The amazing classic synth and experimental moments on children’s TV

Before it reverted to Internet age-blandness, American kids’ TV enjoyed a golden age of music, scored by oddball indie composers and legends alike.

And, wow, it could even teach you about synthesis.

Perhaps the most famous of thesse moments is when none other than Suzanne Ciani went on 3-2-1 Contact in 1980 to step inside her studio:

Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood fame was actually a composer before going into television, and the show’s deep commitment to music education reflected that. That music was generally of the acoustic variety, but he did one day tote a rare ARP Soloist synthesizer along with his trademark shoes and handmade sweaters – and his message and song about “play” might well be an anthem for us all.

Canadian-born composer Bruce Haack made an epic appearance on that same show in 1968, where he demonstrated a homemade electronic instrument. Haack himself as as prolific a composer of far-out sci-fi music for children as he was (much darker) experimental compositions and psychedelic works.

The best all-time “Fairlight CMI on a kids’ program” (because, amazingly, there’s been more than one of those) – Herbie Hancock, Sesame Street, 1983. Herbie keeps a terrific sense of cool and calm that all kids’ shows could learn from in this day of cloying, sugar-sweet patronizing programming:

Synths were all over vintage Sesame Street, often providing sound effects as in this oddly hypnotic Ernie puzzle:

Steve Horelick, the composer behind Reading Rainbow, showed off his Fairlight CMI and how digital sampling worked. (I have vivid memories of watching this as a kid – sorry, Steve.) Steve apparently came up at a time when Fairlight ownership was rare enough to get you gigs – but a good thing, too, as a whole generation still sings along with that theme song. And you probably got a second educational gift from Steve if you ever followed one of his brilliant video tutorials on Logic.

Even better than that is Reading Rainbow‘s synesthesia 3D trip – John Sanborn and Dean Winkler’s Luminaire, which was made for Montrea’s Expo ’86, to music by composer Daniel “No, I’m not Philip Glass” Lentz.

Better video of the actual animation and music, which – sorry, Mr. Glass, I actually kind of prefer to Glassworks:

Somehow this looks fresher than it did when it was new.

A young, chipper Thomas Dolby explained synthesis to Jim Henson’s little known 1989 program The Ghost of Faffner Hall!:

Oh yeah, also, apparently Jem and the Misfits imagined an audiovisual synth in 1985 that predicts both Siri and Coldcut / AV software years before their time. Plus dolls should always have synthesizer accessories:

Apart from education, there’s been some wildly adventurous music from obscure (who’s that?) and iconic sources (the Philip Glass?!) alike.

For a time, an experimental music Tumblr followed some of these moments. Here are some of my favorites.

Joan La Barbara does the alphabet (1977):

And yes, trip out with a composition by Philip Glass written especially for Sesame Street:

You can read the full history of this animation on Muppet Wiki,

More obscure, but clever (and I remember this one) – from HBO’s Braingames (1983-85), evidently by a guy named Matt Kaplowitz.

Not growing up in the UK, I’d never heard of Chocky, but it has this trippy, gorgeous opening with music by John W. Hyde:

American composer Paul Chihara’s 1983 score for a show called Whiz Kids is hilariously dated and nostalgia-packed now. But the man is a heavyweight in composition – think Nadia Boulanger student and LA Chamber Orchestra resident. He has an extensive film resume, too, which now landed him a position at NYU:

From Chicago public access TV, there’s a show called Chic-A-Go-Go, which in 2001 hosted The Residents.

But The Residents were on Pee-Wee, too:

Absurdly awesome, to close: “The Experimental Music Must Be Stopped.” This one comes to us from 2010 and French animation series Angelo Rules:

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Composer Philip Glass To Be Awarded The National Medal Of Arts

Glass is receiving the award for his ‘groundbreaking contributions to music and composition. One of the most prolific, inventive, and influential artists of our time, he has expanded musical possibility with his operas, symphonies, film scores, and wide-ranging collaborations.’… Read More Composer Philip Glass To Be Awarded The National Medal Of Arts

Steve Reich On Tape Loops, Rhythm & Sampling In Minimalism

In this new interview, via Q on CBC, classical composer Steve Reich reflects with host Shadrach Kabango on his career in classical music.  He starts by discussing his early tape loop works, like It’s Going To Rain and goes on to discuss his … Continue reading

Minimalist Terry Riley Was Remixing Before Remixing Was Cool – ‘You’re Nogood’

American minimalist composer and performer Terry Riley is not as well known as fellow minimalists Steve Reich and Philip Glass. Nevertheless, his work – which explores tape looping, live performance with tape delay, microtonality, world music influences, synthesis and more … Continue reading

Free Clapping Music App Teaches You Steve Reich – And Rhythm

What’s the sound of one person performing Clapping Music? This.

Before there was Rock Band and Guitar Hero, there was Steve Reich. His 1972 work Clapping Music is a rhythmic etude, and like all compositional etudes, it’s also something you can think of as a “game.”

Any musical score is a graphical representation that’s meant to help you understand something that’s normally heard, not seen. You can use traditional notation – and Clapping Music works well as that.

As an iPhone app, Clapping Music the work has some new tricks. The “score” – the app – can judge your rhythm. Fail to tap accurately, and it’s “game over” – start over and try again. And whereas the composition requires two people, now you can play along with your iPhone. You can also see a different visual representation, one that’s, incidentally, close to those used in some forms of ethnomusicology and that presents time in a more proportional way than classical Western scores do. (That is, whereas engraved scores arrange things to make them look visually neat, but squeezes and expands the representation of time in the process, this form of graphical notation displays time and spacing as one and the same.)

The app also has some extras to learn more about Reich’s music.


