Posts Tagged ‘Electronic Music’

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Geeta Dayal, a music and high tech journalist whose prolific writings have appeared in The New York Times, The Village Voice and Bookforum, as well as Wired, where she is a staff writer. She is also the author of Another Green World, a biography of Brian Eno. As if that isn’t enough, she’s also been a Ford Foundation fellow at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and has also been at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology‘s Center for Future Civic Media.

Geeta grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, the daughter of scientists. She lived only five minutes from the campus of Princeton University and often spent weekends at the Institute for Advanced Study. By age fourteen, she was researching polymer (i.e. plastics) chemistry, and by the time she was seventeen, she was editing her father’s chemistry publications.

A passion for music and technology at a young age

Geeta’s father would play a significant role in the interests she developed: electronic music, science and technology, and how they interacted. In addition to his training as a chemist, he played the tabla – indian drums – and this left a lasting impression on his young daughter. She subsequently gained a passion for technology in music and would frequent the local record shop, Princeton Record Exchange where, over the years, she would purchase numerous cassettes and LPs. Geeta recalled to me that at thirteen, she acquired her first album by Kraftwerk, a Dusseldorf quartet who used various synthesizers to produce uniquely enticing musical compositions. They were pioneers at the intersection of film, fashion, performance art and high tech electronic musical arrangements.

Geeta was encouraged by her father in all her intellectual endeavors. He trusted her ability to assist with his academic writings and at one point confided to her that she “was smarter than her brothers.” He felt strongly that a girl like Geeta could do anything a boy could do, which was a progressive attitude for the times. Following graduation from high school, she enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she took courses as varied as cognitive neuroscience, film and video and installation art. All the while, she remained intrigued about the German technological, musical and performance art scenes – having been captivated by Germany since her first visit at age seven.

Geeta’s travels to Germany left her with several lasting impressions: for one, she was completely enthralled by the autobahn (the well-known highway), as well as by German train travel. She loved the German approach to technology which was, at its essence, highly efficient and stylistically beautiful in every respect.

For Geeta, Berlin is the country’s cultural capital. In contrast to other German cities like Munich, a leader in pharma; Stuttgart, prominent in car manufacturing, and the financial centers of Cologne and Frankfurt, Berlin has always retained a cosmopolitan character. When there, Geeta has regularly observed a proliferation of construction cranes, which gives one the “seductive” feeling that the city is unfinished.

A city largely eschewing the reverence for the past much of the rest of the country holds, Berlin is more culturally diverse and, very much like Paris, has welcomed expatriates from the U.S. and Britain. Consequently, the English language can be heard widely on the streets, and it’s become a truly globalized European hub.

Conrad Schnitzler

Along with this migration came a growing prosperity to match its diversity. It was in this city that electronica musician and performance artist Conrad Schnitzler once worked; Geeta, who wrote extensively about him, considered Schnitzler “an outlier whose life says a lot about Germany.” Schnitzler was a student of Joseph Beuys, a prominent professor of sculpture in Dusseldorf, and was an idiosyncratic performer whose memories of growing up in Nazi Germany gave him an aversion to joining groups for any reason. He was an alternately irascible and loving person who had a great respect both for the beauty and mathematical precision of electronic music.

The group Kluster, which Schnitzler founded with Hans-Joachim Roedelius and Dieter Moebius in 1969 was an ultimately successful and influential experiment in avant-garde musical expression. The nucleus consisted of Moebius, Roedelius and Schnitzler, and eventually mutated into the group Cluster, sans Schnitzler.

The late 1960s saw a renaissance in technology, which resulted in new and innovative ways to create and produce music. German musicians excelled in this environment. In the manner of Conrad Schnitzler, Dusseldorf’s Kraftwerk, formed in 1970, evolved from primarily a rock band to riding the cusp of a formative electronic music movement. And in Great Britain, a company called EMS designed a synthesizer called the Synthi, designed to fit in a briefcase, which became popular with Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. Analog synthesizers like this and the ARP 2600 gave electronic music more appeal; not only an aesthetic sense, but also because these devices offered greater portability and affordability.

