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 566

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The Amida Falls in the Far Reaches of the Kisokaido Road. From the series A Tour of Waterfalls in Various Provinces (c. 1832) by Hokusai.

• New music: In Love With A Ghost by Kevin Richard Martin (aka Kevin Martin, The Bug, etc), a preview from his forthcoming alternative score for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). In other hands I’d probably dismiss a further addition to the trend of creating new scores for films that don’t require them. Tarkovsky’s film certainly doesn’t need any new music, and we’ve already had an album-length homage from Ben Frost & Daníel Bjarnason. But I like Martin’s sombre atmospherics so he gets a pass with this one.

• “[Pauline] Oliveros wrote a piece for the New York Times in 1970 titled And Don’t Call Them Lady Composers, focusing on the difficulties of women being noticed and taken seriously in her field. It’s still online and could have been written yesterday.” Jude Rogers on Sisters With Transistors, a documentary about women in electronic music. Madeleine Siedel interviewed Lisa Rovner, the film’s director. Watch the trailer.

Submissions to the 16th number of Dada journal Maintenant will be open at the beginning of October, 2021, following an announcement of the theme of the new issue in September. All you would-be (or actual) Dadaists out there have the summer to plot your potential contributions.

Our reverence for originals takes an absurdly extreme form in the recent craze for NFTs (non-fungible tokens), where collectors and traders spend huge sums of money on unique ‘ownership’ of a digital artwork that anyone can download for free. Since there’s no such thing as the original of a digital file, the artist can now certify the file as the one and only ‘original copy’, and make a fortune. Time will tell whether this is a transient fad or a new way of establishing the feeling of a relationship to the mind of the digital artist.

But our reverence for originals isn’t universal. Treating the original as special and sacred is a Western attitude. In China and Japan, for example, it’s acceptable to create exact replicas, and these are valued as much as the original—especially because an ancient original might degrade over time, but a new replica will show us how the work looked originally. And, as mentioned, there are studios in China where artists are employed to create fakes. Perhaps our culture teaches us to respond to artworks by inferring the mind behind the art.

“Works of art compel our attention—but can they change us?” asks Ellen Winner

• “What Don basically did here is find a series of one or two bar riffs, or parts, that he liked, have me write them down, and then say, in essence, ‘make something out of this’.” John French (aka Drumbo) recalls the making of Trout Mask Replica.

• From 1988 (and relevant this week because I’m reading a Pynchon novel): Thomas Pynchon’s review of Love in the Time of Cholera.

• Andy Thomas on fusion legend Ryo Kawasaki, pioneer of the synth guitar.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Dimitri Kirsanoff Day.

Gareth Jones’ favourite music.

• RIP Monte Hellman.

The Sea Named “Solaris” (1978) by Tomita | Solaris (2014) by Docetism | Solaris Return (2019) by Jenzeits

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

Tomita’s Mind of the Universe

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In the week that celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon here’s a cosmic flashback from 1984. (I wrote about my own memories of the Apollo era in July, 2009.)

Mind Of The Universe was an ambitious outdoor performance of music by Isao Tomita for the annual Ars Electronic Festival in Linz, Austria. I’d known about this event ever since the release of the subsequent live album, and always wondered if there was more of a visual record than the one or two short clips to be found on YouTube. This 65-minute documentary from NHK TV was made following Tomita’s death in 2016, and features a much longer recording of the concert, together with a look at the preparations undertaken by the composer and his Japanese team. The documentary is in Japanese throughout, but I’ve had Tomita’s albums on continual play for the past couple of weeks so it was a welcome discovery. The Linz footage is bracketed by a short studio discussion of Tomita’s work and the concert itself with two of his assistants, Hideki Matsutake and Akira Senju. Matsutake is better known for his programming work with Yellow Magic Orchestra, and his own albums under the name Logic System, but he began working with synthesizers as Tomita’s studio assistant in the 1970s; Senju is a composer of anime soundtracks. The documentary includes some all-too-brief film footage of Tomita’s studio in 1974, and a sequence (with Tomita-san on a motorbike!) concerning the Dawn Chorus (1984) album which incorporated recordings of the electromagnetic “Dawn Chorus” phenomenon.

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Part of Tomita’s Moog system, the backbone of his early electronic recordings.

Mind Of The Universe (or Tomita’s Universum as it was advertised to the citizens of Linz) comprised a nocturnal performance spanning the River Danube, with Tomita combining some of his earlier recordings with new pieces created for the event, including an extract from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. This was conducted by the maestro and assistants from within a transparent pyramid suspended by crane on the river bank. Speakers were positioned on both banks of the river, and there was a lavish lightshow with fireworks and lasers, all of which was somehow meant to depict the entire history of the Universe, from Big Bang to the present moment.

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Discussing Dawn Chorus, and a visit to a radio telescope.

If this wasn’t ambitious enough, Tomita had musicians and a choir floating on boats and platforms in the river: Goro Yamaguchi played a traditional Japanese piece on shakuhachi while seated in a perilously small craft being towed behind a larger vessel; the bigger boat provided a stage for violinist Mariko Senju whose excellent performance of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending is the musical highlight of the concert. This was followed by a violin rendition of the five-note motif from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a nod to Tomita’s UFO-themed Bermuda Triangle album, which introduced one of the less successful aspects of the event in the noisy arrival of a helicopter bearing a platform laden with lights and speakers. The helicopter provided the booming response of the Close Encounters mothership although this isn’t obvious on the live album where all you have is the music and the noise of the rotors. Tomita’s concept of “pyramid sound” is more evident in the TV documentary than on record.

Continue reading “Tomita’s Mind of the Universe”

Weekend links 473

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“Spectra of various light sources, solar, stellar, metallic, gaseous, electric”, print by René Henri Digeon; plate IV in Les phénomènes de la physique (1868).

• More polari: Thom Cuell this time with another review of Fabulosa!: The Story of Polari by Paul Baker. Good as it is to see these articles, one thing they all share is paying tribute to the polari-enriched radio series Round the Horne without crediting its writers, Barry Took and Marty Feldman.

• “…with its conspiracy theories, babbling demagogues and demonised minorities, Bahr’s investigation is sadly all too relevant today.” Antisemitism (1894) by Hermann Bahr, is the latest new translation from Rixdorf Editions.

Isao Tomita in 1978 showing a presenter from NHK around his tiny studio. Japanese-only but the discussion reveals that the words “synthesizer”, “tape recorder” and “mixer” sound the same as they do in English.

Ben Frost talks to Patrick Clarke about his music for German TV series, Dark.

• PYUR composes a guide through limbo with Oratorio For The Underworld.

• Steven Heller on Don Wall’s book design for a Paolo Soleri retrospective.

• Coming soon from Fulgur Press: Ira Cohen: Into the Mylar Chamber.

Will Harris compiles an oral history of Q: The Winged Serpent.

• Mix of the week: a mix for The Wire by Overlook.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Magic Shop Internationale.

Shadow In Twilight by Pram.

The Feathered Serpent Of The Aztecs (1960) by Les Baxter | The Serpent (In Quicksilver) (1981) by Harold Budd | Black Jewelled Serpent Of Sound (1986) by Dukes Of Stratosphear