Early years and Pink Floyd encounters
by Michael Freerix
Ron Geesin is a composer and arranger of Dadaist surrealism, with an interest in very off-beat topics. Known significantly for writing the orchestral score for Pink Floyd's Atom Heart Mother, a project that is merely a footnote in an oeuvre of unmanageability. He released plenty of records under his own name that contain songs, song collages, and field recordings, additionally writing music for a wide array of cinematic works in film and advertisement.
Oddly enough, Geesin started off as a pianist in an old time jazz band, at the end of the 1950's. He is self-taught, with an interest in music from early age that began with the mouth organ. He felt inspired by Larry Adler (for whom he wrote arrangements much later), a harmonica player Geesin had heard on the radio. "I got fairly fascinated by the 'harmonica/mouth organ virtuoso, seeing him (Larry Adler) on the television, I was given a 12-hole chromatic harmonica, maybe when I became 11. I was soon playing bits of simplified Bach and the film theme from Genevieve."1 At sixteen, Geesin discovered the banjo, shortly thereafter building one himself. Seemly off the beaten trail towards his musical career: Geesin enjoyed learning from hearing and often became excited by adapting to already existing music forms.
He taught himself to play the piano by listening to Fats Waller, and old-time jazz, a music genre that became very instrumental in the beginnings of his career. He collected old 78's and learned to play a battered cornet. As a side project, he developed a growing fascination with surrealism. His father dragged him to work in an architect's office, but when The Original Downtown Syncopators where playing in a nearby Tennis Club, (coincidentally looking for a new piano-player), Geesin left his job and joined the band in 1961, touring for the next four years. While being with the Syncopators, he was named as front man to make the announcements. "Because I was developing creatively along absurdist/surrealist lines and was fast growing out of any kind of copying/emulating that old music, I had to get out of that band. Even before I joined it, I was black-biased in jazz music, but that band was emulating the music of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a white combination, the first to record 'jazz' and only because US record companies in 1917 tended to be white-biased.]" Geesin comments as he remembers it in his book.2
The Original Downtown Syncopators, with Geesin on piano
From the money he earned with the Syncoators, Geesin purchased his first tape machine, to create demo recordings, becoming more and more fascinated by the act of recording. He left the band to start a solo career in 1965, but from his hometown near Glasgow to London, for the better working propositions there. He build his first little recording studio in a basement, that cost 5 pound a week. His first solo record, A Raise of Eyebrows, was released on Transatlantic in 1967 and enjoyed by John Peel, who became an early friend, supporter and connector to all kinds of musical collaborators or clients. "I had soon extended the performance to the more adventurous folk clubs and to (unsuitable) cabaret. At one such performance, for a firm's (company) dinner, a man who had been particularly amazed at a thrashing piano solo approached me and said, "A bit of that piano solo would go well in a TV headache (tablet/pill) commercial! So I did that later and was extending my range of tape recorders, so I could do multi-tracking. This led to more TV commercial work. I was multi-tracking with guitar (acoustic & electric), all the other instruments I could play, and tape techniques: editing, speed changes, backwards, added electro-effects."3
This led to further jobs in advertising, and while he was doing so, Geesin learned more about composing and orchestrating, without ever engaging in an academic career. "My main musical influences were, and still are, classic Afro-American jazz from the 1920's and '30's (actually musical surrealism), and most of the 'classical' composers' works, except those of Britten, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. I never embraced any kind of 'Rock' - it came to me in the form of Pete Townshend, Peter Gabriel and Pink Floyd - I embraced these creators as individuals, but not their music."3
Splicing and collaging sounds on tape became his specialty during these years, and Geesin set out to use these as tools for his own career in surrealistic-dadaistic composition, which resulted in his first record, A Raise of Eyebrows. "Composing, in music or 'organised noise', is about forming a structure: building modules by any means."1 With his income he could even build his own, small studio. By this time, Geesin had frequently shared the stage with Pink Floyd, forming close friendships with the bands drummer, Nick Mason. Through Mason, Geesin met the other band members the following year, leading to the first collaboration between Ron Geesin and Roger Waters, a film score for The Body (1970). The story goes like this. At a party, John Peel was asked by director Ray Battersby who could be helpful in producing the soundtrack to the film he was working on, about the human body. Peel mentions Geesin as the only one who would be suitable for this job. Therefore, Geesin was assigned to the documentary feature film, entitled The Body, based on a scientific book by Anthony Smith. The film shows, via different cinematic procedures like x-ray and microscopic scenes into the biological process of how the human body works. But Battersby demanded songs to be included into the score, and Geesin felt he needed somebody who would write them. Geesin went searching, but not too far, veering towards his new friend Roger Waters, who was already rising to fame with Pink Floyd, to ask him to collaborate. Luckily, Waters agreed.
