A dark room, a single flickering candle. Seated behind a bank of glowing hardware, a musical alchemist weaves a synthscape tapestry.
Welcome to Iosis, the electro-drone project of Minneapolis-based musician Alex Bissen. The name refers to the transmutation of base metals into gold, a process that informs his experimental artistic approach. I met with Bissen at Muddy Waters in Uptown to discuss Iosis.
“It started off as a fully-improvisational project. The only real set rule I’ve ever had is that I don’t want to use a computer, for a couple of reasons. First, maybe the biggest reason, is that I work at a computer all day. The last thing I want to do is come home and continue working at a computer when I’m trying to explore artistic adventures.
Another reason is the limitless possibility of working with a computer kind of overwhelms me. Using hardware poses problems too, but they’re usually fun problems with manageable solutions, that I can solve in a very tactile, understandable manner.
And a final reason—and this is something that kind of annoys me about myself—but I do kind of find computer performances to be pretty boring. Not necessarily musically—I love music, so some of my favorite artists are [computer-based] artists—but just going out and watching someone perform with a laptop doesn’t do much for me.
I like to feel I have some idea of what they’re doing or see some kind of gesture component, instead of just seeing a guy at a computer. I do think it’s kind of a wall between them and the audience.”
Perhaps to break down other walls, Bissen performs his Iosis sets on the floor among the crowd rather than onstage:
“I try to offer as much transparency as I can. I want people to experience it ritualistically, but I also don’t want to force feed it to them. I’d like the audience to find their own way to it, and maybe the candle’s there to lead them in that direction without holding their hands and overtly drawing a picture for them.”
Regarding the alchemical aesthetic of Iosis:
“I started early on with a candle. More than anything, it kind of feels right to me, so I do it. That’s how it’s always kind of felt for me to make music, this ritualistic, introspective, outwardly expressive experience, so I try to share that.”
Bissen’s synthesizer rig—a latticework of patch cables and sound modules—requires a considerable amount of exertion to build up and take apart at each performance. I inquired if the rig is a deliberate rejection of contemporary electronic music trends, a defiant statement on his part.
“I worry about it being a statement, I don’t really try to make it one. I don’t want people’s first impression to be, ‘Look at this asshole and his gear’, I don’t want people to think it’s a boastful, show-offy thing.”
Bissen indicated some of the key pieces of equipment he uses:
“My MicroBrute and KAOSS Pad are on a big pedalboard, and that’s kind of the core of my rig. I’ve got an OTO Biscuit, then I’ve got a mixer with a slider interface, and I think that may be the secret to it more than anything. Then there are delay pedals, a reverb pedal, modular synths, a distortion pedal I recently added.”
The music of Iosis tends toward an enveloping, cinematic quality. Bissen explained his relationship with the medium of film:
“I’m very inspired by film, period, but I love listening to soundtracks. Hans Zimmer is a more recent influence, Blade Runner by Vangelis. Clint Mansell, who works with Darren Aronofsky, his work in those films. Properly scored music set to film can really evoke a mood.”
Bissen elaborated, mentioning an upcoming project:
“I was actually just talking to the Trylon MicroCinema. It’s been an ongoing desire for me to score La Jetée [Chris Marker’s 1962 film, the inspiration for 12 Monkeys], and I’ve kind of got half a score put together in my head. So hopefully Summer 2018 we’ll be doing something.
I don’t know if it’ll be La Jetée—the problem with that film is that it’s so short, we’d have to add another programming component to fill it out. But even before Iosis, I’ve always been interested in adding a visual element to the band that I’m playing in, live performance-wise, so I think even more than scoring a film, I would be interested in creating visuals myself.”