You can thank London-based developer Touchpress for this app and others that explore teaching music through software. They already built The Orchestra, Julliard String Quartet, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which offer interactive tours that let you experience those works in ways something like a book can’t provide. I’m really impressed by their apps – they’re accessible to total newcomers to music, and yet they’re still engaging to someone like me who’s been through years and years of classical music education. That’s no small challenge. And as a Clapping Music fan, it’s fun to see the work in a new way.

Part of why their apps work is that they pair talented developers and designers with the musical experts best able to cover the music. So in this case, we have Steve Reich, researchers from Queen Mary University of London, and the London Sinfonietta.

Two feature requests, though (a little unfair, given the app is free, but must be said):
1. Notation view.
2. Onset detection via the mic, so you can actually clap!

Because, oddly, all of this makes me think that maybe the age of apps and screens is the perfect time to rediscover making scores. There’s something really charming about this:


And we live in an era that truly gives us the opportunity for “and” rather than “either/or.”

The post Free Clapping Music App Teaches You Steve Reich – And Rhythm appeared first on Create Digital Music.

Free iOS Game Teaches You How To Play Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’

Touchpress Limited has released Steve Reich’s Clapping Music – a free iOS game that’s designed to improve your rhythm. It does this by challenging you to play Steve Reich’s ground-breaking work, Clapping Music, a piece of music performed entirely by clapping. Steve Reich’s … Continue reading

Beauty in Repetition: Listen to Hanno Leichtmann’s Minimal Studies


Hypnotic repetitive gestures are perhaps the signature of our generation in music, the legacy of Reich and Glass and Monk and Riley and Young … and tape decks and computers and drum machines. But then, repetition is the very stuff of our bodies, of heartbeats and footsteps and brain waves. Mastering repetition is essential, then, to any compositional practice. It should be, literally, as natural as breathing in and breathing out. And it should have the potential to take on its own voice.

That’s the sense I get of this work. Listening to Hanno Leichtmann’s music, you may drift off into another world. It is work of collage, but in a way that imagines a new landscape. In ‘Minimal Studies,’ released on Moscow’s mikroton Records in 2013 and in live form this week, that effect is especially in evidence.

Hanno is no stranger to club music as well as experimental; he’s a DJ, often favoring the dubby, as well as curator. And his aesthetic is partly visual, staging festivals that reinterpret typography and letraset in music and creating his own visual objects, including optical picture disk releases. In Minimal Studies, he finds a way to take the gesture of a loop and hone in on it in some unique and transcendent way. The reference to minimalism is clear, but the color, the effect are Hanno’s.


I’ve gotten to know Hanno living here in Berlin, this world capital of clubs full of repetition. This work in particular stands out, in combination now with similarly entrancing visuals, in the form of an 8mm accompaniment by filmmaker Carolin Brandl. The content of that film veers toward exoticism, but in a sense, Hanno’s soundscape seems to have fallen from some other culture. Meredith Monk I know spoke about imagining her minimalist gestures as being futuristic or alien and simultaneously ancient; the sound and image here have a similar sense.

trailer from hanno leichtmann on Vimeo.

By the way, if there are echoes of POLE and Jan Jelinek, he has played in bands with both those artists. Musicians always trade ideas, doubly so when playing together live. I asked Hanno for some commentary, and he directed me to this text by Reinhold Friedl about the project:

Hanno Leichtmann – Minimal Studies

Under the unassuming title of „Minimal Studies“, electronic musician Hanno Leichtmann investigates the remnants of the minimal music movement of the 1970s and catches some of its still audible echoes. The CD begins with the pulse of an organ, a deep, low bass slides in, layer-by-layer the piece builds.

The American music psychologist Diana Deutsch proved that any sound becomes a melody if it is repeated often enough. This is exactly the phenomenon we encounter here; we suddenly hear melodies and are not sure if they were there before, if they are there now or where they came from.

And yet Leichtmann’s music is not based on gushing euphony or psychoacoustic effects. Instead it restricts itself to basics by combining the repetitive structures of minimal music with elements of once groundbreaking Berlin club music. Rhythmic impulses taken from soundtracks and contemporary music samples, a John Carpenter bass, are accompanied by acoustic instruments (violin, organ, clarinet, trumpet) that play melodic patterns, which disappear in the flow of sound, becoming ever harder to discern.

Pop-minimal music; meandering chord/rhythm loops, experimental turntable manipulation basslines, it’s all there: Steve Reichs asynchronous patterns, Pole’s minimal dub, Nic Collins’and Yasunao Tone’s broken CD players, Terry Riley’s organs, Oval’s systemische clicks’n’cuts, LaMonte Young’s drones, Michael Nyman’s early film scores…
Vast monotone landscapes emerge, subliminal disco bass, idling synthesizers, barely-there electronic percussion, and occasional instrumental melodies. Hyper-minimalism on display.

What can be done with this material after it’s been reduced to it’s universal forms? Suddenly, sound patterns like landscapes from Tarkowski’s films emerge: a strangely nebulous unreality consisting all that is farmiliar, but all newly mixed together (including a monolithic guitar riff as an obituary for Sonic Youth) until the sound of bells and a few scant piano melodies take over and finally fade away. Music about music.

Hanno Leichtmann’s recurrent hymns to repetition leave the listener oddly liberated.

Apart from this series of studies, it’s worth hearing Hanno’s similarly minimalist-collage creation “Unfinished Portrait Of Youth Today”, in the same vein:

Hanno performs live with Carolin’s film Thursday in Berlin at the FEED series at KW, along with ex-architecture student turned musician Tobias Purfürst. (Facebook event) This is also some nice ambient creation; I’m especially fond of excerpt #2:

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