Nick Schofield. Photo credit: Christopher Honeywell.

Instrumental: The Infinite Possibilities of Nick Schofield’s Prophet-600

Art does not exist in a vacuum. Sculptures inspire paintings that influence photographers whose work gives birth to music, for example. The possibilities are infinite—endless individual elements work in relation to or against each other, which gives rise to new combinations of those elements, and the process seems to unfold eternally. Synthesizers offer a clear example of a contained unit that encourages this process. It was exclusively using the Prophet-600 analog synthesizer that Nick Schofield crafted his latest release, Glass Gallery, which is inspired by the light and space of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Songs from Glass Gallery conjure the institution’s architecture—including its breathtaking atrium—and the art that it houses, and it’s in this way that the snowballing effect of art interacting with itself continues on. The atrium makes a thoughtful space that creates a particular kind of light that, in turn, inspires the music. The Prophet-600, in Schofield’s hands, seems to contain all these small (and big) worlds.

Schofield grew up as a drummer, and wasn’t exposed to synthesizers much until he started studying electroacoustics at Concordia University in 2006. It was later, at the Banff Centre, while working with a Moog Prodigy, that his love affair with analog synthesizers began. “It converted me,” Schofield says over the phone from Gatineau. “I became really hooked on analog synthesizers.” 

The Prodigy is a monophonic synthesizer (it only produces one note at a time), and Schofield was on the lookout for a polyphonic one when it just fell into his lap.

“I was at a New Year’s Eve party in 2019, and as I’m talking with the host, I see a guitar on the wall,” Schofield says. “We start up a music talk, and he mentions, ‘Oh, you like synthesizers? Maybe you’d be interested in this Prophet-600 synthesizer that I’m actually looking to sell.’ And without a moment of hesitation, I said, ‘Consider it sold.’ He’s a good friend, and it felt like a real blessing that when the album came out, he wrote to me and said that it was awesome to hear the synthesizer in action.”

With Glass Gallery, Schofield manages to recreate not only the sense of grandeur that being in a space like the National Gallery elicits—something he achieved by re-amplifying every synth layer at the MacKay United Church to get the space’s natural reverb—but also the wonder and intimacy that comes from standing inside of it, finding yourself in communion with compelling artworks. Below, Schofield tells us a bit more about the tool he did it with.

What was it like getting to know the Prophet-600? 

I’m pretty familiar with the basis of synthesis and that I’m going to be controlling oscillators and filter and the filter envelope. I’m already familiar with all of that from the Moog Prodigy. The Prophet-600 is interesting because it does have some more unique functions—it has presets, it has 100 patches. Whereas with the Moog Prodigy there are no patches, so you’re constantly sculpting the sound source. With the Prophet-600, if you don’t like a sound, you can change patches. The Prophet-600 also has an arpeggiator, which I use throughout the entire album. And it has a sequencer, a real time sequencer, which is kind of like an oldschool on-board looper, where you can play a passage, record it, and then change the speed of that musical passage while also affecting the parameters. The one funny thing about the Prophet-600 I was using is that I received it in kind of a state of disrepair. So it behaves super erratically. Some of the keys didn’t work. The responsiveness of other keys was extremely temperamental. And I basically had a month in Ottawa where I was house-sitting for my parents, and I brought the synthesizer with me and decided, ‘Alright, I’m going to use this month to get to know the synth.’ In the process, I made the album. 

Oh, wow. So the sound of the album is also the sound of you learning how to use the Prophet-600? 

Absolutely. I had not really played it at all, up until the point that I started writing and recording the music for the album. 

How would you describe the process of creating a record with one single instrument? 

