From Curved Air to Sky, and beyond with the Synclavier II
Curved Air had a considerable influence on many musicians seeking ways of breaking down barriers and moving freely between the traditions of classical and rock music. Their first album, 'Air Conditioning', opened up an era, albeit short-lived, of real experimentation in music in this country, and this was due in no small way to the work of their keyboard player, Francis Monkman. After the demise of Curved Air in 1972, Francis worked for several years as a session musician, and then, in 1978, joined Sky. He left Sky at the end of 1981 in order to concentrate on his own work, and David Ellis spoke to him just as he was completing the final mix on his first solo album at Abbey Road Studios.
Francis had a thoroughly classical grounding in music, which undoubtedly accounts for his remarkably fluent keyboard technique, but the training was never quite finished owing to other attractions: "Curved Air started in about 1969; that dove-tailed with the end of studies at the Royal Academy of Music. I had to decide between the second half of my B.Mus and going on the road. It wasn't a very hard decision! The first keyboard I started using in Curved Air was a Hohner piano, but by the second album I was using a VCS3 with the Cricklewood keyboard. The first album, 'Air Conditioning', also used the VCS3, but just for a few sweeps and effects, including a crazy violin solo through a ring modulator."
After Curved Air came a lean period for Francis when he found that if certain session 'fixers' say "I've got so much work for you" it meant that they weren't going to phone you for the next six months: "I was okay, I didn't actually starve. I went around on a bicycle and did whatever came in, but by about '76 I was working practically around the clock as a session man. About half the sessions I did were with synthesisers, though I didn't actually own one at that time. The first synthesiser I bought was the Oberheim OB1 in about '77. Sky owned the Prophet, so that of course went back, and then I bought the Synclavier. I've really been waiting for digital synthesisers to come along and I'm rather glad I have."
Other bits of playing were mixed in with session work, including a month's tour with The Shadows in 1977 and a brief flight with a new band called 801, fronted by Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera, which resulted in three gigs and a live album in 1976. At this time, however, Francis hadn't started doing much in the way of writing: "I was really trying to absorb rather than generate. I actually found fulfillment in not creating — being as empty as possible. I think one's need to create should be examined and I think one's motivation to create should be examined. I really feel the days of the composer being several decades out of step with the rest of the world are probably over, considering the crossroads the world stands at. It's certainly rather dodgy to consider appealing to the listener of fifty years hence. So, I think anyone who has got something to say has to make sure that he has sufficient identification with tastes as they stand."
Francis is a staunch believer in all music having a common denominator: "Something I've always been keen to do since I was about thirteen is to write music that took in everything I like. The trouble is that though I like both Scarlatti and Messiaen, and they use the same keyboard and notes, I can't tie the two together. Why is it that they are so similar and yet so different?" Now, there's a 64,000-dollar question for you! Actually, to the music theorist, that difference can be explained fairly satisfactorily in terms of tonal structures, or, more generally, what the tonal flow of a piece of music leads the listener to expect.
Expectation in music is obviously something that fascinates Francis, as he explains; "The quality of unexpectedness is for me the most important thing. I don't think you should get as trapped as I feel Stockhausen has in the past into supplanting expectation with surprise. Obviously, if you have a certain section of the orchestra doing nothing and then come in with a big crash you're going to surprise people. On the other hand, they might not get anything more from that experience than a tree falling down in front of them. My feeling is that if you want to create an element of unexpectedness then you've also got to establish a situation of expectedness."
Qualities of expectedness segue fairly logically into the next station along the Monkman road to musical self-awareness: Sky. "It all came about as a result of an album John Williams did called 'Travelling'. Stanley Myers was producing and arranging the album and asked me whether I'd like to take an arrangement of a piece of Bach — the Gigue from the G major French Suite — from where he'd reached and turn it into a 6-minute track. Though I wasn't quite sure how to do it, eventually an idea came to me, and that became the title track of the 'Travelling' album released in the winter of '77. We tried to take it one stage above the easy listening of the earlier album, 'Changes', and I think John was quick to see the possibility of a band. The beginnings of Sky were terrific; we started off by spending about six months at John's house talking about what we were going to do. But after we had achieved success I felt it all became a bit static. There's a terrible temptation once you've reached a certain level to try and erect a kind of platform and say we're now there and that one can't afford to slip back. That's nonsense."
