This month's Home Electro-Musician is Brian Whiting, who by profession is a Doctor of Pharmacology.
My musical world finally turned over when I first heard 'Dark Side of the Moon' on a car stereo somewhere in the High Sierra, California, late one night in 1978. Up until that time, the only significant dent in my classical world had been made by YES and ELP. Otherwise, my musical experience stretched back to choirboy days, to a limited period of piano and organ training, and to many years of singing in, and finally directing, a small choral group. At the same time, one of the many aspects of music that had always fascinated me was rhythm, and this, together with a passion for modern classical music, drew me towards composers such as Stravinsky, Boulez and Messaien. But I was also intrigued by the deceptively simple, yet enigmatic rhythms set up by Steve Reich and Terry Riley and by the compelling rhythms generated by Tangerine Dream. These diverse forms were the background to my more recent (electronic) musical interests and represent the kind of experience which can form a useful bridge between what we understand as classical music and the relatively new means of musical expression and rhythm generation provided by modern electronic instruments.
When I returned to Scotland in 1979, I decided to learn as much as possible about electronic music, and, helped by a small group of enthusiastic friends, started in a relatively small way with a Powertran Transcendent 2000 monophonic synthesiser. This instrument was an excellent introduction to all aspects of electronic music, but I quickly realised that some form of multitrack recording system would be required if music was to be created! After some extremely frustrating months 'bouncing' noisy tracks inefficiently from one radio-cassette to another, the purchase of a TEAC 144 transformed this aspect of composing into a kind of joy! As the emphasis of my work would indeed be on composing, the relatively limited monophonic capability of the Transcendent soon became apparent and it was not long before I acquired an interesting polyphonic instrument with a number of preset orchestral sections, an Italian 'Siel-orchestra'.
At this time, I began to realise that an enormous amount of hard work (and concentration) is required to produce a 'finished tape'. My first significant effort, a collaborative venture with my friend Hamish Good, was a fairly comprehensive tape of original music and sound effects for a play about the Orkney Islands, 'A Spell for Green Corn', by George Mckay Brown. This experience taught me two important lessons: no amount of sophisticated electronic equipment can substitute for good musical ideas and the production of a detailed musical score may be an extremely important and time consuming process. On the other hand, 'automatic' devices such as sequencers and arpeggiators may lend themselves to free, improvisatory composition of the kind that cannot be written down beforehand. Indeed, I think that these devices represents unique contribution to modern music and it is doubtful whether their full potential has yet been realised.
But returning to the theatre, initial success with the music for the Orkney play led to a number of other commissions, including music for two of Samuel Beckett's plays — 'Waiting for Godot' and 'Come and Go' — and the Greek Tragedy 'Antigone' by Sophocles. I find this sort of work interesting and challenging because it demands a real understanding of the drama itself. This understanding (hopefully) provides the right kind of musical inspiration although I must admit that Samuel Beckett does pose a unique kind of challenge! Much of this music is, of necessity, atmospheric in nature and it seems clear that the electronic music medium is an ideal vehicle for this. For the 'home musician', a strong connection with a dramatic society provides one very useful outlet for musical ideas, particularly if the more usual connection with a group is not sought, or solo performance is not contemplated.
Many aspiring electro-musicians have probably found it impossible to resist the example set by Tangerine Dream. I am no exception and when I am not composing for a specific purpose, then the Tangerine Dream influence is pretty obvious. In a way, this group has defined the direction in which a great deal of electronic music has gone, and will continue to go, both from the point of view of rhythmic complexity and the quality and intensity of synthesised sound. In my work, I realised that the best approach to the creation of new sounds would be to have complete control over all sound parameters and that this could easily be achieved by working with a modular system such as that produced by Digisound Ltd. Again with a group of friends (including Ken McAlpine and Jim Grant) I have spent the last two years assembling a Digisound modular system and hope to have it controlled by a microcomputer (Acorn Atom) with an OM-DAC (E&MM June 1983) in the near future.
The other instrument which I acquired more recently, and which has made a tremendous difference to my musical activities, is a Roland Juno 6 polyphonic synthesiser.
All these sound sources are processed to a greater or lesser extent through a number of peripheral devices including a spring-line reverberation unit (Maplin), an analogue echo chamber (Melos DE-1), a flanger/filter matrix (Electro-Harmonix Deluxe Electric Mistress) and a ten band graphic equaliser (MXR). Percussion/rhythm is provided by a Clef Products Master Rhythm and mixing before recording with the TEAC 144 is carried out with a simple (noiseless!) passive resistance mixer (DOD240). Finally, the output is played through a Sanyo G 2611-Super Hi-Fi System and tapes are made using a TEAC A-770 Stereo Cassette Deck.
As I have hinted, writing and recording music for plays is an excellent outlet for the amateur electro-musician, but I also enjoy creating and recording less formalised music, often inspired by visits to fascinating places such as the Zen Buddhist Temples of Kyoto, Japan, and the mountains of the Sierra Nevada, California. The limitless expression allowed by electronic instruments is extremely well suited to improvisational work of this sort. Titles include 'Ranryo-o-no-ha', 'After Nagasaki' and 'Sierra Dance'.
For sheer fun (and it all must be for fun!) I have finished a number of smaller pieces based on interesting rhythms generated with the Juno 6 Arpeggiator and the Clef Master Rhythm. The future looks good because the 'home electro-musician' can have at his disposal an impressive array of electronic equipment, including microcomputer control, which, used skillfully, will lend itself to endless musical invention.
Feature by Brian Whiting
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