September 30, 2012

September 29, 2012

September 28, 2012

#1 Joy Electric: The Art and Craft of Popular Music

When I first started making this list I was sure that The White Songbook by Joy Electric would be my number one. I've always considered that album to be the pinnacle of the JE discography, with it's beyond intricate programming and old world sentiment. There are a few songs on there that are as close to perfection as any synthesizer song has ever been: Unicornicopia, The Boy Who Never Forgot, Shepherds of the Northern Pasture, The Heritage Bough and the title track. I've listened to The White Songbook while driving through the countryside in Switzerland and perhaps had my first glimpse of Heaven on Earth. Indeed --even now I'm second guessing my decision. 

I recall Ronnie saying that the process of recording The White songbook was not enjoyable. And truth be told, it doesn't sound like it was an enjoyable process. It can be daunting even to listen to. The sounds are intricate to the extent that they demand your constant attention and the subject matter is equally heavy. There are no care-free vibes to be found. It's all remorse and longing. Ronnie has a history of making EPs that are somewhat reactionary to their proceeding albums. The Art and Craft of Popular Music could be considered that reactionary EP to The White Songbook

According to David Barnhart's extensive notes:

"The White Songbook was multitracked to four Tascam DA-78's. The entire thing was done on the System 100 and it was sequenced with the 104 sequencer module on the System 100 and with the built-in sequencer on Roland's SH-101."

A Roland RE-201 Space Echo was also used. I would assume that  The Art and Craft of Popular Music was made similarly since it was made so soon after, except that there is quite a bit of polyphony. I believe that a Roland RS-202 was responsible for this. Which would make sense as it was released in the closest proximity (1976) to the System 100 (produced between 1975-1979) of all the Roland string machines. 

[Joy Electric concert Anchorage, Alaska 1997. feat. Roland Juno-106]

The Art and Craft of Popular Music had a lightness about it that The White Songbook didn't. TWSB was a marvel of synthesizer ingenuity but The Art and Craft... was listenable.  Don't get me wrong, it still had fascinating sounds; the heavily delayed introduction to Such a Beautiful Thought is still a constant source of inspiration to me. Simplicity and subtle mystery abound! 

Songs like Ringing Bells, Mistletoe and Molasses, Farmhouse Fables, Come In Brother, Weep In the Sunshine, and the aforementioned Such a Beautiful Thought make up the core of the album and it would be hard to skip over any of them. 

It's old fashion and wistful and there's a vaguely Christmasy feeling to the whole thing. How could I resist?

There was also a wonderful remake of the Rainbow Rider (Ronnie's previous band) song We'll Last So Long. The Rainbow Rider version is great but this was a little cleaner and simplified. It certainly gave me a renewed appreciation for the song. 

It would be impossible to write about Joy Electric without mentioning Juan Gomez. Juan and his followers provided live theatrics for the band for years. His outrageous costumes and movements confounded many a non-suspecting concert goer. If memory serves correct, Juan was about 6'5". When he was all done up and in constant motion, he was intimidating, to say the least. My older brother and I toured with Joy Electric for a few years at the beginning of the last decade; him playing drums and me synthesizers. During that time we got to know Juan and he is a top notch fellow!

I'll leave you with the only song I could find and a personal favorite from The Art and Craft..., Mistletoe and Molasses.

And from the honorably mentioned White Songbook, Unicornicopia.

*I suppose it should be mentioned that The Art and Craft of Popular Music wasn't a proper album. It was a double disc set that included a retrospective of the first decade of Joy Electric's career. The first disc (the one I've been going on about) was B-sides and rarities, but they were all re-recorded at once for this release. 

September 25, 2012

Autumn in Ohio

I'm leaving for Ohio tonight. I'll only be there for a couple days but it is the perfect time of year to be there. I can't tell you how glad I am that Fall is finally upon us. It had been teasing for so long --a cool day here and there but always fleeting. I tried to get some apple cider from the grocery store last night but they were all sold out. I suppose everyone had the same idea. Also, I don't know if I've told you this, but it seems impossible to get eggnog out of season. What I thought was an eternal love of eggnog has become just a winter affair. Maybe it's better that way? Maybe they have eggnog in Ohio year round? Anyway, I'm really looking forward to this little trip. I'll be visiting some old friends --the sort that one can have long talks about synthesizers with and perhaps some debates about C.S. Lewis with my older brother. Can't wait!