Waters wrote two new songs for the movie, with the rest of its soundtrack being organized and ,orchestrated' by Ron Geesin, and a commentary spoke by Frank Finlay and Vanessa Redgrave. "The soundtrack did what all film soundtracks are supposed to do: duet with the visual content, for, against, unison, comment. The subsequent album for EMI consisted of most of that soundtrack, in its many parts: mine as originally recorded, Roger's re-recorded, supplemented by two original tracks, little to do with the film and all to do with Roger and me having fun, 'Our Song' and 'Body Transport.'"1
Being inspired by the social discussions of its time, the film seems to be a perfect foil for Geesin's talents: Scenes shot in a studio, mixed together with body-parts under x-ray, and microscopic travels through the veins and wilts of a human body. A lot of original recordings are being used, but Geesin needed to invent a lot of sounds for the internal body parts, woven together with the songs of Waters and abstract sound-constructions by Geesin. Evidently, he spliced the tapes together with scissors and razor blades on his editing table. Some parts of the composition contain string music or piano music, but overall the score portrays a work of art, only Geesin could make with his attitude somewhere between avant garde and the pop-world, which were two genres Geesin could connect intrinsically.
As Geesin remembers, this collaboration with Waters was pure fun and led to being asked by the band if he'd compose an orchestra score for a long track Pink Floyd had recorded under the title "The Amazing Pudding." None of the group could read or write music, but they wanted ,something big that would have to be written. Geesin received a demo-recording of the piece in April 1970, without chords in their sequences. Therefore Geesin worked with what he was given, discussing budget-restrictions with the band's manager Steve O'Rourke. Geesin could not hire the musicians he usually worked with, because they were too expensive, in turn working with studio musicians, culled together by O'Rourke. At least Geesin had enough money to hire the excellent cellist Haflidi Hallgrimsson, who much later became a composer. "To describe my work for Atom Heart Mother as 'writing the orchestral score' is too grand. As you will know from the book, the 'orchestra' was 10 brass, 20 choir and a solo cello. With the many varied experiences I had had already, including writing short chamber works for TV commercials, this was manageable. I was also soaking up the work of the best 'classical' composers, from Purcell through Schönberg to Varese."2
Working on the score in the hot months of May and June of 1970, Geesin met the musicians first at Abbey Road studios at the end of the month. Working with studio musicians became a problem, and Geesin, who was also a conductor, was helped out by John Alldis, whose choir can be heard on the record. Although the piece was finished and ready for release, it still did not have a definitive title. Without any lyrics in it, the choir was just singing non-words. While still working on the piece in the studio, the Evening Standard covered news on the 17th of July of 1970, about a British woman who was operated with a pace-maker, with long-lasting, 'atomic' batteries. She was nick-named the 'Atom Heart Mother,' and thus became the title of this piece, and the record that came out in September 1970. Unfortunately, by mistake however, Ron Geesin was not mentioned on the original cover of Atom Heart Mother, and his name only appeared as co-composer of the label. This caused a rift between him and the band, which never really healed.
The band continued its career, and Ron Geesin continued with his, and resisted contact for many years. Today, Geesin is still unsure why he did not go more in the direction of writing original orchestral music. He comments: "The subject of 'why not more orchestral music' is complicated. After my traumatic encounter with the EMI brass players contrasted with the ever-expanding world of electronic sound manipulation, I preferred the idea of 'electro-melodic sound painting' and went that way."3
Meanwhile, out of frustration with the music-industry John Peel started his own label, Dandelion Records. Geesin, working out of his small, self-built recording-studio, would produce many of the records Peel would release, before the label went bankrupt in the early '70's. Regardless, Geesin created a niche of his own, where he is a master in almost anything. He supports himself by being supportive to others.
1) Ron Geesin interview, It's Psychedelic Baby Magazine (January 26, 2016)
2) Ron Geesin The Flaming Cow (History Press, 2013)
3) Quote from a personal email to the author
Also see Ron Geesin's website
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