Trace the revolutionary link of graphic to sound, with a free book on Xenakis, UPIC, and legacy

Electronic sound is in theory a limitless blank canvas. Iannis Xenakis and his work imagine what image of sound could fill that page – and leaves a legacy that’s still radical today.

Now, we get a view of those multi-faceted possibilities from an array of angles, in a new book from the legendary ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany. The book is available digitally, for free, as downloadable PDF (along with other archival materials). These accompany the print edition, just released today.

From Xenakis’s UPIC to Graphic Notation Today

If you don’t know the UPIC, it’s hard to overstate the importance of this invention, originally seen in 1977, whose impact touched everyone from Risset to Aphex Twin. Its breakthrough was to let the composer draw with sound – paint with the tablet, and the results are synthesized in pitch and time. We’re actually so used to the concept now that it might even be tough to see this as an invention. But thanks to Xenakis’ larger compositional work and the extensive writing and teaching he did and other instigated, any real odyssey into the world of the UPIC winds up being a saga into digital art and sonic interface, how to make and teach them.

The book is a complete look at the machine and its associated composer, but also the ways those connect further afield.

The book is a journey through graphic notation and visual interfaces for music across nations and decades, as well as a comprehensive look at Xenakis’ own work, and its influence and use in education. There’s a star-studded media art editor lineup helming the project – ZKM’s iconic artist/curator/theorist Peter Weibel, pioneering composer/electronic musician Ludger Brümmer and musician and Xenakis scholar Sharon Kanach.

Kanach’s work is already familiar to any Xenakis nuts – not only did she work closely with Xenakis himself, and translated his writing, but co-authored with him the other must-have Xenakis text, Musique de l’Architecture (2008) along with working on editing enough texts to fill … well, a building, actually.

In another decade, all of this might be seen as archaic academic stuff. But now we live in a world where experimental sounds and post-tonal timbres sing and scream into dance music charts and popular music. We see visual interfaces – once confined to Xenakis’ unique machinery – as commonplace as we do a music stand or manuscript paper, if not more so. They’re on computers and free software and iPads and phones, recognizable by people on the streets in every populated continent.

And in the meantime, the aficionados of Xenakis and graphic notation have taken those once-marginal ideas about image, interface, and graphic music and brought them to apps and schoolkids. That poetry is accessible to everyone.

The pages trace the uses of UPIC and the ideas beyond from teaching to composition.

ZKM’s tome begins its story with the origins of the UPIC, the strangely ahead-of-its-time machine Xenakis engineered with a “musical drawing board” that could blur the line between score and interface. You can read the book as a complete background on the history of that instrument and its influences.

But the full context is here, too. And what makes it special is that this is not just a detached theoretical text, but written by people who have gotten their hands on the machines.

Andrey Smirnov, best known for his intensive background and advocacy of early Soviet experiments in graphic music, weaves together a rich yet breezy overview of the interconnections of ideas around the globe in graphic sound. Smirnov’s prose is uniquely readable in part because it easily switches between the mechanical engineering reality of these machines and their more philosophical, even spiritual conception – without missing a beat, either way.

Guy Médigue, who worked on this machinery in the 70s, gives an accessible but comprehensive explanation of everything from acoustics to technology in his essay. It’s a class in a chapter. It’s also worth watching him speak at ZKM, apologizing for his English, yet lucid in everything he says:

There’s also the perspective of composers and teachers – teachers of composers and teachers of kids – for a view of technique and pedagogy. It’s a chance to see this not only as a monolithic composer and machine, but a set of ideas that grew out of it and continue to travel.

And there are deep conversations about institutions, resources, and the challenges of supporting experimental music invention inside the society. Katerina Tsioukra aand Dimitris Kamrotos describe the ups and downs over the history of UPIC and its experiments in the composer’s father-and motherland, Greece. Too often it seems those conversations aren’t translated or that international audiences simply disregard them. Now, with Europe in new crisis, it seems an essential time to examine these fragile links. It’s important reading for anyone working in nonprofits, cultural diplomacy, curation, and the like.

Pointing the way to the future, roughly half the text is devoted to exploring the ideas the UPIC presented, and its relevance to new interfaces and composition and the larger world. Kiyoshi Furukawa investigates utopia, artwork, and architecture. Chikashi Miyama builds as convincing a family tree and conceptual map as I’ve ever seen, compromising the UPIC canvas and other graphic interface and digital art idioms, as well as the various UPIC descendants, like IanniX and UPISketch. (Julian Scordato goes deep into IanniX, for someone wanting to try this hands-on now in software.)