It was in Sky that Francis's compositional abilities really came to the fore and he in fact wrote more than half the music on the first album: "The whole of the second side of the first album was a five-movement piece called 'Where Opposites Meet'. This was one of the pieces that I really felt pleased with and felt worked. One of the inherent problems with instrumental music is that you can turn the volume down and use it for background music. It's a shame the way instrumental music has been treated this century; it has really tended to end up controlled by visual elements, and so it's hardly surprising that so many good instrumental composers have ended up writing for films."
A feature that separated Francis from other multi-keyboard merchants was the inclusion of a harpsichord: "I had all the keys linked to the Prophet so that I could play the Prophet from the harpsichord. The great thing about this was the way you got the attack from the harpsichord and the sustaining quality from the synthesiser. It seemed like a new thing when I did it, but then I remembered that there was an instrument in the past called the Clavier-Organum, or Piano-Organ. I also used a grand piano, a Clavinet and the OB1. After the interval, I had to come out and do my Scarlatti solo, or whatever, on the harpsichord. I really enjoyed playing to a crowd of kids at the Glasgow Apollo — much better than playing on the South Bank where you know they're going to clap — even though there was always a 50% chance they'd throw a bottle at you!"
The inevitable question of why Francis left Sky halfway through the third album came up: "There were lots of reasons, really. I felt that there was a danger of Sky becoming a totally innocuous middle-of-the-road band and, having spent a month on the road with The Shadows and getting a taste of the Northern clubs, I became very sensitive to what I thought were moves in the direction of 'safe' music."
Francis has been applying his creative muse in two directions recently: firstly, in writing the score for the film, 'The Long Good Friday'; and secondly, in recording a solo album. The film work was his first exposure to the discipline of sitting in front of an editing machine, and, judging by the results, it was obviously something that he took to well: "I enjoyed watching the film with no sound and a synthesiser at the side with which to play along. Something I've noticed very much with certain scenes — especially the swimming pool scenes — is a kind of pace or flow of movement between people and splashes and sounds. There's something very spacey about it which encourages you to find an overall rhythm for the music which may have nothing to do with the central action.
At the start, I wasn't sure about doing the music until Harold Chan's tune flashed into my mind. I often find influences in retrospect — a snatch from the Liszt B Minor Sonata, for instance, in one of the long Sky pieces — but when I'm writing it's all totally intuitive. A good thing about the film was the use of a live background soundtrack — something that's often used in documentaries but very rarely in feature films. Unfortunately, in production they decided to try and improve on Nature by adding a lot of effects — seagulls, for instance — on top, which just tended to destroy the gut reality of the live sound. It didn't help the music, either! The attitude of film companies to the composer is something that'll always be complained about because music is always the lowest budget and done when everything else is finished. There are a few films made now where the music is taken more seriously — even to the extent of cutting the film to the music — and they certainly work much better."
Francis's first solo album, 'Dweller on the Threshold', is obviously much more of a personal statement than the restricted musical environment of a film score and speaks of a man with a very definite philosophy: "The Dweller on the Threshold is the astral form representing all the past experiences of the world — the 'thought-form'. I know that sounds dangerously quirky, but I do believe that all personal experiences — fear, emotion, glamour, or whatever — coalesce at an astral level, the Threshold, and, given the crossroads we're undoubtedly standing at, it has to be forged past. It seems to me that all these qualities have been brought into much closer perspective with the nuclear threat. I mean, if you look at a movie from the '40s — Brief Encounter, for instance — the glamours associated with everyday life — even like meeting and having a cup of tea in a station buffet — have drastically changed. There really is a different energy at work in the world now."
