Fifty one years ago today, the first incarnation of the prog rock band, King Crimson, gathered in a cramped basement space below the Fulham Palace Cafe in London. One of the instruments the band would use that would come to distinguish their early sound was that strange, iconic 60s instrument, the Mellotron.
Keyboardist Ian McDonald was taken by the sound of this instrument as it was employed by the Moody Blues (and on The Beatles' Strawberry Fields) and thought it would work well with the type of lush and orchestral sound the band was looking to create. Later in the year, in the summer of 1969, the instrument would again appear on David Bowie's Space Oddity (played by future Yes man, Rick Wakeman).
Of all of the strange instruments that've worked the edges of popular music (the Theremin also comes to mind), the Mellotron is probably the oddest. Basically an upright organ cabinet filled the tape heads and recorded tape strips that you trigger through the keyboard, the Mellotron is like some crazy one-off contraption that caught on and actually got manufactured.
In this video, Allison Stout, of Bell Tone Synth Works, a synthesizer repair shop in Philadelphia, PA, takes us under the hood of a Mellotron MK1 and how it works. One can only imagine how finicky and prone to breakage touring versions of these things must have been.
And here's one of King Crimson's Mellotrons in action during a performance in 1974 at the ORTFTV Studios in Paris. Read the rest
Theremin virtuoso Konstanin Kovalsky (1890-1976) performs with Vyacheslav Mescherin's Orchestra of Electronic Instruments, USSR, 1960. From Discogs:
The Ensemble of Electro-Musical Instruments directed by Vyacheslav Mescherin was founded within the music department of the State Radio of the Soviet Union in 1957. For more than thirty years, from the Fifties up to the Eighties the music of Ensemble Mescherina could be heard on radio and TV, in radio plays and cartoon movies almost every day. The ensemble managed to compose more then 700 pieces of music until 1990. Some of Mescherins compositions are public domain by now and can be hummed by everyone in Russia. One example is the track 'On the chicken farm', which was used in the very popular cartoon series 'Rabbit and Wolf'. In 1959 the Soviet government asked Mescherin for an electronic sound recording of 'The Internationale', to be sent to outer space on board of the first sputnik. Mescherin also designed and built many electronic instruments himself. Balalaikas, accordions and guitars, which he amplified, now sounded as if played on another planet. Mescherin and his ensemble were more or less the only experimental musicians in the field of electronic music in the USSR up to the Sixties.
(via r/VintageObscura) Read the rest
The Theremin, an electronic musical instrument that you play by not touching it, celebrates the 100th anniversary of its invention next year. Smithsonian looks at the history of the first successful electronic musical instrument that New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg described as sounding like "(a) cello lost in a dense fog, crying because it does not know how to get home." From Smithsonian:
Theremin was a radio engineer with the Soviet military in 1918 when, while building a powerful transmitter-receiver, he noticed odd feedback sounds coming from it. He said in a 1995 interview, “it turned out that when the capacity changes at a distance of the moving hand, the pitch of the sound also changes.”
He had happened on heterodyning, a process that combines two frequencies to shift one frequency range into another, new frequency. It makes for a change in pitch and volume.
Other radio engineers in Europe at the close of World War I had noticed the same effect but Theremin was the first to play with that feedback or heterodyning effect in a musical way. The new sound pleased the inventor. Fully committed to Soviet nationalism, (Metropolitan Museum of Art musical instrument curator Jayson) Dobney says, Theremin “tried to find a musical sound that was modern, forward looking.”
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Mallwave is a microgenre of bedroom electronic music and smooth jazz meant to evoke nostalgia for the vibrant mall scenes of the 1980s and 1990s that many of the music's composers are too young to have experienced or at least remember.
Think of Mallwave as a hauntological soundtrack for an Orange Julius-fueled consumer culture where Suncoast, Merry-Go-Round, and Spencer Gifts anchored suburban reality. (Or, in the case of some of the moodier tracks, the kind of muzak that might play in your mind as you wander an abandoned mall in a Ballardian trance.)
From Hussein Kesvanio's feature in MEL:
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“The nostalgia is so real you can cry and wish you went back in time,” reads one comment underneath the video “Neon Wave Mall (Vapor Mix).” “I feel a certain sense of… familiarity watching this footage. Almost like I myself have set foot in these places,” adds a viewer of “Corp Palm Mall.” Under the same video, another person opines: “Why wasn’t I born in this time? This video makes me realize how much things were not as advanced as we have now but it was better. I could be wrong, but sometimes I feel like living around the ‘90s sounds fun. Lifestyle is different, mindset is different and not as much laziness.”