This topic could easily become deeply academic, but writers like Victoria Simon make it visceral – connecting to the composer’s own personal views. Her essay on the tactile begins with this challenge from the composer:

The book is replete with visual illustration, as it obviously needs to be.

“It is necessary to relearn how to touch sound with one’s fingers. That is the heart of music, its essence!” Xenakis

This was 1951-53, long before the Dynabook, let alone the iPad… and it just as easily could be viewed as an admonition to get more tactile still.

I can’t wait to read thoroughly. Marcin Pietruszewski’s “digital instrument as an artifact” sums up about half of what I’ve ever tried to work on in the title, so… there’s that.

The site is accompanied by music examples, too – fantastic avant-garde sounds that many readers of this site will love. Oh and – if you happen to be in lockdown with someone who’s getting on your nerves, and that person is not into avant-garde sounds, nothing says “oh, I really should catch up on my exercise routine with some headphones on” like blasting Eua’on’ome. (Hey, I’m just performing a public service here. You’re welcome.)

But it’s a joy to have this arrive now. Nothing can pierce the darkness or fight loneliness quite like sound and ideas. I hope it reaches some new shores.

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An injury left Olafur Arnalds unable to play, so he turned to machines

Following nerve damage, Icelandic composer/producer/musician was unable to play the piano. With his ‘Ghost Pianos’, he gets that ability back, through intelligent custom software and mechanical pianos.

It’s moving to hear him tell the story (to the CNN viral video series) – with, naturally, the obligatory shots of Icelandic mountains and close-up images of mechanical pianos working. No complaints:

This frames accessibility in terms any of us can understand. Our bodies are fragile, and indeed piano history is replete with musicians who lost the original use of their two hands and had to adapt. Here, an accident caused him to lose left hand dexterity, so he needed a way to connect one hand to more parts.

And in the end, as so often is the case with accessibility stories and music technology, he created something that was more than what he had before.

With all the focus on machine learning, a lot of generative algorithmic music continues to work more traditionally. That appears to be the case here – the software analyzes incoming streams and follows rules and music theory to accompany the work. (As I learn more about machine learning, though, I suspect the combination of these newer techniques with the older ones may slowly yield even sharper algorithms – and challenge us to hone our own compositional focus and thinking.)

I’ll try to reach out to the developers, but meanwhile it’s fun squinting at screenshots as you can tell a lot. There’s a polyphonic step sequencer / pattern sequencer of sorts in there, with some variable chance. You can also tell in the screen shots that the pattern lengths are set to be irregular, so that you get these lovely polymetric echoes of what Olafur is playing.

Of course, what makes this most interesting is that Olafur responds to that machine – human echoes of the ‘ghost.’ I’m struck by how even a simple input can do this for you – like even a basic delay and feedback. We humans are extraordinarily sensitive to context and feedback.

The music itself is quite simple – familiar minimalist elements. If that isn’t your thing, you should definitely keep watching so you get to his trash punk stage. But it won’t surprise you at all that this is a guy who plays Clapping Music backstage – there’s some serious Reich influence.

You can hear the ‘ghost’ elements in the reent release ‘ekki hugsa’, which comes with some lovely joyful dancing in the music video:

re:member debuted the software:

There is a history here of adapting composition to injury. (That’s not even including Robert Schumann, who evidently destroyed his own hands in an attempt to increase dexterity.)

Paul Wittgenstein had his entire right arm amputated following World War I injury, commissioned a number of works for just the left hand. (There’s a surprisingly extensive article on Wikipedia, which definitely retrieves more than I had lying around inside my brain.) Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is probably the best-known result, and there’s even a 1937 recording by Wittgenstein himself. It’s an ominous, brooding performance, made as Europe was plunging itself into violence a second time. But it’s notable in that it’s made even more virtuosic in the single hand – it’s a new kind of piano idiom, made for this unique scenario.

I love Arnalds’ work, but listening to the Ravel – a composer known as whimsical, crowd pleasing even – I do lament a bit of what’s been lost in the push for cheery, comfortable concert music. It seems to me that some of that dark and edge could come back to the music, and the circumstances of the composition in that piece ought to remind us how necessary those emotions are to our society.

