Larry Fast: Digital, Experimental

Tip of the hat to my old tennis partner and high school music rival. Ed Goldstein [he was in The Head Band with future “Smooth” songwriter, Itaal Shur, and one-time-bassist-for-Sleepy-Labeef-turned-sociology-professor, Adam Moskowitz, while I was in The Max, formerly Max & the Bluegills], who recently paid tribute to Peter Gabriel and late-70s Genesis as pivotal influences on his approach to percussion, with “Games Without Frontiers” leading the way as his favorite Gabriel track.

As music entered the ’80s, I remember how things got increasingly and disconcertedly digital — MIDI, disk drives, drum machines and the like — putting some of us analog-minded folks off, at least initially.  Not Ed, though, who helped serve as a bridge to fearful, reactionary types like me, whose old school heart will always yearn for analog-only devices, such as a Hammond organ with a rotating Leslie speaker, or a Moog Taurus bass pedal synthesizer (my college roommate had one), or an Echoplex tape delay effects unit (sax man & friend, Bruce Batté, once had one), without which dub reggae would almost certainly have never been born.

                  Hammond B-3                                   red Walnut Leslie Speaker Cabinet

Hammond B-3Leslie speaker

Moog Taurus II Bass Pedal Synth                 Echoplex – Complete with Case

Moog Taurus Bass PedalsEchoplex - vintage

“Games Without Frontiers,” unsurprisingly, would be cited in a fun historical romp – “Ghosts in the Machine:  The Most Important Drum Machines in Music History” – which begins in 1959 with Wurlitzer’s built-in percussion sidekick, the Side Man.  Peter Gabriel, as it turns out, utilized a Linn Drum predecessor I was not aware of until now – PAiA – that enjoys the distinction of being the “first programmable drum machine in history,” having been introduced to the marketplace in 1975.

Frustratingly, that information is not spelled out in the otherwise detailed credits captured on Discogs for the UK edition of Peter Gabriel’s third album from 1978.   Did Gabriel himself do the drum programming vs. Jerry Marotta & Phil Collins, the drummers listed on the track?  We do know, however, that Gabriel and Larry Fast both did some programming with respect to synthesizers, such as “Games Without Frontiers,” on which both musicians programmed synth bass lines (one of which I initially assumed to be Tony Levin playing a Chapman Stick).

Larry Fast LPSoon after playing bagpipes on the album’s concluding track “Biko,” Larry Fast — under the name Synergy — would issue his fourth long-playing release Games, an “all electronic production” that, like his three previous efforts, would be produced, engineered and programmed by Fast himself.   Released in 1979, Games is an instrumental song cycle that some might deem “experimental, ambient” (Discogs) and challenging at times but is hard to categorize given the dynamics and dramatic shifts in mood and intensity, as demonstrated on six-minute composition “Delta Four”:

“Delta Four”     Synergy     1979

From the liner notes courtesy of Discogs:

Digital synthesis realized using the digital synthesizer at Bell Laboratories – Murray Hill, New Jersey.

Mixed at House of Music June and July 1979 by Larry Fast except Delta One which was mixed by Charlie Conrad & Larry Fast.  Mastered by Robert Ludwig, Masterdisk, NYC.

Digital synthesizer computer programming by Greg Sims.  Equipment used on this production manufactured by — Moog Music Inc.; Oberheim Electronics; Sequential Circuits; Paia Electronics; 360 Systems; Musitronics; MXR; DBX; MCI; Eventide Clockworks; Sony; Teac-Tascam; EMT; The Synergy System; Apple Computer Corp.; Bell Labs Digital Synthesizer; Deltalab Research.

Soundcheck:  “Delta 3” [parts A-F] developed from themes written during soundchecks on the August to December 1978 Peter Gabriel Tour.  “Delta Two” themes are remnants of 1974’s electronic Realizations For Rock Orchestra writing sessions.  “Delta Four” is a surviving digital synthesizer sequencer program experiment combined with some advanced tape loops.  “Delta One” is an experiment fusing the pop and electronic vocabularies of turn of the decade composition.