September 19, 2012

The Appeal of Quakerism to the Non-Mystic

There is perhaps something that goes on with our sort of people. I will certainly admit to it myself. Synthesizer connoisseurs, computer programmers and the like may have a good deal more logic bestowed on them than others, but usually at the expense of having less access to emotion and spirituality. It's not that we aren't interested in these things. Indeed --hasn't it become a stereotype these days that the icy-hearted computer programmer is obsessed with fantasy and romance? 

I've just finished reading something that deals, somewhat, with this subject. It's called The Appeal of Quakerism to the Non-Mystic by William Littleboy (Friends Home Service Committee; 1964). I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's no longer in print but one can find second hand copies around. I feel that I must first clarify that here the term "mystic" is used interchangeably with spirituality, it's meant to have no negative connotations; growing up Protestant I'd understood mystic to mean spirituality that was specifically outside the realm of Christianity. The booklet attempts to answer the question: Does Quakerism have anything to say to the man who does not feel, the man to whom the door of the spiritual wold, which stands ajar for some, is closed and padlocked?

I think that it does, and so does T.A.O.Q.T.T.N.M. But it wasn't just written for those in this camp, it's also for those who know they are not.

"he who's life is illuminated with the brightness and joy of a heavenly companionship can with difficulty believe that his brother who walks in the shadows may yet be a humble and single-hearted follower of Jesus Christ."

"One of life's hardest lessons is that there is no justification for expecting that our neighbor is to traverse precisely the same path as that which we ourselves have followed."

It's just full of so many wonderful passages. Not only did they speak to my condition but were also beautifully written. I'll leave you with my favorite…

No inrush of joy has flooded the spirit of the non-mystic; no heavenly voice has spoken to his soul. He walks in spiritual twilight; that which has appealed irresistibly to another had had no message for him. When he seeks to lift his heart in prayer he feels as if he were speaking into a void. he believes in God; falteringly indeed yet sincerely he tries to obey Him. Yet the great emotional experiences of love, rapture, perfect peace, which comes to others are denied him. It may be that the experience of half a life-time has convinced him that these spiritual luxuries are for some hidden reason not for him, and he has come to acquiesce with what grace he may in winter skies and a grey and featureless landscape, hoping that haply some better thing may be reserved for him when the veil of the flash is withdrawn. 

September 16, 2012

Электроника ЭМ 25

In Soviet times almost all consumer electronics were by-products of the Soviet military-industrial complex. Supposedly engineers were forced to make them by the government, so they weren't very enthusiastic about them and as a result weren't very high quality. I, of course, can not confirm or deny this. But weather or not it's true, this particular model: The Electronika EM 25 is still intriguing to me. You can probably guess why! It has a wonderful, early 80's Roland-style design.

It's a polyphonic synthesizer specialising in organ, string and brass sounds. Like the Roland RS-09 (and many other polyphonic/string synths at the time) it utilized divide-down technology, which means it had a single filter, amplifier and envelope that it's oscillators went through. Some find this approach appalling and unusable even. The thought is that "all string synths need to have an envelope that starts and finishes it's cycle for each note pressed"*. I don't think this is true. Perhaps it isn't emulating the perfect string sound, but it is a wonderful sound that's all it's own and in my experience sits very comfortably in any mix. Anyway, back to the EM 25! Each section could be mixed and balanced or split across the keyboard range. Brings to mind the functions of the Korg Trident, does it not?

* It's Full of Stars; Roland Goofed; April 23rd 2010

This is Misha, the mascot of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

Designed by children's books illustrator Victor Chizhikov.

September 14, 2012

Roland SBX-80 Sync Box

Just found a great article about this thing. Keyboard Magazine's
"In The Studio" Article # 5 Using The SBX-80 At Home Or In The Studio

September 13, 2012


It probably all seemed quite innocent at first.

September 10, 2012

The Magician's Nephew

I found this great picture of a scene from a community theater production of The Magician's Nephew. I was going to cleverly pair it with Morton Subotnick's Silver Apples of the Moon. But upon revisiting it I remembered how much I couldn't stand that sort of music (if one can call it music at all!). So, I'm presenting World Pools instead. I think it's mood perfectly fits the photo. Don't you?

