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 519

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Cover of Minotaure no. 8 (1936) by Salvador Dalí.

• At Dangerous Minds: Irmin Schmidt talks to Oliver Hall about his new album of prepared piano, Nocturne, and also reveals more about the planned release of live recordings by Can.

• “Even the most zealous fan of the genre can learn something new from this book,” says Geeta Dayal in a review of Bring That Beat Back: How Sampling Built Hip-Hop, by Nate Patrin.

• The subject of a previous post but the video was later removed: Italo Calvino in a rare documentary feature for an English audience, on the BBC’s Bookmark in 1985.

• On 9th May, carillonneur Malgosia Fiebig played The Model by Kraftwerk on the bells of the Dom Tower in Utrecht as a tribute to the late Florian Schneider.

• Film footage of Alice Coltrane in her prime is a rare thing so even 17 minutes of TV from 1970 is something special.

Dan Reynolds on the fantastic alphabets designed by Jean Midolle. See also Luc Devroye’s page.

• Mix of the week: Jon Hassell tribute, part 1: Jon and his collaborators, by Dave Maier.

Nicolas Winding Refn on some of the films he’s been watching during lockdown.

• At Haute Macabre: Surrealist décor and tiny secret drawers.

HP Lovecraft dreams of a Providence trolley car in 1927.

The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

Xerrox Voyage, a new recording by Alva Noto.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jean-Pierre Léaud Day.

The Model (1979) by Snakefinger | Model (1992) by The Balanescu Quartet | Das Modell (1997) by Rammstein

Weekend links 508

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Detecting the Forgery (1967), a collage print by Gary Lee-Nova.

• Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black was given a UK TV screening in 1989, followed by a brief video release after which it was buried for years, and subsequently overshadowed by the later (inferior) big-budget feature film. Network will be releasing the Kneale version on blu-ray in May. I wrote about the TV film a while ago.

• At the BFI: David Parkinson on 10 essential films featuring the late Max von Sydow, a welcome riposte to obituaries that headlined the often mediocre Hollywood fare that Von Sydow elevated with his minor roles. And at the same site, John Berra on where to begin with the martial arts films of King Hu.

• “Enthusiasts Archive, an artistic project by Neil Cummings and Marysia Lewandowska, is the result of extensive research amongst the remnants of amateur film clubs in Poland under socialism. It is a critical archive of amateur films found, restored and made available online.”

Stephen Calloway, co-curator of the Tate Britain Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, and drag performer Holly James Johnston sit down to tea to discuss the “dos and don’ts” of dandyism according to the artist.

• Mutinous Jester: The Collage Novels of Akbar Del Piombo by Gregory Stephenson. Related: Fuzz Against Junk: The Saga of the Narcotics Brigade (1959) by Akbar Del Piombo.

• Michael Richey on chindogu, the useless inventions of Kenji Kawakami.

• From farting to fornication: John Boardley on early print censorship.

Douglas A. Anderson on a case of plagiarism in Weird Tales.

• Mix of the week: mr.K’s Soundstripe vol 3 by radioShirley.

How To Get To Spring is a new album by Jon Brooks.

Rufus Wainwright‘s favourite music.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Occultists.

Spring Rounds From The Rite Of Spring (1975) by Alice Coltrane | Springlight Rite (1981) by Irmin Schmidt & Bruno Spoerri | Spring Returns (1999) by Isao Tomita

Weekend links 492

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Cover art by Gahan Wilson for Monster (1980) by Herbie Hancock.

• RIP Gahan Wilson, a great cartoonist with a flair for horror, the macabre and grotesque. Many of his best cartoons are buried in back issues of The New Yorker, Playboy and National Lampoon but book collections of his work are worth seeking out. He also wrote regularly, and for several years was a film reviewer and columnist for The Twilight Zone Magazine, back issues of which may be found at the Internet Archive. Related: Gahan Wilson and the Comedy of the Weird, an interview with Wilson by Richard Gehr; The Beautifully Macabre Cartoons of Gahan Wilson by Michael Maslin.

• The Unanswered Question: Irmin Schmidt, the last surviving member of Can, interviewed by Duncan Seaman. The conversation is mostly about his solo work but he also mentions plans to release a collection of live Can recordings next year.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), the Surrealist fable directed by Jaromil Jires, receives a welcome region-free blu-ray release by Second Run in January.

