Distal Muse


by Mark W. Tiedemann

     I love this music.
     Recently, we did some rearranging.  My collection of vinyl had to be moved.  We bought heavy-duty shelving and put them up in the basement, just outside my office.  My office is the only place in the house now where there is a working turntable.  When we had a dog, it was just too dangerous to be playing with her with a record on.  Besides, most of the music on the LPs is pretty much my music and a lot of it--well, not that it’s not to Donna’s taste, but it lacks the kind of resonance for her that would make it worth her while to get cozy with.  (After 25 years, she has learned to like some of it--she’s something of a YES fan now, and she loves Genesis and The Moody Blues.  But I’ve got a lot of, well, weird stuff...)   This is the music I acquired during the heyday of my record buying in the Seventies.  I can’t reasonably expect anyone who didn’t come into it the way I did to really love it.  Reason has nothing to do with it.
     So in my office, door closed, I now have this music to hand, and can listen to it while I work.
     I’ve been playing a pair of albums that are about as obscure as one can get and still expect a certain crowd to know who I’m talking about.  Fireballet.
     Recorded in the mid-Seventies at the height of what was called then “Art Rock”--often with a sneer--and now has all been gathered together under the rubric “Prog Rock”, this band was quite consciously following in the footsteps of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and King Crimson--in fact, Ian McDonald was producer on the first LP and even played on it.  That first LP was the best of the two--”Night On Bald Mountain”, with side 2 containing a full-blown rock version of Mussourgsky’s epic tone poem.  The full battery of Moog effects can be heard, including the famous Moog Taurus Pedals which gave a tremendous bass effect.  I remember Chris Squire of Yes using a set of them as well as his own Rickenbacher.
     The second Fireballet was weaker.  More singing.  I’ve mentioned before that I’m far less interested in vocals than instrumentals.  In my opinion, the Voice should be used for specific things, which the 20th century pop music culture largely ignored--then, as now, singing is mandatory for any kind of popular acceptance.  You sing not because the music calls for it but because the audience generally won’t listen if you don’t.  I’ve heard musicians mention this from time to time--Roy Clark, for one, and Jerry Reed, in a PBS-aired concert, explained that he knew he didn’t sing well, but that “they” wouldn’t let him play if he didn’t sing.
     I blame a lot of things for this, mainly the public’s lack of any serious interest in music--which is not unique: the public lacks, it seems, serious interest in Art in general.  That’s why trash novels often sell better than seriously good books, especially the trash novels that do the literary equivalent of pop singing.  They have a hook, a style, a pace, and a way of pushing certain buttons that make them pleasant experiences but do not tax the attention of the reader.  That’s why The DaVinci Code sells and gets press while Foucault’s Pendulum (a far superior novel about some of the same things, done well and done right) is known only to a comparative handful of readers.
     In any event, Fireballet’s second outing, “Two, Too”--with a hideous cover photograph of the band in female ballet garb--suffered in comparison to the second.  I rather suspect that was one reason there was no third album.
     Too soon to benefit from the explosion of technology that has made niche publishing in music possible.  Not enough audience to merit the expense of record production then, but probably enough audience to keep the band on a regular tour of club dates for a good long while, they faded away like so many others.  Unlike so many others, neither of these albums is easily available on CD.  There’s a Japanese version, apparently, but you can’t find it on Amazon.
     Listening to these records, though, reminded me how much I like the sound of synthesizers.  Not the pureed sound you so often get today of massed electronics tuned to imitate orchestral colors, but the full, unembarrassed attacks and decays and growls and whistles and eery timbres of synthesized sound.  When Emerson cut loose for the first time on the first ELP album, in the second part of “Tank”, and we hear those building cadences of Moog effects leading to that first stratospheric Emerson Moog solo...that unabashed use of sounds not found in nature grabbed me.
     I’ve always preferred keyboards to guitar.  We’re talking a few degrees of like, here, not a categorical gulf.  But a good keyboardist will always get more of my appreciation than a good guitarist.  (When it comes to exceptional instrumentalists, I have no preference--excellent is excellent, period.)  So liking music that featured the Hammond organ in the Sixties drew my attention more than all the guitar-driven pabulum pumped out in the wake of the British Invasion.  (I frankly hated the Farfisa--that was the portable organ of choice for many groups back then, because it was light and cheap, but it had an awful tinny whiny sound.  The Vox was somewhat better, but required creative amping ála Iron Butterfly  to really make it sound good.  The Hammond was the beast to ride if you wanted to be taken seriously, as, for example, in The Animals.)  But even so, as I’ve said elsewhere, most of the Sixties rock scene left me cold.  I stumbled on synthesizers then upon hearing “Switched-On Bach” the first time.
     Wow.  I still like that album.
     By then, synthesizers were making tentative appearances here and there in rock music.  The Beach Boys used a Theremin in their hit single “Good Vibrations” and even the Beatles played around a bit with a moog, I think on “Abbey Road”--could be wrong about that, but it seems so.
     ELP broke the dam.  The came Yes and Rick Wakeman.  Genesis started using one.
     And a genre was born.  A subgenre, really.