Another interesting observation by Geeta makes on the creation of not only music, but art generally, is how the artist derives inspiration from disparate sources. Schnitzler’s musical influence, for instance, derived considerably from his sculpture. His embrace of this tangible, visual medium led, seemingly inevitably, to his attempts to express himself musically. Schnitzler used the synthesizer to essentially “sculpt” new sounds. He supplemented this with his own unique brand of “performance” art that provided an anthropomorphic dimension to his music.

Geeta also asserts that the 1960s helped bring the advent of “system-based” art; that there was a tendency by many to “conceptualize in terms of systems to provide new solutions to problems.” In this light, she cites John Cage’s music of that period as an outstanding example of “giving yourself a set of constraints [that] makes you more creative.” Additionally and provocatively, she suggests this creativity can extend from other disciplines. For example, she notes painter Robert Rauschenberg was a great student of physics, and musician David Byrne was deeply interested in brain science. In other words, these peripheral interests symbiotically fed their artistic repertoire and caused them to probe ever more deeply for inspiration.

Brian Eno

A corollary of sorts to artists looking to system-based art was their interest in and study of cybernetics – the science of systems of communication and how they interact with humans. This is a fascination of Geeta’s, as well as of the subject of her biography of Eno, Another Green World. Pioneered by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Norbert Wiener, the discipline entered what Geeta calls “a second wave” through several British thinkers, including Stafford Beer. Eno became absorbed with Beer’s work, which inspired his work in the studio, which he referred to as a musical instrument in and of itself. Here he began to experiment with new – and largely electronic – sounds.

Eno interestingly, if also regrettably, never met Conrad Schnitzler, though each was familiar with and respectful of the other’s work. Eno had arrived in Germany in 1976 to record with the avant garde electronic group Cluster. Geeta writes that Eno, who rarely performs live, didn’t believe in so-called “cash-in tours”, which doubtless stems from his preference for the richly-expressive and innovative sounds he was creating in studio with ever-more sophisticated electronic instruments. In fact, Geeta says that to him, performing live was “almost beside the point”.

It’s obvious from my conversation with Geeta Dayal that she is consumed with the creative culture that has percolated in Berlin from its challenging post-war period. She spends considerable amounts of time there and from the city’s architecture, its constantly changing skyline to its resilient and boundlessly creative artistic inhabitants, Geeta’s affection for Berlin is readily apparent. In that environment, electronic music has thrived and has clearly become Geeta’s passion.

I lastly asked her if she was planning any new projects and said that she is now working on a book about the history of electronic music from the 1950s. Her unique perspective, as an expert both on the technology and the cultural environments in which those technologies were employed will certainly make that book a must-read for musicologists and electronica enthusiasts alike.

Geeta’s website is entitled The Original Soundtrack. Access it here.

You can also follow her on Twitter @GeetaDayal.

-Chris Hartman


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Left to right: Dartmouth’s Sydney A. Alonso, Jon Appleton and Cameron Jones listen to Appleton playing a Synclavier I, ca. 1977. Courtesy, Dartmouth Engineer, Thayer School of Engineering, Dartmouth College.

Synclavier I: Invention, and the creation of an industry

The Synclavier, an early digital synthesizer, sampling system and music workstation, was developed by the New England Digital Corporation (NED) of Norwich,Vermont; the prototypical model having been invented at Hanover, New Hampshire’s Dartmouth College in 1975. Dartmouth Professor of Music Jon Appleton, Digital Electronics expert Sydney A. Alonso and Engineering software programmer Cameron Jones collaborated in its invention.

The Synclavier I. Wikipedia.

According to a 2005 story in the Dartmouth Engineer, the prime motivation for the Synclavier’s development was that “The Moog synthesizer, the prime electronic instrument of the 1970s, linked a piano keyboard to an analog computer — but it had no memory. Wanting something better, Dartmouth music professor and composer Jon Appleton turned to [Dartmouth’s] Thayer School [of Engineering].”

