In Doha, a small group of synth heads are trying to build a world-beating synth museum and associated music course.
When you think of Qatar, you probably don’t think of modular synths. Even if you’re not into football, it would have been hard to miss the negative coverage in the lead-up to the 2022 World Cup. For most people, it’s that narrative that springs to mind.
However, beyond the sand and sea, this publication caught wind of an interesting initiative that goes some way to changing some perceptions of the tiny Gulf State.
Supported by The Qatar Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University, two individuals Josh Rodenberg and colleague Erika Tsuchiya are building a synth museum inspired by similar initiatives in Prague and Portland. Their sound design courses are mostly attended by Qatari women and given the preconceptions about the region, we were intrigued to dig a little and find out more. Attack editor, Eric Brünjes, sat down to discuss further.
Attack: Let’s start from the top, can you introduce yourselves?
Josh: I’m Josh Rodenberg and this is my colleague Erika Tsuchiya.
We both work for an American university called Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCU).
I’m the Head of Innovative Media Studios. Innovative Media Studios is part of the Art and Design Libraries here at VCUQ. The synth museum library is part of our entire vision of what we’re trying to do and it’s probably the most passionate part of our roles here – it’s the place we want to be the most.
Erika: I’m Erika and I’m Innovative Media Studios Coordinator. We’re both musicians also. Josh is a sound designer and tutor and I come from a recording background. I was signed to a label in Detroit and still sing in a Japanese techno project. After meeting here in Qatar, we realised we wanted to do the same things which is ultimately we want to improve resources for the local community.
What is the synth and electronic music community like in Qatar?
Erika: It is very small to say the least, but the turnout and enthusiasm at the first synth meet-up showed that there is a lot of interest from the local community.
It was great to meet all the people that came out to support a common interest.
Are there any stores there?
Erika: There’s one and it’s called The Overlap. It’s run by a local Qatari producer. The store is very much centred around local artists but is a friendly place where it’s accessible to meet other like-minded people and buy the latest synths, modular synths, books and more. Sounds like an advert but it’s not an endorsement! It’s just a great place to have here.
When people think of Qatar, they don’t think of synths. Can you tell us about the synth library you’ve been building?
Josh: We want to expand the creative resources and outlook of this school and the synth library is part of building a resource where students can explore and incorporate sound and visual synthesis as part of their creative practice.
I’ve pulled a lot of inspiration from places like Portland and Prague. They are good references for what we’re doing here.
Erika: It’s not oversaturated here so we’re trying to increase the accessibility, to begin with. One difficulty is that it’s really hard to ship things here, especially when there are lithium batteries involved. That can slow things up.
Is the synth museum a permanent feature?
Josh: Yes! We plan on doing more local meet-ups to educate the community about sound and visual synthesis. We are open to collaboration so get in touch!
We are possibly the first University in the region to own a Minimoog.
So what else does the museum have?
Erika: The museum is getting pretty massive now. We won’t bore you with everything but to give you an idea we now have Volcas, Meris Mercury 7, Lyra 8, TipTop Modualr, Sequential Pro 3, MiniBrute, Grandmother, ALM Coupe Skiff, DFAM, JX-08, Hydrasynth, Modor NF-1.
That’s just a few choice selections with lots more to come.
[quote align=right text=”Our students are 95% women, mostly Qatari or grew up here It’s kind of special in that way.”]
What’s a common misconception about Qatar?
Erika: As we saw with media coverage in general during the World Cup, there was a lot of severe and hypocritical criticisms directed toward the country and region as a whole.
Like with any country, it is hard to know what it is like until you actually go there and experience it for yourself.
What we do is no different to other parts of the world but given it’s here, it’s often overlooked.
Could you elaborate on the “majlis” studio you’ve recently designed?
Josh: The studio is a major project right now for the university. Till now, the university has not had an initiative for sound or music production. Erika and I have been working with VCUQ alumna, Yasamin Shaikhi, to design the space.
The idea of this place is that you can listen in an acoustically sound environment. The design is inspired by the majlis, the traditional tents that were used to gather in the desert. They are a prominent feature across the Arabian Peninsula and the various countries here.
They were used as a place to meet, sit and talk. So it made a lot of sense to have a musical majlis – somewhere to meet, learn, listen and exchange ideas.
What do you teach in the “majlis”?
Josh: Right now I’m teaching a very basic sound design class. I approach it in a way of thinking about sound as a medium of listening and recording. I.E what is the reason to listen? And then what does it mean to capture sound?
We also explore how to use the voice as the instrument and not necessarily just singing. For example, giving ideas to use the voice in a musical and sonic way. For example, using vocal sound recording sounds to make samples, assemble soundscapes and more.
Put it this way, we want to teach everything! But it’s limited by resources and time!
Are the people you’re teaching all students?
Erika: This is one of the more interesting aspects of what we do. Our students are 95% women, mostly Qatari or grew up here. It’s kind of special in that way.
It might not be what one would suppose and more so, considering the region and how new all this is here.
Has there been a student who has developed under your tutelage and gone on to release music professionally?
Josh: There’s a really special vinyl release that came out last year that is a compilation of the professors at VCU, as well as some of the students.
What form of government support is there?
Josh: There are lots of funding opportunities for cultural preservation activities and innovation. Those two things go together well.
Erika: VCU is under the Qatar Foundation. The Foundation is very supportive of arts, culture and education.
What are you trying to do next?
Josh: My pie in the sky is to book more artists from places such as Palestine and Lebanon to play here. There’s a rich history of experimental music in the region which we’d like to use our platform to support.
Furthermore, we’re really hoping to have either an artist in residence to further inspire students. We’re currently looking a the options for that. In our view having international artists spend a week or a month here can help our students to achieve their musical goals.
Follow the VCU Qatar on Twitter and for more information find VCU Qatar online.
Photo credits: Kareem Al-Abdulla & Raviv Cohen.