annual summer rave, “Love Parade,” which regularly attracts over one-million dance-music fanatics, to a New York underground party to a rave in Japan to an ISDN concert put on by Future Sound of London in the U. K. For the devoted dance-music fan, Lee’s research is impressive; if any luminary was left out, it wasn’t from lack of trying. Though the film runs a little more than two hours, its feels like a bullet-train ride through the digital soundscape.

The film was funded by Lee’s husband, George Gund, who co-owns the San Jose Sharks hockey team, and who is a regular benefactor to the arts from coast to coast. Lee, a New York University film school graduate with three other short films under her belt, plans on producing a companion book and CD to be released next year in conjunction with the video distribution of Modulations . She is already at work on her debut feature film, an adaptation of the 19th-century Brazilian novelist Machado de Assis’ Dom Casmurro. We spoke to Lee recently about her new film.

SOMA: Congratulations. Modulations was an evolution from Synthetic Pleasures. This time you seem to celebrate technology a little bit more.

LEE: This is supposed to be a little bit of an improvement, but with the same kind of fluid, experimental style. I’m not an expert on the subjects I choose, so I feel like it’s a journey. But it has given me a lot of pleasure when people prejudiced against the music come out with a new perspective.

SOMA: With Synthetic Pleasures, we weren’t sure if you were celebrating hyper reality or were afraid of it.

LEE: How do we use technology to enhance creativity? People talk about how others hide behind their computers. But we can use technology to enhance creativity, and kids are doing that. Technology created a revolution in youth culture. Bedroom musicians who don’t have formal musical training are calling themselves musicians. What is it to be a musician nowadays?

SOMA: What inspired you to make Modulations?

LEE: Frustration. I was trying to release the soundtrack to Synthetic Pleasures. You spend so much tome and energy trying to convince record labels to release this kind of music. So I decided I’ll just launch my own record label {which takes its name from her production company, Caipirinha }. I had every electronic musician’s home number because of the record label, so that helped a lot. I also said to myself, “Life is short, might as well leave a cultural legacy.”

SOMA: Do you consider yourself a post modernist in the tradition of, say, Jean Baudrillard or Umberto Eco?

LEE: I’m far from being that intellectual. I do appreciate their work. I’m trying to bridge the gap between high art and low art. I’m trying to get people to explore their preconceived values. Anything can be music. And I tried to include some of these musical techniques in the video medium-camera roll-out and flare and overexposure-all these impurities that people don’t normally include in the final cut. I was interviewing musicians who said the equipment they use is too perfect, and that they had to use equipment that introduced impurities into the music. They were hungry for organic impurity.

SOMA: In Modulations you seem to cut and cross-fade like a video DJ.

LEE: Film is a very linear medium, so it was a pain to get this fluid movement without making the film chaotic. I had to really, really play with the structure of the film and be experimental. People have prejudice against traditional documentary films because they contain a lot of talking heads and are not sonically stimulating. I did everything I could to avoid the PBS formula. I even had a problem calling it a documentary. It’s more of a journey film. I show it in club environments where we precede live music performances. This summer we [visited] a lot of the dance events we filmed last year, this time with the final product. Just putting it in a movie theater is not going to do it. We’ve been talking to MTV about airing it. And technology allows us to be involved in so many areas of art making. Why just be a filmmaker? I can be involved in the music and fashion too. [Lee created a line of Synthetic Pleasures clothing to coincide with that film.]


SOMA: It sounded like you added your own organic sounds to Modulations, such as the train…. and I noticed you actually matched the beat when you switched from footage of different club DJs.

LEE: In the early 1900s, Luigi Russolo wrote that we could go beyond these cliché ideas of melody in The Art of Noise. In the 1950’s these people in France would take sounds from nature and manipulate them. This is very inspiring. Anyone can do it.

SOMA: What technical challenges did you face shooting the film: sound, darkness, rowdy ravers…?

LEE: Ninety percent of my problems involved trying to get through club crowds with all the equipment. This culture is so anti media. They’re not even interested in the publicity. They’re almost hiding from the media. People are just not cooperative. It made it challenging, but I knew where they were coming from and could sympathize. When I was with [New York house DJ] Danny Tenaglia, he told me to come to the club at midnight. I came at midnight. Then he said to come back at 2 a.m., that it would be better then. I came back at 2 a.m. Then he said to come back at 4 a.m. Then he said to come back at 5 a.m., that it’s going to peak at 5 a.m.

SOMA: You seemed to get all the right people. Was there anyone who was hard to get, or difficult to interview? Any big egos?

