Tarek Sabbar’s journeys in modular sit-down music

The Madison electronic artist plays April 28 at the High Noon Saloon behind a series of short releases.

The Madison electronic artist plays April 28 at the High Noon Saloon behind a series of short releases.

Kenneth Tarek Sabbar creates most of his music at home on the near east side, at an astonishingly tidy desk with his modular synthesizer rack in the middle. Modular synths are all about making a fun mess with wires, moving them around to manipulate the signal flow within and among various components, and this particular home studio benefits from an IT professional’s gift for cable management. It’s a starting point for a creative identity that, like the music itself, seems to embrace the fact that it’s ever in flux.

“I’ve been trying to bridge this gap,” Sabbar says. “I don’t really make what I wouldn’t necessarily say is dance music, I don’t really dance or DJ or anything of that sort. Although some of stuff might lend itself to that application…I don’t want it to be too specifically in one application. I’ve always kind of viewed it as something that I would like to sit down and listen to in my apartment.”

The solo recordings Sabbar has been putting out as Tarek Sabbar try to find an orderly path through myriad sonic possibilities. His new EP Water Creatures burbles softly through five pieces that often have a defined rhythmic structure, but focus more on blending the specific patches and textures Sabbar finds in his largely improvised, flexibly sequenced process.

His previous solo work, including a 2017 release for Milwaukee label Close Up Of The Serene and a 2018 live set for Milwaukee radio station WMSE, has often taken a harsher approach, drawing on the sting of techno and Sabbar’s background in post-punk bands like Milwaukee’s Heat Death, one of several collaborations Sabbar has pursued with his longtime friend Terrance Barrett. Sabbar, who has also made ambient music under the name Dead Pawn, moved to Madison a in 2017. While settling into town, he’s focused more and more on making solo music with modular synths, including in live sets. His next set will be at an April 28 show at the High Noon Saloon with Cave Curse, Wash, and Genau. Sabbar and Barrett will also play in their new duo project, Telechrome, on April 11 at Mickey’s Tavern with Sunwatchers and Czarbles.

“It’s kind of been a slow-churning process,” Sabbar says of his solo work. “I’ve had modular at some level as part of my setup for maybe two or three years now. And then in the last year, last couple of months, I’ve kind of just gone full into just what I’ve enjoyed way more, which is instead of sitting down and planning out sequencers for a long time—especially for the equipment that I used to use, which I still have—this is more tactile.”

While there isn’t a proper Tarek Sabbar album in the world yet, Sabbar does have a refreshing willingness to let people in on his creative process. What he has released so far are basically mediated slices of the hours and hours of music he records on the fly, with some edits and after-the-fact additions but not many. Sabbar’s YouTube channel currently contains two dozen “Modular Music” videos that simply show his synth modules and drum machines churning through the parameters he’s set. Occasionally his arm reaches in from off-camera. He’s also posted a more extensive video that delves deeper into the technical fineries of how he arrives at synth patches.

“I actually typically view the process as the main thing for what defines a set of music I’m working on. So sharing that is part of helping people understand what I do,” Sabbar says.

That also reflects how Sabbar is approaching his live sets these days. A live, modular-driven electronic act can still be the odd one out on most show lineups in Madison (even though we have our share of worthwhile electronic artists, including the synthesis-centered Noxroy), but Sabbar is finding that bands and show bookers are embracing that. “It’s like, oh, I’m not just fitting on the bill,” he says, “they actually actively want me on the bill even though I don’t necessarily fit on the bill.”

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