Behind The Synthesizer Experience
Richard Elen talks to Dave Tuffnell, the man behind a unique electronic music information service - ESSP.
Richard Elen talks to Dave Tuffnell, the man behind a unique electronic music information service - ESSP.
An office almost on the doorstep of London's Heathrow Airport houses a remarkable operation: ESSP, or to give it its full title, 'Electronic Synthesizer Sound Projects'. ESSP represents many things: primarily, in the words of the man behind it all, David Tuffnell, it "specialises in the promotion of music produced with computers and synthesizers". In real terms, this aim translates into two main areas: an information service for people interested in the sound (and, increasingly, the visual) aspects of computer and synth technology; and a distribution service for recordings and publications on the subject. Along with these activities goes an extensive reference library including thousands of hard-to-find albums, CDs, tapes, books and magazines, and an independent advice facility for the amateur and beginner interested in the field.
Since its beginnings in the mid-Seventies, ESSP has grown from a small list of interested people into a free international information network with thousands of subscribers, producing a wealth of material including a regular series of charts - which are published in a number of the weekly music papers; an associated company running a thriving specialist service for publications and recordings; and - although it is now largely dormant - the Union of Sound Synthesists, set up in the Spring of 1982 in response to the Musicians' Union's murmurs about restrictions on the use of electronic instruments.
But most of all, the ESSP outfit is driven by Tuffnell's seemingly boundless enthusiasm and interest in the field. Tuffnell is not a musician, and he doesn't claim to be: yet he is the archetypal 'intelligent punter', more aware than most of what is going on especially in terms of the equipment available and the recordings which utilise it to the best advantage.
Dave considers the beginnings of ESSP as his personal response to what he saw as a popular requirement. "There was a need at the time", he says, "for a service specialising in the area of electronic music records. The sections in record stores were exceedingly small, if there at all. I couldn't find the records and I discovered that other like-minded people also had difficulty."
"And alongside that," he continues, "I saw a need for a general communication of information on the subject. The information service and the record side of things really started together." At the start, as well as today, the entire operation was largely funded by the sale of recordings - a strategy that enables Dave to run a large, computerised, free mailing list. His speciality is hard-to-get material, but he handles more obvious recordings too. "Not just imports," says Dave, "but UK releases too. Outside London, people found a lot of problems trying to locate specialist recordings in their local record shops."
"Likewise with the library," comments Dave. "So many import records were so expensive, as well as being almost impossible to find, especially in quantity. To enable more people to hear some of the best imported material, it was necessary to have a library system of some kind. It's still like that today." The library is extensive. "When it started off, most people were surprised that there were a couple of hundred records that you could actually put into this category. Of course, over the past few years, that's extended by leaps and bounds. There are now over 3,000 recordings in the library. But obviously, as synthesizer technology has spread and become more generally accepted," he goes on, "a lot of less directly-related albums have become of interest to the people that we deal with. Therefore, we make a distinction between the main category itself, and recordings that are more 'on the fringes'."
The library goes back a fair way, although Dave admits that the early, avant-garde, electronic music of the Fifties and even before is not as extensively covered as more popular material. "In what I'd call the 'popular' synthesizer area - which is obviously where we're primarily focusing, because at the beginning that seemed to be the most interesting in terms of indicating the way things were going - the earliest recordings are probably those of Jean-Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley on Vanguard: The In Sound From Way Out and Kaleidoscopic Vibrations." But there are earlier works, like the Brunswick computer music album, Music From Mathematics, performed on an IBM 7090 computer in the early Sixties. And less well-known items from the early days of popular synthesis, like Tom Dissevelt and Kid Baltan's classic Limelight/Philips recordings on Song Of The Second Moon (readers with long memories may recall one of these tracks being the theme to Blue Peter's 'Bleep and Booster' series at least two decades ago).
"I definitely put the historical beginnings of 'pop' synthesizer recordings with Perrey and Kingsley," Dave goes on. "Followed, of course, by the Walter Carlos standard Switched-on Bach. From there on the field definitely expands".
Dave's interest in the field stems from a friend - who was working in a major recording studio at the time, in the early Seventies - playing him an American copy of Kaleidoscopic Vibrations found hidden away in a long-vanished record shop in Richmond, Surrey. Said friend, it turns out, was the present author! Yes, it's all Elen's fault. "Well," says Dave, "I can't recall any other 'historical' reasons for getting interested in what was the 'hi-tech' music of the time!"