LEE: Egos are everywhere. The most articulate people were the journalists. They are constantly thinking and considering the repercussions of the culture. They give context to what the musicians are creating. With others, it was a combination of pulling teeth and hundreds of hours listening to people mumble. We were actively shooting and editing the whole year of ’97. Every week we needed more gigabytes of disk-drive space to digitize it all. You need a lot of interesting material to cut a two-hour film. I knew I needed to gather a lot of footage and do a lot of archival research.

SOMA: I Was disappointed that you didn’t represent more of West Coast dance music culture…

LEE: I tried to avoid making it too British. If it’s not included, I just couldn’t do it. Like Brian Eno. He was just not available. Kraftwerk was not available. I wanted Gary Numan and Aphex Twin. This is very complex culture and there was no way I could cover it all.

SOMA: Even with the popularity of electronic music in the last two years, it has been a mysterious genre, with visions of mad scientists tweaking computers in their bedrooms late at night. Did you set out to put a face to this music?

LEE: You have these different extremes within the culture. You have the stage presence of Prodigy and then you have Future Sound of London, totally behind-the-scenes musicians. I ask the question, “Do we use technology to isolate ourselves, or to be more together? How far should the machines go?” I think the underground is only for a nanosecond. It’s almost like an illusion. I already see the commercialization of this music, and I wanted to capture it before it went downhill.

SOMA: In a century that created blues, jazz, and rock, how important do you think electronic music will be in retrospect?

LEE: I tend to think its about combining the elements. Different experiences for different types. Electronic music doesn’t make acoustic music less valid. The people who are mixing different styles and elements are the ones who are doing the interesting work. The prejudice should be thrown away. One has to try it all. You see the influence of history on jungle and techno. I like the hybrids, analog, and digital together.

SOMA: You touched on this notion in both Synthetic Pleasures and Modulations, that humanity has become so clever at creating and isolating units of pleasure. In the case of electronic music, an attractive note or sound can be looped ad nauseam. Is there such a thing as too much of a good thing?

LEE: I starting listening to the music, and I said, “It’s all disposable. Where’s the good stuff?” The drawback of availability is that there’s a lot of bad stuff. But I think it’s better to have it all than to be elitist. People thought they were going to save time with computers. Now they work harder. Technology is a double-edged sword. I think the music is interesting because anyone can do it. But the good stuff floats to the top. The real gems are still very special. One just has to work harder to find them. That’s why we are doing a book on this culture. Look at the influence disco has had.

SOMA: Indeed, it seems like we are experiencing disco’s revenge in pop music at the moment.

LEE: We are detached enough now to evaluate its impact. People tend to reject this pop element of electronic music, but it really started it all.

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

Paul Zach


Modulations is a must-see and hear especially for those wondering what the electronic buzz is all about.

“People have a cliched idea of what a melody is …” -Bill Laswell, record producer.

THE dazzling selection at the annual Singapore International Film Festival, which opens tonight, includes another gem for music-lovers — Modulations by Brazil-born American-Asian director Iara Lee.

At last year’s fest, she took us on a fascinating and frightening journey through our increasingly-plastic world of Synthetic Pleasures. This time, she focuses her lenses -and mikes -on a specific facet of this world, electronic music.

That makes Modulations the perfect sequel not just to her earlier film but also to another documentary screened at last year’s fest on the birth of grunge and the Hype! -as the movie was called -that killed it. Interestingly, today’s electronic artists play down the hype that has now engulfed their own genre.

“It’s just sounds. It’s just noise,” says Britain’s Talvin Singh, who put together last year’s Anokha, Soundz of the Asian Underground. “But organised -organised noise, organised sounds.” Nor are they under any illusions that they are doing something new.

“It started with electronic music reproduction,” says American techno’s Money Mark.

In fact, electronic music even predates rock. No less than the late jazz legend, Miles Davis -whose electronic experiments were savaged by so-called jazz purists who had once sung his praises -looked back as far as Bach. He became aware of that while working on his critically-reviled 1972 album, On The Corner.

“I had begun to realise that some of the things Ornette Coleman had said about things being played three or four ways, independently of each other, were true because Bach had also composed that way,” Davis wrote in his autobiography.

Modulations traces modern electronica roots back to Luigi Russolo’s The Art Of Noises, a manifesto for the deconstruction of melody and harmony. He published it in 1913.

It also has amazing footage of a young John Cage, the experimental composer who, in 1937, realised: “Electrical instruments will make available any and all sounds that can be heard.”