     It began earlier, with Theremin of course, and a lot of companies and universities played around with electronic music, as it was called back in the day.  My first recollection of it was the soundtrack for the movie Forbidden Planet, which is still available on a CD.  These “tonalities” as they were called were equal parts music and sound effect--a bit weird for the general public.  And Karlheinz Stockhausen was one of the few semi-well-known composers playing with it in the Fifties.
     The idea of the synthesizer as purely electronic instrument was the brainchild of Harald Bode (born Hamburg 19 Oct 1909).  While at the Heinrich-Herst Institut für Schwingungsforschung at the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, he built The Warbo Formant Orgel .  Partially polyphonic, it was a four-voice keyboard instrument with 2 filters and key assigned dynamic envelope wave shaping, features Bode later used on the postwar 'Melochord'.  Moog became acquainted with Bode and his work in about 1961, when he was building Theremin kits and selling them out of his apartment.
     The Theremin itself is older, going back to the nineteen-tens and twenties, and was the creation of Russian cellist Lev Segevitch Termen.  Working the discovery of “beat frequency”--or heterodyning oscillators--radio engineers discovered certain musical potentials.  The effect is created buy a pair of high frequency sound waves, similar but not identical, varying frequency in combination, creating a lower, audible frequency in the 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz range.  Termen recognized that one of the “problems”--that the frequency variations resulting from the approach to the vacuum tubes being used by the actual body of the performer--could be used as a control mechanism.  Rather than a problem, Termen turned it into the technique for playing his “Theremin”, or “Aetherphone” as he sometimes called it.  If you’ve seen the concert film by Led Zeppelin “The Song Remains The Same”, you’ve seen a Theremin performance by Jimmy Page.  That vertical rod he makes passes at with his hand.  Yep, that thing.
     The heterodyning vacuum tube oscillator became the central component in the electronic music industry, until the transistor arrived in the Sixties.  A lot of the RCA Lab’s experimental music was done with banks of these, some using a five-tone modulator system.
     After 1963, Moog decided to start designing and building his own instruments.  In 1964 he exhibited his special circuits at the Audio Engineering Society Convention.  The success of this convention led him to begin designing and building keyboard instruments, in collaboration with composers Herbert A. Deutsch and Walter Carlos (now Wendy Carlos).  Carlos’ album Switched-On Bach advanced the popularity of the synthesizer, especially among the emerging progressive rock scene.  Mick Jagger even bought one of the big modular units, though it was later sold to Tangerine Dream.
     Enter the Seventies.
     Everyone talks about the music explosion of the Sixties, and indeed I am very fond of a lot of what happened then.  Without the Sixties--especially from 1967 on--it is unlikely the flowering of progressive rock in the Seventies could have happened.  I know some people who think that would have been all to the good--that all the decent music ended in ‘71 or ‘72.  Hm.
     At the end of 1969, The Nice , Keith Emerson’s groundbreaking band, broke up.  He got together with Greg Lake and Carl Palmer and in 1970 their first album appeared, after a highly successful premier performance at the Isle of Wight Festival.  Music, as they say, hasn’t been quite the same since.
     Possibly because of the Carlos albums--which went on to include a “Switched-On Bach II”, “The Well-Tempered Synthesizer”, the soundtrack for A Clockwork Orange and a later compilation “The Switched-On Brandenburgs”, synthesizers had become largely associated with classical music.  Later in the Seventies, when Stevie Wonder and the whole funk scene emerged, this changed, but those first few years after ELP’s first album saw mainly progressive rock bands with classical leanings take it up.  But the classical association is more likely due to the fact that the synthesizer was first and foremost a keyboard instrument.  You find keyboards most prominently in jazz and...classical.  Insofar as rock’n’roll had ever been a keyboard driven form, it was usually through the importation of jazz motifs.  Jerry Lee Lewis had offered a manic presentation--and not to take anything away from Mr. Lewis, but the improvisational elements of his music are not what one would call “concerti caliber” work.  The piano was used as background to vocals, a counterpoint to rhythm guitar... the few exceptions merely made those of us who loved keyboards thirstier for artists who could do with organ, piano, etc what Hendrix, Clapton, and others were doing with guitar.  Hence our admiration and love of Keith Emerson.
     Others--once they knew they could--followed so fast it is sometimes difficult to know who did what first.  Yeah, Jon Lord of Deep Purple was throwing Bach and Mozart phrases into his solos, but in the end it was Emerson who made it not only popular but expected.
     Then came Rick Wakeman, who had been doing a lot of good work with The Strawbs, but nothing on synthesizer.  (Deep Purple, by the way, never did get into synthesizers as richly as they might have.  A few strains can be heard on “Who Do We Think We Are?” and then, quite a bit more so on “Burn”, but on stage Lord almost never touched his pair of ARPs, prefering to stick to the Hammond.)  When Wakeman appeared on “Fragile”, his synthesizer vocabulary was rich and sophisticated.  His solo album, “The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth”, advanced his synth work even further.