I don’t say that to diss Mr. Arnalds. On the contrary, I would love to hear some of his punk side return. And his quite beautiful music aside, I also hope that these ideas about harnessing machines in concert music may also find new, punk, even discomforting conceptions among some readers here.

Here’s a more intimate performance, including a day without Internet:

And lastly, more detail on the software:

Meanwhile, whatever kind of music you make, you should endeavor to have a promo site that is complete, like this – also, sheet music!


The KellyCaster reveals what accessibility means for instruments

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For ‘Chernobyl’ score, Hildur Guðnadóttir went to a nuclear power plant

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir went the extra distance for her score for Chernobyl = taking a real power plant as inspiration for her haunting score.

In a fascinating interview for Score: The Podcast, Guðnadóttir recounts how she followed the film crew to a decommissioned nuclear power plant in Lithuania – even donning a Haz-Mat suit for the research. (Lithuania here is a stand-in for the original site in Ukraine.)

Guðnadóttir, the composer and cellist (she’s played with Throbbing Gristle, scored films, and toured with Sunn O)))) was joined by Chris Watson on field recording. But this wasn’t just about gathering cool samples, but as she puts it, about listening. So every sound you hear is indeed drawn from the landscape of a similar Soviet-era nuclear plant, but as she tells it, the act of observing was just as important.

“I wanted to experience what it feels like to be inside a power plant,” she says. “Trying to make music out of a story – most of it is about listening.” So they go into this world just to listen – with a man who records ants.

And yes, this finally gets us away from Geiger counters and other cliches.

It’s funny to be here in Riga, just last night talking to Erica Synths founder Girts about his experience of the documentary – having lived through the incident within reach of radiation fallout.

Thanks to Noncompliant for this link.

The HBO drama trailer (though a poor representation of the score – like many trailers, it’s edited to materials outside the actual film score):

Score: The Podcast on Apple Podcasts

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From food stamps and survival to writing the songs you know

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” says artist and composer Allee Willis. Yet her output ranges from Earth, Wind, and Fire’s “September” to the theme song of Friends. If you don’t know Willis, you should – and her story might inspire yours.

Behind all the cheery social media these days, most artists you talk to have struggled. They’ve struggled with creativity and sobriety, mental health and creative blocks, unfriendly industries and obscurity. And sometimes they’ve struggled just to get by – which is where Allee Willis was in 1978, living off food stamps and wondering what would happen next.

What happened next is a career that led to an insane number of hit songs – along with plenty of other fascinating side trips into kitsch and art. (There’s a kitsch-themed social network, an artist alterego named Bubbles, and a music video duet with a 91-year-old woman drummer on an oxygen tank, to name a few.) But what it hasn’t involved is a lot of widespread personal notoriety. Allee Willis is a celebrity’s celebrity, which is to say famous people know her but most people don’t know she’s famous.

At least it’s about that gap. The odds that you don’t know her? Decent. The odds that you don’t know her songs? Unlikely.

Let’s go: Earth, Wind & Fire “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance,” Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield’s “What Have I Done To Deserve This.” The theme from Friends, recorded by The Rembrandts (if you knew that, which I suspect you didn’t)… all these and more add up to 60 million records. And she co-authored the Oprah Winfrey-produced, Tony and Grammy-winning Broadway musical The Color Purple. More songs you know in movies: Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid (“You’re the Best”), Howard the Duck.

The Detroit native is an impassioned use of Web tech and animation, networked together machines to design an orchestration workflow for The Color Purple musical, and now lives in LA with … Pro Tools, of course, alongside some cats.

But this isn’t about her resume so much as it is about what she says drives her – that itch to create stuff. And for anyone worried about how to get into the creative zone, maybe the first step is to stop worrying about getting into the creative zone. We value analysis and self-critique so much that sometimes we forget to just have fun making and stop worrying about even our own opinions (or maybe, especially those). In the end, it was that instinct that has driven her work, and presumably lots of stuff that didn’t do as well as that Friends theme song. (But there are her cats. Not the Broadway kind; that’s Andrew Lloyd Weber – the furry ones.)