Lee has spliced together expertly clips of more than 70 artists — old and new -and others, talking about the art of noise. She samples clips of a performance here, computer animation there, historical footage everywhere and sets this visual collage against a pulsating barrage of electronica.

She hip-hops between past and present and genre-jumps from drum-and-bass to fusion to ambient, from children smashing their toys to Ken Ishii, Orbital, and LTJ Bukem thrashing keyboards and twiddling knobs.

In the process, the film itself becomes the equivalent of the latest disc of remixes out of a Detroit techno factory or from Britain’s Wall Of Sound label. That makes it as entertaining and exciting as it is illuminating.

One minute we are introduced to present-day Bristol junglist Roni Size, the next we see France’s ’50s musique concrete pioneer Pierre Henry working, and American Arthur Baker reminiscing about how he built Afrika Bambaataa’s classic Planet Rock atop Trans-Europe Express by Germany’s Kraftwerk.

There are scenes of Karlheinz breaking sound barriers by running a microphone over a Chinese gong. And of the inventor of the synthesizer, Robert Moog, fooling around with Leon Theremin’s even earlier invention. In a key segment about midway through the movie’s 75 minutes, Lee’s frenetic cameras come to rest on Davis’ long-time producer -Teo Macero -doing exactly what today’s electronic artistes do, without modern technology.

He took analog tapes of Davis and his bands jamming and literally cut-and-pasted them -into modern masterpieces such as Corner and In A Silent Way.

“I consider the studio a musical instrument. I toy with it all the time,” a still-vibrant Macero says. If Davis did not like the result, he says he remixed it again.

Of course, today’s technophobes are following in his footsteps. At the outset of Modulations, Moog provides a fitting analogy for these offspring of Macero, Cage and Stockhausen.

“When I was a kid, cars were the thing. You hot-rodded. Today, it’s computers and synthesizers,” he says. “Electronic music is the hot-rodding of the ’90s.”

* Modulations will be screened at the Majestic theatre on Saturday, April 25 at 9.15 pm. Tickets are $ 8. You can hear the music of Ken Ishii, Orbital, the MGM soundtracks and more on Zach’s Trax at 10 pm on Monday on Radio Heart 91.3



In her films, New York-based Korean director Iara Lee explores how technology interacts with creativity.

WHEN Iara Lee gets good at one thing, she stops doing it and starts doing something she does not know how to do. “One needs to be ready to start from scratch all the time,” she says. “I always start my projects from that point of view. I don’t know anything about it and I just totally immerse myself. I surround myself with expert consultants and people who really know the material.”

She feels this helps her bring a fresh perspective to what might sound like turgid topics — the impact of technology on the world, for instance.

“I’m always interested in investigating how technology enhances creativity,” she says.

Indeed, it is an approach that has turned the Brazil-born, New York-based 32-year-old Korean into a film director who is opening people’s eyes -and ears -to the changing world.

Lee was here over the weekend for the screening of her second full-length feature, Modulations, at the Singapore International Film Festival.

The movie premiered earlier this year at Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival in the United States. In it, Lee splashes the screen with a compelling collage of interviews, cutting-edge visuals, studio footage and live performances to explore the world of electronic music. It leads her to the controversial conclusion that the synthesizer -and its computer relatives -have not only enhanced creativity, but have made the world more democratic. This is especially true for the young, who seem to know the ins and outs of bits and bytes and hardware and software, she says. “Just a few years ago, kids had no power. Now, with all this technology, they’re the ones who have the power,” she smiles.

Modulations is rare among documentaries in that it will be shown commercially at US cinemas. It is a spin-off from her first movie, Synthetic Pleasures. That film wowed audiences at more than 50 movie festivals worldwide, including Singapore’s last year. It played in more than 70 cities in the US and received rave reviews in such publications as The New York Times, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle and Paper magazine.

Lee said Synthetic Pleasures started out as a short film about a giant indoor beach in Japan. “I just thought it was a surreal thing. But then it grew to encompass the whole artificial world -landscapes, beauty, sex, even intelligence,” she says. Audiences came out as frightened as they were fascinated. Lee had left them wondering whether reality was obsolete. “What isn’t artificial these days?” she asks with a knowing wink, referring to her own chosen career field.

She became interested in making movies after running the film festival in Sao Paola in Brazil, where she lived for five years. It was also one of the many interests of George Gund, a native of Cleveland, Ohio whom she met at the Munich Film Festival in the mid-’80s. A renaissance man to her renaissance woman, he divided his time between San Francisco and New York and the worlds of ice hockey, basketball, Asian and native American art and film.

