The other day my longtime friend Allen reminded me of the synthesizer class I took in college. It’s not that I had forgotten, but the evolution of my interest in electronics is such that I sort of left those days to the remnant past. You see, synths have changed quite a bit over the years.
I met Al in college when I was living in the legendary L-shaped house on the S-curve between Monmouth and Independence. The house was desperately notorious for many arcanely sinister reasons (we were “alternative” types in a blue town), which I will spend some other blog elaborating upon. Tom and Doug and I were the primary inhabitants, although we dragged (or maybe drugged would be the better operative verb) many other more temporary roommates into the household from the Oregon College of Education campus.
One of the guys we flagged down as roommate material was Marv, although I’m not entirely certain he enjoys being reminded of this brief portion of his life. Poor Marv endured being our roommate for a term, I think. I can’t imagine it was any longer than that in duration. His stay was chaotic, for many reasons, not the least of which were three big dogs and a smaller one, a rabbit and twenty or more cats. The most imposing cat was an albino feline gigantis that appeared one day from the field behind our house. He was huge.
I called him Moby. The great white cat. He weighed more than my dog Gypsy and she weighed around forty pounds. I think Moby was closer to fifty pounds. Seriously. He just showed up at the back door one day and none of us had the guts to try to get him out of the house once he got in. He just sort of moved in. The cat who came to dinner.
One day Moby was draped across the back of the couch when my dog Spider (half-Golden retriever, half-Newfoundland and well over one hundred pounds) came nosing in for a definitive cat sniff. Moby sat up indignantly and took a swipe at Spider, and promptly knocked him down to the floor with a single punch (and it sounded like a punch, too). Spider ran off and nobody ever bothered Moby again. One day Moby disappeared. Probably went back out to the field behind our house where the sheep were grazing. Better hunting out there.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. So Marv lived in the L-shaped house on the S-curve for about a term, I think. Somewhere along the line he introduced me to his buddy from high school, Lew. And Lew brought into the fold Allen, another Madison high school graduate. We were all musicians and worked together and in other configurations over the years. Allen was renowned for his unparalleled abilities on the guitar. He played Bach’s “Bouree” using his thumb to execute the intricate contrapuntal bass lines.
Eventually, many years later, after we both had moved back up to Portland from Monmouth, Allen became the (exceptional) lead guitar player in my band. If I can ever get my web guy to give me an mp3 player on this website, I’ll let you hear how good he was. He lived in the band house for a while.
There, he and I performed many unusual scientific experiments—including efforts at remote viewing and attempts to generate infrasonic 4-8hz sound waves (much too low to be audible, but the body knows they’re out there, count on it), which were rumored to have all sorts of physical effects. There is some research that suggests one such low tone (the infamous “brown note”) can convince your bowels to evacuate spontaneously. Other tones could put you to sleep. And others could conceivably kill you. It is my recollection we were after the sleep/relaxation component—as that sounds more our speed.
Anyway, that’s who Allen is. We’re still friends and we’ve kept in touch (though somewhat sporadically) over the years. He’s in Michigan now. So our emails and Facebook exchanges are about the extent of our communications nowadays. But we’re both windy writer-types—so brevity is no real obstacle.
Last week Allen sent me this Facebook link
It’s about professor Joe Paradiso who while attending Tufts University in 1973 began work on constructing a synthesizer (now on display in the MIT museum). If you watch this video, you can see what synthesizers were like, back then. They really lived up to the futuristic name. Synthesizer.
It was all cables and jacks, envelope generators and oscillators, and modulators, and waves, and filters. They were amazing devices. Huge. Some took up a whole wall. The one at U of O was massive.
In those days, getting one of the damn contraptions to even make a noise took a lot of effort. The idea of attaching a keyboard to one of them was a bit like trying to extract electricity from a kite. For the longest time, you could only generate one solitary note at a time (monophonic) on a keyboard hooked up to a synthesizer.
Technically, synthesizers had been around for a while. Gee, “musicians” were using tone generators clear back in the 20s. That’s what a theremin is. If you’d like to learn more about the theremin go here to read an article I wrote for Buko magazine about a local surf band that uses one. There’s some history about the instrument there.
Around 1964 Robert Moog emerged as the first developer to create a modular synthesizer that included a keyboard. The set-up was primitive, to say the least, and not at all stable—likely to wander off into oscillatory la la land at the slightest voltage drop. It was in the later-‘60s that Lothar and the Hand People, previously a theremin-based band themselves, started using a Moog Modular system live.
In 1968, a well-known jazz pianist named Dick Hyman (who is still around today at age 85) put out Moog: The Electric Eclectics of Dick Hyman (I guess they had room for longer titles on LPs). That album was something of a precursor to Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Innovative.
About that same time Walter Carlos released the revolutionary Switched On Bach. Carlos could only play one note at a time on his Moog set-up. So he put together his elaborate electronic renditions via multitracking. Laborious, tedious and amazing. An incredible piece of work.
Switched On Bach set the standard for achievement in electronic music for many years to follow. In that time Walter Carlos broke further new ground by initiating hormone treatments in 1967 and living as Wendy Carlos from that time forward.
Wendy underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1972. Honestly, I don’t remember much public brouhaha surrounding that event. The turmoil of the times made anything possible, it seems.
