The Bastlíři of Brno: Glocal Phenom

It has to be admitted that on first encounter, the word “glocal” may not seem the most palatable of neologisms. Attempt to roll the word around on your tongue, and you might find it slip like a lozenge down the back of the throat, swallowed up in a gulp no glottal could stop. But it might be not so much the word as the idea that could make one wary to bite. In an age of the global domination of markets (and most else) by transnational corporations, one can’t help but wonder how much there really is to celebrate, or to valorize, in localized forms of global processes. “Globalization” makes the more easily frightened among us run for the hills, while “localization” coyly tempts with its promise of transforming the abstract, inexorable machinations of global capital into something cozy, proximate – homey. But lest we repulse our poor portmanteau out of turn, it might be wise to consider first where one can carry it.

I came across a curious example of what might be called a “glocal” phenomenon last fall at a modular synthesis convention for musicians, engineers, and various other tinkerers, known as Knobcon. Knobcon offers attendees workshops, seminars, and product demos, but above all represents a chance to play with new modules and other gadgets from small manufacturers before everyone else gets to tickle their knobs. But what is modular synthesis, you ask? Synthesizer music requires no introduction, of course – children of the 1980s need only think fondly of Harold Faltermeyer’s theme from Fletch, or of Sunday nights with Knight Rider and Airwolf, to get a few classic synthpop jams in mind.

Harold Faltermeyer on the beach, 1985

Harold Faltermeyer on the beach, 1985

You can think of “modular” synthesis as a jail-broken synthesizer. Rather than composing within the limits of a pre-constructed instrument, the modular synthesist controls and shapes every level of sound creation by determining the path taken by voltage through various components, or modules. By determining the voltage flow, one can change absolutely any sonic quality–rhythm, pitch, timbre, envelope. (But don’t take my word for it: Nikol, of Bastl Instruments, describes how modular works better than anyone. See Patcheni s Nikol for a tutorial. Another excellent primer is Allen Strange’s seminal Electronic Music: Systems, Techniques, and Controls, the much-coveted second edition of which is available right here at the Music & Performing Arts Library.)

UIUC itself played a part in the development of electronic and computer music through the 1950s to 1970s, hosting the annual Festival of Contemporary Arts, which drew composers such as John Cage (UIUC visiting composition faculty, 1968), Harry Partch, Benjamin Britten, and Elliott Carter. The Experimental Music Studio, founded in 1952 by Lejaren Hiller at UIUC, became the site of significant developments in electroacoustic music, with some highlights including James Beauchamp’s Harmonic Tone Generator and the Sal-Mar Construction, built by Salvatore Martirano from the original ILIAC II supercomputer TTL boards in 1969. One of the earliest experiments in programming a computer for continuous improvisational composition and immersive acoustic experience, the Sal-Mar output 24 auditory channels to an equal number of speakers along with algorithmically generated lighting.

UIUC’s Experimental Music Studio

Fast-forward almost half a decade from the birth of the 400-pound Sal-Mar to Knobcon 2015, where, wandering the showroom floor, I came across this little delight:


The inventors of this magical contraption turned out to be Bastl Instruments, a small company based in Brno, Czech Republic, that sells modules across the world, traveling to conferences like Knobcon to showcase their products. While Bastl’s reach is definitely global, with a loyal following sprouted up from Internet forums like MuffWiggler, much of their inspiration is homegrown. The company takes its name from bastlíři, the Czech moniker given to the people who made their own audio equipment and electronics in communist Czechoslovakia. As their website describes it:

Bastl is Czech slang which refers to the world of DIY [“do it yourself”] and very often to electronics. This slang word probably originated in the 50-60s during communist times when people couldn’t simply buy everything they needed or wanted. It therefore became very popular to make things on one’s own, and these hackers – in Czech bastlíři – were socially very appreciated (it was even advisable to marry one) and because it wasn’t possible to start up your own business in technology in the state-controlled development,  they very often shared their innovations in magazines and also on tolerated TV shows. This trend became less frequent after the fall of the regime, but today you can still meet this generation and their hacker souls in many aspects of everyday life in the Czech Republic.

Bastl takes its tribute to the bastlíři generation seriously, not only by continuing work in its spirit, but by actually employing some of the very people who originally constituted this group. In essence, the company reasserts the artistic value and continued utility, and general awesomeness, of these pioneers of electronic arts, in a conscious move to reverse the sudden devaluation that the bastlíři’s activities underwent after the communist era came to a close and the markets were open to all manner of consumer electronics. No longer born of dire need, the work of DIY electronics and audio-equipment makers finds a new necessity in a global economy of cheaply produced, non-moddable, disposable goods. As Bastl writes on their website, “Repairability and hackability are even bigger reasons for keeping things handmade in a world with an ever-increasing amount of non-repairable and non-reusable electronics.”

Rather than apologist whitewash for global capitalism, some glucosal glaze on a bitter reality, maybe we can think of things glocal – or whatever we prefer to call them – as at least, at times, qualitatively different phenomena. Maybe not every Etsy artisan’s storefront should be taken as evidence that we’re experiencing a worldwide renaissance of an Adam-Smith-esque atomistic capitalism, with a clockwork harmony of small post-industrial proprietors directly balancing the oscillations of market forces for the good of all humanity. But at the least, it strikes me as one of many manifestations of the Czech Republic’s propensity for pulling off small yet profound triumphs that it can provide such an enchanting example of re-enchanted labor.

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