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(For its 31st edition, the SXSW Film & TV Festival will host nine days of screenings from March 8-16, 2024. Check out Tristan Kneschke’s Resynator movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

For anyone who produces electronic music, names like Robert Moog, Don Buchla, Tom Oberheim, and Dave Smith approach holiness. As the pioneers responsible for the electronic instruments that enable worlds of sonic exploration, they are the electrifiers that make the genre even remotely possible. These figures are titanic, but this means overlooked and underrated practitioners in this space are a revelation, and the documentary Resynator, which introduces Don Tavel and his novel invention that shares the film’s name, is no exception. Directed by Tavel’s daughter Alison, the film begins as a study of a remarkably innovative piece of kit and evolves into a heartfelt and tender journey of personal discovery.

Ms. Tavel barely knew her father at all, as he died only ten weeks after she was born. The scant knowledge she knew of him involved his status as an inventor of the synthesizer, but she was dismayed to find that her father wasn’t listed in the history books. The film chronicles her desire to bring the blurry image of her father into focus. Her compass for this journey is the Resynator, an early synthesizer that processes and is controlled by an incoming signal, resulting in unconventional sounds attractive to any sonic explorer. The instrument, resembling a rackmount effects processor, was the first of its kind, and remains fresh even today, where a piano keybed is the chosen apparatus for controlling most modern synthesizers.

While not identifying as a musician, Tavel has been surrounded with music her entire life. That doesn’t mean that she knows what to do when she finds her father’s Resynator prototype in the family attic. As she discusses the instrument with her extended family and those that can revive the machine, Tavel commences the parallel journey of engaging with her past. The Resynator takes Tavel across the globe, finding her jamming with musicians in South America and meeting luminaries like Peter Gabriel.

Punctuating the narrative are the jittery animations by Danny Madden that seem as if they are drawn from Ms. Tavel’s childhood imagination, as well as the deft archival editing by Kathryn Robson and Chris Gibson that illustrate the charismatic person and the visionary genius that Don Tavel was.

While the film is a must for anyone interested in obscure music gear, at its heart the hardware is a springboard for a powerful emotional journey. Most effective is how Tavel speaks in voiceover directly to her father in a softly inquisitive nature. She uncovers shades of her father that don’t always paint him favorably, while attempting to unravel why such a groundbreaking concept never saw greater commercial appeal. As a person only known through family photographs becomes more physical to her, Tavel’s search exposes her identity and points to who she still might become. A transcendent and at times heart-wrenching film about engaging deeply with one’s past, Resynator is much more than just another music doc – though gearheads will be pleased to hear there are still lots and lots of wires.

Tristan Kneschke

2024 SXSW Film Festival, Alison Tavel; Resynator documentary movie review

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Tristan Kneschke has been published by Bloomsbury Academic, Routledge, and Dancecult, and has focused on writing about electronic music for cultural publications including Tiny Mix Tapes, Pop Matters, Metal Sucks, Decoder Magazine, Echoes and Dust, and Hyperallergic, among others. Kneschke records as Metamyther, an electronic music project exploring three-movement song structures, and has contributed scores to several films, including the documentary Conceiving Our Future, which enjoyed the distinction of screening at DocNYC, America’s biggest documentary film festival.

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