According to writer Joe Koenig, this kind of feeling — a “nostalgia for a past you’ve never known” — is called anemoia. In his ongoing project, The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, Koenig describes it as “the desire to wade into the blurred-edge sepia haze that hangs in the air between people who leer stoically into this dusty and dangerous future.”
Your supervisor would like to speak with you today at 10:53am. Good thing you have a great tasting sandwich to deal with that unreasonable feedback.
In the 1980s, Pennsylvania-based Michele Mercure was composing music for theater, film, and TV animation. After a trip to the Netherlands, she became inspired by the German kosmiche music scene of Kluster, Tangerine Dream, and the like. But Mercure cut her own path into experimental electronic music, weaving her synthetic, rhythmic soundscapes with strange samples and cut-up vocalizations, resulting in tracks that move between abstract and ambient dreamscapes and mechanized intensity. For decades, Mercure's self-released cassettes (under the name Michelle Musser) moved through underground trading circles but many of those recordings will now reach a wider group of heads. Beside Herself is a gorgeous 19-track Michele Mercure retrospective released today by the esteemed curators at RVNG Intl. and Freedom To Spend labels. To celebrate the release, Mercure and Mary Haverstick created the wonderful "Electronumentary" above. Below, one of the album tracks. From RVNG:
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Mercure’s artistic path never ran through creative meccas New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles. Raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then moving to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in her twenties, Mercure was already an adept musician when she encountered a local and lively theater scene, and was asked to score an unorthodox performance of Waiting for Godot. The experience was pivotal in marrying music and image for Mercure, and so she began making music for film, television, dance, and theater. It wasn’t until a long sojourn in Eindhoven, however, that she became transfixed by electronic music (ala Conrad Schnitzler, whom she would correspond with for years) that would inform her music to come.
Mercure’s contemporaries became the kindred minds of the Eurock “scene” such as The Nightcrawlers, Lauri Paisley, and Don Slepian.
On this 1980 episode of 3-2-1 Contact -- the excellent PBS kids TV show about science -- legendary experimental electronic musician Suzanne Ciani explains the basics of synthesizer technology. If you aren't hip to Ciani's music that spans avant-garde, classical, cinematic, and new age genres, I highly recommend you check out the fine anthologies and reissues of her work from the good people at Finders Keepers Records. Below, her stunning track "Paris 1971" from the compilation "Lixiviation 1968-1985." And you can check out Ciani live at this May's Moogfest in Durham, North Carolina.
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Thunder Tillman is a Swedish musician whose work lends itself to trippy animation, like this piece for Alignments by Mario Hugo and Johnny Lee. Read the rest
Moog just unveiled a new showcase of artists using their instruments. Sonic Origins starts things off with Russell E.L. Butler of Black Jeans, who thinks of the sounds "as an initiator of dialogue." Read the rest
Yesterday saw the release of Canadian artist, graphic novelist, and scratch DJ Kid Koala's latest record, his fifth, Music to Draw To: Satellite. An ambient concept record, Music to Draw To: Satellite is about a pair of lovers separated by a one-way trip to Mars. Each track is like a sonic love letter, an expression of the loneliness of extended isolation, the wondrous, terrifying void of space, and missing those left behind. Seven of the tracks on the record feature vocals by Icelandic singer Emilíana Torrini (known for, beyond her critically-acclaimed solo career, recording with Thievery Corporation, and singing "Gollum's Song" in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers).
I have been soothing my restless psyche for the past few days with heavy-rotation listening to "Collapser," one of the first tracks released. This lost in space lullaby features the most wistful and dreamy vocals from Torrini on the record. For the video, Kid Koala teamed up with "chemical puppeteer" Karina Blea whose work is described as "an ultraviolet study of chemical theatrics under a microscope." The slowly changing, minimalist liquid world of colored drips, languid swirls, and chemical reactions is a perfect complement to the insistent rhythms of the music and Torrini's melancholy vocals sweetly swimming over the top.
Kid Koala says that he was inspired to do this project by the go-to records he listens to whenever he's drawing and working on his art. He wanted to create such a piece himself. He and his record company, Arts & Crafts Records, have even gone so far as to release a deluxe version of the CD which comes in an 80-page sketchbook so that you too can draw along to the music. Read the rest
Michael Samuels of Sonic Geometry is Kickstarting a set of polyhedral sound controllers that let users shape sound and light into a multimedia performance. Originally a Master's Thesis project at Berklee School of Music, the prototypes are scheduled for release next year. Read the rest
Want to be less popular at cocktail parties on the West Coast? Try being a virtual reality skeptic. I can't help but feel validated, though, by this post from Wagner James Au looking back at 1992, just one of a few times in history we've been exactly as excited about VR as we are about the Oculus Rift now.
