Perfect Sound Forever


From Icarus to Metropolis,
Folowing the Electron Path by Marc S. Tucker (Part 2)

PSF: Because your style is, I think, so much more fitted for a form of neoclassicalism than cinematics, have you ever considered going in that direction, more along the lines of groups like, if you're familiar with them, The Enid? Your take on Rodgers' "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," for instance, had a very Grofé flavor in a number of spots and, of course, you covered Dvorak in Sequencer.

FAST: I never became familiar with the work of The Enid, so I can't really speak intelligently about whether that might have been a path not taken. I tend not to be that studied about what direction I take. It's been more of an evolution, following my own muse with a sense of direction, earlier in my career, from the record label. To be honest, the classic/neoclassic cover versions, though I enjoy them and picked the repertoire, were very much encouraged by the label. Their concept, and I agreed with it, was that it's difficult to bring an new artist-composer to the public without giving the audience something familiar to grab onto. The classical covers allowed me to impose my electronic production and arrangement style on familiar pieces in a process beneficial to both art and marketing.

PSF: Sequencer sported two other cover songs: Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" and Ralph Towner's "Icarus." "Gas" is a great song and was a big hit, while Towner's one of my favorite musicians, though his and Oregon's work are horribly overlooked. What prompted the choice of "Icarus"?

FAST: These two covers were in the same early years of my recording career, when the label was looking for familiar music in order to grow an audience. "Classical Gas" was a rather blatant stab at getting radio airplay and perhaps a hit single. It was released in several territories but never achieved better than modest hit status in any country. It was the label that actually presented me with the idea of covering a previous hit instrumental in electronic form. There were several candidates. I don't remember most of them, but I remember that "Telstar" was another contender that almost made the final cut. Maybe I'll go back and try that one someday.

I was a fan of Oregon and Ralph Towner, so, even though that was a little afield of the label's idea of remaking an AM radio hit, I thought it had merit with the free-form FM radio audience. There was the realization that the melody lines of Icarus and Dvorak's "Largo" could intertwine, so the arrangement went forward from there. The label was totally supportive of using cover material in this way. By working together, I gave them the tools to bring my music to a wider audience and they gave me complete freedom with the rest of the album's creation.

PSF: Cords credited Robert Fripp as educating you in tape loop technique, presumably his famed "Frippertronics." Had your work with Peter Gabriel prompted the meeting and how did you get along with someone famed for his prickliness?

FAST: To be more explicit, I'd been aware of tape loop techniques both from my own "mad scientist" experiments as a kid with multiple tape recorders and then, later, during my musical course studies in college, where we examined the tape manipulation work begun at European radio music studios in the first years after World War II. When I heard the Fripp and Eno No Pussyfooting tape loop recordings in 1973, I knew exactly how they had been constructed.

Then I met and began working with Robert Fripp a few short years later, on the first Peter Gabriel album, and he had become quite the master of using this well-known technique in an artistically useful way. Over the next few years, recording, touring, and visiting with Robert, he imparted his pearls of wisdom and guidance about how he made use of the technique. When it was applied to synthesis instead of electric guitar on my Synergy recordings, his advice was most helpful. Perhaps because I've never been a member of one of Robert's bands, we've always had a cordial relationship based on mutual respect and friendship.

PSF: Looking back on it, is there anything in analogue processes such as looping that make it distinct from similar digital "tricks"? We know that analogue sound itself is superior, and of course a mellotron will never replace an orchestra (and vice versa), but do, for instance, tape techniques contain elements that digital cannot fully replicate?

FAST: In theory, no. A sophisticated digital looping system is capable of recreating the imperfections and distortions that inherently inferior analog recording imparts. But as a practical reality, the far lower levels of distortion and noise, and exceptionally clean reproduction of digital recording systems don't have the grunge and gross non-linearities that have become a familiar and expected part of the "sound" of analog looping. Few users bother to reintroduce and program those analog flaws into a digital looping system because it's easier to just use tried and true analog looping, if that's the desired effect.

My interpretation is that the aesthetic of the analog sound looks past its many known technical shortcomings to create an expectation of what the sound "should" be, making it difficult for newer technologies to be accepted. Of course, similar arguments were made when electrical recording replaced acoustic horn recordings in the 1920's, when LPs replaced 78 RPM records, when tape replaced direct to disc, when stereo replaced mono, tubes vs. transistors, LP and CD's, 16 bit vs 24 bit, and so on. Each argument brings its own historical baggage, and not every new technique was initially a quantifiable improvement over its predecessor.

Almost all looping that I used on my own recordings and those of others, including the Peter Gabriel recordings, have used digital techniques since about 1980 or 1981. That was the point at which digital memory prices had fallen low enough to permit several seconds or more of digital delay. After that, I never laced up a two-tape machine loop again.