The resulting Synclavier was the world’s first digital synthesizer, and pioneered digital sampling, hard-disk recording, and professional sound editing. “It did so many things, and the software was so beautifully integrated,”Appleton later remarked.

Early history

In 1972, Jones and Alonso met at Dartmouth, where they were both working on programming the college’s large, time-sharing computer. Together, they developed software for the computer that allowed it to produce electronic music and, under Appleton’s tutelage, aid with students’ ear training.

Within the next three years, in addition to graduating from Dartmouth, the two men were able to create a 16-bit processor card and then adapted the computer’s compiler for the new processor. This new “miniprocessor” – the ABLE – was the first product for Jones and Alonso’s new company, New England Digital. It was designed to help users avoid having to book time on large, mainframe computers (most academic computer labs in this period operated on a ponderous “time sharing” basis).

Out of the research, the men crafted their new instrument, which they called the Synclavier (pronounced, in three syllables, Sink – la – veer). It was intended as a commercial outgrowth of their “Dartmouth Digital Synthesizer,” which included the ABLE processor. In 1979, they raised some venture capital and brought in another partner to oversee the marketing of their new “Synclavier II.”

Synclavier II

The Synclavier II was revolutionary because it introduced both a terminal display and keyboard and allowed for both software additions and revisions that could even be retrofitted on earlier versions of the device. Encouraged by the success of these developments, in 1982-3, the company added significant “sampled” sound recording and playback capabilities directly from the unit’s hard drive. And with the addition of the graphics terminal, it was possible to analyze and edit sounds in a visual, as well as aural context. This figuratively opened up the flood gates to virtually unlimited possibilities of sound production and “post-production” editing, which made the system very attractive to both the music and film industries.

Dartmouth Professor of Music Jon Appleton demonstrating the Synclavier II (1984)

Decline, fall & resurrection

All of this innovation cost money – a lot of it. Units began at $75,000 and to outfit a proper studio, the price could reach $500,000 or even beyond. One account, from a website called “Yaking Cat Music Studios History,” added a little bit of cheeky perspective on NED’s pricing strategy: “The prices on Synclaviers were based on two primary factors. Those who owned the machine or needed parts generally had money to ‘burn,’ so to speak. NED took advantage of this. Second, there were about 11 guys at the top of the company pulling down six-figure incomes. Sting was paid to perform for the NED employees and their spouses at a big gala at the Roxy in N.Y. There were NED offices across the globe with marble desks. Spend, spend, spend. And make your customers pick up the tab.”

Mike Thorne, producer of such notable bands as Siouxie and the Banshees, Soft Cell and the Bronski Beat, was a pioneer in the use of the Synclavier for so-called "New Wave" music. Courtesy, vblurpage.com

Throughout the 1980s, the Synclavier was the musical device of choice for musicians such as Genesis’ Tony Banks, Sting, Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Stanley Jordan, and numerous others. The machine’s ability to augment musicians’ guitar work though a specially-designed interface was unparalleled; but as that decade passed into the ‘90s, NED, due largely to the price of equipment upgrades, started to lose market share and opted to “repackage” itself in less expensive fashion. They began to move from their original mission of support for musical instruments toward post-production and editing software.

A silver lining to this lateral movement was that there was really no manufacturer who could offer a machine that was so perfectly suited to motion picture and television production. The software upgrades were spell-binding for those who could afford them, and the sound was unparalleled. It is safe to say that this is what rescued the company over its history; but regardless, NED passed into history itself in 1992, only to be resurrected, like the phoenix from the ashes, on several occasions in various permutations. It’s interesting to know that there are still over 100 units of the Synclavier and Synclavier II still in use today in various capacities, and part of the reason for that is their durability.

One example of the Synclavier’s reliable construction involves the B-52 military airplane. NED went out of its way to choose uncompromising materials for the manufacturing process. And one of those choices involved the famous red buttons the B-52 used on its control panels. It’s been suggested that the company’s decision to select superior components was designed to help prop up the instrument’s price tag; but experience has also revealed it was essential to construct units that could hold up to the punishment of musicians – spilled drinks, cigarette ashes and pounding fists included.

-Christopher Hartman


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