There’s a great video out from CNN-produced Web video series Great Big Story:

And her site is a wild 1999-vintage-design wonderland of HTML, if you want to dive in:


How she wrote “What Have I Done to Deserve This” gets into her musical thinking – and incongruity (and she does sure seem like she knows what she’s doing):

Plus how she hears and why she needed a Fender Rhodes:

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Celebrate Blade Runner with these videos on Vangelis and his sounds

1982’sBlade Runner film one of the reasons a lot of us fell in love with synths. So, with the sequel out, let’s look back on that music.

Surely no composer – not even the legendary Wendy Carlos – managed to inspire so many obvious rip-off sound presets. (Barely-veiled references to chariots and fire and Deckard were there just to avoid any doubt.) And Blade Runner is essentially without comparison, with thick synthesizer instrumentations that recall the colors and shapes of orchestral timbres but are simultaneously unmistakably synthetic and new.

In fact, you might reasonably argue that Blade Runner was one of the popular vehicles to introduce the public to the capabilities of the polysynth, after years of rock music dominated by the Minimoog and its ilk.

I think talking just about those colors might miss some of the compositional elements of the music. Vangelis’ stately pacing and soaring melodies, with the tension of slow sweeps in pitch, kept Ridley Scott’s movie from being dull by injecting futuristic wonder and suspense. But the instrumentation is of course in service of that – and if you ever want to escape those presets, an autopsy of how they were constructed is needed.

First, let’s check out a good breakdown of the signature sound design on the Yamaha CS-80, which you could duplicate on any polysynth with a similar architecture. (Here, it’s faked reasonably well using a slightly later-era Yamaha CS-70M, and strings on a Roland MV-8800 – an unrelated animal to anything available in 1982, but it does the trick.) breaks down these memorable sounds in a new video that talks about how to recreate them on the kind of gear you’re likely to find today. And, of course, just like studying scores or learning a favorite song, picking apart those sound designs can be a great way to better understand how to make new sounds of your own:

Hat tip to Synthtopia for catching that one. More at, including sample packs for a couple bucks.

Vangelis isn’t prone to a lot of interviews or public appearances, but there are a couple of chances to hear him speak poetically about the role of music in the world – particularly the 2011 interview with Al Jazeera, top:

For the serious Vangelis fan, there’s this two hour documentary portrait:

At about one hour twenty, you get Vangelis and Ridley Scott talking about Blade Runner, just after a chat about the composer’s collaboration with NASA. I imagine somewhere someone cornered him more on this score specifically, but here there are some nice tidbits.

From that interview:

“It was like being in the cave of a magician,” Ridley Scott says. “I’d be there at 2am … watching him just muck about.”

Vangelis: “I don’t really like working on film … everybody’s under pressure.”

Now, there you go: you’re hereby empowered to do some mucking about in your cave, or (thanks to modern tech) on your couch or in your bed or wherever it is your synths are at your disposal.

Just in case the new Blade Runner has you living your own Vangelis fantasy of yourself – go for it. Just make sure to record or hit save, or all those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain…

Um, sorry, I’ll stop. Enjoy.

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Pauline Oliveros, who transformed how we listen and think

This year continues a stunning series of losses of some of the most important pioneers in electronic music. But of all those, Pauline Oliveros is without peer – an innovator in the art of listening itself. And we’ve learned she’s died at the age of 84.

No one else in music has a resume like hers. She was capable of turning the accordion into an avant garde electronic instrument. She had a black belt in karate. She was one of the original members of the San Francisco Tape Center, a defining figure in the entire west coast electronic scene. She dubbed her meditative listening practice “deep listening” as a pun, after spelunking into a 4 meter-deep cistern to make a recording.

From California to New York, Pauline has produced ripples in the entire experimental and electronic scene by mentoring numerous composers and reaching countless audiences. She’s been a frequent figure in films and a prominent voice in books and articles. In a field where straight men often dominate attention, she was early on out of the closet as gay.

In short, there’s just too much to say about Pauline. I think nearly anyone who’s seen her play has felt some deep impression of the possibility of musical practice. To be exposed to her ideas about listening has been even more profound.

Here, she recalls the story of how that infamous cistern meant that learning to play meant learning to listen – to “respect the sound.”

With Stuart Dempster and Panaiotis, a method and a band and a record all got a name:

Pauline’s music can be mystical, enchanting, beautiful, even as it takes on strange new forms. For instance:

But her electronic music can be positively otherworldly:

And in her hands even an accordion can sound like an instrument you’ve never heard before:

With Ione this year at CTM Festival, Berlin.

