Meet The Blind Synthesist Making Estonia’s Underground Dance

I’m 30 years old and I’m completely blind. I don’t even have the simplest light perception—I’m in complete darkness. Not darkness, actually; I don’t know what darkness is, because I don’t know what light is. I like to joke that I was born this way because I wanted to be able to listen to music without any other distractions. Unfortunately, not only did my eyesight not develop, but I also have some Asperger’s-like tendencies, a developmental difference that puts me somewhat on the Autistic scale. But this actually helps me to learn synthesizers—especially as a blind person.

One of my favorite things to read is synthesizer manuals. I really like reading them when something new comes out. Some of the demo videos you find online are too vague or emotional, but if you get the manual from the manufacturer’s site then it’s a completely different story. Most people don’t usually like to be bombarded with details, but because I have Asperger’s, it’s the opposite since the condition allows me to learn menus by heart. I think that’s where it comes to my advantage.

I started to become interested in synth music when I was just a little baby. As my parents tell the story, there was only one band that would put me to sleep: Space, a French group from the ‘70s that made melodic disco rhythms with very few vocals and a lot of synthesizers. As I got older, I remember hearing synthesizers and thinking, “Hm, interesting. What is that synthesizer if it can make so many different and interesting sounds?” The same goes for vocoders. I always wanted to understand how to make someone sing like that. I really can tell that my dream of singing into a vocoder is from my early childhood, when I was about five or six.

I started playing toy keyboards during childhood, and then later I got keyboards that were a bit more expensive, like the Casio CTK100. That was in 1998. I got my first serious keyboard when I was 14. I was quite a good student in school, so my teachers would put me forward when journalists came to do pieces on blind children. I was on TV doing one of these stories when a journalist asked me, “What are your dreams? What do you want?” And I said, “You know, I wish I had a synthesizer.” One guy who saw this on TV gave me his Yamaha DJX, that famous, strange keyboard that tried to be both techno and hip-hop. That was in 2002. It wasn’t a synthesizer in the true sense of the word, but it had some knobs like cutoff and resonance.

Being blind means that the more knobs a synth has, the better it is for me. When there are more knobs, there are fewer menus. If I have to flip through menus, I can count the button presses it takes to get to the next setting. I’m completely able to do it—but silently, not talking, with no one around. The truth is that I could do more if I weren’t blind, like not being so dependent on hardware. It isn’t intuitive to tab and arrow around the screen searching for buttons when you use software. And, unfortunately, it’s kind of a golden rule that the more professional a software package is, the less accessible it is for the blind. That’s why I’m going to integrate modular stuff into my setup pretty soon. Erica Synths sent me some stuff recently that I’m going to use with some other modules.

I have a little band, The Martians, that performs music based on the tracks I make with this setup. But we added a guitarist—who’s also a blind friend of mine from school—and a drummer, who is a sighted person. We were just invited to play in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, at a large industrial and electro festival. There’s a lot going on in Estonia. The number one style seems to be drum & bass; there’s a hell of a lot of drum & bass here. There’s also a lot of underground stuff and very interesting experimental music. But sadly, quite a big part of Estonian electronic music is made to be released abroad because the country is so small—about 1.3 million people. And, of course, not everyone is into electronic music. But still, there’s a lot going on.

There’s a great label in Tallinn called Trash Can Dance. It’s basically one guy whose day job is cooking, but his hobby is keeping this small underground label and promoting anything that’s not popular, like alternative and experimental music. There’s noise, there’s metal, there’s electronica; if there’s anything that kind of slips under the radio, usually Trash Can Dance finds it. So three years ago, he found a track of mine that he really liked, “Spacestation”. It was released on one particular compilation with 20 other artists, and then we did a Spacestation EP with five tracks that were kind of electro, kind of electro-funk and kind of freestyle. Since then, I’ve become somewhat known in the Estonian scene.

Most of my life has been dedicated to going down this road to releasing music. If you want something, if you wish something, you have to believe in it. In my experience, if you just walk around or run around screaming, “I want that!”, it won’t go that way. You have to use your thought and imagination. For example, every time I buy a new synth or I decide to buy a new synth, I kind of envision it into my workflow, like how would it fit and what I would do with it. And then when it works, I know that I can get whatever else I want. And I think that goes for any other person with his or her wishes. I’m not into new age or esoteric BS, but I truly believe that our brains are a bit more than just brains. They do a bit more than just controlling our bodies. I think there are some resonances and vibrations that can influence what’s happening around us. Being blind and having Asperger’s has its limitations, but it’s kind of like The X-Files: the truth is out there. And I’ve been able to accomplish this much so far. Many great musicians have traits that set them back. I just use them to my advantage.

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