In 1991, she entered the film programme at New York University, finishing all four years of it in just 2-1/2 years. She also directed and produced three widely-seen short experimental films.

The first, Prufrock -based on a poem by T. S. Eliot -was narrated by a friend, film star Matt Dillon. The second was based on one of Raymond Carver’s short stories, Neighbors. The third, Autumn Wind, was shot in the temples of Kyoto against contemporary haiku poems, written and recited by beat poet Allen Ginsberg.

In 1993, Lee and Gund found time to get married. He now produces her movies through a company he named Caipirinha Productions, much to the dismay of their lawyers. “They want us to change it. They can’t pronounce it, spell it, don’t know what it is,” she laughs. Caipirinha, a Brazilian brandy made from very potent sugar-cane, does describe the impact of her films, however. Gund insisted the name be kept.

Like her movies, her interests and technology, Lee finds the company “mutating into different media”. “With all this technology nowadays, artists can express themselves in different media like film, music, fashion, technology,” she says. Synthetic Pleasures spawned a fashion show with a collection designed by her sister Jussara (like Iara, it is a Brazilian Indian name). She used the finest synthetic material from Switzerland for that. Both movies have also turned Lee into a record producer. She is finishing work on the third and last volume of music from Synthetic Pleasures. She also plans to release a three-volume set of electronic music from Modulations. She has also begun developing the script for her first non-documentary feature film. It will be an adaptation of a 19th-century Brazilian novel, Dom Casmurro, a powerful story of love and betrayal by the celebrated author, Machado de Assis. She plans to update the story and film it in Brazil, but in English with an international cast -probably including Dillon. “It’s about the human mind, the craziness of the mind,” Lee says and notes that another of her favourite themes will also rear its head again. “What is perception? What is reality?”



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


in synthetic pleasures , filmaker iara lee explored the relationship between technology and entertainment, touching on such subjects as designer drugs and raving. her new film, modulations delves into the history of electronic music. ” i was gonna start from kraftwerk on, but i realized this goes back to the futurist in the ’20s,” the director says. “it’s not just a trend.” lee, a 32-year-old who also operates the electronic label caipirinha, says she came to appreciate the way computers and samplers let to “the empowerment of kids– i like the idea of little bedroom studios everywhere. i’ve always been interested in how technology affects perception,” she continues, “as well as the ways technology enhances creativity.” lee’s next movieis an adaptation of a 19th century brazilian novel, a far different sort of challenge than modulations for which she interviewed over 100 musicians around the world. “one of the highlights was to talk to matt black from coldcut, who says this movement is not about analog or digital– it’s how you combine things.”

Tamara Palmer

while many documentaries on the subject of electronic music have gone into productions, few have emerged completed. even fewer have the cohesiveness of iara lee’s modulations . much more passionate and well-researched than her previous outing synthetic pleasures (which described artificial realities such as plastic surgery, cryogenics and regulated indoor beaches). modulations takes an ambitious bite at trying to demystify the giant umbrella of electronic musics, traveling the globe to speak to sources as disparate as giorgio moroder, karlheinz stockhausen, panacea, derrick carter, marshall jefferson, ken ishii and the invisibl skratch piklz (who are just priceless here, as usual).

such a huge sweep will inevitably leave holes (females and west coast artists in particular could havehad more attention), but lee nonetheless hands in a stimulating, wide-ranging gumbo of musical notions. she also manages to keep structure to this hubbub, building drama as well as comic relief (predictably provided by mixmaster morris and future sound of london, respectively). particularly satisfying are the creative, cinematic bits interspersed throughout to help illustrate music’s potential visually. and the sequence which contrasts the different sorts of techno that emanate from new york , tokyo and london with their respective urban environments is brilliant. don’t miss.

modulations: directred by iara lee, consultant writer peter shapiro, produced by george gund.

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.

VARIETY | 05/04/98
Monica Roman


“Ugh, I have to go to another premiere tonight!” is a common lament in an industry where attending a party is, indeed, often just another form of work. It’s all too easy for jaded industryites to forget that attending a star-studded preem and an exclusive afterparty can be a thrill for civilians. Giving the public the chance to be on the list is part of the successful marketing program behind New York’s Gen Art Film Festival, now in its third year. Despite the proliferation of film festivals in and around Gotham, Gen Art has carved out a niche for itself with a simple mandate — “Seven premieres, seven parties.” Most of the 4,000 ticketholders to this year’s Gen Art fest, which began last Wednesday and runs through Tuesday, will never get the opportunity to attend the opening night of the New York Film Festival. And many Gen Art patrons may be too squeamish to take advantage of the more egalitarian admissions policy at the edgy New York Underground Film Festival.

