Tomita album covers

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Snowflakes Are Dancing (1974); art direction; Joseph J. Stelmach; artwork: David B. Hecht.

The Japanese composer Isao Tomita died last week so I’ve been listening to some of his early recordings, and thinking—as usual—about their cover designs. Tomita was by far the best of the many electronic musicians in the 1970s who took advantage of the huge success of Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach (1968) to create their own versions of classical music with Moog and other synthesisers. If this makes Tomita sound like an opportunist (and his 1972 collection of electronic pop covers was titled Switched On Hit & Rock), he quickly developed his own approach to electronic composition which ranged from quirky humour to his own brand of cosmic pictorialism. The latter was very different from the equally cosmic meanderings of Tangerine Dream which seldom strayed too far from the rock world. Tomita had a genius for taking very familiar pieces of classical music which he fashioned into synthesizer soundtracks for imaginary science-fiction films. (He also produced actual scores for a number of Japanese films but few, if any, of these were released outside Japan.) This approach is shown to great effect on The Bermuda Triangle (1979), an album that in the UK was subtitled “A Musical Fantasy Of Science Fiction”, and which filters Prokofiev and Sibelius through a library of paranormal paperbacks, with references to UFOs, undersea pyramids, Agharta, the Hollow Earth and the Tunguska Event.

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Pictures At An Exhibition (1975); artwork: bas-relief by Gene Szafran. The first appearance of the logo that became a fixture of Tomita’s albums. No designer is credited but I’d guess it was the work of Joseph J. Stelmach. The logo typeface is Sinaloa.

As for the covers, Tomita’s recordings may have been classical music but RCA targeted the albums at a rock audience so there’s no sign of the venerable composers heads that appear continually on the sleeves of orchestral recordings. The examples here are almost all the Western releases which—surprisingly—tended to have better covers than the Japanese originals. This is also a partial selection, favouring Tomita’s own releases (no soundtracks), and mostly the early albums. The later albums aren’t as impressive, and many of them were only released in Japan.

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Firebird (1975). No design or art credit. I’d not noticed before that the logo evolves by degrees, here gaining some extensions.

Lastly, I’ll dedicate this post to my old friend Nik Green who died in March. Nik was a session musician of some note, and the first person I knew who owned a synthesizer (an ARP Odyssey); he was also a great Tomita enthusiast who shared Tomita’s sense of humour, and relished the quirkier moments on many of these albums. I can’t listen to the opening of the Mars section of Tomita’s The Planets without remembering Nik shouting “Moog horns!” when a synthetic fanfare interrupts the sounds of a spacecraft lift-off.

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School Daze by Patrick Cowley

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School Daze sleeve designed by Eloise Leigh.

Music made for porn films is nothing if not derivative and unmemorable, assuming it’s been specially made at all and isn’t merely a cheap library track, the aural equivalent of stock footage. This wasn’t necessarily the case when porn cinema was getting established in the America of the 1970s but a huge turnover of anonymous product combined with simple expediency—hours of footage that needed to be soundtracked by something—made falling standards inevitable. The cliché of the cheesy porn soundtrack is such a given that it’s a surprise to encounter anything which is even halfway listenable away from the screen. In the case of this album by Patrick Cowley it’s even more of a surprise to find that such exceptional music has been hiding for years on a couple of gay porn films, School Daze and Muscle Up, from 1980.

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Gay porn would seem the perfect thing to be soundtracked by the creator of an unashamed anthem like Menergy (1981) but the music on School Daze bears little resemblance to Cowley’s Hi-NRG disco hits, not least because some of the tracks were composed as far back as 1973 when Cowley was still in college. The tapes were unreleased until John Coletti, the owner of Fox Studios, asked Cowley for some music which is how these early experiments ended up as porn scores. Experiments they may be, in differing moods and styles, but they’re also very successful ones. Jorge Socarras’s album notes describe Cowley’s wide-ranging musical (and sexual) tastes which would explain why one of the longer tracks, Journey Home, features a didgeridoo of all things. The didgeridoo sound became a considerable dance music cliché in the early 90s but prior to this you’d only find it outside Indigenous Australian music on pastiche numbers such as Flying Doctor by Hawklords or The Dreaming by Kate Bush; Cowley uses the instrument as simply another sound source. Socarras also mentions Cowley listening to Tomita and Wendy Carlos while in college but none of the music here sounds anything like the earlier generation of Moog composers; it also doesn’t sound much like Tangerine Dream or anything that was happening in Europe during the 1970s. If anything, the subdued and often dark atmosphere is a better fit with the post-punk music being produced in Britain around the time the films were released, sombre albums like The Bridge by Thomas Leer & Robert Rental, or instrumental tracks by The Human League. Didgeridoo or not, some of the tracks are surprisingly gloomy for porn music.

In the autumn of 1982 I was in the process of moving from Blackpool to Manchester, and spent a lot of time shuttling back and forth on coaches listening to tapes on a cheap Walkman clone. A couple of those journeys were soundtracked by Patrick Cowley’s extended remix of I Feel Love by Donna Summer and Industrial Muzac by Throbbing Gristle, a piece of subdued electronica which has been out of circulation for far too long. The music on School Daze fills an unlikely space between the two, there’s even a synth solo like the one that erupts into the Donna Summer remix. Patrick Cowley died in November of that year, one of the earliest victims of a disease which at that time wasn’t even called AIDS. Listening to School Daze, and to the last album released while he was alive, Mind Warp, you can’t help but wonder what he might have done with the sampling technology that became widespread a couple of years later.

