The Music Of JC Harris

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

JCHRants

Modular Porn

When I started re-discovering ‘electronic music’ as a thing apart from ‘electronica’ I thought I’d connect with a whole new universe of old. I knew there was a thriving culture of people who were totally entranced (pun intended) by vintage gear and I thought that in addition to being good material for the new record, it would be fascinating to see how that culture had evolved. But the current world of synthesisers is just not what I expected at all.

When I first saw a synthesiser in 1975, that world was largely either rock stars or people at large universities trying by gain some respect in the ‘real’ music world. The common denominator in both cases was deep pockets. Synths were about as expensive as a small airplane and just about as easy to use.

But everyone with an interest really wanted respect for their new instruments and they attempted to get it in three ways:

  1. By creating idiomatic music, ie. sounds that could only be made by machines and thus were almost uniformly un-enjoyable by humans. I don’t want to sound too mean-spirited but students always blue-skied about impossibly complex scores: ‘How would they sound?’ Well, now we know. And the truth is that there is a high correlation between the melodies and rhythms that people can play and the music they tend to find pleasant. My proof is that you’ve probably only ever heard such music in the background of some sci-fi movie–perhaps during some hideous Dalek torture. Here is an example called Silver Apples Of The Moon by Morton Subotnick, one of the superstars of this genre. Trust me, if you were one of the 194 people into this stuff you’d think ‘Classic, Dude!’

    (Ironically, this idea was extended back to acoustic instruments. I give you, the award-winning Conlon Nancarrow Dual Piano Study. Hoo boy. But I digress)

  2. By going to elaborate measures to emulate a ‘real orchestra’ eg. Isao Tomita’s rendition of The Planets, which was not a half-bad idea because it really built up some chops at using the things. In other words, by having some focus, the whole art of sound design took great leaps forward. Some of that stuff was pretty amazing; even sans laser lighting.
  3. But if you were seriously bleeding edge you started to learn how to program computers because, even though computers couldn’t really do much musically, it was clear they would do soon enough and you wanted to be ready. This is akin to people who today are already preparing for their first space flight. Soon.

Fast forward to ‘now’ and my alternating fascination and horror with this thriving culture of guys (and they are guys–shocking I know) who build hardware monster synths as their hobby. And I say ‘hobby’ because it is the gizmo that is the end in itself; like guys who build clocks. The point is not so much function as it is ‘the build.’ Which is a real ‘Tool Time’ moment. But it makes sense! It’s like restoring a ‘muscle car’… the ‘show’ is easily as important as the ‘go’.

And because it’s like hot rod cars, these devotees make sure that every device has as many lights as possible; that each cable has some sort of built-in light effect. None of that stuff actually contributes anything to the functioning of the machine. It would be like making a Stratocaster out of plexiglass and filling with Lava Lamp material. Hey now………! 😀

There’s also a very ‘steam punk’ ethos to the new synth people. As with muscle cars, it’s a completely retro deal. And as with guys who wouldn’t be caught dead with fuel injection, these guys tend to eschew anything ‘digital’. So the little tune that plays in this video is all this particular can do. You patch together all these cables for two hours and at the end, you get these four bars over and over. If you want to play something else? Take it apart and re-cable it. As with dominoes, the setup is the best part.

I dunno if this is intrinsically any different from any other product porn. People buy the most elaborate kitchens and never cook in them. The price of some pretty crappy guitars built in the 50’s is now well over six figures and those instruments are kept under glass and owned by people who don’t even play. But it’s been a new world for me to see something that was originally so completely functional turned into such an object of worship for its own sake. I always thought synths looked cool but that was only because I dreamt of how I would look on stage playing them. It literally never occurred to me that a group of people would start treating them the way car enthusiasts do.

The joke is that, as with so many people my age, I owned a certain amount of this kit and it’s safe to say that I could not wait to get rid of as many blinking lights as possible because the stuff was horribly unreliable. It was not that long ago that one could walk into any electronics repair shop and see a whole back room full of ‘junk’ from that era that is the current devotees wet dream.

The thing that kills me is that those who Dream Of Wires nowadays are not like the guy down yer street with the ’71 Javelin. The new synth mavens aren’t really interested in restoring antiques, which have no blinking lights, no ground effects and no spinning rims. (Hey….. now. 😀 ) Plus, I confess that I have yet to hear a single piece of music created by this stuff that holds any more appeal for me than that of Mr. Subotnick. And worst of all? I missed the boat on this stuff financially twice: I didn’t save the kit I had back in the day so I could make a killing like one of those old farts on Antiques Roadshow. And twenty years on I didn’t see that this crap was making a come back and buy up all the junk at flea markets. And then make a killing on Antiques Roadshow.

No LEDs. No melody. And no dough-re-mi. Despite the past year or so I’ve spent immersed in the world of vintage synthesisers, it’s pretty clear why we originally parted ways. At the end of the day they end up reminding me so much like Goliath. They are visually awesome. But for whatever reason, for me, they’ve never seemed to live up to the image.

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