Well, the way I like to approach an album, for my solo music, is to really explore one instrument, exhibiting its own character and the depth of its possibilities. So a way of looking at it is instead of going with a sonic palette, like an orchestra, I would consider going really deep into the one instrument and excavating as much as I can from it. I like continuity, and creating a bit of a consistent universe. And using one instrument really sets the tone for what the universe is gonna sound like. A way of looking at it is that when you listen to a work of music, each instrument can almost be considered like a character. So if you’re making an album with only one instrument, it’s really just one personality that you’re getting to know and becoming extremely familiar with all of its nuances. 

Nick Schofield’s Prophet-600. Courtesy of Nick Schofield.

How did the Prophet-600 affect your composing process?

Well, aside from the fact it wasn’t perfectly functional, and that I had to kind of get over the barriers of working with an instrument from 1982 that definitely needed to be serviced? I really just employed the arpeggiator. And honestly, it’s so central that I don’t even know where to start. All I can think of is that a very personal connection ends up forming, because I love getting to know the instrument. I realized what its capabilities and limitations were, and I liked discovering how I could utilize the arpeggiator and sequencer and filter in a way that felt very honest to how I want to express my own ideas. I would say those are the main elements that I ended up really utilizing—this combination of arpeggiation sequences and like shuttered passages. 

This record is very visual, to me—are there images you’re looking to express via sound when you compose? 

So I was visiting the National Gallery of Canada every week in March 2019, while making the album, and I was especially drawn towards these abstract geometric painters from the 1970s movement called Nouveau Plasticiens. One main artist, Guido Molinari, and also Paul Klee was an important painter I was taking influence from. And essentially, I became really fascinated with this idea of how they were using shapes and patterns in their paintings while also having these really soft, textural clouds of colour. And to me, it just seemed like I could almost hear the painting and hear what they would sound like using the Prophet-600 to translate shapes into arpeggiated patterns and clouds of colour into harmonic patterns.

How did that look when you actually sat down to compose?  

So when I would look at these paintings, this one Paul Klee painting in particular, “Theatre-Mountain-Construction,” that’s a good example because it has this, almost like a scaffolding structure, very architectural, and clouds of colour combined with it. And I asked myself: “I wonder if the shape or colours came first?” So in some compositions, I would sit down with the synthesizer, I would try putting down a shape first and that would be layers of arpeggiation. And then overdub more harmonic paths and chord progressions on top of that. And other times I would totally invert it and do a chord progression and then mute that whole element, and record arpeggiation. And then I’d let the two elements interact, without actually being fully aware of how they would… like, it wasn’t premeditated. A lot of times, I would just create one chord pattern. And then create a sequence of arpeggiation and see how they would interact together.

What’s your relationship with the National Gallery?

I’ve been visiting the National Gallery since I can first remember. I was probably five years old on a class trip, and I remember walking up that long ramp and arriving at the top and the elevator doors opening, and my mom stepping out of the elevators and realizing like, ‘Wow, my mom works in this incredibly beautiful space.’ And it was really a moment of pride. Since then, I’ve returned to the gallery so many times with this sense of reverence for what it represents. It’s an absolute architectural gem that is a sanctuary of creativity. It gives me hope that the most beautiful building in a country is a place that houses innovative, creative works from around the world.

The beautiful thing about the gallery as a source of inspiration is that it wasn’t just this one month of experiencing it in March 2019. Making the album was an amalgam of all of my experiences, visiting the National Gallery throughout my entire life, and the childlike sense of wonder, to my current frame of mind, where I’ve become fascinated with abstract geometric painting, for example.

Do you feel a sense of infinite possibilities working with a tool like the Prophet-600?

I feel like I could make many albums with this one instrument. It’s not like I explored it to its full capabilities on Glass Gallery. There are many more albums within the Prophet-600 waiting to be made, and to speak to its infinite possibilities—when my partner was listening to Glass Gallery, her first comment was, “It would be so interesting to hear an orchestra or chamber ensemble try to interpret this music, because you have elements that sound like flutes and strings, like brass and percussion, all throughout the album.” It’s kind of incredible to know that this one synthesizer can almost replicate such a wide swath of instrumentation.