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 543

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Adolph Sutro’s Cliff House in a Storm (c. 1900) by Tsunekichi Imai.

• Good to see a profile of Wendy Carlos, and to hear that she’s still working even though all her albums (to which she owns the rights) have been unavailable for the past two decades. I’d be wary of praising Switched-On Bach too much to avoid giving new listeners a wrong impression. The album was a breakthrough in 1968 but was quickly improved upon by The Well-Tempered Synthesizer (1969) and Switched-On Bach II (1973). And my two favourites, A Clockwork Orange – The Complete Original Score (1972) and the double-disc ambient album, Sonic Seasonings (1972), are superior to both.

• “[Sandy Pearlman] told me that one of the main inspirations was HP Lovecraft. I said, ‘Oh, which of his books?’ He said, ‘You know, the Cthulhu Mythos stories or At The Mountains Of Madness, any of those.'” Albert Bouchard, formerly of Blue Öyster Cult, talks to Edwin Pouncey about BÖC’s occult-themed concept album, Imaginos (1988), and his affiliated opus, Re Imaginos.

• More electronica: Jo Hutton talks to Caroline Catz, director of the “experimental documentary” Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes.

• At the V&A blog Clive Hicks-Jenkins talks to Rebecca Law about his award-winning illustrations for Hansel and Gretel: A Nightmare in Eight Scenes.

• New music: Archaeopteryx is a new album by Monolake; What’s Goin’ On is a further preview of the forthcoming Cabaret Voltaire album, Shadow Of Fear.

Celebrating A Voyage to Arcturus: details of two online events to mark the centenary year of David Lindsay’s novel.

• “Streaming platforms aren’t helping musicians – and things are only getting worse,” says Evet Jean.

• At Spoon & Tamago: the cyberpunk, Showa retro aesthetic of anime Akudama Drive.

• At A Year In The Country: a deep dive into the world of Bagpuss.

Sinister Sounds of the Solar System by NASA on SoundCloud.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Shirley Clarke Day.

Mary Lattimore‘s favourite albums.

• Solaris, Part I: Bach (1972) by Edward Artemiev | Bach Is Dead (1978) by The Residents | Switch On Bach (1981) by Moderne

Spheres, a film by Norman McLaren and René Jodoin

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Norman McLaren’s dance films were a late development, previous decades having been spent creating animated films in a variety of techniques. Many of these were abstract works with a musical accompaniment, as is Spheres (1969), one of McLaren’s last films in this style. It’s not completely abstract: a butterfly keeps interrupting the multiplying spheres which dance through space to a piano piece by Bach. This being a Canadian production, it’s fitting that Glenn Gould is at the keyboard.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ballet Adagio, a film by Norman McLaren
Pas de Deux by Norman McLaren
Norman McLaren

Weekend links 51

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James Bidgood’s luscious and erotic micro-budget masterpiece Pink Narcissus (1971) receives a screening at the IFC Center Queer/Art/Film festival, NYC, on Monday. The film is presented by Jonathan Katz, curator of the Hide/Seek gay art show whose controversial history was recounted here in December. The NYT ran a short piece about Bidgood, now 77 and not the first artist to be disappointed by his past work; they also have a Bidgood slideshow. Hide/Seek, meanwhile, is now a touring exhibition.

• Related: the delightful Drew Daniel of Matmos (and Soft Pink Truth) posing in a jockstrap at the Club Uranus, San Francisco circa 1990; he also used to go-go dance wearing a fish.

• The Isle of Man may have one of the oldest parliaments in the world but its laws have often been out of step with its neighbour across the Irish Sea. This week the island joined the rest of the UK in granting civil partnerships to its citizens. Now the name whose punning appeal so delighted James Joyce doesn’t seem as inappropriate.

Howard Jacobson: “The novelist Yukio Mishima posed pointing a Samurai sword to his chest and ultimately had himself beheaded in public. This is what’s called taking your art seriously.”

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The Realm of the Queen of the Night (1974) by Wolfgang Hutter from Zauberflote at 50 Watts.

The revelatory operations of the chance encounter lie at the heart of le merveilleux (“the marvelous”)—the Surrealist conception of beauty. You find something marvelous in the world (an object, an image, a person, a place) that corresponds, like a piece clicking into a puzzle, to a deep inner need.

Slicing Open the Eyeball: Rick Poynor on Surrealism and the Visual Unconscious by Mark Dery.

Boy from the Boroughs: Alan Moore interviewed by Pádraig Ó Méalóid; Michael Moorcock interviewed at Suicide Girls.

• Illustrations from Quark, the anthology of speculative fiction edited by Samuel Delany & Marilyn Hacker in 1970.

The Residents, sans masks, filmed at their San Francisco home in the 1970s.

• Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor played on a glass harp.

What art can do for science (and vice versa).

• You can never have too much Virgil Finlay.

• Lydia Kiesling reviews Lolita.

Alain Resnais film posters.

Red Mug, Blue Linen.

No GDM (dub version) (1979) by Gina X | L. Voag’s Kitchen (2004) by Soft Pink Truth.