At its best, the true psychedelic experience is an analogue of psychotherapy: you are encouraged to lean in to something potentially rupturing or even disturbing, in an attempt to achieve deep personal resolution rather than simply mind-scrambling hedonism or entertainment (which, to be fair, the group can provide as well). […] Despite clear and longstanding links with the extreme worlds of black metal, power electronics, industrial, sludge metal and doom, Sunn O))) have created a space that now stands beyond any obvious scene signifiers. This zone of pure affect—and what they hope will be a healing experience—is welcome to all.

John Doran on the vibrational power of Sunn O)))

Neuland is an electronic collaboration by two ex-members of Tangerine Dream, Peter Baumann and Paul Haslinger.

• Flying teapots and electric Camembert: the story of Gong, prog’s trippiest band by Simon Reynolds.

• Conversations with Ursula: Clive Hicks-Jenkins answers some questions about his art.

• Mix of the week: Test Transmission Archive Reel 38 by Keith Seatman.

• Limitation of Life: Tim Pelan on John Frankenheimer’s Seconds.

Anthony Madrid on the most famous coin in Borges.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Jacques Tati Day.

Dutch Graphic Roots

The Magic Yard (1970) by Lubos Fiser | Valerie (2003) by Broadcast | Introduction (2007) by The Valerie Project

Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges

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Given the time of year, and last week’s Quays-themed post, this seemed like a good follow-up. Opera North’s production of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges was broadcast by the BBC during the Christmas holiday of 1989. The opera isn’t quite as saccharine a Christmas entertainment as The Nutcracker Suite but the libretto is still light-hearted fare, being based on a Neopolitan fairy tale in which the son of the King of Clubs is afflicted by melancholy after reading too much tragic poetry. The King stages an entertainment to cheer the Prince but the only thing that makes him laugh is the witch, Fata Morgana, falling over and revealing her underclothes. This humiliation provokes the witch into cursing the Prince to fall in love with three oranges. These he immediately sets off to find, and thereby hangs the tale. Richard Jones directed the production, with the English Northern Philharmonia providing the music. The opera is also sung in English, the translation being by David Lloyd-Jones.

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The stage decor for the Opera North production was designed by the Quay Brothers, one of several operas they worked on around this time. The opera may be a comic one but the design emphasis is on gloom and decay, a feature that extends to Sue Blane’s costumes, many of which seem to have been styled with the Quays’ films in mind. In addition to a Nosferatu-like Leander (the sinister Prime Minister), a company of children appear from time to time wearing masks which make them look like the Quays’ doll-headed puppets. The chorus, meanwhile, wear antique gas-masks of a style which people would now refer to as steampunk. The most overt reference to the Quays films occurs during the King’s entertainment when a vast mutant creature is wheeled onto the stage, the creature’s head being the colossal cousin of the twitching cyclops from Rehearsals for Extinct Anatomies. The cumulative effect of the grotesquery combined with absurd comedy is of an opera equivalent of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, all of which makes me wonder what the BBC’s Gormenghast might have been like if the corporation had hired the Quays and Sue Blane to work the same magic they do here. (There is a Gormenghast opera by Irmin Schmidt but I’m not keen on the music and what I’ve seen of the staging it looks a lot less like Peake than this one does.)

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Decor aside, the most notable feature of this production, and the broadcast itself, was the scratch-and-sniff card which was provided to every member of the audience, and to any viewers who bought a copy of the BBC’s Listener magazine before the screening. Each time a numbered card appeared on the stage the audience had to scratch and sniff the relevant panel. The scents—which include orange, of course—are less offensive than those for John Waters’ Polyester (1981) although the audience is still surprised into sniffing the farts of the demon, Farfarello.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Punch and Judy, Michel de Ghelderode, and the Brothers Quay
The mystery of trams
Inner Sanctums—Quay Brothers: The Collected Animated Films 1979–2013
Holzmüller and the Quays
Unmistaken Hands: Ex Voto F.H., a film by the Brothers Quay
Animation Magazine: The Brothers Quay
The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer, a film by the Brothers Quay
More Brothers Quay scarcities
Eurydice…She, So Beloved, a film by the Brothers Quay
Inventorium of Traces, a film by the Brothers Quay
Maska: Stanislaw Lem and the Brothers Quay
Stille Nacht V: Dog Door
Quay Brothers: On Deciphering the Pharmacist’s Prescription for Lip-Reading Puppets
Brothers Quay scarcities
Crossed destinies revisited
Crossed destinies: when the Quays met Calvino
The Brothers Quay on DVD