With Ione this year at CTM Festival, Berlin.

I think this is an essential quality in a composer, though – to not just speak with sound, but to have some ability to influence in ideas, too. And few people in experimental music in the 20th century had the kind of far-reaching and radical influence that she did. She made challenging music but tested the practice of performance and listening, too. She could wrap a profound concept with a relatable and grounded sense of storytelling.

And, oh yeah –

“She was on a mission.”

She talked about the body, too, about how memory can be embodied. So playing the accordion, for instance, she was “following the body” while playing. The “expanded instrument system” meant more than just layering some electronics atop the instrument like so much sugared frosting. Nor was it switching on and off effects pedals. It becomes in her performances a way of expanding listening and embodiment, of creating a human system in which though could become a flow of sound.

So in a century when music could become theoretical or somehow imagined as independent from the body, Pauline’s was able to make sound a sensory activity, a human activity again. That seems especially vital to the spirit and soul of electronic music, because it connects all those new sonic possibilities back to human sensation and being.

Watch her explain that to the Whitney Museum, with the unique experience of having sign-language discussion as its own embodied music (thanks to Christine Sum Kim).

Here she is in an extended lecture with RBMA this year, a good picture of her perspective:

Her recent box set is a must-own for fans of experimental sound:

I’ve been writing all these things lately, but … I have to admit this is the one where I start to actually feel broken up. Just those moments watching her acknowledge the crowd in a way only she can – I can’t believe that she’s not going to be a physical presence on our stages and in our schools any more.

You’re aware time is passing and people don’t stick around forever, but then it’s still a shock, when you realize how quickly things change, and how much the rest of us have to do to carry on their work.

We better all be on a mission, now.



Some instructions for you:

Dissolving your ear plugs: For classically trained musicians and
anyone else interested.
by Pauline Oliveros
1) Take some time – no matter where you are – sit down and close
your eyes for a while and just listen – When you open your eyes consider what you heard as the “music”. Later try to remember what you heard and express it with your instrument or voice.
Do this practice often until you begin to hear the world as music.
2) Another time – sit down with your instrument and just listen with
your eyes closed. As you realize that whatever you are hearing IS
“music” allow your instrument or voice to enter this musical stream.
Stop when the music is over. This is supported improvisation.
3) Listen to a favorite machine and play or sing along with it.
4) Listen to a favorite natural soundscape and play or sing along with it.

Anthology of Text Scores []

Official site:

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Jean-Claude Risset, who reimagined digital synthesis, has died

We’re in a strange time, as we big farewell to a great generation of pioneers of electronic music. French composer Jean-Claude Risset’s work can still tickle our perception and challenge what’s possible. He helped expand the frontiers of what digital synthesis can do for our ears, and brought the technology to the European continent. And this week, he left us at the age of 78.

The sound for which Risset is best known is perhaps the most emblematic of his contributions. Creating a sonic illusion much like M.C. Escher’s optical ones, the Shepherd-Risset glissando / Risset scale, in its present form invented by the French composer, seems to ascend forever.

I’ve noted a resurgent interest in Risset’s sonic illusion. It’s a sign the composer’s legacy will go from academic curiosity to far-reaching phenomenon, as the practice of electronic sound making becomes more global. There are new composers like Germany’s Marcus Schmickler embracing the technique. When Schmickler performed his dizzying audiovisual onslaught in Berlin earlier this year, it won over new fans and impressed even FM pioneer John Chowning. Chowning, who even studied with Risset, took it as an indication new waves of sonic inventors could reinvent and expand on the past techniques, keeping them fresh as ever.

Those ever-ascending Risset barber-shop techniques are now in iZotope’s filter plug-in, and passed around in YouTube tutorials and copy-pasted SuperCollider code. They’re spreading, transmitted the way folk melodies once were. Oh, yeah – there are rhythms, too.

Rhythms probably sound craziest:

We imagine, in some antiquated 19th Century Wagnerian/Hegelian/heroic mode, that what makes people influential is their contributions as individuals.

