Perfect Sound Forever

ALIEN INSTRUMENTS

Where Have All the Weird Instruments Gone, Long Time Passing?
by Gary Gomes
(October 2016)


This series examines how various instrumental formats have assumed control of musical idioms, starting with the rise, fall and design changes of synthesizers and how these were viewed by users; part 2 will focus on the dominance of the guitar in rock music, and deviations from that dominance; and part three will focus on how oddball instruments have wound their way into music.



Rock music, jazz music, even classical and country music all have certain stereotypical musical instruments associated with them. You use electric guitars if you want a rock or country band, sometimes acoustic guitars. Bass and drums are core musical elements, but the bass guitar is rarely used in classical music (excepting David Bedford and Frank Zappa--by no means an exhaustive listing). Why aren't electronic or electric instruments used more in classical (other than the minimalists) or in jazz (although they have been accepted here at time)? Rock has seemed more catholic, but it is too governed by technology and fashion to foster any change for long.

I initially got the idea for this article while watching a movie called I Dream of Wires-it was a lovely tribute to the old style modular synthesizer and how it is making a comeback now--much like vinyl records and earlier, cheap but unusual guitars. I Dream of Wires is a great story about the birth, death and rebirth of the modular synth (like the documentary on Moog's life), but suffers from some pretty standard flaws. First, there is the need to trash the digital synthesizers that started to be developed in the 1980's by Yamaha, Roland and Korg, among other Japanese manufacturers. These were cheap practical instruments that were affordable. Also, the three musical instrument giants seem to be attacked just because they are big, which seems stupid--being big, they can mass produce and bring cheap instruments to the masses. And certain types of ‘80's synths (yes, I mean you FM) are tough to program, but having had an FM synthesizer and an FM module, I can tell you how happy I was to use them. Finally, there is the mandatory gratuitous slap at the late Keith Emerson and his rock star 50,000 synth. One fellow said he saw ELP--having no idea why he was there--ignoring ELP's popularity at the time, and damning himself as a terminally cool individual who would never give those…proggers!...any respect. But Bob Moog himself gave Emerson more credit for popularizing the synthesizer than anyone else, including Wendy Carlos.

There is a certain amount of conformity that seeps into any musical idiom. It's an insiders' club and experiments like the Residents, Half-Japanese, Red Crayola, This Heat, Brian Eno and Amon Duul notwithstanding, require a certain entry level expertise and uniformity of setup. This mitigates against an oddball instrument entering the mix. I can still recall two young players I saw at a punk venue many years ago who were switching back and forth between instruments and playing a kind of punk free improvisation, but receiving boos from the audience. I thought it was terrific anarchy (and a bit reminiscent of Half Japanese minus the vocals), but punk was never about true anarchy. It was really, by definition, a reactionary music--a reaction against high gloss, excessive technical ability (here are three chords, now start a band). Early rock and roll was similar, but reveled in the use of the new technology (reverb, echo and tremolo) that were available. But guitar, bass and drums, adding piano, then a bit of saxophone, were the order of the day. Classical music was as restrictive (saxophones, only invented as recently as the 1800's were not found in classical scores, although Wagner did find space in his work for the contrabass-an enormous bass violin that needed two people to play it).

Yet, there were odd instruments passing into popular music as early as the advent of theremins, the ondes martnenot and their German cousin, the Trautonium. And the Hammond organ was developed from technology that originated with Thaddeus Cahill's Teilharmonium--yes the Hammond organ was once considered a radical instrument and the inventor, Laurens Hammond did not like the way it sounded with a Leslie speaker-which is the "classic"combination now (by the way, though who hate digital or additive synthesis might be surprised to find that the Hammond organ was actually a form of additive synthesis). Jazz also included violins on occasion (thank you Stephane Grappelli, Joe Venturi, Billy Bang, Leroy Jenkins). Classical music eventually accommodated synthesizers, electronics and tape manipulation extensively in the mid-20th century. So did pop music--who remembers Ross Bagdasarian/David Seville of Alvin and the Chipmunks fame (created from sped-up tapes) or Les Paul's early guitar multi-tracking experiments?