Electronic music pioneer & Occasional Bagpipist – Larry Fast

Larry FastIn a 2004 interview, Larry Fast would have a lot to say about the experience of the album:

“Games was the first encounter on a Synergy album with digital synthesis and to some degree, digital recording.  It was done under laboratory conditions at Bell Labs, which was then the crown jewel of the AT&T Research Lab.  It’s still there [or is it?], but it’s now part of the crown jewels of Lucent.  AT&T was the telephone company—Ma Bell—back then and had lots of wonderful “blue sky” research going on in computers, audio and various other technologies.  They would fund these things thinking—and rightfully so—that at some point, something would surface out of these free thinking projects that might be beneficial to the phone company.  They don’t do that so much anymore.  At that time, there wasn’t any real competition in the phone business.  Now, it’s very cutthroat.  However, at that time, one of their great, shining lights was Max Matthews, one of the pioneers of computer music and electronic music, at the academic and theoretical level. One of his departments was speech and synthesis.  They were exploring several areas of synthesizers, speech and vocals, which could be made into singing.  He had worked on one project as early as 1976 that incorporated aspects of that.

By 1978, they had some of the very earliest digital synthesizers, running essentially as software, with some concurrent specialized hardware they had built on minicomputers.  They were just mind-boggling to me after struggling to extract sounds from the Moog, Oberheim and related instruments I had been working with in the analog world.  This was positively world changing.  Again, like any technology at the beginning, it was a little tedious and difficult to control. I was just getting my feet wet, but there were a few passages recorded at Bell Labs that found their way onto the Games record.  The passages were enhanced with some of the analog synthesizers to flesh out the arrangements.  It was a very eye opening experience.  It set part of the tone for the album.  The other aspect of Games it that I was on the road a lot with the Peter Gabriel band and recording with them as well.  It meant that some of the writing was done on the road, captured on small cassette recorders and lots of scribbled-down notes.  It was the first album where I hadn’t set aside a block of time in my composer’s studio to write.  It was a different approach.”

Is it ironic that this digital work was issued on 8 TRACK?

Larry Fast 8 trackEd Goldstein’s current percussion philosophies are being carried out through Big Car Jack.

Big Car Jack-xThis piece, by the way, is not Zero to 180’s first reference to bagpipes in popular music — sorry Ed, I’m not referring to AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” but rather “Reggae Bagpipes“!

Abstract Interjection!  This is the 4th Zero to 180 piece tagged as “Experimental Pop

“Chef d’Oeuvre”: Negative Radio Plays?

I am reading the memoir of music industry legend, Bob Thiele — producer at Coral Records who “discovered” Buddy Holly and would later work with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Albert Ayler, Joe Turner, Otis Spann, Gil Scott-Heron, and Bernard “Pretty” Purdie & the Playboys, among many other artists.

Funny Thiele didn’t mention having produced Jon Appleton’s (highly) experimental album.  The fact that “Chef D’Oeuvre” was released as a 45 delights me to no end:

“Chef d’Oeuvre”     Jon Appleton     1969

Be sure to listen for the stereophonic loop of a Chef Boyardee jingle – a recurring motif.

45Cat’s Harvestman Man humorously observes:  “If it’s possible for a record to actually get a negative number of plays on the radio, this would be a likely candidate … it is that weird.”

Appleton 45

Thanks to Vintage Vinyl Revival for the liner notes to Appleton Syntonic Menagerie from which I take this excerpt:

“Labels, categories, boundary lines – the neat classifications separating musical experiences – are dissolving rapidly.  Young musicians and listeners, brought up in a “global village” because of the pervasiveness of television, recordings, and transistor radios, refuse to be compressed by past conventions.  The popular music of the present is, for example, a continually changing fusion of rock, country and wester, blues, Indian influenes, echoes of Appalachian ballads, jazz, rhythm and blues, and many other elements.

“Simultaneously, young composers – who, in another time, would have been called “classical” composers – are also probing, discovering, and transcending territorial markings of the past. Jon Howard Appleton, for example.  Since 1967, he has been Director of the Electronic Music Studio at Dartmouth, where he is also Assistant Professor of Music.  [This] The first album of his work – on Flying Dutchman – reveals the open-ended scope and resourcefulness of the new music as well as Appleton’s inventive singularity.”

Appleton would release one more LP for Flying Dutchman – a collaboration with Don Cherry, father of Neneh.