But as I find myself frequently saying in these histories, it’s the ways in which people come together that have mattered in musical invention and transmission. So, when Risset met Max Mathews’ team at Bell Labs, he was able to bring wild new sonic possibilities to Mathews’ young computer synthesis language. Max himself often downplayed his skills as a composer, and while Max’s structure for the original MUSIC language was ingenious, a lot of his early demos sound crude and dated. Max understood and was articulate about the theoretically unlimited possibilities of synthesis. Risset was the sort of composer who could dazzle with those capabilities and produce something futuristic and new.

He was at the beginning of IRCAM in Paris with Pierre Boulez, the beginning of CCRMA at Stanford with John Chowning, there for the renaissance at Dartmouth with Jon Appleton (where the Synclavier got its start).

And he brought digital synthesis to Europe as he set up the first-ever system at Orsay, 1970-1.

In other words, even if you managed never to hear Risset’s music, you’ve come in contact with his students, or the students of his students, with the infectious ideas and technologies he explored.

His 1968 Computer Suite From Little Boy was produced the year before humans arrived on the moon – but it sounds today like something that we’d listen to peering out a bay window on our way to Mars. The man who brought digital synthesis to Europe made sounds that now could be played in club nights at dozens of festivals on the continent for enthralled twenty-something fans. In a world that has lately seemed regressive, that’s encouraging.

And in a world that threatens to be “post-truth,” Risset was a composer who was ceaseless in arguing that understanding perception was necessary to making and processing art. And, oh yeah – you’ll have a good time.

For instance:

“One can generate auditory illusions, “errors of the senses, but truths of perception” … These examples support the view-point that hearing performs auditory scene analysis to provide useful information about the environment: the elaborate mechanisms involved in analyzing the auditory signals are gratuitously involved for our enjoyment when we listen to music.”

Simulacra and Illusions: Understanding Perception is Important for Computer Music [Seminar: The Science and Technology of Music]

Watch that lecture (in English):

He also had a knack for interweaving his traditional training in piano and composition with electronics, with unusually bold effect and sensitive technique. Duo pour un pianiste at MIT in 1989 pits pianist and computer accompaniment in a duet on the same piano, at the same time.

Here he is doing wondrous things with Disklavier:

There’s a French-language obituary by Olivier Lamm; I’m sure more will follow:

There’s actually a lot of Risset’s music you can hear online – check out this nice page from Apple, for instance, including both GRM gems and the wonderful violin innovator Mari Kimura.

Irrespective of decade, Risset’s works delight the ear and take the mind drifting into deep space.

1979’s Songes is eerily beautiful:

Sud from 1985 traverses endless sonic spectacles:

1998’s Elementa: Aqua mixes natural sounds and synthetic for added dimension; the form itself of the piece feels effortless and organic:

For a live performance, Nicolas Vallette (flute) and Alain Bonardi (digital sound) perform a beautiful rendition of his Passages.

And in one of my favorite meetings of minds ever, computer visual pioneer Lillian F. Schwartz added her visuals to his sound for the 1973 Mutations, a work that’d feel perfectly comfortable in the midst of an AV festival today.

To me, our cenral challenge as these artists leave us is figuring out how the next generations will bend sounds and share ideas and influence. And there, I’m optimistic – especially if I go back and listen to Risset’s music.

My condolences to friends, family, and students. If you want to remember your work or life with him, do get in touch. There’s obviously more to say.

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In memory of Jean-Jacques Perrey

Soon after the loss of Don Buchla, another legend of synthesis has passed away. Jean-Jacques Perrey died last week.

Perrey was a master of whimsy and invention. He’s of course best known for his collaboration with Gershon Kingsley, “Baroque Hoedown,” featured in Disney’s Electric Light Parade. But that’s emblematic of a broader contribution: he’s one of the leading pioneers of the 20th Century in introducing the sounds of electronic synthesis to a mass audience, with noises heard from Sesame Street to TV ads.

Here’s the master composer playing his own best-known tune:

It’s also notable that, like Bob Moog, Perrey got his start long before the evolution of the synthesizer as we know it. For Moog, it was the Theremin; for Perrey, Georges Jenny’s vacuum-powered Ondioline – another instrument with an eerie, vocal-like sound. Here, Perrey demonstrates that wild instrument (which I think would elicit just as enthusiastic applause today):

But that’s not the only thing you might not know about Perrey.

He started out as an accordion player – and med school dropout.

Édith Piaf sponsored his demo tape – which in turn landed him a visa to the USA.

Before “Baroque Hoedown,” Perrey paired with Kinsgley on the wild record The In Sound From Way Out!, complete with imaginative use of tape loops.

