Pete Drake had been playing steel guitar around Nashville since the early 50s in his own groups and as a backup to others when he began experimenting with connecting a talkbox to his steel guitar. In 1964 he released Forever, which peaked at #25 on the Billboard charts and introduced this innovative method and his skillful playing to an audience outside of country music. Though I certainly didn’t know his name before hearing this song, I had definitely heard him play on Bob Dylan’s Lay Lady Lay, Dolly Parton’s My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy, and George Harrison’s Behind That Locked Door. That’s certainly not an exhaustive list and doesn’t even get into his work as a producer and label owner, which he continued to do until shortly before his death in 1988. You can see more of his credits over at Discogs.
Pete Drake wasn’t the first to experiment with the combination of steel guitar and talkboxes. The bandleader Alvino Rey had electrified his banjo back in the 1920s and worked with Les Paul on the development of early electric guitar pickups. That’s all well and good, but perhaps his most important accomplishment is his involvement with this nightmare-inducing video featuring Stringy the talking guitar:
Syrinx was an electronic music group from Canada at a time where the coolest thing you could be doing was experimenting with synths and electronics. John Mills-Cockell seems to have been the prime mover behind the group, and he spent the 60s doing what I would do if I had a time machine: experimenting with tape manipulation and electronics while studying classical composition at the University of Toronto. Well maybe I wouldn’t be in Toronto but you get the idea. Before forming Syrinx, he toured North America with a collective called Intersystems, which combined spoken word, tape manipulation, and other electronic tricks. Check out one of my favorite tracks of theirs here. Mills-Cockell joined up with Bernie Finkelstein to record his music on Finkelstein’s new label True North, and once Mills-Cockell met Doug Pringle and Allan Wells the group was up and running. There is an excellent write-up over at Bandcamp Daily about the group with lots of cool archival pictures and more details about the bands recording history.
This compilation of re-issued and previously unreleased material from Syrinx comes courtesy of Rvng Intl., which still has copies of the release in CD and LP form as of this writing. They also put out a short documentary on the group that is worth checking out too. Hollywood Dream Trip was originally released on their self-titled debut record, but the group put out only one more release before disbanding, with Mills-Cockell going on to compose for film, TV, and theater along with apparently producing techno music. I was torn between Hollywood Dream Trip and this longer track also from their debut Chant for Your Dragon King, which anybody who digs this would probably also enjoy.
Though his passing will not trigger remembrances of the kind we saw with Prince or Bowie, the electronic music world lost a titan in Isao Tomita when he passed last Thursday (May 5th) at the age of 84. He was a pioneer working in the early days of synthesizers along with Robert Moog and Wendy Carlos and released 37 studio albums over a career spanning from the late 1960s all the way up to 2016. Many of his releases comprised original arrangements of classical pieces in the vein of Wendy Carlos’ Switched-On Bach, though many of his arrangements often focused on 20th century music. He produced arrangements of other Ravel pieces, Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, Holst’s The Planets, and Stravinsky’s Firebird. Perhaps his best known release is a set of Debussy songs he recorded called Snowflakes Are Dancing. I was torn between choosing Bolero or his opening of the Grand Canyon suite (linked above) but all of his arrangements demonstrate just what a master he was of the modular synthesizer even in the instrument’s infancy.
If you have a chance to scoop up one of his albums I’d recommend it, and for the most part they have been relatively cheap where I have found them, typically new age or miscellaneous bins. They provide a pretty fascinating glimpse into the early days of commercially released electronic music because he would often list which instruments/tools he used on what tracks. Here’s an example of one such listing:
In addition to his studio work, his live shows often featured stunning theatrics, like the performance of Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra which he mixed from a suspended glass pyramid. He was a giant in the world of electronic music both in his native Japan and around the world, and he expanded the vocabulary of the modular synth immensely over the course of his lifetime. Though he may not be as well known as some of the other luminaries lost this year, his contributions to the music of the last century are something to behold. RIP.
Graduate Assistant for Sousa Archives, PhD student in Musicology
Scott W. Schwartz
Archivist for Music and Fine Arts and Director
Sousa Archives and Center for American Music
I’ve been a little behind posting track of the day because the holidays snuck up on me and in part because I’ve been trying to put together this interview post in a way that was informative, interesting, and as accurate as could be. I sat down with Nolan Vallier and Scott Schwartz of the Sousa Music Archives at the University of Illinois to discuss a recent exhibit they had put together documenting the development of the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois.
Throughout the interview, we discussed the EMS’ role in the development of experimental music in the United States during the middle of the 20th century. We also discussed some of the challenges of telling a story like this within the context of an exhibit. Throughout I have attempted to assemble recordings or relevant information about the composers and compositions discussed. The Sousa Archives are currently displaying an exhibit on Partch as well as displaying a working replica of the Harmonic Tone Generator which is a real treat to play, so if you have the time I suggest you check them out. More info can be found here.
I began the interview by asking how the EMS first developed by making use of the ILLIAC I which was completed in 1952 and represents the first computing device constructed and controlled entirely by the University. It is this computer which serves as the foundation for the establishment of the EMS, which came as the University of Illinois prepared to unveil the ILLIAC I’s successor, ILLIAC II:
Despite having little formal musical training, Henk Badings held teaching positions throughout the mid-20th centuries and remains one of the most prolific and influential Dutch composers. Unfortunately, he accepted a teaching post at the Royal Conservatory of the Hague in 1942 offered by the Dutch government, replacing a Jewish director who was ousted at the request of the Nazi regime. While this allowed him to remain productive during WWII, it largely destroyed his reputation in post-war Europe and his work has only recently been re-contextualized outside of this decision.
He was born in the then-Dutch colony of Java (present day Indonesia) and remarked later in his life that the native sounds he heard as a child influenced his compositions immensely. I find some of the repetitive elements of his “Cain and Abel” ballet are reminiscent of the gamelan music that was so important to man early 20th century composers. He wrote for more conventional instruments in addition to his electronic compositions, including a cycle of 15 symphonies and various radio operas which share the ominous and frenizied experimentation of this ballet piece.