When Lori Napoleon saw her first analog synthesizer in a back room of the NYU Music Department, something in her just clicked: it looked exactly like a telephone switchboard, the likes of which she had first seen when on a road trip in the Upper Peninsula that summer. She became fascinated with the connection between the two, and her fixation eventually blossomed into a life among machines: in her apartment, she has crafted several unique synthesizer interfaces that utilize the switches, knobs, and skeins of wires that characterize the switchboards, which allowed a young female operator to be the “center of all communication.” In small towns, in particular, the entire telephone exchange may have been operated by one person working out of their bedroom, treating the device as a family member.
The instruments she creates with these classic shells are hardly your everyday synths, however. Napoleon, in her research into the early days of phone companies and the more recent ‘phone phreak’ subculture, came across many haunting sounds and frequencies, many of them happy accidents that were commonly heard in the background of early phone conversations. Her instruments and musical compositions, which she creates under the name of Meridian7, use comb filtering to replicate these discoveries, which according to Art on AIR is “a technique that creates evolving timbres through a process of time-delayed feedback, forming ‘notches’ of positive and negative interference and other endless modifications of the signal path.” The haunting result brings the exploration of technological sounds from the realm of kitschy dial-up modems to the stuff of high art. Check out her story below.