And while Wendy Carlos’ cover record helped popularize the Moog (and shattered Classical sales records), Perrey contributed, too, with covers like the Perrey/Kinsgley Spotlight On The Moog. That album came some two years before Carlos’ outing.

Because Perrey/Kinsgley tunes often found their way into television, they helped shift the perception of synthesizers from “that scary thing that means aliens are about to attack” to something that could also be fun and friendly. And while I know that experimental music lovers sometimes deride the popularization of the Moog, my sense is that we wouldn’t have the synth community we have today had the instrument not proven its versatility.

The tune “E.V.A.” is one of the most sampled tracks in hip hop and rap ever. (Dr. Dre even sampled it.)

Even if you think you don’t know it, you do. And it’s therefore an essential link between early European experimentalism, pop, and hip hop – a reminder that it’s almost impossible to confine musical influence in the modern age to any one place or person.

The Beastie Boys and Smashmouth sampled (or ripped off, respectively) Perrey.

Female irritable bowel system has also had a TV ad scored by a Perrey cut. (Seriously.)

Gotye (of “Somebody That I Used to Know” fame) is working on a tribute show to the composer – and to the Ondioline, working directly with Maestro Perrey to learn to play it. He has a tribute post to the composer.

Dana Countryman has collaborated extensively with Perrey – and written an exhaustive bio.

Perrey owned a circular keyboard.


But here’s the best quote of all, from Dana Countryman:

“If he were here today, there is nothing that Jean-Jacques would like more than to think that his fans were playing his crazy, funny, catchy Moog music right now — and smiling, instead of being sad.”

And the perfect epithet:

“He was the master of happiness.”

The Passing of an Electronic Music Legend [Facebook note]

More obituaries:

Electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, of Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade fame, dies at 87 [L.A. Times]

Jean-Jacques Perrey, 1929–2016 [Boing Boing]

Jean-Jacques Perrey, Electronic Music Pioneer, Dies at 87

Photo: Randy Yau, via Barry Threw on Flickr.

Photo: Randy Yau, via Barry Threw on Flickr.

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Sakamoto and Alva Noto again create electronics, scoring masterpiece

I suspect many electronic music aficianados have the soundtrack for the film The Revenant on repeat who haven’t even seen the film. Any new Alva Noto/Ryuichi Sakamoto collaboration will get the attention of lovers of minimal electronic achievement, with good reason.

And The Revenant might just be the perfect landscape for that collaboration. Its marathon portrait of bleakness and intense, lonely revenge make the film a platform for a perfect Alva Noto/Sakamoto score.

Carsten Nicolai’s long-running collaboration (as Alva Noto) with Ryuichi Sakamoto has been a benchmark in what electronic/acoustic synthesis can be. But even as a fan of their creative intersections, this soundtrack is special. It is an essay in texture, one in which eventually the boundary between acoustic and electronic disappear.

This interplay can’t be called new any more. Electronic sounds shares a timespan with the history of cinema. From the Theremin to the ANS Synthesizer (see Tarkovsky) to Louis and Bebe Barron’s homemade electronics to Wendy Carlos to Vangelis, film has often been the medium through which the world has come to know electronic sound’s most adventurous sounds for the first time. The big screen led the home stereo.

But, it’s a shame that after those leading-edge moments of cinema, we haven’t seen synths as the norm so much as the exception. Moreover, the fusion of synthesis and acoustic sound in film still seems a rare feat – even though it ought to be the perfect place to execute that synthesis, even for general audiences.

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That means pairing the right people, though, not pairing the right technology. And this seems as good an example as any. I’m surprised when Nicolai and Sakamoto are called “unlikely.” Perhaps in pre-unification Germany, peering into the future, the artistic couple would have been historically or geographically improbable. (It’s not that the DDR was universally disconnected from the globe – electronic composers in the right positions had unique access, though perhaps not the band of East German brothers who started Raster Noton.) And that happy fall of the Wall here is hugely welcome.

But aesthetically, the combination seems rather inevitable. These are two minds who exemplify minimalism at its most essential and versatile, each comfortable across media.

