Switched-On… hits and misses

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The first pressing of Switched-On Bach with a cover showing a Bach-alike confounded/dismayed by the sounds issuing from the machine behind him. The cover was soon swapped for the one below.

After mentioning the proliferation of Switched-On… synthesizer albums in the previous post, curiosity impelled me to see how many of these things were out there. A lot more than I expected is the answer, almost enough to make this cul-de-sac of novelty exploitation into a sub-genre of its own. As mentioned earlier, it was the huge success of Switched-On Bach (1968) by Wendy Carlos that began the trend. The album had a rare crossover appeal so that it could be sold to classical listeners as well as to a younger audience interested in electronic sounds, those for whom the words “switched on” echoed the druggy/erotic intersection of “turned on”. Carlos had an advantage over other musicians thanks to a long association with Robert Moog which meant she had a head start in exploring the recording potential of the new Moog synthesizer and innovations like Moog’s touch-sensitive keyboard. In 1968 few people could afford a Moog system; those who could usually needed to hire technicians like Paul Beaver and Bernie Krause to help them operate the thing. For a brief while it was enough to simply use the instrument to make strange noises, hence Mick Jagger’s droning score for Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969), and George Harrison’s preposterous Electronic Sound (1969), 44 minutes of very amateurish Moog-doodling. Switched-On Bach sounds a little primitive today—it sounds primitive next to its follow-up albums, The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969) and Switched-On Bach II (1973)—but Carlos and collaborators Rachel Elkind and Benjamin Folkman spent much more time refining their recording techniques than the knob-twiddling horde who rushed to capitalise on their success.

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The rules of the Switched-On… idiom are as follows: a title that begins with the words “Switched-On”, obviously, although there’s a subset of the form in which an album may have a different title while a subtitle mentions something about “switched-on recordings”; the music must be cover versions of familiar songs or compositions, originality here is surplus to requirements; and it’s not essential but the cover art often alludes in some way to synthesizer technology and/or “the future”, with the latter represented by Space Age typefaces such as Amelia, Computer, Countdown or Data 70. I’ve not heard many of these albums, and I’m fairly certain that I don’t want to hear most of them, but I’ve heard enough Carlos cash-ins to know that the cover designs are often the best thing about them. The remastered CDs that Wendy Carlos released in the 1990s feature additional tracks that give some idea of the amount of work involved in the creation of each album. The early cash-ins, by contrast, tend to avoid time-consuming multi-track composition in favour of using a synthesizer as though it’s merely an expensive keyboard. The success of these albums musically may be gauged by the lack of reissues. They may be of interest to the so-bad-it’s-good “Incredibly Strange Music” crowd but I prefer to spend my time listening to other things. Beware.

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Switched-On Rock (1969) by The Moog Machine.

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Switched-On Bacharach (1969) by Christopher Scott.

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Switched-Off Bach (1969) by Various Artists.

CBS exploits the success of the electronic album by packaging a collection of earlier non-electronic recordings.

Continue reading “Switched-On… hits and misses”

Weekend links 495

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Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee.

• “Compared to [László] Krasznahorkai’s earlier fiction, Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming is funnier and more stylistically accessible—despite its length and seemingly endless sentences—but it is also his most unremittingly ruthless work,” says Holly Case. Elsewhere: “Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming may not bring joy or consolation, but reading it is a mesmerisingly strange experience: a slab of late modernist grindcore and a fiercely committed exercise in blacker-than-black absurdity,” says Sukhdev Sandhu.

Zeitraffer (“Time-lapse“) is an exhibition devoted to Tangerine Dream which opens at the Barbican, London, in January. Also coming in January is a new album, Recurring Dreams, by the current iteration of the group which will be available on CD and double vinyl. I was impressed by the last TD release, Quantum Gate, so I’m looking forward to this even if it is only a reworking of popular pieces from the Virgin years.

• RIP Gershon Kingsley, an electronic music pioneer best known for the silly but fun albums he made with Jean-Jacques Perrey, and for being the composer of that evergreen synthesizer novelty, Popcorn.

The first major study in English of ancient Greek sexuality—especially the way relationships between men were both common and celebrated as a perfect embodiment of love—A Problem in Greek Ethics helped set the stage for the modern-day gay rights movement. But it did so surreptitiously, behind closed doors, as required by the times. Symonds printed it privately in 1883; a print run of just 10 copies reduced the risk that it would fall into the wrong hands. The typesetter complained about the content. Symonds circulated it cautiously, to people he trusted or had reason to think would be discreet. Until now, researchers believed that only five copies survived.

Rachel Wallach on the discovery of a sixth copy of John Addington Symonds’ landmark study

Contagious Magick of the Super Abundance is a book of art by the late Ian Johnstone, former partner of John Balance and cover artist for some of the last releases by Coil.

Dennis Cooper‘s favourite fiction, poetry, non-fiction, film, art, and internet of 2019. Thanks again for the link here!

• At the BFI: Hannah McGill on the umbrellas of cinema, and Jasper Sharp on 10 essential films by Yasujiro Ozu.

• Bobby Krlic, aka The Haxan Cloak, talks to Claire Lobenfield about creating the soundtrack for Midsommar.

Joker and Chernobyl composer Hildur Gudnadóttir: “I’m treasure hunting”.

Joshua Rothman on how William Gibson keeps his science fiction real.

Samantha Rose Hill on Walter Benjamin’s last work.

Scientific phenomena photographs of the year.

The Dream Before (1989) by Laurie Anderson | Angel Tech (1994) by The Grid feat. Sheila Chandra | Angel Tech (1994) by Pete Namlook & Bill Laswell

Weekend links 313

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The Sullen Son (1921) by Rose O’Neill from her Sweet Monsters series (also here).

10 hours of Popcorn (1972) by Hot Butter. Related (and linked here before) 79 different versions of Gershon Kingsley’s original. If that’s not enough, there’s at least 100 more out there.

• Mixes of the week: Touristica Mystica Sigillistica by Gregg Hermetech, FACT Mix 554 by The Body, and Secret Thirteen Mix 187 by Dalhous.

• Another electronic cover version: Trans Europe Express by Cobby & Mallinder.

In the 1950s people like Pierre Schaeffer and John Cage were saying: “But there are all these sounds in the world, and if you listen to them carefully enough you will hear the music that they speak.” This immediately opened up a new world; it’s enriching once you’ve educated your ear to that, because when you’re annoyed by the sound of the street you can make music out of it. You can make music out of almost everything!

Eliane Radigue discussing her career with Paul Schütze

Patricia Highsmith’s Snail Obsession and Two Weird Tales of Monstrous Mollusks.

Youth and Alex Patterson remember the making of Little Fluffy Clouds by The Orb.

Strange Flowers pursues Sheila Legge and other Phantoms of Surrealism.

• Revealed: Cambodia’s vast medieval cities hidden beneath the jungle.

Alan Moore describes the cover of epic novel Jerusalem.

Ashgabat: the city of the living and the city of the dead.

• In praise of the tram by Christian Wolmar.

Taxidermists at DC’s

Brian The Snail (1982) by Pigbag | Slow Loris Versus Poison Snail (1996) by David Toop & Jon Hassell | Popcorn (2000) by Gershon Kingsley