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 535

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The Wagnerites (1894) by Aubrey Beardsley.

• “Part of my problem with influence is that the concept is too univocal; most of us are impacted by many others during our lifetimes, but often in oblique ways. So many of the most interesting bits of cultural transmission happen nonlinearly, via large groups of people, and in zigzag mutations. Assigning influence can also have the unintentional effect of stripping artists of their own originality and vision.” Geeta Dayal reviewing Wagnerism by Alex Ross.

• “Buñuel stubbornly refused to have any group affiliation whatsoever. Even though critics always tried to categorize him, he never wanted to explain the hidden meanings of any of his films and often denied that there were any.” Matt Hanson on the surreal banality of Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel.

• Next month Soul Jazz release the fourth multi-disc compilation in their Deutsche Elektronische Musik series devoted to German music from the 1970s and 80s. The third collection was the weakest of the lot so I wasn’t expecting another but this one looks like it may be better.

James Balmont chooses the five best films by Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who he calls “cinema’s master of horror”. I’ve yet to see any of these so I can’t say whether the label is warranted or not.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine in a two-part post here and here charts the emergence of an under-examined sub-genre, the metaphysical thriller.

• Power Spots: 13 artists choose favourite pieces of music by Jon Hassell. A surprising amount of interest in his first album, Vernal Equinox.

• At Spine: George Orwell’s Animal Farm receives new cover designs for its 75th anniversary.

• “Pierre Guyotat’s work is more relevant now than ever,” says Donatien Grau.

• Mix of the week: FACT mix 775 by Sarah Davachi.

May 24th by Matthew Cardinal.

• Ry Cooder with Jon Hassell & Jim Keltner: Video Drive-By (1993) | Goose And Lucky (1993) | Totally Boxed In (1993)

Weekend links 428

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Straat met standbeeld (1934) by Carel Willink.

• “[Edward] Gorey, who died in 2000 at 75, was the unequaled master of—of what? Gothic whimsy? The high-camp macabre? Existential black comedy in the Firbankian mode? Essentially unclassifiable, he was, at the end of the day (and it’s always twilight, in Gorey’s stories), simply, inimitably Edwardian.” Mark Dery’s Born to be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey, the first full-length biography, will be published in November.

• “In an East Prussian manor house, a Bohemian library, a Bulgarian railway station; in a Venetian citadel, a Breton harbour, a city in the Caucasus, characters encounter not only the vicissitudes of history but also the subtle influences of the uncanny.” Inner Europe by John Howard and Mark Valentine.

• “To the good men I offer the hand of friendship, to the foes of our sex I offer resistance and annihilation!” The next title from Rixdorf Editions (due in November) will be We Women Have no Fatherland (1899), a novel by Ilse Frappan.

• At Dangerous Minds: “The career of Penny Slinger, intrepid surrealist artist of the 1970s, is ripe for rediscovery,” says Martin Schneider.

• Mixes of the week:  FACT mix 668 by Smerz, and XLR8R Podcast 557 by re:ni.

• Dreaming of Walter Benjamin on Walter Benjamin Platz by Roger Gathman.

Alison Kinney on Ludwig II’s obsession with the operas of Richard Wagner.

• A trailer for The Other Side of the Wind, the final film by Orson Welles.

• A happy tenth anniversary to The Quietus.

Wizards (1982) by JD Emmanuel.

The Wizard (1964) by Albert Ayler Trio | The Wizard (1970) by Black Sabbath | Dancin’ Wizard (1973) by Sopwith Camel

Weekend links 31

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One of a series of illustrations by Vera Bock for A Ring and a Riddle (1944) by M.Ilin and E. Segal. Via A Journey Round My Skull.

The Creator of Devotion: Photos from a Vogue Hommes Japan feature by Matthew Stone. And also here.

Dressing For Pleasure: Jonny Trunk gets out the rubber gear. Related: King of Kinky.

Salvator Rosa (1615–1673) is having a show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London.

Hackney Dissenting Academy #1: Throbbing Gristle, Iain Sinclair & Alan Moore.

Out Of The Flesh (1984) by Chakk. A great single never reissued on CD.

• Photographer Charles Gatewood remembers William Burroughs.

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The Endless Mural. Follow links here to have a play around.

Vinyl record sales are at the top of a four-year sales trend.

Can explosions move faster than the speed of light?

• Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Car is reborn.

• Maximus Clarke talks with William Gibson.

Why Stephen Fry loves Wagner.

Kafka’s Last Trial.

• Alice Coltrane in concert, Warsaw, 1987: Harp solo | Impressions | Lonnie’s Lament | A Love Supreme.

Schloss Neuschwanstein

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This weekend’s film viewing was a DVD of Luchino Visconti’s Ludwig (1972), something I’ve seen in parts before but don’t recall ever having watched all the way through. I enjoyed it on the whole although Visconti’s “hose-piping” camera style and crash zooms are frequently annoying. Helmut Berger was very good as the tragic King of Bavaria and the subject was given additional interest by my reading earlier this year of a number of Philippe Jullian books. Ludwig II was camp enough to have interested Jullian whatever age he lived in but the way his life connects to the Symbolist period lends him a special significance. He can’t quite be described as a Symbolist monarch but his tireless support for Symbolist god Richard Wagner, and his lavish construction projects, made him a hero to Verlaine and others, who saw in the realisation of his fantasies the actions of an artist working on the grandest scale.

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Of all the palaces, Schloss Neuschwanstein at Hohenschwangau is easily the most spectacular, and Wikimedia Commons has a great selection of photos of which the two here are examples. The first picture is a 1900 photochrome print originally from the Library of Congress collection and the large version makes a great desktop picture. The helicopter view shows how the apparent isolation of the castle depends on where you place the camera. Visconti’s film makes use of all the King’s buildings although we never see a full exterior shot of Neuschwanstein possibly because the castle was unfinished at the time of Ludwig’s death in 1886. While he was alive Ludwig’s palaces were regarded as outrageous extravagances by a government dismayed by his patronage of Wagner, his scandalous homosexual behaviour, and his lack of interest in the nation’s political squabbles. Over a century later, Wagner’s music receives endless performances around the world while Schloss Neuschwanstein is the most popular tourist destination in Germany. Bavaria’s wars are long forgotten yet it was the King they declared to be “mad”. There’s a moral there.

The Neuschwanstein pool at Flickr

Previously on { feuilleton }
Temples for Future Religions by François Garas
Willy Pogány’s Lohengrin
Dallamano’s Dorian Gray