Electronic musician Martin Freeman is a mad scientist of sound. A longtime fixture in Rochester's experimental music scene, Freeman creates soundscapes that are full of quirky blips and bleeps that can quickly morph into visceral explosions of distorted sound. The tones and textures are otherworldly, and the sound design is entirely his.
Freeman has been building his own electronic instruments from scratch for nearly a decade, but he doesn't just make them for himself. The eccentric yet-soft-spoken musician also sells these instruments to fellow adventurous musicians through his company, Mroztronium. The business moniker is a combination of "mroz," the Polish word for frost (as well as a family name) and "electronium," a vintage synthesizer and electronic composition system. Current instruments available for purchase include Pipsqueak ($100) and Trzypsy ("chirp-say," $500).
CITY recently got in touch with Freeman electronically to discuss his weird experiments, the underground music scene, and potatoes. An edited version of the interview follows.
CITY: What came first: your interest in music composition, or your interest in electronics and synthesizers?
Martin Freeman: I'm more of an improviser than a composer, but I think music and technology have always been intertwined for me. I started as a guitarist and used electronics to make free-form sound collage and ambient music. When I was in college, I had a lot of free time and started to teach myself electronics, modify my equipment, and build simple instruments from scratch. At some point I stopped using the guitar and kept on working with electronics.
Do you have a set process when creating the different instruments and sounds they make, or do you arrive at them mainly through unplanned tinkering and experimentation?
It's a mix of focused goals and tinkering. Some of my instruments are meant to occupy a particular kind of sound world or present some kind of musical idea, but others are just unpredictable, chaotic, and fun to experiment with. Some instruments take five years to realize and some take five minutes. Most of my instruments are inspired by some sort of happy accident or unintended consequence while experimenting. There is also a difference between the things I make for others and things I make for myself. Some ideas are just too weird to sell, but I'll use them in my personal practice.
What's the weirdest instrument idea that you've used in your own music?
I don't know what people really consider weird anymore, but my audio-visual band Wild Gone Girls used to do stuff for the sake of spectacle, including circuit-bending instruments live while I play them and playing exposed circuit boards with wet feet. Maybe this seems weird the first time you see it, but Voice Crack and Michel Waisvisz were doing this kind of stuff over 40 years ago.
The Horndog Resonator was an instrument I built for an installation in Buffalo at Hallwalls. I didn't want to use a speaker for the installation because I didn't want it to drown out other pieces in the show. To hear the piece, listeners had to insert a piezo element into their mouth, bite down and let it resonate their skull.
For the layperson, what are the basic components of your instruments?
Under the hood, there are usually lots of simple, repeated building blocks connected together in complex ways, or just a couple of very complex elements connected together in simple ways. The interfaces vary between knobs, patch cords, conductive pads you play with your fingers and potatoes.
Please tell me more about the potatoes.
You can use vegetables as complex electrical components in circuits. Their electrical properties change as they age and dry out, so you can use their decay as a form of automation or as a durational element in an instrument or piece of music. Paul DeMarinis was working with vegetables in audio circuits in this way in the early 1970's.
Which creation are you most proud of?
I love all of my babies equally.
What was the turning point for turning instrument creation into a small business?
For it me it was in realizing that other people were interested in what I was doing. People started requesting that I build instruments for them and it snowballed from there.
Do people's preconceptions about noise music present a particular challenge for you as a musician and entrepreneur?
I don't really consider myself a noise musician, but there is an immense diversity of practice in noise/experimental/weirdo music (or whatever you'd like to call it) and artists are good at finding or building instruments that suit their tastes. Initially, most of my customers were people I met while on tour performing my music. I think a lot of preconceptions about these art forms are motivated by a lack of institutional support that forces artists and audiences to go underground. In Rochester and lots of other places, I think this creates a lack of access that leads to a segregated audience and particular pool of performers who are over-represented.
You also lead workshops in building these instruments, right? Is it important to have a background in electronic engineering when learning to create and play these instruments?
Yes, I love leading instrument building workshops and have developed instruments that are simple to build for absolute beginners with no experience with electronics and soldering. I am always interested in these kinds of opportunities as they are very rewarding for me and people seem to take great pride in making something themselves.
Do you have a specific goal with Mroztronium? Is it about democratizing music creation?
That is definitely a part of it. I enjoy making instruments for other artists. Putting an instrument in someone's hands and seeing what they do with it is fascinating to me. Also, the company provides a way for me to share my arts practice with people distinct from performances or recordings.
What would you say to someone who is curious about creating electronic sounds, but is new to making music?
It's an exciting time to be alive. It's never been easier to access and experiment with electronics. Electronic music has a rich history, but is also still in its infancy compared with the history of other art forms.
Beyond the physical instrument itself, what do you hope a customer takes away from playing these instruments?
Making your own music is a life-long process of development and discovery. I hope my instruments help people get closer to their music and lead them down the rabbit hole into exploring the limitless possibilities of working with electronics. Maybe this is bad for business, but I hope my instruments motivate people to learn how to build instruments of their own.