- Photo via artist Bandcamp
The last time we caught up with local synthesist and instrumental musician Walter Whitney, in January 2015, he had just released Phantom Worlds, a catch-all collection that gathered more than a dozen tracks from the past 30 years. Whitney made his mark in the early '80s as a programmer in the group Delay Tactics, which straddled ambient, techno and fusion tropes. That archival release gave a clue as to Whitney's proclivities outside of the band — and they often sounded like soundtracks to long-lost sci-fi and horror films, driven by analog synths and robotic rhythms.
"Well, just about everyone who is an electronic music composer is likened to a soundtrack composer," Whitney says. "And rightly so, even if that was not their initial intent." Part of his motivation for making often eerie, slow-building instrumental music stems, he says, from his "love of science fiction and films that drag out the mysterious plot and keep you engaged 'til the end."
With the recently released Science & the Unprovable Theory, Whitney is still chasing phantoms and exploring the unexplained, but this time he's using more modern technology to craft his sonic landscapes. He credits the proliferation of the Eurorack model of modular synthesis — small boxes of chips, diodes and oscillators that easily interface with one another and help the synthesist shape his or her sound. "Things are changing at a rapid pace and employing these new possibilities is exciting," he says.
Anyone who was caught by the spell of the Netflix sci-fi series Stranger Things can attest to the power of a well-tuned soundtrack. That show's soundtrack was made by the Austin-based synth quartet SURVIVE, and the show's success has turned the group from a little-known instrumental band to a choice booking on the summer festival circuit.
The synth's place in soundtracks has both textural and financial factors, Whitney says.
"The use of synths in modern production of soundtracks is obvious," he says. "They are fast and effective. I also feel that smaller budgets have a bit to do with it as well. This is a question best answered by someone like Jeff Rona or Hans Zimmer, who are masters at getting the job done for film."
And though he did not create these songs with any film in mind, Whitney has offered up his work to any filmmaker in need of a mood-enhancing sonic backbone. "If any filmmakers are interested in using my stuff all they have to do is ask," he says.
While many of the tracks on 2015's Phantom Worlds were quick-hit sketches, more than a few tracks on Science & the Unprovable Theory stretch beyond the ten-minute mark. Opening track "The Self Correcting Time Continuum" blooms and modulates in an almost granular fashion, taking its time to let the character of the sound fully develop.
"Believe it or not several of the tracks were originally fifteen to twenty minutes each!" Whitney says. The listening experience for this album is, by design, different than traditional albums, he notes. "It is light on melody and heavy on mood and feel. These works are mood-setters meant to be listened to at a low to medium volume. It is music to think by; it doesn't do the thinking for you."
To date, the bulk of Whitney's recorded output has been instrumental, but he has designs for a slew of varied releases in the coming months. He refers to one as "kind of a Thomas Dolby thing called Techno De Facto," as well as a collection of ambient compositions that is a bit lighter in tone than this current release.
Whitney has also reunited with Carl Weingarten and David Udell of Delay Tactics, and the group hopes to release its new record — its first in about three decades — as soon as possible. "It strives to retain the sound and feel of the previous two records from the '80s and hopefully outdo them in every way possible," Whitney says.
In all, it's a full slate of music for a composer who, for a long time, seemed content to write and record songs for only himself. For a musician who has engaged with technology since the days of pre-MIDI keyboards through the advent of digital audio workstations, Whitney's music is able to take the long view of composition, where the music, not the gear, is paramount.
"I love to experiment until I hear what it is I want to pursue and complete. I may use old vintage gear and process the signal with anything from guitar pedals, modular synths or plug-ins," Whitney says. "The results can be quite interesting and sometimes magical. Never underestimate the possibilities of that silly old yard sale Casio when it's mangled and polished by modern tech."