PSF: Cords, though it credits it, refers to the Hamm guitar synthesizer fairly obliquely: "Finally guitars... sort of." Were you and Pete Sobel using just the outboard synth as another electronic device in your palette or was a guitar being played through it? You're credited with all performances except the guitar synth, which goes to Sobel, yet no guitar is listed. Very mysterious! Adept hands can make a synth sound just like a guitar and vice-versa, but what really occurred?

FAST: As you noticed, the Russ Hamm guitar synthesizer was credited, and being only a passable guitarist myself, my old bandmate Peter Sobel was enlisted to play it. Russ's device was a modified Dan Armstrong guitar with custom pickups and a digital control system that output control voltage and trigger information derived from the playing of the guitar. The guitar itself, in this system, did not output any guitar sounds off the strings but was strictly a controller system connected to the Moogs.

As a lead instrument, the guitar-controlled patches tended to be cutting and incisive. When the subtleties of guitar playing technique were transmitted to the synthesizer modules, a distinctly guitar-like quality was imparted. The same patch controlled by a keyboard read sonically in a completely different way.

PSF: Interesting. Cords also saw a small but noticeable deviation, overall, in a generally proggier direction. Classicalism was still evident but the profounder depths of the earlier LPs weren't quite as abundant. I know you had management and A&R problems at times, but was this an artistic or a management decision?

FAST: You've seen from the previous answers that the cover material was selected for earlier albums in conjunction with label management. By Cords, I had a degree of success, so the record company stayed out of the process. What you're hearing is a more unfettered version of Synergy than the prior LP's. Without a classical cover piece, newer and more dynamic recording and musical tools, like the guitar synthesizer, opened up fresh musical areas to explore. There wasn't all that much thought given to direction - that unfolded naturally. I've always found Cords more intense and "heavier" than the previous two albums.

PSF: 1980 saw the release of Pat Gleeson's Rainbow Delta, which I found to be tremendously Synergy-esque and coincidental, in that Games had been a collection of "Delta" pieces. Were you aware of the LP and Gleeson's work? He's kinda like you: his work for star musicians added rewarding dimensions to those employers' LP's.

FAST: I had conversations with Pat in 1979, when he had me on standby as a composer for the overdue and over-budget "Apocalypse Now" film score. I wasn't needed to help the team make deadline, though I still have the unscored workprint. My "Deltas" referred to the 4th Synergy project (following my Alpha, Beta, and Gamma projects); his Rainbow Delta was a complete coincidence, as far as I know.

PSF: On that note, you and he form a sort of loose referential trio with Margouleff & Cecil, likewise composers famed for session work that greatly influenced landmark works, such as Stevie Wonder's center triad of killer LP's. It seems that so few musicians are, especially now, willing to expand their baselines until leaping completely over into electronica. Does this represent an absence of a broader intelligence in both musician and audience, a lack some critics lament, or is it something else? Has the demand for adjunct electronicists waned over the years, and why?

FAST: It has simply become so easy for any musician to buy a commercial synthesizer or synth software, and have a huge collection of canned patches available "out of the box" by pushing a few buttons, that the need for the session programmer has greatly diminished over the years. My programming work nowadays is more an adjunct to my arranging work, where the custom sounds I create are a part of the distinctiveness of my production style.

There were others that you might have mentioned, like Beaver and Krause and their great work with The Beatles. The synthesizer sounds on the Beach Boys music of that era was very important too. In those days, most musicians and even recording engineers, had no idea about how to plug in the patch cords on a Moog modular to make even the simplest sound. A knowledgeable operator was absolutely essential. It's rare in these times for anyone to need that member of the production team anymore. Most musicians, engineers, and producers are far more knowledgeable than they used to be. The electronic instruments are much easier to use, at least at their most basic level. All that prevents better sound programming is that, since it's so easy to get sounds that are workable, few people take the time to dig into the subsurface programming capabilities to create exceptional custom sounds.

PSF: To my mind, Computer Experiments, Volume 1 is one of the great neglected electronic LPs of the later 20th century. There was so much to it: the bizarre stochastic process, the sterling ambient hybrid of modern classicality, and the fact that there was... no musician! How did it feel to play the outsider to a menu of binary codes and unpredictable mechanical responses, and what's the skinny on there being no Vol. 2, Vol. 3, and so on?

FAST: I felt very connected to the process since the many parameters of the musical choices that the computer was permitted to make were under my direct control before the actual process runs began. As to Volumes 2 or 3, they simply haven't happened... yet. Until recently, every attempt to begin the next version still sounded too much like Volume 1. There didn't seem to be any point in doing that again so I held back. There are some recent software approaches that look promising and I think another volume finally might be in the offing.

PSF: Experiments was much more Eno-ish, a cousin to Brian's use of loops to let a leashed form of randomicity determine the music. In that, in a semi-distant way, it also came closer to the monstrously singular On Land than most anything else I've heard. Though there's quite a healthy underground, with some remarkable materials, have you noticed, amongst higher profile electronic musicians in general, a slipping away of attempts to radically pierce the envelope, a forsaking of horizons and flavors for market homogeneity?