ESSP grew out of Dave Tuffnell's own desire to get hold of recordings that interested him. Technology has come a long way in the last decade or so, and I was interested to discover that Dave doesn't feel that such technological advances have necessarily resulted in better quality popular electronic music. "Reflecting on some of the early stuff, and comparing it with a lot of what's available now," Dave considers, "the definite thing that comes to mind is that there used to be a lot more work put into editing, and into the creative process from the human side, in developing music, particularly when you look at the early Walter Carlos recordings, for example. A lot of the material these days is relying a great deal on the technology being at the forefront rather than the creative aspects".
Dave agrees with me that what has happened, in part, is that in the early days of electronic realisations, a good deal of the art lay in your ability to conjure sounds out of relatively primitive instruments, and edit tapes; whereas today the area of required expertise has moved more into the ability to control computer-based systems. But where I feel that there is no less creative expertise in realising musical ideas today as there was in earlier times - indeed, that modern technology removes some of the technical barriers between a musical idea and its realisation - Dave is not so sure. "If as much effort was put into a lot of the productions today as it was then," he points out, "I'd find a lot of modern electronic music more stimulating. Particularly, look at the amount of time put in by those early composers into editing, tape delay and other creative effects - often derived from earlier avant-garde and musique concrete techniques. Because machines are able to handle many of those aspects today, a lot of that creative intensity isn't coming through: it's all too often a mechanical, rather than a creative, process. You can hear that it's missing."
I would tend to suggest that the technology is a double-edged sword, which can greatly assist the creative musician or composer, but can equally add a spurious veneer of professionalism and competence to the output of people who really ought to be doing something else. But Dave feels that the flood of new technology is adversely affecting even the established leaders in popular electronic music. "If you're going to talk about artists who are top in the field today, but have been around for, say, the past decade - people like Jean-Michel Jarre, Tomita or Vangelis - I do often get the feeling, listening to a lot of their recorded material now, that they're having to evaluate so much new gear, and get used to it, that they haven't got so much time to develop their music in the same way as they used to," Dave proposes. "I think that's a very important point."
As a result - backed up by his feelings about unreleased material received from his subscribers and contacts - he tends to feel that the most creative people are often those working at home, outside the professional arena, on a limited budget and hence with a limited range of instrumentation. "They have the time," he states, "and the inclination to really get to know the possibilities of their instruments, and to use them creatively."
Dave admits that he likes very little of what is currently available. But he's always held a great optimism for the future of the technology. "I really believe that there's hope for the creative use of this equipment in the future," he maintains, "and that some of the greatest composers and artists of our time will find their way through the use of electronic music systems."
So one of ESSP's primary activities is simply promoting the use of electronic music and the systems that can be used to create it. This covers everything from mailing and visiting potential users, such as clubs and educational establishments, to recording and distributing radio programmes, lobbying radio stations to give airtime to this type of material, and undertaking various lecture tours and festival-related promotions.
But the focus has always been direct mail, and the provision of an effective library and mail order service based around the Union of Sound Synthesists (USS) database, set up in response to suggestions from a good many professional synthesists who on the one hand felt strongly about a potential threat to their livelihood from the MU, but on the other were very reluctant take a personal stand in case it made that threat even more real. Dave Tuffnell was happy to take on the responsibility and, as a result, the organisation received a massive amount of press coverage at the height of the row in 1982. Today, the USS has settled down somewhat, but the organisation as a whole sends out, on average, 500 information packs per week to new people keen to get involved in the popular electronic music field.
Most recently, ESSP supplied information support for BBC TV's 'Micro Live' programme on computers in music, and distributed information packs to accompany interviews and demonstrations on a number of BBC and IBA local stations. Dave is currently working on a special information pack to accompany the forthcoming new series of BBC TV's 'Rockschool', which will feature electronic instruments and computer systems.
Tuffnell is also aware of the potential for applying information technology in his own field. The ESSP database is already largely computerised, and an evaluation and research scheme is currently underway to look into the possibilities of using computer communications systems and electronic mail (see SOS Jan/Feb issues) for regular, up-to-the-minute dissemination of information to subscribers. Says Dave: "We'll go 'online' as soon as we are certain that such systems are sufficiently popular with our kind of audience, and when we've decided which system would best suit our needs, and the requirements of the people we want to reach."
In the meantime, the ESSP organisation and its mail order operation, Synsound, represent a unique service to ordinary people all over the world who are interested in the potential of technology in the music scene. Whether they're listeners or musicians, they have a source of information to get them started, and a place to go to find the things they want to hear.
Feature by Richard Elen
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