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RVA-based analog synth maker creates curious tones

Richmond artist Will Mullany sits in his studio holding the Generator Organ, one of several synthesizers he's created which mix found mediums and analog noise generators.
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
Richmond artist Will Mullany sits in his studio holding the Generator Organ, one of several synthesizers he's created which mix found mediums and analog noise generators.

As the intro to the 1963 Outer Limits TV show used to warn, there’s nothing wrong with your radio. Do not attempt to adjust the audio. We are controlling transmission. These tones, produced by Richmond-area artist Will Mullany, are the subject of a new exhibit in Richmond.

A native of Rappahannock County, Mullany’s artist parents pushed him to follow his artistic dreams, and that road led him to niche music and audio-installation art spaces.

“It’s a bit abstract impressionist in the way I’m doing it, I’m starting from the bottom up and then seeing what it does and then tweaking and tinkering,” he said while giving me a tour of his workshop in the corner of a warehouse in Shockoe Valley.

Mullany produces his work under the name Molasses Industries, and he showed me one of his earliest creations: a spaghetti-like tangle of rainbow colored wires tucked inside a cigar box.

“When you hear modular synth, that’s what this is - a bunch of little components that you can do different things with,” he said.

His entry into the craft started at UVA where he said the school has a nationally recognized experimental music program called Composition and Computing Technologies. He majored in cognitive science, but messed around for a few years studying under CCT visiting artist Peter Bussigel. After he graduated Mullany stayed in Charlottesville for a bit and managed to keep access to the maker space there where he kept tinkering.

The synths he makes are born out of printed circuit boards that are wired to different noise making components, oscillators and the like. But his integration of found materials like wood and the user’s own body has led to national recognition.

Among his customers are Richmond-area metal artist Dorthia Cottrell of Windhand, but also members of the psyche rock band Animal Collective.

And that success is deserved; just listen to his synth called the CPL Cross Talk.

This piece was inspired by something he learned in a neuroscience class.

He said early experiments on epilepsy patients involved snipping the corpus callosum, the bundle of nerves connecting the left and right lobes of the brain. The CPL, short for corporeal, is a wood box with two lime green circuit boards exposed on top. The copper connections, coated in silver to avoid oxidation, snake across each board like nerves in the human brain. But the two boards aren’t connected, and the piece comes alive when you use your body to bridge the boards as the synth’s new, organic corpus callosum.

But not all of Mullany’s synths require human interaction… or even a power outlet or batteries. A set of creations he showed me, called solar sounders, only come alive when they’re exposed to light.

The Solar sounders, a working name, are a split project with New York-based sound artist Daniel Fishkin. The wooden boxes are maybe 2 feet long and heavy and stuffed full of components and circuit boards linked to solar panels. The tones, reminiscent of chirping birds, change as the light hits them. He compared them to wind chimes but for the sun.

“You set them outside and the world plays them,” he said.

Another stand out piece by Mullany is the Generator Organ. Another heavy, wood-encased synth that also doesn’t rely on electric power. Instead, the user turns an attached crank like one found in a wind-up emergency radio. He came up with the idea after seeing such a radio at his parent’s place. Finding the crank part wasn’t easy, but when he did, he hooked it up and to his surprise it worked immediately.

“That was like the only eureka moment I’ve had in my life where I was like woah this is crazy,” he said.

Mullany has also expanded beyond the audio medium in newer work. He’s still working with found wood and materials, but he’s using old, unused circuit boards - he gets dozens fabricated at a time - to make lampshades. The final design offers a mix of organic and synthetic mediums, and when turned on the light shines through the thin piece of copper-dotted fiberglass, illuminating its technical specifics.

“I’m interested in the visual aspect of the circuit board. It’s a 2-dimensional visual file that is usually hidden inside a box,” he said. “I’m very interested in pulling it out and seeing what it looks like.”

So where does the visual and the audio part of Mullany’s work combine, and what does the artist hope viewers - or listeners - get out of the experience?

“I want something where the art of it is the moment you’re interacting with it, it’s not the final product,” he said. “It’s not the art someone is making with these tools - it's the moment you’re fiddling with it, you’re confused asking what’s going on.”

You can find some of Mullany’s work on display in downtown Richmond’s Circle Thrift art gallery till the end of January.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.