FAST: It's a little hard for me to give an educated opinion since I don't listen to nearly as many other musicians' work as many fans and journalists. As a composer, I tend to live in my own little world with only a bit of exposure to the wider world. That being said, work from composers like Steve Roach seem to find new horizons and stake out new territories in ambient musics, but it's difficult for me to give a comprehensive interpretation of the field. I haven't really done my homework.

PSF: Your later work seems much more oriented to film than what came earlier, and, of course, you scored The Jupiter Menace in 1982. Metropolitan Suite seemed tailor-made for the screen, yet we don't see your by-line in tinsel. If Jan Hammer could latch onto Miami Vice and sundry flicks, and Giorgio Moroder can still get plum gigs with the nonsense he issues, it seems you'd be a shoo-in...?

FAST: I guess that's a career path I might have taken. It's a very different world, with various agents and managers, from the music business. In my explorations of Hollywood opportunities, with my lawyer some years ago, it would have meant spending much more time in Los Angeles. My career, on the other hand, was more closely tied to recording and touring work, as well as playing big rock-arena shows with a distinctly European focus. Thus, it simply didn't happen. Life's short, a music career is very rewarding, and there are far too many possible options to explore them all and do them well.

In my life, there's been no particular grand plan. What happened, happened because opportunities presented themselves and I enjoyed doing them. In the process, something else that might have happened, couldn't. At this stage though, I'm more likely to continue to work in independent film and documentaries. In fact, I encourage that every time I have an opportunity to speak with a film-maker.

PSF: You do enjoy group situations - having worked with Gabriel, Levin, Nektar, and others - so the question comes to mind: ever thought of getting a couple other keyboardists together to try a Tangerine Dream-styled ensemble?

FAST: If there were like-minded people, then maybe, but Synergy has always been my refuge where I do exactly what I like without having to answer to anyone else or compromise for the sake of the ensemble. In my band work, it's always been easy to keep my ego in check and not have to bully or insist on getting my way because I always know that if I can't sell an idea to the band, then I can do it on my own. I wouldn't sacrifice Synergy's pressure-valve release to my other projects just in order to become another group situation, but if the right combination of individuals came along to create an electronic group different from Synergy, I certainly wouldn't foreclose the possibility.

PSF: Perhaps I'm reading the wrong magazines, but I rarely see interviewers ask your influences; what are they?

FAST: Pretty obvious and easy: classical music, especially late 19th Century and early 20th, from Wagner and Ravel to Stravinsky and up through pop-classical hybrids like Gershwin. My personal base-line standard is the Beatles and all elements of sixties rock leading up to my own work from the '70's onward.

PSF: I also see you lament the undeserved obscurity Wendy Carlos is being subjected to, and I agree it's criminal. This, of course, comes from the critical purview, which is, sad to say, especially in progressive music magazines, sadly incompetent to the job in much too large a part. In fact, save for a precious few critics in all too few magazines, the entire milieu has become what might be called "croney calligraphy," wherein everyone's a beer-drinking buddy of some publisher-nimrod and speaks in sweet and inoffensive tones: all product is "monumental," issuing uniformly from nothing but "legends." It's a touchy subject, as the reader can count only on guarded critiquing in music journalism: the critic must tame his words and questions in order to avoid heat and the musician must look to the critic for gushing praise, in order to push product. Mightn't it be that this domain of careful mediocrity has contributed to the ill fortunes of both?

FAST: It might but, in Wendy's case, she's lived the life of a pure creative artist with very little of the showbiz sensibilities that can pollute an individual... but in which I will indulge (grins). I can be, and have been at times, a shameless self-promoter. Wendy doesn't seem to have that gene. She's confident and proud of the high standards to which she holds herself and her work, but she's not overconfident or vain. In this sometimes-miserable business, classy and talented people can unfortunately be overlooked. That the short collective memory of critics and audience can partially erase the absolutely fundamental contributions of someone like Wendy is, as you say, nearly criminal.

PSF: Do you see a corrosive effect on the arts at the waning of the patronage systems resulting in a forced resort to independentism, with the market deciding that Art exists only if its sales statistics say it does?

FAST: Actually, I see the opposite. The internet has democratized music creation and distribution. The major labels and, for that matter, the corporate entertainment megastructure have seen sales steadily slide. Big albums and movies don't have the sales they once did, yet independent releases seem to be spreading the same aggregate sales totals across a much greater number of artists. That's very healthy. Between satellite radio, podcasting, web casting, indie downloads, new smaller and non-corporate regional promoters and venues, I'm very optimistic that the art itself will survive and even prevail over the conglomeratized entertainment industry. It'll take time, but it will happen.

The only downside I see is that there's too much indie material, most of it not that good, with no system to filter it. The big labels did keep the rush of releases to something manageable, even though good artists could be overlooked or even locked out of the system.

PSF: Beyond the much-needed reissuances, what's the future going to bring from Larry Fast and Synergy?

FAST: There will be new recordings. I can't announce exactly when just yet, but I've been doing this the majority of my life. I'm not going to stop now.

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