This year’s Gen Art attendees will see the New York premiere of such indie films as Adam Bernstein’s “Six Ways to Sunday,” S.R. Bindler’s “Hands on a Hardbody” and Marcus Spiegel’s “The Farmhouse.” And they’ll celebrate afterward at such Gotham hotspots as Life, the Kit Kat Klub and Spy. By limiting itself to a small number of films, Gen Art has developed a loyal following among New York’s twentysomethings. “Our format is totally unique. No other film festival is so focused on so few filmmakers,” said Ian Gerard, exec director of Gen Art. Together with his brother Stefan Gerard and Melissa Newman, Ian Gerard founded the nonprofit organization Gen Art four years ago to showcase emerging talent in the visual arts to their peers. In addition to the film fest, Gen Art sponsors traveling fine arts exhibitions and fashion shows.

One-third of the Gen Art Film Festival’s budget is generated through ticket sales, according to Gerard, while the remainder comes from the backing of corporate sponsors such as Finlandia Vodka, Datek Online, Evian and the New York Times. Gen Art has put together an admirable film advisory board that includes such indie stalwarts as Robert Hawk, Ted Hope, Peter Newman, Ruby Lerner, Christine Vachon and others.

With rare exceptions, the films that screen in the Gen Art film festival have not yet found a theatrical distributor. Two years ago, Brad Anderson’s feature debut “The Darien Gap” was picked up by Northern Arts Entertainment for a limited run the same night that it screened at Gen Art. Anderson’s sophomore effort “Next Stop Wonderland” was acquired at this year’s Sundance Film Festival by Miramax Films, which signed a three-pic deal with the director and his producer Mitchell Robbins. “At most festivals, they’re trying to cram in as many films as possible. But the structure of Gen Art — one film, one party — prevents filmmakers from getting lost in the shuffle. You really feel like it’s your night,” said Anderson.

Last year’s Gen Art fest helped land distribution deals for three of its entries. Tim Blake Nelson’s feature debut “Eye of God” was acquired by Castle Hill Films, Stratosphere Entertainment picked up Dan Zukovic’s “The Last Big Thing” and Nick Veronis’ “Day at the Beach” was nabbed by Arrow Entertainment.

Gen Art also has served as a launching pad for such self-distributed films as Iara Lee’s “Synthetic Pleasures,” which ultimately played at more than 100 festivals. This year, Lee is back at Gen Art with “Modulations,” a kaleidoscopic tour of the rave music scene.


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.

WIRED NEWS | 01/02/98
Jacob Silverman

“We must break out of this limited circle of sounds and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds,” he wrote. Russolo would likely be tickled with the path electronic music has taken during the past three decades. Various musical explorers, including Karlheinz Stockhausen, Brian Eno, and Afrika Bambaataa, have used cutting-edge technologies to chart new sonic territories.

Their works are among those examined in Modulations, a new documentary by Iara Lee Pleasures) that premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Using the writings of Russolo and the sounds of John Cage as starting points, Modulations travels through ’70s disco, Kraftwerk’s all-synth music, and the birth of house music, making a case for electronic music as a major 20th century art form.

Considerable attention is paid to electronic music’s role in youth culture. Footage from packed raves and clubs in New York City, London, Osaka, and Berlin (where the annual Love Parade attracts 1.5 million visitors) indicate the popularity of electronica. “In my day, cars were hot-rodded,” says Robert Moog, inventor of the popular synthesizer, in Modulations. “These days, its computers and synthesizers.” One segment of the film explores the rise of homemade house music during some of Detroit’s bleakest days and puts a socio-political spin on the techno movement. “We learned that technology can power creativity,” said Lee. “Kids out of the ghetto used cheap, second-hand synthesizers to start a musical revolution…. Most of these kids don’t even read music or play an instrument, but they create incredible sounds. They don’t need classical training. They just turn their ideas into actuality.”

In assembling Modulations, Lee became something of a wired filmmaker, hiring camera operators and using emailed lists of questions to conduct interviews in distant cities. One night, she interviewed three DJs in three different cities. Among the 300 people Lee spoke with were producer Bill Laswell, New York’s DJ Spooky, disco king Giorgio Moroder, and Liam Howlett of Prodigy. Shot on video and blown up to 35mm, Modulations has a grainy, underground texture. Its narrative rack, which jumps from theme to theme and city to city, is disjointed. Both its grain and its fractured nature are apparently by design.

