Contes de la mémoire Jon Appleton

Cover art: Esme Thompson, Heliotrope (1993)

… a beautiful recording of computer music… Earwaves, USA

A startling piece of digital composition and yet another example of Appleton’s warmth and irrepressible humanness… Sonomu, UK


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Contes de la mémoire

Jon Appleton



Jon Appleton brought a lot to electroacoustic music. As well as realizing tape pieces, he has pioneered live computer music, hitting the road in the seventies with the Synclavier, the first digital synthesizer, which he had designed in close collaboration with Sydney Alonso. His activity extends beyond traditional categories. He has worked with instruments, dance (especially the Pilobolus Company), poetry, jazz (he made a record with Don Cherry and he got Oscar Peterson to play the Synclavier). He likes to tell stories in his music, and he is a superb narrator. But he did not only compose. He organized the first international competition of electronic music. He had close encounters with various musical communities, from Sweden to Japan and Tonga. Thanks to his action, a number of Russian musicians could visit various music institutions in the USA: he organized in 1994 the American debut of the Turkina sisters, who already played on two pianos for Rachmaninoff and Katchaturian… before the World War II! Jon has written and edited texts about music: his articles are lucid, eloquent and clear. His graduate course in composition attracts to Dartmouth bright students from all over the world: his teaching respects their differences.

In his music as well as in his talk, Jon Appleton is clear and illuminating. We first met in the middle of the night — yet the sun was up in the sky! I should explain, though, that this was midsummer in Sweden, the season when it never gets dark, during a memorable meeting on music and technology with participants such as Pierre Schaeffer…, Max Mathews, Gottfried Michael Koenig, R Murray Schafer, Lars-Gunnar Bodin. Jon spoke about music, technology, education and imagination: what he said was both original, sensible and sensitive. Right away I knew that he could count on me. Even though we live on different sides of the Atlantic, Jon is a close friend, helpful in many ways. He also helped several composers, in the South of France as well as in Russia and other places. Jon is lively, open, direct and positive. He understands people and cares about them. He is fun!

Jon’s music is very diverse — his rich personality gets through in several ways. I am especially fond of his tape pieces, which display imagination, craft, humor, tenderness. Thanks to digital recording, we can now hear them without the old surface noises and scratches. This disc is a denial to those who claim that tape music is dead: quite the contrary! Jon’s tape music does not have a visual counterpart, yet it is spectacular — a “cinema for the ear,” as François Bayle puts it. Listener, open your ears for an exciting trip, écoute voir!

Jean-Claude Risset, Marseille (France) [viii-96]

Memory’s Tales, the Works

Looking back over the thirty years of electroacoustic music represented by the music on this recording, it can be difficult to untangle the web of personal, cultural and technological influences which shaped these pieces. Unlike my instrumental music from the same years, in which one can observe a certain stylistic consistency, my work in electroacoustic music consisted of three, distinct approaches.

Two of these approaches appeared early in my music; the abstract manipulation of timbre (Georganna’s Fancy, 1966 and Spuyten Duyvil, 1967) and the use of ‘found musics’ and recognizable objets sonores (Chef d’œuvre, 1967 and Homage To Orpheus, 1969).

The third approach, not represented on this recording, are the ten years I spent composing electroacoustic music for the Synclavier, a live performance instrument I helped develop. These pieces combined the stylistics elements of my instrumental and electroacoustic music.

I began composing electroacoustic music because it was the only aspect of ‘new music’ in the 1960s that I found compelling. The serial music I was urged to compose while in graduate school, and that we were told would be the ‘music of the future,’ seemed emotionally vapid to me. In the final years of the 20th century, young composers look with nostalgia to the 1960s and the liberation artists were supposed to have felt. We did feel that there were no ‘rules’ and, as I told Nat Hentoff, in 1968: “a revolution has not occurred in the arts so much as it has in our own attitudes. In this period of change we should feel elation at the approach of a new order of civilization.” Thirty years later I am embarrassed by my naïveté but at the same time recognize the excitement which propelled my work in electroacoustic music. Here was a truly new kind of music. Here was a new way to awaken the emotions and consciousness of listeners. Here was a way I could express myself without the burden of past traditions.

