Isaac Schankler
Space Age Synths

Space Age Synths

Almost 45 years ago, Wendy Carlos’s Switched-On Bach album first came out. It’s hard to know exactly why this particular combination of Baroque music and synthesizers became such a popular phenomenon, but to me it seems inextricably connected to a certain optimism about the future, a kind of narrative where novelty is progress. (The past shall not be forgotten, but it can be updated.) Switched-On Bach was both revered and reviled, and it’s not hard to see why. Carlos’s synthesized arrangements could be incredibly sublime or unbearably awkward, all within the span of a few seconds. But at their best they could project a kind of strange majesty, like her version of Henry Purcell’s “Funeral Of Queen Mary,” used as the title music for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.

It didn’t take long for Carlos’s work to inspire others. Patrick Gleeson and Isao Tomita, unaware of each other’s plans, both released electronic versions of Gustav Holst’s The Planets in the same year, 1976. Gleeson and Tomita, in turn, inspired yet another crop of imitators, like this workmanlike but rather flat rendition from Ed Starink in 1989:

Tomita, on the other hand, does a remarkable job of preserving (and in some cases enhancing) the dynamic range of the orchestra, with meticulously choreographed swells and articulations. Listening to Tomita’s outsized expressivity, you can almost believe the “novelty as progress” artistic narrative, if only for a second.

The music of the first half of the 20th century seemed to be especially fertile ground for Tomita, as he released arrangements of Stravinsky, Ives, Ravel, and my favorite version ever of Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” And there does seem to be at least a spiritual kinship between the novel harmonic language of that era and the novel timbral language of early electronic music. (And perhaps a mystical/extraterrestrial kinship, too–like Stockhausen, Tomita claimed to be educated by space aliens.)

But as society became more concerned with earthly things, the fashion for space age classical synth covers faded. Now they seem a bit like majestic old ruins, simultaneous evidence of great talent and great folly. When synthesizers are invoked now, they are more likely to be a historical reference than a forward-looking one. Classic Chips, an album of 8-bit classical covers by Canadian musician/programmer Brad Smith, is more about limitations than about progress. Using the NES chipset to perform Scriabin, Debussy, Brahms, Bach, and Schoenberg, Smith superimposes two bygone eras over one another.

And when Rich Vreeland (a.k.a. Disasterpeace) performs a lush Tomita-esque version of Chopin’s Prelude in E minor, it’s also a reference on multiple levels. Spoiler alert: this is heard in the endgame of the recent indie video game hit Fez, accompanying a spectacular light show that recalls 2001, another Kubrick film. Except instead of symbolizing transcendence or evolution, this particular event represents a literal “reboot” of the game’s universe.

Here, we’re no longer looking into the future. We’re just looking to start over.

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3 thoughts on “Space Age Synths

    1. Isaac Schankler

      Whoops, listening to all those psychedelic synths apparently interfered with my ability to do basic math. Good catch, thanks!

  1. ictus75

    When Wendy Carlos’s ‘Switched-On Bach’ album came out, it was a different time. We were on the verge of the information & technology ages. Wendy, with the then new Moog synthesizer, was part novelty, but really a look into the future, a future that would soon become a part of everyday like. And the thing about Wendy and Isao Tomita is that they were both highly trained musicians. They were able to bring their backgrounds into the future with the synthesizers. And we were amazed. This was a new frontier.

    Now, every kid with a laptop and Garage Band has access to synth sounds and a recording studio, but most seem to lack the imagination that both Carlos and Tomita possessed…


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