Francis then went on to describe some of the tracks: "Well, 'The Dweller' really introduces the whole thing and says what it's all about. Then we come to The Glamours. 'The Glamour of Fear' is almost like a take-off of the headache pill commercials where they actually play on your fear — almost like adverts for horror movies. In 'The Glamour of Love' there are a couple of elements: one is a kind of crooning over a piano in a night-club, and the other is a sort of Sixties expression of affection — what used to be called 'free love'. The whole thing builds up into a crash and then there's a track called 'Breathe Out' which is really all about letting go of things. After that there's a track called 'Give' and then 'The Glamour of Nations'. The next side starts with 'Learning to Live' which really says that Hell is wherever you care to make it — this is the track that starts off with a pneumatic drill — and if you get past that then everything can't be that bad! Then there's 'The Glamour of Material Possession' and 'The Glamour of Magnetic Attraction' — which is about as many Glamours as I could squeeze onto the album. After that, there's a big instrumental track called 'The Angel' done solely on the Synclavier. The album ends with a version of the 23rd Psalm — not from any churchified religiosity or anything — which reflects the real spirit that I feel lies inside everybody."
Moving on to the technical side of things, the album shows a number of rather interesting features. Unusually, there isn't a single sign of phasing or flanging — apart from a flanged percolating coffeepot buried somewhere in the mix! What really stands out is the clarity of sound and continuity of effect: "The first side is done to a click so that it has one tempo throughout, and I think that gives it the right sort of continuity. Actually, my original intention was to show what the Synclavier was capable of, but, in retrospect, it seems to have just formed part of the album's overall fabric."
The careful way in which he uses effects makes a welcome change, and Francis is a strong advocate of the Roland Dimension D. However, if you look for striking sounds you'll find them, and the frequency-modulated 'drainpipe' sound on 'The Dweller" is a case in point and attributable to the Synclavier: "I was very worried when it came to overdubbing these digital synthesisers that one might run into the same problem as with the old analogue poly synthesisers — namely that sounds get muddier and muddier the more you pile tracks on top until in the end you just get a blob of undefinable waveshapes in the middle of the track which does absolutely nothing. Fortunately, I was proved wrong, and found that digital overdubs seem to create their own perspective within the inherent transparency of the sound."
"My interest in sound generation veers much more towards the building up of original sounds rather than sampling existing sounds, which seems to me what the Fairlight is best at. Admittedly, the Fairlight is rather more pleasing as a whole package: the software is very workable and it looks good running. The Synclavier isn't nearly as outwardly impressive as a computer, but when you begin to realise what's in there, just in terms of raw computing power, you find that the processor speed is something like 50 to 100 times that of the Fairlight. The 6800 used in the Fairlight has no on-chip multiplier, so an 8-bit multiply would take something of the order of 30us. The Synclavier, on the other hand, will do a 16-bit multiply in better than 2us, so you're talking about a totally different world of speed. Now, one of the slight grouses I've got about the Synclavier is that having this powerful 16-bit machine at your fingertips, as it were, they've implemented the voices themselves in 8-bit wavetables. So, they haven't got the maximum definition that could be achieved. If they'd gone just a couple of years ahead of themselves with 12-bit or 8-bit companding then you'd have 20dB better dynamic range. There's an instruction in XPL, the language they're using, that allows you to pack 2 bytes into one 16-bit word, so presumably all the data needed by the voice boards is packed in twos.
Francis is now on the verge of designing his own digital synthesiser: "I've got all sorts of ideas about what I would like to see in a digital machine, and I feel that I'm now in the sort of position to do it rather than waiting for somebody else to come up with the goods. I'm hoping that Chris Quayle, the guy responsible for doing the key scan system for the HH digital piano, will be helping me with the design and implementation of the machine. When I was with Sky in Australia I went to Rushcutters Bay, the home of the Fairlight, and the guy there showed me all the sounds it was capable of. I asked him whether he could make it sound like a synthesiser and he admitted that they hadn't really thought of that. Now, I happen to like synthesisers, and I don't see that you can get anything out of the Fairlight which sounds like a filter sweep or an equivalent parameter changing over 20 or so seconds, and I think some slowly changing sounds are very important. It's facilities like that that I want to make sure are included in my digital synthesiser."
Onwards, the digital revolution — and look out for Francis Monkman's remarkable solo album!
Interview by David Ellis
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