Note: This profile was originally published in the May 2015 issue of the print magazine FD Mag. The final issue of FD was published in February 2016 and the website fdmag.com was taken offline.
THE MIXER: Liz Larsen is an artist, engineer and boundary-pusher
BUILDER OF VIDEO SYNTHESIZERS | WIFE
ROCKER IN A PSYCHEDELIC GOTH BAND | MOTHER
LIZ LARSEN SEES SOMETHING | YOU DON’T
by MERRITT TIERCE
Liz Larsen is from the future. You wouldn’t know it if you drove by her house, which looks like every other house in an unremarkable subdivision just inside the Denton city limits—unless, perhaps, you noticed the bumper sticker on the family car: BOB MOOG DIED FOR YOUR SYNTHS. Robert A. Moog (rhymes with vogue), revered as the midcentury inventor of the Moog synthesizer, was a brain ahead of his time — a scientist who helped launch electronic music.
Over the past seven years, Larsen, 30, has expanded on Moog’s legacy and created her own by obsessively tinkering her way into a formidable expertise with what she calls parallel universe technology: She makes analog video synthesizer modules and sells them, through her company LZX Industries, to video, performance and new media artists around the world. The video synth community is on an old-school trip to new destinations made possible by the DIY ethos and resources of the Internet. When the engineers, audiophiles and video artists of the ’60s and ’70s, who had driven the development of early audio and video modular synthesizers, almost universally went digital as new technologies became available, the evolution of those early machines — and the hands-on workflow they called for — was artificially truncated. Larsen estimates that when she started building her own modular synths not that long ago, there were about 20 other makers of the kind of small-format Eurorack-situated modules she works with; now she says there are something like 100. Shawn Cleary, who owns Santa Monica–based analoguehaven.com, a major distributor of this type of equipment (including from Larsen’s company), puts that number closer to 150. Most of the modules being produced are audio; Larsen is probably the first maker to commercially release an entirely analogue video synthesis platform since the 1980s. Cleary describes the modules Larsen produces as “a niche within a niche, but a growing industry.” This motley vanguard of geeks, hobbyists, techies and artists is leading an expedition into the past, developing unexplored analog territories, for no reason other than an appreciation of unique audio and video art that clearly had not seen all of its day when it was left in digital’s invisible dust.
Inside Larsen’s house, the inescapable clutter that comes with three small children vanishes when you step into the elevator-sized bedroom that serves as her meticulously organized lab. Racks of tools and wires hang on the walls and a dual-monitor work station takes up most of the room’s footprint. Super-bright fluorescent light, the kind one needs for manipulating tiny bits and pieces, glares off Larsen’s round Harry Potter spectacles, and intensifies the feeling that a pale nerd has been pulled from inside The Machine for examination. Liz speaks with the shy, soft, polite voice of a friendly robot—monotone and evenly cadenced in a way that amplifies her dry wit. She looks something like Parker Posey staring out of David Bowie’s face, or maybe the other way around.
If Harry, Hermione and Ron were component video cables, and you plugged them into an analog synthesizer, the signal output might be Lizlike: extraordinary powers wrapped up in social anxiety and guided by really smart goodness, casting finely crafted spells to make the world a better place. Or at least a more inclusive, interesting, artistic one. Home-schooled with her four younger siblings in Graham, a small town out on the nothingness plains west of Fort Worth, Larsen is largely self-taught in her professional field. She failed the only college math class she ever took but works as a software engineer by day, programming e-learning courses for the University of North Texas. Her bachelor’s degree is in radio, television and film, and she speaks of a lifelong habit of letting herself be consumed by her interests, control-freaking her way into surface knowledge of many areas and deep, deep knowledge of a few.
Explorations of performance art, interactive programming and electronics, patched into the module of a filmmaker’s visual mind, led her to the niche toolmaking work that now supports her family of five and keeps her intellectually engaged with a community of artists. “Making tools is safe,” she says, “because you don’t have to have anyone judge your artwork, there’s no critique involved. It just works or doesn’t.” Larsen’s humility belies her many fans and admirers in the video synth world, who not only see her craft as, without question, an art but also rely on her for what they need to make their own. She stays intimately connected with the artists who use her modules, shaping her next innovation around her customers’ needs. She also prices her products high enough — prices top out around $800 — to comfortably continue making them, and no higher, conscientiously avoiding a surplus profit that would be a function of (and could perpetuate) the scarcity of access to such tools. One reason the development of the analog synthesizer stalled out in the 20th century is that, for the most part, only universities could afford the equipment.
The transformation of a self-described “poor punk kid” into a successful inventor who is also equal parts suburban mom and indie musician (Larsen and her wife, Heather, perform as the electronic, psychedelic goth band Wiving) might have been foreshadowed by Larsen’s adoration of Alice in Wonderland, evidenced by a full-color tattoo on her right upper arm. It’s the scene where Alice, under the wily watch of the Cheshire Cat, is holding a potion labeled DRINK ME. Larsen laughs about the efforts of her subconscious to lead her toward this most recent, intense and ongoing chapter of her life: gender transition. Through hormone therapy, multiple facial feminization surgeries, a name change and a hard-core investigation of her identity, she is now living with female pronouns and an androgyny that feels true and comfortable to her in a way that the male identity she was assigned at birth never did. But in her own case she rejects, or at least would revise, the standing mainstream narrative of trans people as individuals trapped in the wrong body, living a lie. She says that as a child it wasn’t so much that she felt like she was a girl or a boy: It was more an awareness that“everyone’s just a bubble floating around on top of a body. We’re all just piloting these kind of weird meat things. I didn’t really feel like I was inhabiting the vehicle until I got my hormone levels corrected.”
While the tech world is well-known as a bastion of the boys’-club mentality that fosters gendered pay inequity and rampant misogyny, Larsen says the synth community is uncommonly diverse and open, partly because of pioneering artists such as Wendy Carlos. Assigned male at birth, she was a Grammy-winning virtuoso of the Moog synthesizer, whose 1968 album, Switched-On Bach, sold more than 500,000 copies and was one of the first classical albums to break into the top 40 on the Billboard 200. Carlos transitioned after the album’s success and became one of the first highly visible trans people. Larsen also acknowledges she had an enormous advantage, having established her reputation in her day job and in her synth-building work before transitioning. She thus finds herself able to talk about gender bias with an authority rarely come by.“Techie guys may be fine with women in computers, but a lot of them just don’t believe they could be as good at it,” she says.
In communities where she isn’t already known and respected as an expert, she says,“I definitely get talked over and ignored, especially if I’m contradicting something someone has to say … . That started happening the day my name changed on Facebook. The moment I had a female name … it was really shocking.”
Larsen talks about transitioning with an eloquence that must come from having had thousands of patient, exhausting, difficult conversations about it, but she also says her communities have been overwhelmingly supportive. It is, after all, one of the most deeply personal decisions a person can make, and being open about it — she announced and documented her transition on Facebook —has sparked people to be more open with her about their own lives. She is synthesizing a conversation about how the LGBTQ movement in America has created some very rigid, politicized definitions of what a gay, trans, queer person is, and that rigidity is antithetical and counterproductive. “It doesn’t create a lot of breathing room for people that fit in between the boxes. And everyone does. Everyone fits in between the boxes.”