Ctm Workshop: Charles Cohen @ Schneidersladen from Andreas Schneider on Vimeo.

There’s an easel of sound, and American composer Charles Cohen is its gentle-voiced practitioner. What starts as primitive basic sounds magically becomes sophisticated, expressive, emotionally-charged musical painting. And Charles can show you how.

He did just that earlier this year at CTM Festival, at a workshop hosted by Schneidersladen, the storied Berlin synth shop whose fearless captain, Andreas Schneider, was one of the early champions of today’s modular, analog, and boutique maker revivals.

He walks through the process, with all the cool methodical pedagogy of Bob Ross himself. “You just pull the plug.” Complex sounds, simple controls. Clocks drive rhythms into the delay; each pattern living in voltage.


Below: an earlier film by Alex Tyson captures Cohen improvising on the vintage instrument. This isn’t just chin-scratching stuff, some sort of antisocial noise-making esoterica. Rather, it seems almost like a UFO control panel was wired directly into the brain, translating the buzz of neurons into dreamlike animals of sonic imagination. And it all seams to have the immediacy of picking up a brush – a good bar for anyone playing with sound, whether you get your hands on one of these strange beasts or not.


Charles doesn’t over-sell his work: “beepsandboops” is the name of his SoundCloud account. But what wonderful beepsandboops. You could easily be convinced you’ve just picked up the Smithsonian Folkways record of traditional music – from outer space.

Or, as Bob Ross would say, “You need an almighty easel while you’re doing this – an easel that’s strong.”

These words could mean painting or music making, too – whether you’re playing a mandolin, a Buchla modular, or a computer.

“These little son-of-a-guns hide in your brush and you just have to push them out. This is your world … your creation.

There’s no secret to this — anyone can paint. All you need is a dream in your heart, a little practice…”

More reading:

And speaking of space and how it is, indeed, the place, Charles Cohen joins other artists reflecting on Sun Ra:

Charles Cohen: Synthesis and context [Resident Advisor]

  • Bendish

    Prior to watching this video…I sat through the one below…thank goodness….I lost the faith for a minute…


    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Ha! But… honestly, since I can’t afford a Music Easel, I watch this and immediately think, how can I do the same thing with a laptop, or with hardware I have available?

      And a lot of the time, it comes down to trying to get whatever sounds you can under your fingertips, to focus a gesture on a particular sound. That applies in a Pd patch, it applies in a drum sample, a simple synth, any number of things.

      The design of the Music Easel reveals how important it can be, but you can learn that design lesson in a lot of studio and live work.

    • ADSR

      That cubase video reminds me of this:


    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn


  • darwingrosse

    Thanks, Peter, for pointing out Charles’ work. I first learned about him through the recent-ish Wire article, and have become totally entranced by his work.

  • http://benton-c.com Benton C Bainbridge

    More of Charles Cohen – a narrated tour of Experimental TV Center during The Luminists residency from 1992 http://vimeo.com/29313919

  • Jason Smith

    I recently discovered the creative genius of Charles Cohen’s music. I love the improvisational and experimental nature of it. I have been enjoying the double cd Retrospective, which has all the tracks from the recent vinyl releases on Morphine Records.

  • Joe Belknap Wall

    I encountered Charles at a gig in a barn in New Jersey in ’98, and that meeting was one of those key musical transition points for me. I’d wrapped up a storming, herky-jerky, sweaty set with my friends in the barn, and we’d packed up, hauled fifteen hundred pounds of racks, vintage synthesizers, stands, and related gear to my friend’s Econoline, and retreated to the giant fan-inflated plastic bubble out in the grass where Charles was playing, to wind down the wee hours.

    Charles sat on the plastic floor of the bubble, his Easel in front of him and a mixer and a few processors around, and, with the gearhoundish aspect of my human frailties in full flower, I pulled in close, so I could watch with pornographic attentiveness.

    The music was made of air and paper, fluttering, drifting on currents, tied to the space itself with threads of the pulsing heartbeats of origami birds, and and his touch was light, cats’ paws on touchplates, bump of a slider, reach for an external knob, everything as gentle and precise as the gestures of monks raking gravel in a cloistered rock garden. Sometimes, he’d pull the little jumpers on the panel and change out the hand-soldered program cards in the slot, and the chorus of electric animals would change.

    I was rapt. Thumping, thunderous music, filtered by the thick boards of the old barn, drifted in, but in the bubble, the audience was melting, slumping from folded legs to luxurious, ecstatic repose. It was all just—

    —And with a bang, the power died, the overloaded breakers at the farmhouse killed everything, and we were left in the faint grey moonlight coming in through the sheets of industrial plastic that defined the homemade dome, which, without its fans to keep it aloft, began to sink almost imperceptibly.

    “I hope this is not my final performance,” said Charles, smiling a genial smile as he looked around at the slowly-descending ceiling.

    “What a way to go, though,” offered another listener.

    I took my chance to sidle up, in the light of a flashlight someone had turned up, and ask Charles about his gear. He was patient and generous and drew out diagrams of the functions of his rig with delicate fingertips, chasing the electrons of flowing signals, explaining how the touchplates registered pressure by the amount of capacitance varied by the surface area of one’s fingers on the worn metal keys, pointing out his changes and modifications and external amendments, and, in due time, the fans feeding the bubble roared to life again, light returned, the band in the barn regrouped, and the evening resumed, as if it had just been paused long enough for me to be struck by slow, majestic lightning.

    I sat and I listened and I melted with the rest of the that temporary autonomous territory of considered sound, and as we drove away that night, with me sandwiched between amps and keyboard cases, my mind was humming like a forest of tuning forks.

    My own rig, metastasized out of all reason in those days by an income increasing in proportion to my level of professional boredom, started to shrink. Keyboards were left leaning against the wall for longer and longer, growing moss of airborne dog fur and lint, racks of processors were stripped and stripped and stripped to barer essences, and in time, I started playing gigs with just a little red Nord Micro Modular and clusters of external knob boxes, finding my next voice.

    There are people who help us to clear our perspective. Eno does it. For me, Holger Czukay does it. Charles does it, and it’s obscured, sometimes, by the way those of us who love electric sound love our machinery, but it’s not the Easel. As someone once said about Wendy Carlos, how it wasn’t really the Moog at work, but her meticulous, studied insistence on rapport, it is doubly true for Charles, down to the most primal details. The Easel is his instrument, but it’s not the work of what is, in fact, a very constrained and limited instrument—it’s that long, long road, traced out with fingers chasing electrons, leading from the moment the instrument first came into his studio all the way to this well-tempered now, and he should be a model for all of us.

    • Geissler

      This is wonderfully written food for thought for anyone who has been caught in that frantic race to perpetually acquire new gear. Thank you for sharing.

  • Geissler

    Hey, what’s the delay pedal that Charles is using in this video? Looks like a nice companion to any monosynth..