I always thought the Beatles’ “Here Comes The Sun” was the first use of a synth on a pop record—Abbey Road in the fall of 1969—but I recently read somewhere that Micky Dolenz had bought one of the first twenty or so Moog Modular systems produced and employed it on two songs on the Monkees album called Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. released late in 1967. Those Monkees. Ever the groundbreakers. Dolenz has said he eventually sold his Moog to Bobby Sherman, which is just a chilling thought.
By the fall of 1971 I had lost my direction, scholastically. After some practicum, I very quickly realized that my goal to become a high school English teacher like my uncle was entirely misguided—when I determined that, even under the best of circumstances, I might realistically be able to reach only three or five students in any particular classroom. The rest of them would be lost to: well, the American Dream, I suppose. Is that what we’re living, here? It also dawned on me that I really didn’t like kids all that much.
So, that fall term, I abandoned my formal education and adopted an informal education instead. Tom, Doug and I had moved out of the L-shaped house by then and were living in Mrs. Robinson’s rental in Independence. We had become somewhat disillusioned by the Oregon upper education system. OCE, which had once been considered one of the top teachers’ colleges in the nation, was turning out mindless proles in serving to erect the American scholastic conveyor. Tales of our adventures in attempting to recover our misplaced funding of that facility will have to wait until another day.
My immediate choice was to take some classes that really interested me instead of classes that were mandatory and dullardly. Having no funds for such an expedition, I decided to sit in on classes until the final class enrollment lists came out and I would be forced to take a hike.
I took a really cool Astronomy class. I took a class in Romantic World Literature from one of my favorite professors. That was great. I took my third term of Music Theory, although Professor Funes was totally cool. He knew I was masquerading, but he never did blow the whistle on me, because he knew it was about the music. And it really was and it always has been.
I also took a synthesizer class.
OCE had a very sophisticated synthesizer in-house, for being such a podunk little college out in the middle of nowhere. I guess they figured (like four, and me) future teachers of the device should be trained, or something. I know I was there to figure the whole synthesizer thing out.
It was an EMS VCS-3, nicknamed the “Putney,” after the London suburb where its designer David Cockerell lived. The Putney came with a keyboard that allowed an individual to play only one single note at a time, like a lead instrument. Monophonic. No polyphony, no chords—although you could sort of approximate them with arpeggios.
And instead of cables and phone plugs like its predecessors, the Putney utilized electronic pins on a matrix pad. The pin board resembled somewhat a game of Battleship. The pins created various connections between oscillators and filters, and other effects, which could then be manipulated via a joy-stick and an array of knobs mounted above the pin and key boards.
Doctor Wallace was the instructor for that class. He was the head of the music department. Sort of a stodgy, fastidious old guy. I’m not sure why he was the instructor. Professor Funes would have been the logical choice. But the prevailing thought was that Doctor Wallace wanted to guard at all costs the department’s big investment toy. No hooligans. Little did he know there was a hooligan in his midst.
The six of us were stuffed into a corner of the little sound control booth located above the concert stage in the performance hall. I quickly became Doctor Wallace’s pet, eliciting from his prized machine the sort of far-out sound effects for which it was renowned. David Cockerell was responsible for creating sounds for the original Doctor Who series, after all.
Over the first half of the spring term I put together some tapes of my best electronic vignettes. The piece de resistance among them was Space Bird Suite. I had figured out how to deploy a direct mic from the concert stage and run it into the Putney. It wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. One afternoon while I was up messing with the Putney (I spent five or six hours a day up in that little room) a woman began playing Bach pieces at the grand piano on the stage below.
I was able to ascertain the key in which she was playing and to jam along with her in single-note contrapuntality. Once in synch, I turned on the Revox A-77 tape deck and let ‘er rip. Afterwards I mixed in strange, synth-generated bird sounds, pieces of an odd B-movie we roommates watched one night, a classical-like guitar performance and some other electronic detritus. Doctor Wallace was knocked out. I was on my way to getting an A.
I wasn’t enrolled in his class or any other. I wasn’t enrolled in school. Whenever he asked, I had always managed to convince Doctor Wallace that there was some sort of bureaucratic administrative mix-up or what have you, and he would let me slide for another week. Well, we’d better get this cleared up. Yeah you bet. Top of my list.
I had nearly completed my final version of Space Bird Suite. It was on a ten-inch 15 ips reel stored on a shelf above the Putney and the Revox. One day in early May I was on my way into the performance hall and up to the studio when Rick Morrison came sprinting up in my direction.
“Hey Clarke, Wallace is on to you and he’s pissed!
I took that as a bad omen and got the hell out of there. I was told that at some point Doctor Wallace played my composition for the class and extolled upon its virtues. I don’t know what became of that finished version. I never saw or heard it again. It wouldn’t shock me if Doctor Wallace recorded over it. It was a ten-inch reel of Ampex tape!
Space Bird Suite was an exotic piece, a “Revolution #9” sort of affair with a Bachian sheen overlain. I still have a strangely edited working-version that I had ended up recording various sections of at different speeds in order to get it all onto the short piece of tape I had available. I keep telling myself that one day I’ll put that one back together to its rightful ten minute length (I still have the recording), just as a curiosity. But I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it.
In keeping with tradition, here is the latest installment of Biblical Haiku.
The Bible IV
Mount Sinai with two tablets
And a big headache