     No one looked back then.  Groups that had never used synthesizers before took them up, with mixed results.  Jethro Tull made good use of them, but Chicago made only slight, occasional, and not very confident attempts with them.   Journey never really got the hang of them, but then they became a guitar-driven vocal-harmony group after Steve Perry joined them and ruined them with success.  Other groups experimented to varying degrees of success.  The Electric Light Orchestra never did figure out how to use them appropriately.  Genesis really went with them after “A Lamb Lies Down On Broadway” and when Peter Gabriel left the group for a solo career he linked up with synthesist Larry Fast, whose Synergy albums are extraordinary examples of what can be done with studio synthesizers.  When Todd Rundgren formed Utopia, he recruited Roger Powell, who had been playing with experimental electronic music as a student.  Rundgren seemed to take to synths quite naturally.  Then, of course, there is the incomparable Vangelis, whose work sometimes seems victim to excessive experimentation, but is decidedly never dull.
     But as the music scene opened up to synths, it also seemed to be embracing a classical approach to composition that in the end had nothing to do with synthesizers--all synthesizers allowed was for a single keyboard player to mimic large-scale orchestral arrangements on stage.  Surrounded by banks of keyboards, a Wakeman or a Patrick Moraz could lay down the lush backgrounds that had formerly required a string section at the very least, an orchestra usually--which was done in the studio, but the bread-and-butter of rock is on the road.  Along with the mellotron--which is not a synthesizer in the strict sense--groups could expand their color palette and engulf audiences in exotic and sophisticated aural landscapes.
     Which is partly where it went wrong.  I mentioned the pureéd soundscapes that have emerged?  The whole string effect has distorted synthesizer orchestration to where what comes out is virtually indistinguishable from a standard, analog orchestra.  Vast washes of sounds, like Montovani gone pop, as if the artist is trying to disguise the fact that synths are in use.  (One of the best combinations of this--the imitation of orchestral colors with undisguised synth tonalities--are the works of Japanese synthesist Isao Tomita.  As examples of the full potential of synthesized sound, you could do a lot worse.  Highly recommended.)
     Then, too, the guitar was never toppled from its throne as king instrument in rock’n’roll.
     There have been, and still are, guitar synthesizers.  Pat Matheny uses one to magnificent effect.  There was a short-lived group called Symphonic Slam which advertised their use of the Systems 360 guitar synthesizer.   But by and large, they have become little more than additional modes in standard effects guitarists have always used--wah-wah, fuzz, and so forth.
     Fusion took off from rock with the purer synth sounds.  Jan Hammer, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock...
     The sound of the Moog, when not being blended with other instruments to imitate wind or string instruments, is a wholly unique sound--not found in nature.  And that is part of what I love about it.  It is not a “novelty” instrument, which is what it was used for in many instances, especially for television.  One wonders what would have become of it without the progressive rock era to grace it with “serious” status.
     I had a couple of knock-off synths in my band days.  I could never afford a Moog.  By the mid-Seventies there were plenty of companies making competing models.  Oberheim, ARP, Putney, Yamaha Korg. The Oberheim sequencers and the Prophet 5 keyboard synthesizer were, for my money, the only serious alternatives to Moog for a long time.  Pink Floyd   used the Putney VCS-3 for “Dark Side of The Moon” and maybe for future albums, though I think by the time they did “The Wall” they had banks of them from various manufacturers.
     Today the synthesizer is staple.  It comes built into most commercial keyboards in one way or another.
     And that’s become a problem.  You see, if you have the patience (or even if you don’t--the presets do it all now) you can program a synthesizer to sound like damn near anything--like a flute or a violin or a cello or--
     As a result it is more often than not used for “orchestral color” or to imitate slightly off-beat pianos or organs.  The growly, whistling, divinely other-worldly sound that originally attracted me to them in such a big way appears less and less.  As I write this I’m listening a Moody Blues album--”The Present”--on which Monsieur Moraz is doing an admirable job imitate a brass section, at least on this track.  Sounds convincing, sounds great, and can’t take anything away from it--except that I know what Moraz can do with undiluted synth sounds.  He was magnificent in Yes on the “Relayer” album, and before that as part of Refugee, which was the band formed of the two-thirds of The Nice Keith Emerson left behind to form ELP.
     I complain too much sometimes.  But, man, I loved that mini-Moog sound when a good keyboardist cut loose on one.  I’d love to hear more of it, and not just in old jazz albums.
     I’ve recently discovered a world of electronic music done on labels I’d never heard of before.  A lot of this music...well, except for Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk and Larry Fast’s Synergy  in the Seventies, it never really had a huge audience, but it had enough a one that it didn’t die.  In fact, it sounds to me like those early to mid-Seventies Tangerine Dream albums have spawned devoted offspring.  I’m thinking of a Scandinavian band, Air Sculpture, in particular.  It’s what is often called “Ambient” music now.  Silly label, but there it is.  Then there are the alumni from Tangerine Dream--especially Chris Franke, who did the soundtrack work on Babylon-5.  A little digging turns up a wealth of unadulterated electronic music.
     I just wanted to take some time and go on about one of my favorite musical loves.  Thanks for bearing with me.

copyright © 2004 by Mark W. Tiedemann