Music Post: Real music made by synths


The first time I listened to the premiere recording of “Nixon in China,” I was perplexed by a sound in the orchestra which seemed to give the strings a harder edge, emphasizing the pulse of the John Adams score. Checking the orchestration I found it included a synthesizer, and a little extra research taught me that Broadway shows routinely use synths to double strings and make the music sound bigger.

The synthesizer, in brief, is now one of the tools in the symphonic toolbox, no longer just a novelty, no longer something happening off to one side of the mainstream music scene. It was not always thus.

The origins of the synthesizer, apart from the pipe organ and the calliope, lie in a Russian inventor’s experiments in the Roaring Twenties.

Leon Theremin (1896-1993) was born Lev Termen in St. Petersburg. His family had ethnic French and German roots. He experimented with electricity while still in high school.

In World War I Termen was a radio station engineer, then worked on an “electronic night watchman” system, a motion detector with which a body in the path of an electrical wave would set off an audio alarm. This would become the inspiration for the theremin.

He was working with it when he noticed that the pitch of the sound changed as he moved his hand around. He demonstrated this for his colleagues in 1920.

Termen had studied cello as a child and recalled the melody of Saint-Saens’ “The Swan,” and this became the first tune he learned to play on his new instrument. He called it an etherphone but it would become known as the Termenvox in the U.S.S.R., the Thereminvox in Germany, and the theremin in America.

Theremin was allowed to visit Europe and then America, where he performed with the New York Philharmonic in 1928. He got a U.S. patent the same year and sold the manufacturing rights to RCA.

Fellow émigré Clara Reisenberg worked with him and became the leading performer of the instrument. Theremin, though married, proposed to her several times but she married a lawyer named Robert Rockmore. Theremin divorced his wife, apparently at the insistence of the Soviets, then married African-American ballerina Lavinia Williams. In 1938 she told friends some Russians had taken him. Voluntarily or not, Theremin returned to the Soviet Union and returned to doing lab research.

He was allowed to travel to America in 1991 and was reunited with Clara Rockmore. Back in Moscow, he died at 97 in 1993. Clara Rockmore died at 87 in 1998.

The next and biggest developer of electronic music also gave his name to an instrument.

Robert Moog (1934-2005) was born in New York and earned degrees in physics and electrical engineering. In 1953, when he was 19, he founded a company to make theremin kits, but wound up developing his own machines for synthesizing sound.

A musical instrument company bought the company, keeping Moog on as an employee, but he became dissatisfied with the management and left, while continuing his work both on theremins and his own machines. The original firm went out of business.

Moog wasn’t the only person working on musical synthesizers but he was the first, in 1964, to demonstrate one that used a regular keyboard as a user interface.

Wendy Carlos was one of his first customers and he credited her feedback with helping him make synthesizers better.

Moog also became friends with Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer, Rick Wakeman of Yes, and composer John Cage.

He retained his original interest in the theremin, befriended Clara Rockmore, and produced her one album of theremin and piano music. Her ability to wave her hands to sound like she was singing was nothing short of amazing.

Moog died of a brain tumor in 2005 at the age of 71.

Wendy Carlos (1939- ) had a formal education as a composer. She met Moog in college, became a collaborator, and made several suggestions for improvements to his synthesizer, most notably a touch-sensitive keyboard.

“Switched-On Bach” came out in 1968 and became a hit, surprising Columbia Records, which lost no time capitalizing on it, commissioned “Switched-On Bach II,” which led to “The Well-Tempered Synthesizer” and a double album of “Switched-On Brandenburgs.”

Also on Columbia Records, Glenn Gould recorded, “Switched-Off Bach,” playing on piano the same compositions that appeared on the original album. Gould was a perfect choice, not only because he was hot, but because of his own interests in electronics, though what fascinated him most was tape editing.

Carlos, meanwhile, composed soundtrack music for the Stanley Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange,” and while Kubrick wound up using only a little of it for the movie, her “alternative soundtrack” album was another hit, including original compositions – “Country Lane,” “Timesteps” – which hold up well today.

More recently Carlos has done fresh realizations of Bach that show the evolution of what the synthesizer can do. Carlos came to regret showing off wacky effects of the early Moog machine on her original album and spent most of her career making synth sound like “real” instruments.

Les Baxter (1922-1996), a Capitol Records producer with a knack for latching onto musical trends, was an early player in the synth world, if not a major figure, because he personally did little more than choose to have the record make.

At 23 he was one of Mel Torme’s Mel-Tones. By 1950 he was arranging for Capitol including “Unchained Melody,” “The Poor People of Paris,” and the original “Quiet Village.” It was in 1968 that he put out a cheesy album of classical music on synthesizer. Soon he moved on to bigger and smaller things and he is little remembered today.

Isao Tomita (1932-2016) became the anti-Carlos, exploring synthesizer sound effects even as Wendy Carlos strove to bring the Moog closer to “real instruments.”

He was born in Tokyo and spent part of his childhood in China. “Switched-On Bach” turned him on to the Moog Synthesizer and by 1972 he was putting out his own albums.

Tomita’s recordings were jokier than Carlos’ – “The Ballet of Chicks in Their Shell” from “Pictures at an Exhibition” featured a lot of clucking, and “Mars” from “The Planets” made spaceship sounds.

Wendy Carlos could barely disguise her disdain for Tomita’s jokes but even listeners who preferred her more serious approach tended to enjoy the Tomita records for the lighter products that they were.

Listening closely to Tomita for the first time in years, I was struck by how the gimmicks mask a real understanding of the underlying classics. A particularly good example is how he showed the similarity between the 5/4 rhythm of “Mars” and the rhythm of a Morse code SOS.

Gershon Kingsley (1922- ), born Gustav Ksinski in Germany, left Nazi Germany with his family in 1938 and moved to Israel, where he taught himself piano. The family moved to America later. Kingsley was an early adopter of the Moog.

His “Music to Moog By” was a hit in 1969 – and the novelty tune “Popcorn” was his, the same year, though the version you know was a cover attributed to “Hot Butter.” In 1970 he did “Switched-On Gershwin,” an album I wish would be re-released on CD.

Larry Fast (1951- ) studied piano and violin before becoming interested in electronic music, met Rick Wakeman of Yes in a radio station, and wound up working with Yes on the 1974 album “Tales of Topographical Ocean.”

Connections made during this period led to a recording contract and Fast made several albums under the imprimatur “Synergy,” mostly containing original music. His first album came out in 1975. He also played synth with Peter Gabriel.

Don Dorsey grew up in California and was a good enough keyboard player to do his own version of some Keith Emerson pieces.

Telarc has recorded his synth albums since 1985, but his day job, since 1975, has been producing music for Disney theme parks.

Dorsey represents a new generation of synth performers who never had to struggle with the wobbly pitch and single line restrictions of the original machines.

Keith Emerson of Emerson Lake & Palmer and several keyboard players with the progressive rock band Yes did much to put synthesizer before the public – in the 1970s electronic keyboards were so much a part of rock that Queen proudly put “No synths!” on their album jackets.

Frank Zappa came late to synthesizers when the Synclavier came out, and recorded entire albums of music made with it, noting that it allowed him to write music that was difficult for live musicians to apprehend.

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