Taking some inspiration from C.S. Lewis' The Magician's Nephew, this piece, World Pools, was written for chamber orchestra and recorded at a concert that took place on the 7th of April 2011, in Surrey University.
This is the live recording from that concert made by Emily Merron
The piece is conducted by Arran Price.

September 8, 2012

#2 House of Wires - You Are Obsolete

September 22nd 1998

I remember the day this record came out. I was fourteen years old and at the time I was playing keyboards for my parents band (I was really cool), a Crumar Performer and Roland Juno-6. We had a gig that night in a church basement or something. I bought the album before soundcheck and after soundcheck I went back to the car and listened to the whole thing from start to finish. It was typical Ohio autumn weather -- cool and crisp and I remember that it suited You Are Obsolete perfectly. There's something very cold about the album; the sounds were sparser than most electronic albums I'd heard by that point. It was less cluttered with sounds and that gave the whole thing a certain space and a distinctly lonely feeling. I'd never heard samples used so elegantly as they were here. There were so many different sounds but they were all so controlled. There are so many amazing songs on this album: Busy, Long Lost, Tree of Knowledge, Latency. But the song that really got me (of course it would be the most romantic of them all by far) was When Words Fall. I know the song wasn't written by House of Wires, but I don't think anyone else could have pulled it off quite like they did. I've actually tracked down a few Optic Rain (original writers of When Words Fall) demos -- they had their charms but they didn't quite get me.

I know Jon Sonnenberg has gone on to record better albums, indeed -- Fireworks by Travelogue is my favorite album of the year, no doubt! But I think You Are Obsolete is a testament to the consistent quality of all his releases throughout his career. You may argue that nostalgia has gotten the better of me (and this album certainly speaks to my nostalgia in a most extreme way!), but surly it can only do so much. More than a decade later I keep going back to this album "time and time again".

Here is an old video of Jon and Rob's pre-House of Wires band, Pivot Clowj:

* I've just been told that in the above video there are some projections of a grandmother dancing on Jon's shirt. It's kind of hard to make out but your imagination can fill in the gaps.

September 5, 2012

The Late Passenger

The sky was low, the sounding rain was falling dense and dark,

And Noah’s sons were standing at the window of the Ark.

The beasts were in, but Japhet said, ‘I see one creature more

Belated and unmated there come knocking at the door.’

‘Well let him knock,’ said Ham, ‘Or let him drown or learn to swim.

We’re overcrowded as it is; we’ve got no room for him.’

‘And yet it knocks, how terribly it knocks,’ said Shem, ‘Its feet

Are hard as horn–but oh the air that comes from it is sweet.’

‘Now hush,’ said Ham, ‘You’ll waken Dad, and once he comes to see

What’s at the door, it’s sure to mean more work for you and me.’

Noah’s voice came roaring from the darkness down below,

‘Some animal is knocking. Take it in before we go.’

Ham shouted back, and savagely he nudged the other two,

‘That’s only Japhet knocking down a brad-nail in his shoe.’

Said Noah, ‘Boys, I hear a noise that’s like a horse’s hoof.’

Said Ham, ‘Why, that’s the dreadful rain that drums upon the roof.’

Noah tumbled up on deck and out he put his head;

His face went grey, his knees were loosed, he tore his beard and said,

‘Look, look! It would not wait. It turns away. It takes its flight.

Fine work you’ve made of it, my sons, between you all to-night!

‘Even if I could outrun it now, it would not turn again

–Not now. Our great discourtesy has earned its high disdain.

‘Oh noble and unmated beast, my sons were all unkind;

In such a night what stable and what manger will you find?

‘Oh golden hoofs, oh cataracts of mane, oh nostrils wide

With indignation! Oh the neck wave-arched, the lovely pride!

‘Oh long shall be the furrows ploughed across the hearts of men

Before it comes to stable and to manger once again,

‘And dark and crooked all the ways in which our race shall walk,

And shrivelled all their manhood like a flower with broken stalk,

‘And all the world, oh Ham, may curse the hour when you were born;

Because of you the Ark must sail without the Unicorn.’

C.S. Lewis, Poems, “The Late Passenger” (1948)

September 4, 2012

September 2, 2012

Computer Control Panel

Sorry I've been distant lately. I moved this past weekend. I'll be back soon.