The explosion of oddball instruments in the popular music world was really the 1960's. Songs like "Telstar"and Del Shannon's original "Runaway"featured weird electronic keyboards. Theremins were used in popular music recordings as early as 1947 (Les Baxter), and have periodically enjoyed resurgences of popularity (especially after The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations”), Lothar and the Hand People, and more recently, an Ondes Martenot found its way into Radiohead (the Ondes Martenot is a heterodyning instrument similar in principle to the Theremin, but it played by pulling a ring along a keyboard like scale--the ondioline used by Al Kooper was a relative). But sadly, they disappear from consistent usage.

The blame for many of these instruments disappearing is often lain at the foot of the synthesizer, which also supposedly supplanted these instruments (including combo organs), but as Ray Manzarek once pointed out, combo organs often had greater capabilities of tone manipulation than early synthesizers. But synths posed the possibility of 1) creating sounds no one had heard before (until synthesists started limiting their patch choices) and 2) re-creating other instruments. Like the adored Mellotron (a bundle of twelve track tape players whose tapes would often stretch and go out of tune), one of the purposes of synthesizers was to put gaggles of working musicians out of work by having the machines recreate their work for less money. The ultimate expression of this was the synth that could emulate other instruments successfully (if someone flatly), like the FM synths, and the very expensive Synclavier and Fairlight synthesizers. The latter were extraordinarily expensive, but capable of producing extraordinary performances not performable on conventional instruments (see Frank Zappa's Jazz from Hell, among others). So there was first this flurry of activity developing some great combo organs, then synthesizers come along and most are supplanted--possessing inferior polyphony to the combo organ, and being more in demand and (as Chris Carter formerly of Throbbing Gristle pointed out), the bass could rip speakers. Yet, as he also pointed out, the punks hated synth bands, calling the players button pushers--he also accurately assessed their aversion to new technology in general. Ah, these Luddites who only wanted to swing their guitars like clubs (I exaggerate of course). Of course, the nerds would have their revenge later as new wave subsumed punk, armed with their own synthesizers, creating irresistibly cheesy hooks and riffs.

But as synths start becoming more affordable, or easy to use, they become suspect by the early adopter: one fellow in I Dream of Wires said he saw the handwriting on the wall when synthesizers started showing up with pre-set instruments, which that started in 1972-1973 with the advent of the Arp Pro-Soloist. Tony Banks in an interview confessed he liked it because he could get a synth sound without learning all the programming, but he later switched to the programmable instruments.

The synthesizer, more than any other instrument developed, had planned obsolescence written all over it. It is entirely technological--it can't be stuck in the past in terms of its advancements, because it is supposed to open up the universe of sounds. So analog synthesis becomes a form of nostalgia--nothing wrong with that--or maybe a chance to revisit sounds one had not explored in the past. But because of the inherent sound-producing mechanism employed in analog synthesis, you will usually never mistake an analog synthesizer for something else (as some people mistook Mike Ratledge of Soft Machine's Lowrey organ for a synthesizer). Pitch to voltage conversion is unmistakable to the human ear, much like a real saxophone would be.

It is worthy to note that synths were introduced in an environment in which musicians were looking for new sounds. The early experimentalists an academics who used them (Morton Subotnick and even Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening at Columbia University) used them to expand musical vocabulary. Subotnick use a sequence to develop overlaying multiple time signatures--others used them to create pretty but repeating rhythms in common time. Minimalism and rock move them away from experimental use into pattern makers (see Pete Townshend and Eno) and sweeteners--this legacy extends to today in dance and pop music. It wasn't the compacting of the instrument's design that limited sonic exploration--it was the failure of the musicians to utilize the full capability of what they had, as any listen to Sun Ra on a Mini Moog could demonstrate.

And what about today? With the rise (and fall of) EDM, are we in an era again in which Gary Numan's Cars could become a hit? Moog seems more and more like a visionary as time goes on.


Also see the other parts of Alien Instrument series- I hate guitars and I love guitars and The Use of Weird Instruments


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