Monday, June 29, 2009

of alchemy and analog synthesists

Ahh, for those good old days when synths were big, bulky and mysterious.

I was born in 1974, but I musically identify most with the stuff that was going on right around that time, say, 1972 through about 1984. The rise of the analog (as opposed to the purely modular) synth through the rise and fall of the analog poly. When digital comes in, I just loose interest. Eno can have his DX7 - he is the only one I can think of who pulls anything interesting out of it. Sure, at the time the digitals came out, I was just getting into synthesis and, as with any industry driven by technology, I was swept up into the turn to digital and that is what compelled me to buy my Wavestation in 1993 with a small inheritance I received. I don't regret it. But I also don't miss it. I am happily learning my Andromeda instead. I am grateful for the return to analogue in this first decade of the twenty first century. It feels a bit like coming home.

As a little kid in the age of new wave I remember listening to music and already being able to single out that strange instrument with a keyboard on it that I knew wasn't a piano - or even like my old great aunt's organ. Finally, I heard the word - synthesizer - and that it was about electricity - and it was instant love.

I remember the way that Gary Numan's "Cars" or Tom Petty's "You Got Lucky" would make me feel. I won't say other-worldly. It definitely had to do with our own world - in fact, very deeply and primally so. I won't say "technological" either. It was more like alchemy, like mad science. I guess that is why Thomas Dolby (steam punk for sure) is a hero to me, while Vince Clarke (who is certainly a great synthesist and programer - no argument here, but he) just doesn't do anything for me.

I've said here before that I don't like synth pop. Yet - and here I am letting the cat out of the bag - I love Duran Duran; and Nick Rhodes is, well, a big synth-hero to me. (Excuse: I was a kid and I did not understand or even know about the weird teenage girl cult-following. That stuff still makes me feel queasy.) What is going on here? I have been grappling with this seeming inconsistency. I think the thing to me is: does the use of the synthesizer make you feel like a robot, a guy with a fetish for the synthetic - or does it make you feel like a sorcerer - like a conjuror. (Sometimes robot is good, so long as you have a sense of humor about it, like Kraftwerk or Devo.)

So this is a post of respect to a few of the synthesists that were certainly involved in pop music (other than everybody's dead-obvious Brian Eno - he isn't a hero, he is a god - for crying outloud; he isn't a synthesist - he is an alchemist of recording technology, and that is enough said for now), but not necessarily in "techno" that is to say, pop enamored with technology. Rather, to me, they used technology alchemically to conjure experiences for their listeners.

I begin with Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran. His first synth: an EDP WASP. Followed by the Crumar Performer string synthesizer (one of the early very limited poly synths). He would later use the Prophet 5 and both the Jupiter 8 and 4. He did pick up a Fairlight CMI, but has continued using analog: he currently uses the Andromeda A6 (yeay!). Okay, so their videos are notoriously more like little surreal movies - which means no synth shots. I picked something from their reunion a couple of years ago so that you could actually see the man at work:

Going back to some straightforward punk new wave, I love listening to Blondie's Jimmy Destri with his old school synthesis backed up with his organ and rhodes piano - hey, he had to get polyphony somehow! Alchemy? I don't know, but it sure is fun, and he is a pioneer:

On the other side of the pond we had Japan, confused by krautrock, too early to be new romantic, to late to be glam. They missed the boat in terms of becoming pop idols. Duran Duran took that for them. But they were probably the better for it. Richard Barbieri has had a great career not worrying about staying popular (like it seems to me that Duran Duran has tried to do to a certain degree). So here is some early Japan. Check out Barbieri's Oberheim and modular (can anybody identify what kind it is at around 2:48?):

Here is somebody's video art to a more recent track by Barbieri showing his developed synthesizer style. Ignore the vid, enjoy the music:

For the handful of folks out there following my web log: I am sorry I have been away for a while. I have had a month full of life changing events that took all week to deal with, either leading up to or coming down from said events. Family changes, vocational work, ecclesiastical affairs. When things like these come along, my avocation suffers. I look forward to the next two months of summer. I hope to share some productivity. I was very productive at the end of may, but what I produced was children's music for my boy! I shared that, more appropriately, on our family blog. Anyway, thanks for your patience and thanks for following. Peace.