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03/27/2006: "synapse."

One of the greatest things about working on a book, however big or small, is the research phase. This is the wondrously giddy period where you're not consumed with the cold realities of writing; you're just accumulating reams of raw material with little regard for practicality or focus. Pointless accumulation of large amounts of crap is something that we music critics, DJs, and other assorted freaks know a thing or two about. If you're anything like me, "research" means you read anything that could even be tangentially related to the topic at hand. Since practically everything seems tangentially related to Eno, the subject of my 33 1/3 book, and since every thought fans out into about twenty other thoughts, it's easy to get caught up in a gelatinous web of thought-processes leading nowhere in particular.

A few months ago, I began trawling the archives of a defunct electronic-music magazine called Synapse. First, I was intrigued by the title of the mag--was it a vintage '70s exploration into the music-brain interface? Some scholarly journal on cybernetics? A freaky journey into the labyrinthine folds and fissures of the mind, soundtracked by pulsing German analog synthesizer epics? Well, not exactly. It gets extremely technical at points, which I like, but it's more along the nuts and bolts of synthesis than it is about neurons and synapses. It's also sadly a bit too heavy on proggy white dudes and the synthesizers that love them--how come Delia Derbyshire never gets any props in these rags?--and there's next to nothing on the technology behind disco. That said, it still is an enormously useful resource, even if it is a little too heavy on the Stockhausen love for my tastes (Stockhausen: most overrated 20th century composer ever?)

Issue number 1, published in 1976, has a feature on "Making Music with Calculators"! Now before you can say "Kraftwerk," I should also mention that Issue #1 features Ralf und Florian as the sexy cover stars, along with a fascinating interview that includes choice tidbits (along with the usual boring anti-American sentiments) like At one time we are machinery but at the same time we are human. So we're neither simply humans or machines. It's a symbiosis (Ralf), Your mind is like a blank tape and so whatever comes in is recorded (Ralf), It's what happens on the street...I hear a lot of cars playing symphonies (Florian). Plus the interviewer's questions are just plain loopy--stuff like "Do you feel that art and music will be transmitted telepathically in the future?"

You can probably guess the rest of the mag's contents. There are, of course, obligatory references to Yes. There are references to a German paper in the 1800s called the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, for classical music geek cred. The record reviews in the back of the mag aren't terribly well-written; on average, they're more centered what cool nerdy pedals and effects boxes and synth gear the groups used than on critiquing the music. But I actually find this sort of writing to be just as informative and interesting, in a different way.

But let's get back to the important things in life, like making music with our pocket calculators. In the article, the writer solemnly instructs: "For this all you need is a calculator, but two calculators are best and scientific calculators are best." Let's put the hilarity of a 'scientific calculator' circa 1976 aside for a minute. He goes on to write, "My Novus 'Mathematician' makes the best sounds on overflow or error indications, and the various trigonometric functions." Man, I bet this guy got all the chicks! As an aside, the reason I went into science in the first place (before I became a music journalist) was because of two things: Kraftwerk's The Man-Machine, and an article I read in Scientific American when I was a little kid, about robots made out of pocket calculators. Robots made out of pocket calculators!

Also in that issue is an interview with Tom Oberheim, founder of synthesizer stalwarts Oberheim Electronics, looking very 1976 with a white-boy afro, a too-tight striped shirt, and aviator glasses. Little did he know back then in '76 that the Oberheim DMX drum machine would become a defining sound of hip-hop in the '80s!

The second issue, also from 1976, has an awesome piece on lesser-known lights in the weirdo Bay Area electronic-music scene, but it's the 1977 issues that I've been really interested in. In '77, punk did not exist, according to Synapse. They were busy running four-page-long interviews with Tangerine Dream and extremely technical features like 'Build Your Own Synthesizer'; the basic gist of a review of Bowie's Low, which had just come out, was "Not bad--side 2 sounds a bit like Vangelis!" Eno finally gets on the cover in 1979 (a big interview by Kurt Loder, pre-MTV), but I'm more intrigued by the other stuff. Like that massive interview with Tangerine Dream, in which they voice some stupidly small-minded statements about American pop music and African drumming, among other things (stick with the lasers, dudes). The interview includes a hilarious photo of Froese standing in front of some Blondie posters in a gritty New York-style urban streetscape, looking completely outclassed by what's coming up behind him.

In '78, the mag started warming up a bit. They put Devo on the cover; the writing got looser and (perhaps unintentionally) funnier; they dispatched a journalist to a California yoga retreat to get weird with Terry Riley; stuff like that. But the advertisements are perhaps more revealing, and more interesting: An ad for a very dull-looking LP bills itself in giant letters as "music to match your intelligence" (ew!) and an ad for the new ARP Avatar 'guitar synthesizer' taunts "Genesis uses one--why don't you?" thanks! For Christmas I want a 2600, or maybe an Odyssey (which is, according to the 1977 advertisement, "fast, powerful, and funky"! How's that for punk rock?)

Replies: 3 Comments

that making music on pocket calculators article sounds rad! I can't wait to see how this all distills into a book. What eno stuff are you writing about exactly (if you even know yet/you're allowed to tell...)?

shudder said @ 03/29/2006 05:55 PM EST

I just got TD's Alpha Centauri in the mail yesterday (2002 remastered edition on Sanctuary). Got Atem on the way.

pdf said @ 03/29/2006 02:40 PM EST

"Do you feel that art and music will be transmitted telepathically in the future?"

If this ever became possible, I think Kraftwerk would be the first to sign on. After seeing them on their recent tour, I was struck with this vision of the band continuing on for eternity in the form of heads in jars, linked to computers via bundles of fibre optic cables.

angryrobot said @ 03/27/2006 08:38 PM EST

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