I met Mr. Au years ago when we were both writing about virtual worlds and the metaverse -- he was Second Life's official (first ever?) embedded journalist. I was writing articles about wealthy owners of virtual land and how the 3D web was our certain future. Since then I've grown leery of technologies that are mostly led by the imaginations of Snow Crash fans rather than by practical applications. I have not yet come upon anything intuitive and compelling enough to make me commit regular, daily applications of black-helmeted nausea to the agenda of my simple, one-touch daily life.
But I want to believe, honest. The coupling of alienation and novelty offered by the Oculus headwear might have interesting applications for art -- a possibility recently explored by musician Erika M. Anderson, who records as EMA. Her 2014 album The Future's Void very conscientiously examined how we mediate relationships through technology; this article by my friend Sophie Weiner about women musicians like EMA negotiating digital culture and surveillance state is worth your time.
EMA wore a VR headset on her album cover -- she's poised as if midsentence, as if in the midst of casual communication, with this great black brick obscuring all of her facial features. Read the rest
Via the Toys and Techniques blog, Franco Potenza's "Vita e lavoro nell'acqua" ("Life and work in the water"), c.1969, is a beautiful example of library music meant to accompany underwater-themed visuals. In the media business, library music is music that's usually owned outright by a company and then licensed to customers who use it as soundtracks for TV shows, radio programs, and industrial films. There's still a wealth of amazing vintage library music warping away on vinyl in warehouses, basements, thrift stores, and record shops around the globe awaiting rediscovery by intrepid crate-diggers.
Previously: "BBC radio documentary on Library Music" Read the rest
The soundtrack to Forbidden Planet (1956) was a milestone moment in the history of electronic music. It was the first entirely electronic film score, composed by Louis and Bebe Barron using DIY circuitry inspired in part by Norbert Wiener's 1948 book Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine, a seminal text in its own right. At the time that the film's producer at MGM, Dore Schary, met the Barrons they were beatnik musicians hanging out in Greenwich Village. The soundtrack to Forbidden Planet continues to astonish even today. (Listen to the "Main Title" at left.) My friend Ken Hollings, author of the fantastic outré history book "Welcome to Mars," created a wonderful audio documentary that just aired on BBC Radio 3 about the Barrons and their iconic "electronic tonalities."
You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 piece here: "Sound of Cinema: Return of the Monster from the Id"
And you buy the soundtrack here: "Forbidden Planet: Original MGM Soundtrack Read the rest
MAKE has published a cool new book, called Make: Analog Synthesizers by Ray Wilson. It's a deep dive into DIY synthesized music, with lots of circuits and information on using electronic components, but it has plenty of introductory material so it's suitable for electronics novices. I admire the author's design aesthetic too -- the devices he shows you how to build look neat. Read the rest
You don't play the ANS synthesizer with a keyboard. Instead you etch images onto glass sheets covered in black putty and feed them into a machine that shines light through the etchings, trigging a wide range of tones. Etchings made low on the sheets make low tones. High etchings make high tones. The sound is generated in real-time and the tempo depends on how fast you insert the sheets.
This isn't a new Dorkbot or Maker Faire oddity. It's a nearly forgotten Russian synthesizer designed by Evgeny Murzin in 1938. The synth was named after and dedicated to the Russian experimental composer and occultist Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872–1915). The name might not mean much to you, but it illuminates a long running connection between electronic music and the occult. Read the rest
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While Pierre Schaeffer is often thought of as the father of the electronic music form known as musique concrète the gentleman above, Halim El-Dabh, actually got there several years before, 1944 to be exact. Born in Egypt in 1921, El-Dabh studied agriculture at Cairo University while playing piano and other traditional instruments as a pastime. One day, the student and a friend borrowed a wire recorder -- a device predating magnetic tape -- from the Middle East Radio Station and hit the streets to capture ambient sounds. El-Dabh recorded a spirit-summoning ritual called a zaar ceremony and ultimately found that he could use the sounds as the raw ingredients for a new composition. In a recent interview with the Electronic Music Foundation, El-Dabh, who is University Professor Emeritus of African Ethnomusicology at Kent State University and continues to compose music, tells the story of his musical career, including this bit about the pioneering 1944 piece listenable above, an excerpt from "The Expression of Zaar":
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We had to sneak in (to the ritual) with our heads covered like the women, since men were not allowed in. I recorded the music and brought the recording back to the radio station and experimented with modulating the recorded sounds. I emphasized the harmonics of the sound by removing the fundamental tones and changing the reverberation and echo by recording in a space with movable walls. I did some of this using voltage controlled devices. It was not easy to do.