Perhaps the greatest frustration I experienced as a composer of electroacoustic music was the constant need to develop a new technique for the various equipment used to produce the music. I still use my piano technique, but have long ago abandoned my ability to splice tape, control tape loops, patch an analog synthesizer, use various computer-music languages… Now I struggle with software like MAX and hardware like ProTools III knowing that in another decade the tools will have changed again. There are some composers who relish the challenge of new technology and the artistic opportunities it provides. For some, new technology has provided the sole motivation for being a composer. For me, studio technique was a necessary evil which could have the advantage of forcing me to limit my materials and to be less facile when composing.

I can still remember the excitement I felt beginning each new piece when I first began composing electroacoustic music. I had no idea what I was doing, where I was going or what would be the result of my hours in the studio. Nevertheless, a recognizable style did emerge and today, when I start a new piece, is a fear that I can do nothing truly new. Of course there is the satisfaction the skills honed over the years will enable me to produce a composition worth hearing, I do wish that I could recapture that youthful quality of seeing the world in a new way. I am sure all experienced artists feel the same way.

The music should stand for itself and thus my comments about the individual works on this recording will be brief, ancillary and dedicated to providing information that might be of interest to other practitioners and critics of electroacoustic music. The listeners can take care of themselves and stop reading here.

Having spent the year 1965-66 at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center (New York City) — where we believed that our artistic work was the center of the universe — I was forced to reconsider my work as a composer when I moved to rural Vermont in 1967. Suddenly I was confronted by the fact few of the people in my village knew what a composer did and none knew about electroacoustic music. That same year, stranded by weather at the Newark airport, I took the opportunity to ask my fellow passengers “what do you think about the new electronic music?” Later I assembled the choicest answers, placed them on a bed of sequenced, electronic sound produced by a Moog synthesizer, and called the piece Newark Airport Rock. Nearly thirty years later, Esmé Thompson suggested that I do a companion piece to show how things had changed. Between planes in San Francisco, I asked passengers the same question. Again I assembled the most interesting answers, composed a MIDI based accompaniment using E-MU and Roland synthesizers and Vision sequencing software, and named the piece San Francisco Airport Rock.

As mentioned above, the pieces Spuyten Duyvil, Georganna’s Fancy, and Homage To Orpheus were all assembled in what was then called a ‘tape studio.’ These studios, such as the one constructed at Dartmouth College in 1967, with the assistance of James Seawright, were modeled after the first studios for electroacoustic music in France. Several tape recorders and sound modifying equipment were connected to a central mixer. When I listen to these pieces I can remember how they were made and why they sounded the way they did, but I can no longer recapture the musical vision I had at the time. They almost sound like music composed by someone else. Perhaps this is because many years have passed since I have heard them.

The opposite is true of Chef d’œuvre. It so happens that composers are often saddled by others with a ‘signature’ work. It is my Boléro. It is the work of mine that has been most frequently played and recorded. Using the sounds of a singing commercial for Chef-Boy-Ar-Dee pizzas by the Andrews Sisters, there is a frenetic pace and sense of humor which can be heard in subsequent works. The tape studio techniques used to produce this piece are the same used in Times Square Times Ten, a longer work in the same genre. Here we have a programmatic, musico-archeological cross section of Manhattan. In 1969 I wrote that this piece “moves from the street to lower and lower levels below 42nd Street and Broadway. Sonic objects from the past lurk in the subway tunnels and at times try to assert themselves again. In the end they are buried and can only emerge from the tunnels as ghosts which ride the trains.” In 1986 I returned to this style of composition in works such as Homenaje a Milanés (1987), Dima Dobralsa Domoy (1994) and ’U ha’amata ’atou ’i te himene (1996).