Sakamoto is at the apex of his economy in the music for The Revenant. The thematic gestures in the string writing are as suspended as a breath caught in frozen air, as aching as a sigh. (Listen to “Hell Ensemble” or “The Revenant Theme.”) The constantly downward-descending modal minor writing is endlessly unresolved, balancing on edge. It is unmistakably Japanese, but also recalls baroque laments, an unending spiral descent of incalculable despair. Oh, and – somehow this sparing handful of notes is oddly hummable. That melodious romanticism, if stripped down, gets clawed to the bone as the plot progresses.


But even before getting to the electronic contributions, the recording production and orchestral writing are themselves purely timbral in a way familiar to synthesists. In more incidental moments, glassy string textures seem themselves to be almost electronic – pure surface, almost unmoving, executed expertly by Berlin’s Stargaze orchestra. Stargaze themselves are ideally tailored for the project, in contrast to the epic Hollywood contributions last year of the LSO to wars in the stars. Like the composers, stargaze are comfortable with music classical and new, electroacoustic avant garde and pop as well as the usual “sustain this string harmonic without us hearing any bowing for as long as the director damn well pleases” acrobatics.

Multi-instrumentalist Bryce Dessner (known to hipsters more for The National) fits nicely into this ensemble as a co-composer and member of the band. In fact, it’s not hard to imagine Sakamoto/Alva Noto/Dessner in future.

But aprospos to this site, let’s talk about electronics.

Raster Noton, the label Nicolai co-founded, celebrate a big landmark anniversary this year. And they come from roots in a Communist-era scene that meant scrounging electronics wherever they could be found, rather than the conspicuous consumption of pricey gadgets, displayed in lavish studio walls like hunting trophies. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you get my point.)

What’s beautiful about Nicolai’s understated contributions to this record, as with past Raster Noton efforts, is that electronics can be naturalistic.

So, when we talk about The Revenant being shot in natural light, with no CGI, an epic wilderness expedition in itself, we can also be encouraged that electronic textures don’t feel out of place.

Here, electronics don’t represent alien flying saucers or futuristic cities or the insides of computers or pounding nightlife. They add colors and textures that blur easily with those in the orchestral score. They reveal the weight of moments of emotional desperation, of passion, and do so as economically as the string textures.


The coexistence of electronics with scored material is very much by design. As Nicolai told WXQR:

Specifically for this movie, because I knew it’s was going to be a classical score, I tried to record electronic music in a way that sounds very organic, that sounds kind of acoustic rather than electronic. So, I really tried to change the electronic sound in such a way that it could easily work together with the classically-recorded score.

The “Dream” sequences the two make together, with glacier-sized reverbs full of icy noise and urgent rhythmic pulses, are exquisite. As always, Nicolai lets the aesthetic of the medium be part of the timbral message.

But it’s interesting to learn that in this case, vintage DDR hardware or some elaborate software concoction aren’t the tool of choice, but iPads. The focus directly on sound itself seems to fit the score. Again, talking to WQXR:

For this, because I needed to be very flexible, I was basically arriving with many software-based synths and I did everything with basically one laptop. I composed everything inside that laptop, or sometimes I recorded weird sounds from natural things or iPads; I used a lot of iPads as well. Sometimes, I wanted to use just a simple recording of a stone or something, so I needed something of that quality of sound, so I just recorded it and used it and processed it so you can’t really hear that original sound inside it. I would know that for a specific moment that I would need something like that quality of sound.

Worth reading that whole interview:

Interview: Alva Noto on Co-Scoring ‘The Revenant’ [WQXR NYC]

Or listening:

But I think it’s worth climbing up on the mountaintops (ahem) and talking about the significance of this sort of work. We need to begin to appreciate electronics as an essential element in orchestral writing, in scoring. It’s lazy to call the synthesizer synthetic, to call the computer artificial. We need a reckoning for how they fit into our culture.

And while the film is about loneliness, this kind of attention for the medium shouldn’t be quite so lonely. So I’m glad to have this work as added inspiration. It does so much with so little, it makes a lot of us want to do more.

For more on this collaboration in general, Red Bull Music Academy have an extensive interview with both artists:

Video is also available from the RBMA lectures

NPR, as it often does, has the smartest review, from the end of last year on their First Listen program.

Listen to the soundtrack via Spotify – or vinyl, when it comes out later this month (but I can’t embed that, yet).

Photo stills courtesy 20th Century Fox.

The post Sakamoto and Alva Noto again create electronics, scoring masterpiece appeared first on cdm createdigitalmusic.