“Countryside”: Jim Henson’s Word Jazz

Would love to know how Jim Henson, so early in his career, was able to get Frank Sinatra to conduct the orchestra backing him on his first single, a playful word jazz piece entitled, “The Countryside”:

Jim Henson’s first (and only) 45 – released January, 1960

“Tick-Tock-Sick”, the B-Side, would seem to presage Henson’s Academy Award-nominated experimental short film 5 years later, Time Piece, a surreal and bizarre  stream-of-consciousness meditation on what just might be the fourth dimension:

I was rather taken by Henson’s Time Piece when I first viewed it several years ago at the Smithsonian and was surprised to find how “bold” and “fresh” (including those parts that might not be wholly suitable for young children) this film still is.  At one time I was able to find the entire work online, but it would appear that only a small excerpt is what folks can view freely on YouTube.  Says the Museum of the Moving Image:

“In 1965, Jim Henson made Time Piece, an experimental nine-minute short film that tells what he called ‘the story of Everyman, frustrated by the typical tasks of a typical day.’  The film opens with a man—played by Henson—in a hospital bed.  A doctor takes his pulse.  The pulse turns into a drumbeat, which becomes the percussive soundtrack for the film, in a syncopated score created by Don Sebesky.  Through a series of jump cuts, we follow the man as he walks through city streets, then suburban streets, and then the jungle.  Playfully surreal sequences are bridged by short passages of stop-motion animation.  As Henson described his filmmaking goals:  ‘In Time Piece I was playing with a kind of flow of consciousness form of editing, where the image took you to another image, and there was no logic to it but your mind put it together.’  While the film retains his trademark sense of humor, it is also a bold example of nonlinear editing.

Time Piece played for a year at the Paris Theatre in Manhattan, along with the French art-house hit A Man and a Woman.  Henson’s film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Short Film.  It remains fresh today as both a time capsule of 1960s experimental filmmaking, and as a brilliantly conceived and edited example of Henson’s creativity.”

Zero to 180:  Approaching the Two-Year Mark

Nearly one year ago Zero to 180 celebrated its one-year anniversary with a special “Howard Dean” remix of a Muppet-related release, “Mad” by Little Jerry & the Monotones.  Click here to link to this exclusive muppet remix that is accompanied by a brief essay – “Zero to 180:  Not Yet Potty Trained” – that humorously recounts the tragic math surrounding the blog’s original date of launch:  12/12/12.

“Cindy Electronium”: Shockingly Futuristic

Hard to believe this piece of music was made in 1959 – sounds quite contemporary to me:

YouTube comments are almost universal in declaring Raymond Scott to be ahead of his time, with many remarking upon this recording’s resemblance to “chip” (i.e., video game) music of the 1970s & 80s.  Thanks to MSN Entertainment for the back story:

“Of all of Scott’s accomplishments of 1949, however, none was more important than the Electronium, one of the first synthesizers ever created.  An “instantaneous composing machine,” the Electronium generated original music via random sequences of tones, rhythms, and timbres.  Scott himself denied it was a prototype synthesizer — it had no keyboard — but as one of the first machines to create music by means of artificial intelligence, its importance in pointing the way toward the electronic compositions of the future is undeniable.  His other inventions included the “Karloff,” an early sampler capable of re-creating sounds ranging from sizzling steaks to jungle drums; the Clavinox, a keyboard Theremin complete with an electronic sub-assembly designed by a then 23-year-old Robert Moog; and the Videola, which fused together a keyboard and a TV screen to aid in composing music for films and other moving images.”

ElectroniumWhat’s interesting is that if you pull up Raymond Scott’s works from Discogs’ database, you will see very few commercial recordings released in his lifetime – “Cindy Electronium” not being one of them.

Those interested in Raymond Scott’s work might well want to seek out 2-CD compilation, Manhattan Research (named for Scott’s own audio laboratory) — says Wikipedia:

“The material, while never intended for commercial release, provides insight into Scott’s work.  Included among the tracks on the album are commercials for companies such as Ford Motor and IBM, a humorous “Audio Logo” collage entitled, “Don’t Beat Your Wife Every Night!,” and various collaborations with Jim Henson.   The album features a number of Scott’s inventions including the Clavivox keyboard, Circle Machine, Bass Line Generator, Rhythm Modulator, Karloff, Bandito the Bongo Artist, and the auto-composing Electronium.”