“The film is nonlinear because the music is nonlinear,” Lee said. “It is a fragmented culture. It is also a disposable one.” “So much of this music is made in bedrooms,” Lee explains, “I felt it was my job to record the jams and expose them to a wider audience.”

Among the converts is George Gund, Lee’s producer and husband. “I used to think electronic music was like getting hit on the head with a rubber hammer,” he said. “But there are so many gifted artists making this kind of music. We’ll be hearing more and more of it in the years to come.”

XLR8R | 1998
Lindsay Becker


It’s about time some one came out with a movie documenting the international electronic dance music world that is accurate and entertaining for both scenesters and outsiders. Caipirinha Production’s, Modulations is a fast-paced, funny and candid ride through the history and present of electronic music. Director Iara Lee illustrates electronic music in a way no other documentary has been able to do, mixing her images and interviews as a DJ would mix their dub plates, Lee tracks the origins of dance music and guides us through a complex timeline using on-screen interviews with the originators of the sounds. When we interviewed Iara Lee, who shot hundreds of hours of film in the making of the movie, we found out that she “sometimes feels making a movie is a little bit like running an army.” Here’s what the commanding officer had to say….

Coming from an outsider’s perspective, what were you hoping to find and prove with your film?

If you are too much a part of the scene, you may lose perspective. I came in with no prejudices or pre-conceived ideas. If I could learn and be amused, the audience would feel that way too. Obviously I did surround myself with experts. Peter Shapiro, our film writer, was the brain of the film, he is an incredible writer and also a walking encyclopedia. I made this film because I feel music has always defined culture at large and vice versa, therefore a film on electronic music was, for me, a good way of studying youth culture and culture at large, i.e. “how is electronic music a catalyst in the process of changing trends, philosophies, and ways of life?” When I started the research, I asked myself, “Is this music disposable and therefore the culture that surrounds it disposable, or does it have more cultural relevance than we could predict?”.

What audience did you have in mind when making the film?

This is a film for everyone. It is meant to entertain the converted and educate and perhaps induce the nay-sayers to rethink their ideas on electronic music. What is interesting about this music is the concept that it started with early electronic experimentalists like the futurist Russolo or even John Cage who stated, “What is music?” If any noise or dust of sound can be considered music, then we can all do it. We are facing this reality now, we are using technology to twist preconceived ideas of music making. We are using technology to be more creative. We have come very far, it is a very exciting time.

Did you find it hard to get the musicians to explain to you in words what they generally use music to explain?

Absolutely, most of these artists spend their entire day in front of their computers, fiddling with knobs, wires, equipment. They are more like scientists of sounds than pop stars. Musicians nowadays are pretty much conceptual artists and sometimes introspective ones.

Which were you more concerned with: the diversity (musical genre, race, sex) or the content of you film? There are more men making electronic music than women. Why do you think that is?

Technology related activities are still very much a boys club, but I tend to think it is changing rapidly. We, the girls, are becoming nerdettes, taking over the gear to create too. When making this film I wasn’t trying to be politically correct so that if I had a black DJ, I had to have a Japanese DJ, and then a white producer, and then a female artist. The music and what the artists had to contribute to the narrative of the film was more important than their gender or race.

Give us a filming anecdote.

For some reason every time I go to Japan to film, there is always a typhoon. When we got to mount Fuji, I basically thought the Rainbow 2000 event was going to be canceled. This is another proof that the whole thing is about the music. The stage had to be wrapped up with plastic to avoid the equipment from getting soaked but the kids did not stop dancing. It was a great feeling to witness that. The event was big, but my crew did not have a crane for a high angle vantage point, so my director of photography came up with the idea of throwing the Bolex up in the air to catch the high angle shot. It looked incredibly surreal. I encourage the audience to look for that shot.


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We are very excited that Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Ehsani’s newest documentary, “Water Will Take Us,” is now screening at festivals. Check out the trailer! The film delves into the effectsof climate change in Iran, from water shortages to catastrophicfloods. Three women narrate the story, uncovering the causes andmismanagement that led to flooding in 2019.If you're in Seia, Portugal there will be a screening of “WaterWill Take Us” at the 29th Serra da Estrela InternationalEnvironmental Film Festival, which is running from Oct 5 - 13, 2023.Find out more information about the festival more about the support of our sister organization, the L/GFoundation, ... See MoreSee Less
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