School Daze is available on double-vinyl and CD from Dark Entries who say all proceeds from the album will be donated to Project Open Hand and the AIDS Housing Alliance.

Nightcrawler from School Daze
Mockingbird Dream from School Daze
Dark Entries interviews John Coletti of Fox Studio
Five Things You Need to Know about Gay Electronic Wizard Patrick Cowley

Previously on { feuilleton }
William E. Jones on Fred Halsted
Summer of Love
A Clockwork Orange: The Complete Original Score

A mix for Halloween: Ectoplasm Forming

Ectoplasm Forming by Feuilleton on Mixcloud

Presenting the eighth Halloween playlist, and this year I decided it was time to finally make a proper mix of my own. Reluctance in years past has been mainly a result of the time it takes me to put things like this together, hours spent pondering the order of the tracks, and fine-tuning transitions.

This year’s mix is rather heavy on the drones and eldritch atmospherics with little in the way of songs. There are some rhythms, however. I’ve also taken the opportunity to highlight the ongoing excellence of Emptyset, some of whose recordings I’ve been helping design recently. Their Medium album involved installing a quantity of electronic equipment in an allegedly haunted building, a process similar to that undertaken by the unfortunate doctor in The Legend of Hell House, albeit with better results.

The tracklist is on the Mixcloud page but I’m repeating it here with dates added for each recording. One likes to be thorough.

The Legend of Hell House – Dialogue (1973)
Emptyset – Demiurge: Of Blackest Grain To Missive Ruin (Paul Jebanasam Variation) (2012)
Arne Nordheim – Solitaire (1969)
David Lynch – The Air Is On Fire Pt. 7 (2007)
Ben Frost – The Carpathians (2009)
The Wyrding Module – Subtemple Session II (edit) (2013)
:Zoviet*France: – On The Edge Of A Grain Of Sand (1996)
John Zorn – Lucifer Rising (2002)
Jarboe – A Sea Of Blood And Hollow Screaming… (2009)
The Haxan Cloak – Excavation (Part 1) (2013)
Emptyset – Medium (2012)
Jon Brooks – Experiments With A Medium (2011)
Wendy Carlos – Visitors (2005)
The Advisory Circle – Eyes Which Are Swelling (2007)
Bernard Szajner – Chant Funèbre (1981)
Emptyset – Function: Vulgar Display Of Power (Roly Porter Variation) (2012)

Previously on { feuilleton }
A playlist for Halloween: Hauntology
A playlist for Halloween: Orchestral and electro-acoustic
A playlist for Halloween: Drones and atmospheres
A playlist for Halloween: Voodoo!
Dead on the Dancefloor
Another playlist for Halloween
A playlist for Halloween

Electronic Music Review

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A new addition at the Ubuweb archives that’s catnip for anyone interested in the history of electronic music. Electronic Music Review was Reynold Weidenaar & Robert Moog’s short-lived journal devoted to the world of electronic music at a time when the field was rapidly growing away from the academic, “serious” side of musical composition and being taken up by the pop world.

All seven issues are present, running from January 1967 to July 1968. Pages of VCF circuit diagrams aren’t so interesting unless you’re an electronic engineer but the magazines also feature unique articles from composers who are now very well known, including Luciano Berio, Frederic Rzewski, Tod Dockstader, Henri Pousseur, Alvin Lucier and Jon Appleton. Despite the many women working in the field they evidently didn’t go looking for any to write for them. Granted, Wendy Carlos is among the contributors but in the late 60s she was still using the name Walter. In the later issues, Dockstader, Carlos and others review the recent electronic music releases. It’s especially fascinating to see an early reaction to albums such as Morton Subotnik’s Silver Apples of the Moon, and the debut from The United States of America, a cult favourite of mine for many years.

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Scattered throughout the issues are ads for the latest studio gear and new album releases. One of these, The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music, was compiled by Paul Beaver and Bernard Krause. The latter is still recording, and happens to be interviewed in the current issue of Arthur Magazine.

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Tonto’s expanding frog men

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I wasn’t going to write about album cover art three times in a row but things keep catching my attention this week. Anyone interested in the history of electronic music knows the name Tonto’s Expanding Head Band, the duo formed by Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff to create music with Cecil’s huge, custom-built TONTO (The Original and New Timbral Orchestra) synthesizer. Cecil and Margouleff recorded two albums together: Zero Time (1971) and It’s About Time (1974), the latter credited to Tonto only. Zero Time was incredibly advanced for 1971, not classical adaptations like those being produced by Wendy Carlos and her many imitators, but all-original pieces created polyphonically, a feat that only the TONTO synth could easily achieve.

Given how successful the album is musically I’ve always thought it a shame that the sleeve art, inside and out, was the kind of amateurish “psychedelic” doodling that you find on many albums of this period. The design above was for a 1975 reissue, something I’d not seen before. The artist was illustrator Jeffrey Schrier who has a small, and no doubt incomplete, listing at Discogs with nothing similar to this in evidence. At a guess I’d say the evolving frog men are derived from the lyrics of Riversong, a meandering piece with singing processed via early vocoder-style technology, something that Wendy Carlos was also experimenting with. It’s not all hippy ambience: Jetsex sounds like an outtake from Kraftwerk’s Autobahn (albeit three years early) while Timewhys wouldn’t have been out-of-place on The Human League’s Travelogue album almost a decade later. Easy to see why Stevie Wonder and others were eager to work with Malcolm Cecil throughout the 1970s.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The album covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
A Clockwork Orange: The Complete Original Score