My relationship with Russia (and the Soviet Union) has been long and complex. My father was born in Kishinev (Moldova) and my step father in Ufa (Russia). My parents dedicated a large part of their lives to Communism. I was raised listening to Russian folk and symphonic music and to believe that the future could be found in the Soviet Union. Imbued with an interest in politics, many of my pieces would have both artistic and political purposes such as Apolliana (1970), Dr Quisling in Stockholm (1971), ’Otahiti (1973), Homenaje a Milanés (1987) and Ce que signifie la déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen de 1789 pour les hommes et les citoyens des îles Marquises (1989). An epiphany occurred in 1969 when I was forced to think about the role I might have had as a composer of electroacoustic music had I lived in the Soviet Union. The defection to the West by writer Anatoly Kuznetsov affected me deeply. For the first time I came to understand the effect of political oppression on artists. The composition CCCP (In Memoriam: Anatoly Kuznetsov) was a direct result. It combines the voices of Tolstoy, Stalin, Kuznetsov, Radio Moscow and Russian folk music to create what I have referred to elsewhere as ‘musical storytelling.’ Some twenty years later I became a close friend of the late Dmitri Pokrovsky, an extraordinary singer and choral director who had grown up in Moscow at the same time I grew up in Hollywood, California. Through him I learned much about politics, music and the Russian side of my own musical personality. To celebrate that friendship I composed Dima Dobralsa Domoy which tells, through music, the search for one’s Russian home. The title means “Dmitri finally returns home after a long journey.”

In the process of developing the Synclavier, I used several digital systems to compose pieces. Some of these pieces are Stereopticon (1972), Zoetrope (1974), Georganna’s Farewell (1975), The Sydsing Camklang (1976), Mussems Sång (1976), In Deserto (1977), Syntrophia (1977), and Oskuldens Dröm (1985). Perhaps the strongest of these is In Medias Res (known in Brazil as “Sudden Death”). It is abstract music and the title only refers to the fact that the piece ends with startling abruptness. Sequences of digitally generated sound were combined using multitrack, analog tape recorders. At the end of the work there is the briefest reference to Irish folk music inspired by some of the drones used in the work.

For many years I have wanted to acknowledge those musical colleagues whose musics has helped shape my own. The list — see below — includes family, friends, and some musicians I have never met.

Thanks to Kathryn Alexander, Sydney Alonso, Ted Apel, Jason Appleton, Michael Appleton, Moses Asch, François Bayle, Gerry Beauregard, Eve Beglarian, Jamshed Bharucha, Juan Blanco, Lars-Gunnar Bodin, Georges Boeuf, Josefina Bosch, Leo Brouwer, William Brunson, Michael Casey, Don Cherry, Gabriel Chodos, John Chowning, Tim Claman, Bill Cole, Charles Dodge, Martin Dupras, Beatriz Ferreyra, Collette Gaudin, Emmanuel Ghent, Jacob Gimpel, Herbert Gladstone, Ray Guillette, Fred Haas, Chris Halaby, Vaughn Halyard, Charles Hamm, Sten Hanson, Vladimir Horowitz, Keith Jarrett, Cameron Jones, David Evan Jones, Alain Joutard, Sofele Kakala, Homer Keller, Thomas Kessler, Sergei Kossenko, Léo Küpper, Lauren Levey, Ted Levin, Ingram Marshall, Max Mathews, Martin McKinney, John Mellquist, Leonard B Meyer, Pablo Milanes, Nana Mouskouri, Gordon Mumma, Brad Naples, Melinda O’Neal, Gaby Pahinui, Ronald Perera, Ileana Perez, Oscar Peterson, Sally Pinkas, Russell Pinkston, Dmitri Pokrovsky, Larry Polansky, Regina Porto, Sergei Prokofiev, John Puterbaugh, Andrew Rangell, Maurice Ravel, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Michel Redolfi, Steve Reich, Jean-Claude Risset, Frederic Rzewski, Theodore Saidenberg, Pete Seeger, Conrado Silva, André Smirnov, Igor Stravinsky, Kirsten Stromberg, Yoriko Takahashi, Richard Taruskin, Ivan Tcherepnin, Carmen Tellez, Joel Thome, Molly Thompson, George Todd, Robert Trotter, Julia & Galina Turkina, Dmitri Uchov, Kojiro Umezaki, Vladimir Ussachevsky, Alexander Walden, Mark Weltner, Christian Wolff, Scott Wyatt, Shin Yasuda.

Jon Appleton, White River Junction (Vermont, USA) [viii-96]

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